Writers, stop interrupting yourselvesPosted: November 2, 2011
Good morning, writers.
While I was eating breakfast this morning, I started to read an essay in a respected literary journal. The subject seemed interesting enough. The writer has published several books and teaches in an MFA program at a prestigious university. But I couldn’t get through more than two pages of that essay because every paragraph was littered with parentheses and dashes. She couldn’t seem to get through a single sentence without interrupting herself for an aside. Most of these side trips were so long I had to go back and reread the beginning of the sentence to connect it with the long-delayed end. It was like trying to drive over a road that was nothing but speed bumps.
I suspect the writer was trying to create a casual voice, perhaps to mimic the haphazardness of speech, but it’s impossible to read. I gave up on that essay and decided to share my frustration with you.
Parentheses have their place, but use them sparingly. I had an English teacher who would flunk anyone who used even a single parenthesis. To this day, I stop and think before I use one. Most of the time, they’re unnecessary, but if you feel that you must use parentheses, use only one set, and don’t forget to close the other side when you’re finished.
As for dashes, they signal an interruption in the idea being expressed. “It’s getting–my God, the house is on fire!–hot in here.” That might be appropriate. But don’t overdo it. Sometimes it’s just laziness. In fact, I had to stop myself from using too many dashes in this post. If you find yourself using dashes in every paragraph, knock it off!
We’ll have to talk soon about using too many exclamation points, too, won’t we? That’s becoming an epidemic, too.
Now go write some clean sentences without interruption.