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A Word, Please: A look at the visual component of writing

If you want people to take your writing seriously, grammar is important. So are punctuation and usage. But there’s another ingredient that lots of people overlook: aesthetics.

In writing, looks count. In fact, many of the style rules followed so religiously by publishers exist exclusively to make the text easy on the eyes.

A quick primer on some of these more superficial style conventions can give your writing a professional polish, affording your words a subtle air of authority. As a plus, writing that’s easy on the eyes does a better job of getting your message across. So here are some ways to pretty up your prose.

Don’t double-space between sentences. The old rule that said you should hit the space bar twice after every period? It was designed to compensate for the shortcomings of the earliest typewriters — and it died with them. Today, two spaces after a period are a dead giveaway that you don’t have a professional editor.

Put spaces around your ellipses. Most punctuation books agree that an ellipsis should not touch the word on either side of it … ever. The form you want is: space, dot, dot, dot, space. Sometimes before an ellipsis, you do see a dot touching the previous word. But that dot isn’t part of the ellipsis. That’s a period, used in accordance with this rule: If the stuff before the ellipsis makes up a complete sentence, end that sentence with a terminal punctuation mark, usually a period, then insert a space, then insert the ellipsis. So that’s: dot, space, dot, dot, dot, space, in which the first dot is really a period to end the previous sentence.

Avoid capital letters whenever possible. You don’t have to call your manager the Manager and you don’t have to call your banana daiquiri a Banana Daiquiri. The pros don’t, and if you keep your capitals to a minimum, you’ll better emulate top publishers. Whatever you do, don’t use capitalize letters for EMPHASIS. That just comes off like your chronically irate uncle firing off his daily letter to the editor.

Eschew semicolons. Think of these punctuation marks as sutures on Frankenstein’s monster. Sure, they’re great for patching together clauses and phrases ad infinitum. But the result is usually an ugly abomination. Break up your sentences into visually appealing, mentally digestible shorter sentences instead.

Don’t make your paragraphs too long, but don’t make them too short, either. A passage made up of nothing but single-sentence paragraphs looks like a stream of random thoughts presented in the order in which they raced through an undisciplined mind. Conversely, overly dense paragraphs scare readers away.

Keep it short. The widely agreed-upon ideal called “economy of words” is usually discussed as a way to make your point more effectively. But there’s an aesthetic advantage, too. In this age of tweets and banner ads and five-second attention spans, the fewer words, the better the odds that your reader will endeavor to look at them.

Be a considerate user of parentheses. Parentheses are great for inserting ideas and statements into other ideas and statements. But that’s your thinking process, not your reader’s. Every interruption in your main sentence is like a visual speed bump. Your reader is chugging along through your sentence on the way to your main point, and suddenly you throw a hurdle-like parenthetical in his path. Instead, consider whether there’s a way to integrate the parenthetical information into a flowing, linear, easy-on-the-eyes narrative.

Don’t use symbols in place of words. I’m talking mainly about ampersands and dashes. “Burgers & fries” instead of “burgers and fries” looks amateurish precisely because the pros don’t use it. And “The store is open from 9-5” breaks up the dynamic duo of “from” and “to.” Anytime you want to put a dash or hyphen between dates, times or ranges, use “to” or “through” instead. That’s what the pros do.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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