Every writer attempts a seamless flow in their storytelling, wants to take readers on the perfect ride constructed of their brilliant words. We don’t want to throw any hurdles into the midst, for fear of losing that tenuous connection with the ever-distracted bookworm. Yet, two disturbing blemishes still thoughtlessly grace pages and screens from novels to blog posts, throwing up a hurdle and halting the beautiful path a reader was about to take through the writing.
These conversation-stopping punctuation marks, which I beg you avoid at most costs, are asterisks and parentheses. They land in a paragraph like an unwelcome fly, disturbing the reading experience, leaving the reader wishing he could brush them aside and resume his cheerful path through your story. But he can’t. These annoying marks ask that the reader step outside of the seamless flow of the material and read something that you could find no more natural a way to incorporate.
From the first annotated classic novel I read, my brain has set forth an unwavering boycott of these disturbing afterthoughts. My eyes defiantly skim over parenthetical text and ignore the asterisk’s invasive redirection.
If parenthetical or annotated text matters to a story, why should it be so annoyingly set apart from the rest?
Put into the context of a conversation, an asterisk is like the guy who doesn’t care about what you’re saying. He sits perched and ready for his turn to speak, interjecting his tangents into the middle of your thoughts as soon as you pause for a breath. Or, if he can help it, he waits until you’ve concluded, then says, “Yeah. Let me go back to what you said about…” and launches into his tangent long after it’s become irrelevant.
If the asterisk’s tangent is necessary for the reader’s understanding of the story, shouldn’t it simply be part of the story? And if additional notes are needed to even comprehend what is written, maybe the writing isn’t relevant to the culture of its readers. Maybe it should be read only by those so studied on the outdated language and references of the book that they’re able to follow the path originally intended by the author.
Parentheses are like a gossipy lady who can’t help but add unnecessary information into a story: “My boss, Kathy (who, by the by, has certainly been putting on the pounds this winter!) just asked me to help her with the new project.” That’s rude and irrelevant, Gossipy Lady, and if you had a chance to edit yourself, you’d surely take that information out before taking your story public.
Who ever thought to first use the parentheses must have been a completely fed-up writer. I imagine someone with a nugget of information in his mind, so hell-bent on including it in his piece but finding no comfortable spot for it. He thumbs through his choice manual of style and finds the sheltering punctuation and thinks, “Aha!”, injecting the added words he couldn’t let go into a sentence that was perfect without them.
AP style suggests trying to rewrite a sentence to replace parentheses, since the punctuation implies that the enclosed information is not vital. Writers would do well to consider this most stringent of styles in any form of writing — cut the non-vital information! News style writing takes a reader on the most streamlined of journeys, cutting any unnecessary bits in the middle that would distract the reader from understanding the point. Take note.
As for the asterisk, aren’t its days of relevance long gone? Except perhaps branded on the face of a controversial baseball, the disturbance introduced by the symbol into a modern text borders on ridiculous. In a world where additional information comes as easily as swiping one’s finger across an ever-present screen, we have little need for the information an editor deems necessary to clutter the printed page. If a story is instead read on the screen, we have devised a much less invasive technique for injecting information: the hyperlink. The asterisk in print now is a gross clunky cousin to the more minimalist hyperlinked text, and eyes weaned on the clean interface of a Kindle or the “Reader” view of a mobile website see no place for this distraction.
Ultimately, any form of writing is a conversation, and we’re conversing with an increasingly-inattentive audience. To a reader who already has to shove aside a myriad of responsibilities and interests to pay attention to your story, any barricade or distraction in the text is an excuse to stop reading and move on to something else. If you can’t find a smoother way to include information in a story, maybe the story has no place for that information after all. To inject it stubbornly just because you have the punctuation to do so is, in the opinion of this writer, rude to the reader.
Insensitive Guy and Gossipy Lady are the friends no one wants to talk to anymore. Their inappropriate conversational techniques bar them from the best parties. Writers, do anything you can to ensure readers still invite you to the party.
~ Dana Sitar