Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A few things I don’t like

with 3 comments


Here are a few things I don’t like. I don’t like semicolons. I don’t like ellipses. I don’t much care for the use of italics to indicate emphasis. I really don’t like exclamation points. I prefer “John said” to “said John,” and I won’t use the latter unless I don’t have a choice. I don’t like the use of a blank space to indicate a shift in point of view or a scene change within a single chapter. I obviously don’t like backstory. I don’t like extended descriptions of a character’s physical appearance. I don’t like the adverb “suddenly,” although I sometimes use it anyway. I don’t like hyphenated adjectives, or hyphens at all, except in my own last name. I don’t like sentence fragments or most forms of unconventional grammar. I don’t like interior monologue. I don’t like “found” documents in fiction, like emails or letters. I like dashes, but only at the ends of sentences, and never to set off a clause. I don’t like parentheses. Come to think of it, I don’t seem to like most forms of punctuation aside from the period and comma, and maybe the occasional question mark.

At this point, I’m starting to sound like Chris Lowe in “Paninaro”: “I don’t like much of anything, do I?” But there are some important caveats to this list. These dislikes hold true only for my own writing: I’m quite happy to encounter most of the above in the work of others. They also apply only to my fiction. Over the years, I’ve somehow managed to evolve two distinct styles for my fiction and my other work. The latter, for instance, features copious use of dashes—like this—and even the occasional parenthetical sentence, both of which literally never appear in my work as a novelist. (I don’t use the word “literally” lightly: there isn’t a single parenthesis or interior dash in any of my novels.) My nonfiction style is chattier and less formal, possibly because it’s generally subjected to just a quick rewrite or two before it goes out. If I had to live with an essay or nonfiction book for the better part of a year, or through fifty revisions, it’s likely that I’d start to boil it down in much the same way, until it started to take on the purified, more finicky shape you find in my published fiction.

The hated semicolon

And it’s hard for me to say why. As far as I can remember, these preferences began to emerge in force after I’d written my first, still unpublished novel, which then went through a year of revisions. When you stare at the same pile of pages for months on end, details like the use of a semicolon or the placement of a line break start to take on disproportionate significance, and you find yourself feeling the same way toward these tiny stylistic bacilli that George Bernard Shaw did toward quotation marks, or Howard Hughes toward microbes. You kill one semicolon because it starts to bug you a little, and for the sake of consistency, you feel obliged to kill them elsewhere. The three dots of an ellipsis start to seem like specks of impurity. You polish and smooth out the surface of the page as if you were vacuuming the fringes on an oriental rug, and you start to develop other tics to cope with the elements you’ve eliminated—for instance, in my case, the use of a terminal dash to indicate a trailing off, or even as a form of emphasis, which drives my copy editors nuts. And before long, you’ve ended up with a set of personal best practices that allow you to indulge in these obsessions.

There’s a word for this: it’s called style. And one thing I’ve learned by watching my own progress as a writer is how style emerges as a coping mechanism. Every stylistic choice a writer makes amounts to a preference over some other, equally legitimate alternative, and it often isn’t until you’ve written an entire novel that you start to know what you like or hate. That’s the real reason it takes so much time for a style to emerge. Practice and experience play a part as well, but really, it’s a product of all those hours spent staring at the screen, until you find yourself feeling strongly about such matters as whether you really want to use two contractions in the same sentence. Writers are obsessive creatures; otherwise, they’d never get anything done. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, if this obsession manifests itself on the tiniest levels, as well as on the highest. Many of a writer’s likes and dislikes will turn out to be more or less arbitrary, and each author will develop a different set, which can often seem insane to others. But sometimes finding a style means acting a little crazy.

Written by nevalalee

June 20, 2013 at 9:31 am

Posted in Writing

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3 Responses

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  1. As the spirit wanes the form appears – Charles Bukowski

    Paul Vincent Lawford

    June 20, 2013 at 10:00 am

  2. i haven’t been man enough to tell you that your terminal dashes drive me nuts too. i’m glad you brought it up.


    June 21, 2013 at 8:11 pm

  3. You’ll be glad to hear that they’ve been pruned considerably in volume three.


    June 21, 2013 at 8:45 pm

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