Reach the period sooner
The story goes that when future columnist James J. Kilpatrick was a young newspaper reporter, he wrote lots of deadly long sentences. Finally, in frustration, the city editor gave Kilpatrick a piece of paper covered with dots.
“These interesting objects, which apparently you have never encountered before, are known as periods,” the editor said. “You would do well to use them.”
We’d all do well to use more periods. As William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well, writes:
“There’s not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer agrees. He writes:
“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place.”
So how can you get to the period faster?
Scan for punctuation.
“(Martin) Amis has loosened his belt, and his slangy, scattershot prose veers toward self-parody. Sentences are either impossibly short or impossibly long. Commas, colons, parentheses and dashes crawl all over the page like flesh-eating microbes.”
— Jeff Giles, senior editor of Newsweek’s Arts & Entertainment section
Are your sentences too long? If so, scan your copy for punctuation marks other than periods. Those include:
These connect dependent and independent clauses together to create sprawling sentences. They also earn the disdain of professional writers.
Florence King, author of Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye, writes:
“I like to use as few commas as possible so that sentences will go down in one swallow without touching the sides.”
And English lexicographer H.W. Fowler warns:
“Anyone who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable and question whether it is necessary.”
Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at The Poynter Institute and author of Writing Tools, describes the dash thus:
“It’s the Kato Kaelin of punctuation marks. Always there. Lying around. So generic. So available.”
Writers reserve special disdain, though, for the semicolon. It has the dreadful superpower of connecting independent clauses — full sentences — into a single sentence.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of such novels as Slaughterhouse-Five, wrote:
“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
Vonnegut also wrote:
“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life. Old age is more like a semicolon.”
The Poynter Institute’s Clark writes of the semicolon:
“I hate the way it looks. Like a colon that’s had a polyp removed.”
Viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella, who crunched the numbers on 1 million retweets to learn what makes information go viral, calls the semicolon:
“The only unretweetable punctuation mark.”
And James J. Kilpatrick, journalist and author of The Writer’s Art, writes:
“My thought for the day is that the semicolon rarely helps a passage; usually it creates little more than clutter. This is my second thought for the day: The semicolon rarely helps a passage. Usually it creates little more than clutter.”
When you find commas, dashes, semicolons and other punctuation marks, see whether you can substitute a period instead. As Kilpatrick writes:
“The period, believe me, is the best friend a writer will ever have.”
You would do well to use them.