3 Disparaging and Harmful Writing Trends

Copywriting (writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing) has seeped into the mainstream, and its frequency is harming literature.

Inaccurate and blatantly false information repeated enough times often becomes “truth.” Urban legends are examples, as are quotes attributed to the wrong person. Bad grammar can be added to the list.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on Don’t Believe What THEY Say about writing rules and when to break them. The main thrust was that if a writer knows the rules, and has good reason, the “rules” become “guidelines” and can effectively be ignored. Has Good Reason remains the crucial point.

The First Trend: Many Get it Wrong, Period.

Lately I have noticed the “period”—and comma, for that matter—is not getting the respect it deserves, often an afterthought rather than fulfilling its basic function. This type of punctuation is unfortunately becoming commonplace:

Dan said, “I don’t know anything about it”.

The period must be within the quote for clarity, not outside as a forgotten cousin.

From a blog post:

Do not ask for permission. In other words, do not say anything like “it seems to me”, “in my opinion”.

Instead of disregarding the above examples as written by inexperienced or amateur writers, what follows is an article’s opening paragraph from a trusted and long-standing professional publication.

Newsweek Mon, Jun 5 5:00 AM PDT

The countries have accused Qatar of embracing “multiple terrorist and sectarian groups”. Qatar has called this move “unjustified”, claiming the accusations have “no basis in fact”.

Are there no editors at Newsweek? The three errors—each the same type—are glaring examples of poor punctuation, and thereby, bad writing. In each case, the writing is easily corrected by placing the comma or period within the quotations.

Why does it matter? “Oh, Rick,” you say, “you’re just a Grammar Nazi.” I don’t think so.

Whenever writing stops the reader, credibility is harmed, both to the writer and the topic.

From Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks . . .”

The example the “Little Book” uses:

“The Fish,” “Poetry,” and “The Monkeys” are in Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems.

Clarity for the reader is paramount; without clarity, readers turn away from the writing. A reader prematurely leaving our stories is not what we want.

Second Trend: Even Favorite Authors Disappoint

Jim Butcher is a favorite fantasy writer and best-selling author; his Alera series is a fine example of multi-viewpoint epic fantasy—some of his concepts border on genius.

Yet, his recent writing has left me underwhelmed. Although the story itself piques my interest by its uniqueness, and much of the characterization is finely tuned, poor grammar has halted my reading several times—writing that “stops” a reader, thereby pulling them from the illusion of disbelief, is salt poured on an open wound.

The use of exclamation points from The Aeronaut’s Windlass:

“Creedy!” Grimm called as he made his way over the mist-shrouded gangplank from the airship dock in the Fleet shipyard atop Spire Albion, and onto Predator. “With me!”

Captain on deck!” called Kettle, down in the hold. “Mister Creedy to the deck!”

When a character “calls” or “yells” or “screams,” an exclamation point is, well, pointless: one or the other is correct, though I would declare using four exclamation points—twice coupled with “called”—in four sentences effectively detracts from the importance of the story’s action.

There’s also the problem of five prepositional phrases strung together (over, from, in, atop, onto) in a single sentence, but I won’t delve into that here.

Whether lazy writing or poor editing, or perhaps both as the book was rushed to publication, there are no excuses for ineffectual grammar that stops the reader.

More on using exclamation points here:

Third Trend: Fragments Without Purpose

A recent headline:

Henry Cavill has the cutest giant dog and we. must. pet.

I know writers who love and frequently use fragments. Fragments are effective tools when the writer wants to emphasize a particular point or speed a story’s pace, and is especially telling when used within dialogue.

Taking the last part of the prior sentence, writing as, “. . . and is especially telling when. used. within. dialogue,” is simply poor writing.

Don’t do it.

Don’t do it is more effective than don’t. do. it.

Strive to be a better writer than what passes for current trends.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Stop The Exclamation!

Another  “Do Not Do” item from January 10th.

At a Writing Conference and Workshop last year, an agent declared there should be “no more than one exclamation point (!) per 50 pages.” Mmm. Does she count them, and should the poor ignorant writer go beyond the quota, will the book immediately get scrubbed from consideration? Elmore Leonard is quoted as saying, “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Strict adherence, or tongue-in-cheek? You decide.

Although overuse of the exclamation point detracts from otherwise well-written prose, they have their places, just not many. Specifically, the exclamation point is used at the end of a word, phrase, or sentence to indicate a strong emotion or statement, and in dialogue to show a rising voice. The problem, I believe, is the misuse of the punctuation mark, as in,

“Stop!” he yelled.

The he yelled makes the exclamation mark unnecessary, and in fact, redundant. The “tag,” he yelled (screamed, shouted, hollered) is often a better way for the character to “exclaim,” though I dislike the “Stop,” he exclaimed choice.

The exclamation point can be a powerful tool, and its usage needs to be saved for those perfect times; they jump off the page, but too many will flag the writing as amateurish and deter from the intended impact.

Bonnie whirled and fled.
“Stop!”
She did not look back.

Bonnie whirled and fled.
“Stop,” he yelled, but she ignored him.

Bonnie whirled and fled. He called for her to stop; she increased her pace.

Returning to an example used on last week’s post (when discussing comma usage) from my novel, The Returning, below is the continuation of the scene:

“You know I would have given my life to protect your goods but there was no opportunity to stand and face them like a man and—”

“Silence!” King Theldron stood and turned from the sniveling merchant. “Leave me,” he said.

It is true I can cast the sentence in a variety of ways; I chose the exclamation point in order to 1) show the King’s impatience, and 2) to indicate the rising of his voice.

Like all language tools, exclamation points fulfill a purpose, a specific purpose whose power is lost when they dot a page. One last thing: NEVER use more than one at a time—leave that for Facebook.

See you on the next page,

Rick