Emphasis

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.

amazing

awfully

beautiful(ly)

certainly

exciting

extremely

fantastic

highly

perfectly

really

richly

so

such

super

swell

terribly

too

tremendous(ly)

very

wonderful(ly)

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.

Sentences Without Torture

Have you ever tried to read a book that had long sentences throughout? I say “tried” because it takes effort. By the time we get to the end of the sentence, we may be struggling to remember the beginning. To me, a sentence like that is punishment. But authors should not be condemning readers to this kind of sentence.

I opened “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville and chose a page at random. The first sentence on that page had 88 words. As I scanned the pages I saw many more extremely long sentences. “Moby Dick” did not become a classic without merit, but in today’s fast-moving world, do we really want to work that hard to enjoy a novel? I used Melville’s novel only because it was handy. Many authors of his period wrote in that style.

Nowadays, through technology, we are bombarded by huge amounts of information passed on in short flashes—TV ads, newsbytes, texting, twitter. In this environment, how can writers find a middle ground, conveying our thoughts effectively as we hold the reader’s interest?

They say “Variety is the spice of life.” It is also the spice needed for good writing.

First, get rid of the extremely long sentences. Usually, those with 15 to 25 words are considered to be long. Once in a while, we may need more words, but be careful. Do you ramble on as you write? Try rewriting extra-long sentences to be more concise. Do you repeat yourself? Go back and axe unneeded words.

For example, the first sentence is wordy, while the second conveys the same information in fewer words.

  1. “I would like to know if your book will be written as a non-fiction version of the events, or will it be fictionalized?”
  2. “Will your book relate the events as non-fiction or fiction?”

Beware of the opposite problem, though. While too many long sentences make for tedious reading, too many short ones can give your work a choppy feeling. Remember to vary the length.

Vary the rhythm of the sentence structure as well. Throw in a question if appropriate. Why not? It may catch the reader’s attention and keep him interested.

If you want a sentence to stand out from the rest, you can set it off as a short paragraph by itself.

Another possibility is to use it to begin or end a paragraph. A general rule of thumb is to begin with your second-most-important sentence. Place the relevant explanation in the middle and save the best one for last.

Now that we have a good mix of sentences, what about the impact of the words in them? Most sentences have one keyword that is the most important component of the thought. We want to emphasize that word to give our writing the punch it needs. For the most part, readers remember the first and the last words best, but especially the last.

Consider these examples:

“Fifteen top music stars played in a concert at the new theater.” The new theater is what stands out most.

“The concert in the new theater hosted fifteen top music stars.” The fifteen top music stars are emphasized more. Choose your emphasis, depending on the idea you are trying to convey.

In a simplified formula, here are some basic guidelines for writing a good paragraph:

  • vary your sentence length and structure,
  • place your sentences in strategic positions in your paragraph (beginning, middle, or end), and
  • arrange the phrasing to place keywords near the end of your sentence.

New and improved paragraphs will be the result, if you follow some of these guidelines.

Or, changing the emphasis, “If you follow some of these guidelines, you will have new and improved paragraphs.”

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

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