KonMari For Punctuation

All those em dashes aren’t bringing you joy.

Photo: delete08 /Flickr

This is Writing Tips Ripped From The Headlines #12. The rest of the series is here. Thank you for reading and recommending!

A couple of weeks ago, an excellent editor gave me some feedback that surprised me. “You use colons way too much,” she said. “It’s weird.”

As I looked back over my recent work, I realized they were right: I’ve been using colons way too much.

My fondness for the colon is only the most recent in a long series of writerly tics that I’ve had to remove from my work, a la Marie Kondo. All of these tics started out as effective writing techniques. But they work so well, I find myself reaching for them a little too often, which dilutes their power.

All writers fall into the habit of overuse at some point in their development, including with punctuation, phrases, and buzzwords. Even Zadie Smith confesses to the inevitable inertia of short-cuts:

“...in each of my novels somebody ‘rummages in their purse’ for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and unawake to separate ‘purse’ from its old, persistent friend ‘rummage.’”

My overuse of colons is a habit which I picked up while trying to drop another habit. Colons:em dashes::chewing gum:smoking.

And now, as I’ve started to cut back on colons, I’ve found that my em dash use is suddenly back up — and I mean way up.

There are two situations in which I really like to use em dashes. The first is the Pause Button. It’s a way of packing extra information into a long sentence by sandwiching off some examples or asides. In this construction, the em dash works like a pause button — allowing you take a break from the main sentence before diving back in — which is why it’s so useful.

I also like to use em dashes for a Dramatic Pause. When you use just one em dash alone, right before the end of a sentence, it works like a pre-emptive underscore. Whatever part of the sentence you set off from the rest gets a little extra juice — even boring phrases like this one.

Both of these em-dash constructions are prone to overuse. In the past week, I’ve noticed that the Pause Button technique is especially common in news article ledes.

Here’s Mother Jones, with a terrifying profile of a man who profits on killing-themed-self-help-seminars:

Marching around the stage in a theater in Lakeport, California, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman tells his audience that they shouldn’t go out looking for people to kill, because those who need killing — the “gangbangers,” terrorists, and mass murderers — will come to them.

And here’s The Atlantic explicating the movie Lion:

The bizarre, true story of Saroo Brierley’s life — an odyssey from India to Australia and back — feels totemic, like something an ancient poet might sing of.

And here’s The Outline on gene editing:

On Tuesday, a panel of experts selected by the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine released ethical recommendations for tinkering with human genetics. The guidelines — prompted by the emergence of cheaper, more precise genome editing techniques in the past five years — included what Science called a “yellow light” for editing in human embryos, something that has been controversial especially in the U.S.

The Pause Button works so well in the lede of a newspaper story because it allows the writer to introduce a wide range of information in a way that’s easy to digest, luring the reader in with extra detail about the world that the rest of the article will explore.

But now that I’ve pointed it out to you, you may find this technique a little distracting. Sorry about that.

Writing Tip #12: Evaluate your own punctuation. Take a look at your most recent piece of writing, and focus on the punctuation. Are all of your sentences the same length, with a comma in the middle? Is there more than one colon? Do you have zero commas, and all short sentences? Whatever you find yourself doing most often, experiment with doing the opposite. It will brighten up and energize your prose.