The Three Dashes

Like the Three Bears, the Three Dashes have a Papa Dash, Mama Dash, and a Baby Dash.

The Papa Dash is the biggest, or let’s say the longest dash. It’s called an emdash.

The Mama Dash is the medium-sized one and is called an endash.

The Baby Dash is the shortest and the one we are most familiar with, the hyphen.

I’d like to begin with the Mama Dash, the endash, because it’s easily dealt with. It’s mainly used to separate numbers like dates, or if you want to say an amount such as from 3 to 7. The endash replaces the word “to.”

e.g. 1970 – 1980 or about 5 – 10

In Word, I made the endash by typing the number, a space, two dashes, a space, the other number, and a space.

The Baby Dash, hyphen, is used for joining some words that would otherwise be compound words. I trust my dictionary to tell me which words are compound words, such as “newspaper” and “desktop,” and which are hyphenated words such as “long-term.” This hyphen, though small, can be very important. Consider the compound word “housekeeper” and the hyphenated word, “house-keeper.” The housekeeper would be a person who does a lot of work to keep the house tidy, while the house-keeper could refer to someone like Zsa-Zsa Gabor, who called herself the best house-keeper ever. She was married several times and when her marriages ended she usually kept the house.

The hyphen is also used to connect words that describe a noun.

Here are some examples:

Most are hyphenated before, but not after a noun.

(adjective and noun) He had a high-maintenance girlfriend.

But his girlfriend was high maintenance.

(adjective and participle) We drove on a snow-covered highway.

But the highway was snow covered.

Other uses for the hyphen are for numbers and fractions.

e.g. two-thirds, twenty-seven

And now for the Papa Dash, the emdash. This one is easily overused.

The emdash is the long dash that is most often used for interruptions. There should be no space before or after it, and it is made (in Word) by typing the word, two dashes, the next word and then a space. The emdash will automatically form when you hit that last space.

Uses of emdashes are mainly for interruptions, as in dialogue, or as an emphatic aside. Here are examples of each:

“But I want—”

“I don’t care what you want.”

When I got home he had the house cleaned—he’s such a sweetheart—and even had supper ready.

Don’t be tempted to use the emdash for hesitation or pauses, and be stingy with its use. Too many emdashes on a page can make the text look chopped up. You don’t want to interrupt the flow of your writing unnecessarily. If you use it sparingly, it will be that much more effective when you do use it.

Thanks for reading, and now, excuse me please, but I must dash.

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Watch for this one

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Filtering is a habit we probably all had to shake at one time or another.

Some expressions have a diluting effect. If you are “filtering” words through the character’s senses—smell, touch, taste, hearing, or sight, you are most likely guilty of “telling” the reader what is happening. There is no need to filter the experiences through the character’s eyes, ears, or other sensory receptors.

Filtered: She saw the car go by. (The action passes through her eyes first.)

Unfiltered: The car whizzed by.

 

Filtered: She felt upset.(The action passes through her emotions.)

Unfiltered: She sobbed.

 

Filtered: She heard the sound of a train. (The action passes through her ears.)

Unfiltered: A train whistle broke the silence.

***

I’m sure you get the idea. Some of the following key words may help us to watch for filtering.

This is only a partial list of filter words. There are many, many more.

  • saw
  • heard
  • felt
  • remembered
  • tasted
  • recalled
  • looked
  • smelled

If you see one of these words in your writing, take a second look and decide whether you are filtering the action through one of the senses. If you are, you could probably get rid of the filter and rewrite the sentence in a stronger, more direct way.

 

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Lose the Weak Writing

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Weak Expressions

Weak expressions such as “seemed to,” “started to,” and “began to” can slow down your writing  and make it lose its punch. These unnecessary words become filler that dilutes your writing and diminishes its effectiveness.

e.g. Jane seemed to be sad/angry/depressed/worried.

This sentence is also an example of another mistake many authors make. For whatever reason, the writer has drawn a conclusion about the character’s feelings and is “telling” the reader, rather than “showing” how the character feels.

Why not “show” Jane’s anger instead of telling about it? You could say, “Jane clenched her teeth,” or “She balled her hands into fists.” The reader now has an image in his mind and can draw his own conclusions, something that pulls him into the story and brings him more satisfaction than being told would do.

e.g. Tom appeared to be enjoying his meal.

Or: Tom smacked his lips and cleaned the last bit of gravy from the bowl with his fingers.

“Seemed,” “appeared,” “started to,” and “began to” are ineffective expressions that tell the reader nothing. Avoid these and similar expressions.

 Using vague or summarizing expressions:

Vague:

Alice started to clean the kitchen.

Stronger, with more detail:

Alice picked up the dirty dishes and took them to the sink.

Vague:

Sandra began to make a fire.

Stronger:

Sandra chopped kindling, crumpled yesterday’s newspaper, and lit the fire.

*****

Check the writing you did today. Did you find any weak, telling, or summarizing expressions?

The bottom line for today:

Lose the vagueness, add the punch, and provide an image for the reader to build on.

*****

To find out more about Anneli Purchase, follow these links:

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