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.

To be or not to be ….

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The verb “to be” has been causing trouble since Shakespeare’s time and possibly even longer.

I became aware of the potential damage this verb could cause when I joined the local writers’ club, many years ago. The authors in this group provide mutual help and support. Part of each meeting is devoted to readings. Writers may read a sample of their work and have it critiqued by the other members.

I had worked on a little story that I thought was not bad, so I volunteered to read it. My hands shook and my face turned bright red as I stammered through two pages of writing. Nervously, I awaited the critiquing. I was shocked to hear that all my writing and rewriting and polishing was still lacking, and, swallowing lumps of misplaced pride in my work, I began to learn how to write.

I will never forget that first critiquing comment. “Right at the beginning, you used the words ‘there were.’”

Yes, I thought. What’s wrong with that?

“You should avoid the verb ‘to be’ if at all possible.”

This was new to me. Wasn’t “to be” the most basic of verbs? Why not use it?

I didn’t volunteer to read aloud for the group again for a long, long time—it took a while to regain my confidence—but I listened carefully and made notes when others had their work critiqued. I learned SO much! I am still learning every day.

Today, I’d like to share with you what I found out about using “to be.”

It’s not that there is anything wrong with “to be” in all its forms and tenses; the problem is that when you use it, you’re not using anything better. “To be” is rather static, inactive, and boring. Most sentences using this weak verb can be rephrased to become much more interesting, and, if not action-packed, at least not comatose.

Let’s take some examples:

Before:

There were about a hundred people in the street.

Now, imagine the scene. Surely these one hundred people were not simply standing limply in the street. I have to come up with a good strong verb; one that is active, or makes us feel that action is imminent.

After:

In the street, one hundred people … milled around, shook their fists, threw rocks (choose one of many possibilities)….

Or maybe: One hundred people shouted for justice in the street.

Before:

A cat was in the yard.

After:

A stray cay slunk across the yard.

In each case, by shuffling the words around, we added action and interest.

Naturally, we sometimes need to use the verb “to be,” but when you are writing, be aware of it in its many forms and, if possible, try to substitute a stronger, more active verb.

Here are some of the variations of “to be”: is, are, am, was, were, have been, has been, had been, will be, was being, were being.

Next time you’re writing, look back at a section of your work and mark all the cases of the verb “to be.” Then see if you can find a way to improve the text by exchanging “to be” for a stronger verb. You may have to do some re-arranging of words and phrases, but in the end, it will probably make your story sing where previously it only droned.