editing / emphasis / punctuation / self-editing / showing vs telling

Exclamation Marks, Thoughts in Italics, and Other Unusual Approaches

Sometimes real examples of writing issues are easier to understand than lengthy, complicated explanations. In this new series (see the list of “Real Examples of Various Writing Issues“) you’ll see various real-life writing problems and suggested solutions.

“Hmmm!” said Sam, “That looks like a turtle!”
–> Be very careful about using exclamation marks. Even in a novel, it is advisable not to use more than at very most half a dozen exclamation marks throughout the book. So in a children’s picture book story, I would recommend no more than at very most two or three in the entire document (while you have used two or three on each page). Save exclamation marks for what are truly exclamations. If you want to make a particular sentence very strong and exclamatory, use appropriate wording to do that. For example, in this sentence, instead of using “Hmmm” to start the sentence, you could use a strong word like “Wow” or a strong phrase like “Check it out,” or you could change the sentence wording, such as in “That rock is really unusual. Hey, it looks like a turtle.”

I read an article in a magazine, and it says someone like me is a victim. I never think of myself as a victim, but I suppose in a way, I am. I don’t like thinking this way, so in order to take my mind off things, I pick up my cigarette for one last drag, but there’s nothing left … it has a long trail of ash on the end and has extinguished itself … I light another cigarette and inhale deeply. Things never change. I wish I could change things. I wish things would change.
–> Two suggestions:
First, be careful about inserting too many “thoughts” into your manuscript. While it is sometimes important to show a character’s inner musings and using italics to do so is a possible way to do that, try not to use this method for long or frequent thoughts. Consider other possible methods, such as dialogue with another character, actions that “show” thoughts, a character thinking out loud, and so on. Question yourself carefully if detailed musings are really necessary to the story. The musings themselves, and the use of italics can be distracting to the reader and can slow down the plot.
Second, it’s unusual to have the person “telling” their actions in their “thoughts.” Most writers would make sections like this part of the narrative. As an example: Elaine didn’t like thinking this way, so to distract herself, she picked up her cigarette for one last drag but there was nothing left but a long trail of ash. She lit another cigarette and inhaled deeply. (And note that I removed some repetition and wordiness. Be succinct!)

“We can only ever be confident of victory against life’s challenges IF we … ”
–> You’ve been using a lot of different kinds of emphasis in this relatively short passage: bolding, ALL CAPS, italics, quotation marks, and more. While it’s okay to use different markings for different purposes, try and choose just one for each purpose and be consistent. So, for example, when emphasizing a single word, just use ALL CAPS (or whichever marking you choose), instead of using different marks in different locations for the same purpose. The other thing I’d highly recommend is to avoid using special markings for emphasis at all. Rather, reword your sentences so the emphasis comes through naturally. Even in the example above, you really don’t need to emphasize “it” since the sentence itself already does that.

Your turn!

Did reading the above examples help you understand the need to self-edit carefully, to ask a beta-reader to check your writing, and to think carefully whether the use of special marks for emphasis or other purposes (! / CAPS / bolding / “” / italics / … ) is really necessary, or if you could improve your writing to fulfill the same purpose?  What did you learn from these examples? What examples would you add?

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