When asked to review someone’s writing, one of the first things I notice is whether the writer uses cheats. I define a cheat as one of the cheap, cheesy tricks so loved by writers who haven’t matured into a competent style.
My usual guidance is that all cheats have legitimate uses, places, and functions; that they are all part of the written language for valid reasons; and that their overuse looks amateurish and childish. I encourage my clients to think of cheats as “chips,” as in playing an expendable and finite supply of “I get to bend the rule” moments. (“Get out of jail free cards,” while more recognizable, is also more ponderous. Brief terms are better.)
Novices tend to use these cheats in ways that show low writing continence. Some even double down on them: “Well, that’s just my style.” That’s my signal that it’s time for the ice bath: “I’m sorry to hear that, because it means your style is very flawed, and that you’re embracing bad rather than striving toward good.” If that’s their stance, though, I already know they aren’t going to hire me, so at least my conscience is clear that I told them the truth without flinching. I only overcame these bad habits because people told me that truth. Who knows the mistakes better than someone who once made them all, all the time?
It’s true. I did. If this is CA (Cheats Anonymous), I qualify to lead the meeting. My name is John, and I am a Cheataholic. I’ve been clean and sober for about ten years. Welcome.
By saving these chips for the moments when nothing else works as well, they’re available when needed. Here are most of the ones that trip my trigger, what they tell me about the writer, and where their use may make good sense.
Ellipses (…; note that this is the plural, and that a singular use is an ellipsis): in narrative, tells me the author has not yet learned the value of the declarative sentence augmented by more common punctuation. One in a sentence is always questionable; more than one is a head-shaker. When they’re okay: with judicious use in dialogue, for when one finds it very convenient to place an important but short pause in speech. It’s also good for getting rid of the dialogue tag when speech trails off, although you’d be amazed how many writers give us both. “I saw it coming, and then, well…” she trailed off. No, no, no. If you use it in dialogue, at least get the full benefit. We can see that she trailed off, thanks to your ellipsis.
I cannot resist mentioning that editorial forums love passionate, brain-eroding debate over stuff like whether an ellipsis should use spaces, no spaces, or the Unicode character that combines three dots into one symbol. I never join in, because if I were to speak my mind, they would boot me out. I’d say: “So let’s decide on whether to speed up up the computer by pouring water in it, pouring sand into it, or oiling it with ten-thirty.” I think some editorial forum participants believe that fierce arguments over stupid things signify editorial acumen. I think these flaps are the mark of someone who has a forest and trees problem, and who has confused pedantry with effectiveness. But if I tell them that, they’ll all unite in agreement that I am not of their tribe. It is not to my benefit for them to realize that, so I shut up.
Except here, of course, since they can’t kick me off my own blog.
Em dashes (—): my own besetting weakness, my own worst habitual cheat, my own “that was so much easier than writing” bad habit. I’m terrible and I own it. I want to use them all the time, such as bracketing this clause, and I know it’s wrong. The overuse tells me that the writer suffers from the same inclination to cheat as do I, but finds it too troublesome to continue the struggle. The em dash’s uses are hard to define, but one might ask oneself whether a comma, semicolon, or colon could replace one. If it could, it probably should. When they’re okay: sparingly in narrative. In dialogue, good for demonstrating speech cadence when that cadence helps convey tone, and for interrupted speech. And again, you’d be amazed how often the dialogue tag makes a redundant curtain call: “Now wait just a minute, you—” “Shut the hell up!” Smith interrupted. The punctuation made the interruption clear. Why use the dialogue tag to belt the reader in the face with it? Do you think the reader is too stupid to determine this?
Exclamation points (!): in narrative, tells me that the writer is (or wants to sound like) a dramatic teenager. My usual reaction: “Oh, good lord. Such hot garbage.” There might be occasional moments for exclamation points in narrative, notably in self-help books with informal tones. They are fine in dialogue provided the author uses them continently and does not add a redundant dialogue tag. “Goddamnit, I said you’re not going and that’s that!” she insisted. Barf, retch, gag. Even in dialogue one should restrict ! usage, unless all the dialogue is between people who yell and fight all the time.
Italics (like these): in narrative, when used for emphasis, they indicate to me that the narrator thinks word choices are hard and painful, and it would be so much easier to just tell the emphasis rather than word the selection so that the reader grasps it. If you infer that I think they should be very rare in narrative, I guess my gelatinous sarcasm was effective. When they’re okay: in dialogue, used rarely, to indicate a profound emphasis on a word or a few by the speaker. Just watch for the doubly redundant tag: “I said don’t do that!” she ordered. Now we’ve got the italics, the exclamation mark, and the redundant tag. (Notice that I did not italicize ‘and.’ This was because I think you are intelligent enough to supply your own emphasis based on my word choices.)
When I see something like this, I begin to wonder if the author was having an emotional day and got overwhelmed. Where they are very helpful: for internal monologue (Not on my watch, thought Sally. I’ll shoot him.), for foreign terms generally on first use, for first use and leading to special definition of English terms taking on a particular contextual meaning, and a few other cases mostly related to non-fiction (as in this article, to draw the reader’s eye to an important shift in focus).
Bold (like so): nearly always tells me the writer has no idea what the hell s/he is doing. Bold has its moments outside headers and titles, but they are quite rare. Just no. It’s everything that is wrong with italics and exclamation points, but more egregious.
I used them for the titles here because I didn’t feel like doing the messing around that it would take to use underlining, which I would have preferred. WordPress’s formatting panel easily serves up bold, italic, list tools, color, a limited symbol list, and strikethrough, but not underlining. I don’t expect an explanation from them any time soon.
Adverbs (most end in -ly): tend to represent overtell or word choice sloth. That’s another issue that tells me the author found it so much easier than striving to select the correct verb. Note that not all -ly words are adverbs, nor do all adverbs end in -ly; an adverb modifies a verb. At their worst in dialogue tags: “Hands up!” she said menacingly, chambering a round. (In case the utter wrongnado of that does not register with you, the deft addition of the chambered round indicates the menace would be the default attitude and tone; only if that were unintended, and if that non-intent were essential to the scene, would one want a modifier. ‘Timidly,’ perhaps? Sure, if you want to say that she’s about to fall apart. But what if you just replaced the exclamation point with a comma, subbing for a period? Just the incongruity of a missing exclamation point would say a lot, would it not?) What about a better verb? That’s the essence of banishing adverbs.
If one can come up with a better verb that pays its freight, especially outside of dialogue tags, one is doing as a good writer should. If one can’t, and the modified meaning cannot be inferred, that’s why we have adverbs.
All these are my chips. They all have their moments, every single one (even boldface), some more often than others. In the main, most writers should try hard to limit or eliminate these. Then, when they are most needed and nothing else works quite so efficiently, there’ll be a chip available to play.
Take it from a recovering addict.