Use more periods

How to write short sentences

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.

Use more periods

Scan for punctuation Whenever you find colons, commas, dashes, ellipses, parentheses or semicolons, see whether you can substitute a period instead. Image from iStock.

“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. Just hear what these experts have to say:

“There’s not much to be said about the period, except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.”
— William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well
“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place.”
— Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Prize-winning author

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 colons, commas, dashes, ellipses, parentheses, semicolons.

Because these punctuation marks connect dependent and independent clauses together to create sprawling sentences, they often earn the disdain of writing pros.

Commas

“I like to use as few commas as possible so that sentences will go down in one swallow without touching the sides.”
— Florence King, author of Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye
“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.”
— H.W. Fowler, English lexicographer

Dashes

“It’s the Kato Kaelin of punctuation marks. Always there. Lying around. So generic. So available.”
— Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools

Semicolons

Writers reserve special disdain, though, for the semicolon. It has the dreadful superpower of connecting independent clauses — full sentences — into a single sentence.

“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.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, author of such novels as Slaughterhouse-Five
“When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life. Old age is more like a semicolon.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, author of such novels as Slaughterhouse-Five
“I hate the way it looks. Like a colon that’s had a polyp removed.”
— Roy Peter Clark, author of Writing Tools
“’Whatever you call them, they look like someone smashed a fly over the comma,’ Ketchum said to Danny, about all the semicolons. ‘The only writing I do are letters to you and your dad, but I’ve written rather a lot of them, and in all those letters, I don’t believe I’ve ever used as many of those damn things as you use on any one fucking page of this novel.’ ‘They’re called semicolons, Ketchum,’ the writer said. ‘I don’t care what they’re called, Danny,” the old woodsman said. ‘I’m just telling you that you use too damn many of them!’”
— John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River: A Novel
The semicolon is “the only unretweetable punctuation mark.”
— Dan Zarrella, viral marketing scientist, based on his study of 1 million retweets
“Frank McCourt, the writer and former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, describes the semicolon as the yellow traffic light of a ‘New York sentence.’ In response, most New Yorkers accelerate; they don’t pause to contemplate.”
— Sam Roberts, reporter for The New York Times
“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.”
— James J. Kilpatrick, journalist and author of The Writer’s Art

Periods

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.

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