The Basic Thing About Writing That Authors Always Get Wrong
So, here I am, reading a book about marriage like the good little Jewish girl I am, and I get annoyed. I always get annoyed while reading books, because authors are always doing the same thing wrong. I found this on Quora, I find it on Medium, and now I find it in books: authors don’t trust the intelligence of their own readers.
Let’s dissect this. What am I even saying? Well, when you’re reading something, it’s not hard to figure out what the important bits are; they jump out in your head whether you want them to or not. The most important sentences hang in the air after they’re read.
Case in point: look at the first two paragraphs I just wrote. In the first one, I bolded the last sentence as a cheap trick to point out what I wanted you to assign as important, like a glaring neon sign that says, “Look here!” But writing is about subtlety. The line that stuck out in a quiet — but still significant — way was the one at the end of my second paragraph. The one that wasn’t bolded. The one where you figured out that it was important, because of the way it was set up.
You know what assigns significance to pieces of information? Colons. M-dashes. Periods. Paragraphs. Those amazing, perfect, versatile pieces of punctuation and bits of writing that allow us humans to communicate. The simple things that seem, at first glance, to have no flair.
A new paragraph is dramatic.
Wow! Look at that.
You know what’s not dramatic? An exclamation point. Exclamation points take the oomph out of a sentence! They soften writing and make it mushy and unusable, like a rotted vegetable. Look at this:
I looked out the window. Time stopped: a car was coming!
I looked out the window. Time stopped: a car was coming.
When you don’t add in an exclamation point, when you let your sentence sit there with just a period, letting it exist in its thundering silence, you give it power. An exclamation point is a cheap neon sign: look here! This is so crazy! This is what’s important!
Good writing doesn’t have exclamation points. It doesn’t have entire sentences that are bolded or italicized, because the author understands that the sentences that hit the hardest and stay the longest in the minds of their readers are the ones where their own readers find them important and relevant, instead of the author signaling to the reader what they believe to be important.
You’re not stupid. I shouldn’t have to bold a sentence for you to figure out that it’s important. I, as a writer, need to trust you as a reader to understand what I’m saying. The worst thing I could do is fail to trust you in that special little writer-reader bond we’ve created by deigning to highlight little phrases for you so that you know what to focus on.
You know what to focus on. I trust you.