One of the problems I run into when I’m copy-editing someone’s work is the overuse of various efforts to emphasize writing.
An obvious one is the overuse of the exclamation point!!!! I’m sorry to say that I’m guilty of overusing it too, but hopefully, not in published work. Oops! I just realized that a blog post is a published work. Okay, I’m going to exclude blog posts.
When we use exclamation points (or, as I call them, exclamation marks), we are taking the lazy way out. Rather than finding better, more precise words to describe the emotion we wish to portray, we stick an exclamation mark after some ordinary words. Sometimes we even put in two or more exclamation marks, mistakenly thinking that this shows the emphasis. No! Please don’t do it. One is enough.
Exclamation marks are meant to be used sparingly, and usually only after very brief expressions (like Oops! and No!) If you use exclamation marks liberally, you will sacrifice good writing. The reader will soon tire of the smatterings of unnecessary punctuation they find throughout your work.
Another bad habit that prevents good writing is the use of the passive voice. It de-emphasizes, where the active voice would lend more urgency to the expression.
For example, here is the passive voice:
The ribbon at the finish line was broken through by the exhausted runner.
Here is the active voice:
The exhausted runner broke through the ribbon at the finish line.
Using generalizations like abstractions, euphemisms, and circumlocution, also takes away the emphasis you might have shown by using more precise words to show meaning in detail.
He gave up the ghost last week.
He died on Friday.
He minimized his exposure in oil.
He sold all but 100 of his shares in British Petroleum.
Using vague expressions like “kill two birds with one stone” and “let the cat out of the bag,” dilutes your work. Get rid of this kind of verbiage and you will improve your writing.
Now we come to one of the most common, yet misguided forms authors use in aiming for emphasis in writing.
Throwing these words into sentences is supposed to add emphasis, but it waters down the writing into a boring assortment of overused words.
Instead of saying, “He was an awfully good friend,” why not tell why that was so, and say something like, “You could always count on Bob to be there if you needed help.”
Here is a list of words that most of us use without even thinking about it much. If we left them out of our sentences, we would be forced to write something better.
If you find yourself using these words, ask yourself, “Do I need this word? Does it improve my writing? Can I come up with something better?”
I will save the last tip on overused words for next time, as it merits a page of its own.
Meanwhile, think of these suggestions as coming from one who is guilty of making these very mistakes and, like you, is learning along the way.
Awareness is a good place to start changing our writing for the better.