Q&A: The Secrets to Not Being a Terrible Writer

How many exclamation points are enough? Should you ever write in ALL CAPS? English professor and author Ben Yagoda promises to answer these questions and make you a better writer.

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David McGlynn

Is it okay to use a lot of exclamation points?!?! SHOULD YOU EVER WRITE SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS? How bad a person are you, literally, if you misuse the word literally? For a special edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed posed such divisive questions to a man who promises to make you a better writer. Ben Yagoda is an English professor at the University of Delaware and the author of a new book: How to Not Write Bad.

Based on your experience as a teacher, just how bad are young Americans at writing?

Wow. That’s a big one …

Okay. What is the number-one, most common bad-writer mistake?

Using the wrong word—using a word that is anywhere from not precise to too fancy to just plain wrong. It seems like students have been rewarded for writing in a fancy way, so they often use big words instead of simpler words. They’ll say something like reside instead of live or domicile instead of house. Also, wordiness. Word repetition. Redundancy.

What is the worst sentence you’ve ever seen?

Oh my gosh. Let’s see. There’s so many. [Flips through his book.] Here’s one, on page 91: “Claiming to be a simple man leading an ordinary life of a male as he enjoys watching football with his buddy’s, Smith’s lifestyle is far from ordinary.”

How big of a sin is it to use “literally” when you mean “figuratively”?

There’s a writer, Bryan Garner, who is in the middle camp on this. He came up with an expression called “skunked words.” The idea is that, like a skunk, there’s an odor: people who follow these strictures will hold their noses when you use them. Literally has that quality. So if you put these things in an email, that’s one thing. But if you’re writing for a [broader audience], you have to be aware of how your writing and your words might be received by certain people. Some people are going to think less of you.

Is the widespread usage of exclamation points a problem?

There’s exclamation point inflation, so that one isn’t enough. You don’t want to get to the point where it’s like the boy who cried wolf, where you have to have multiple exclamation points just to indicate that you really mean it. So is it a problem? It’s not a problem like global warming.

Is it ever appropriate to write a sentence in all capital letters?

Sure. I hereby give dispensation to doing that. But it’s like the exclamation points, where if you’re shouting all time, no one is going to pay attention to you.

What is the first step to not writing badly?

Slow down and read aloud. Take that sentence and that paragraph and read it aloud and listen to it.

What is a good go-to rule, a sample of what you’ve got in the book?

The most underrated writing tip has to do with the subject of a sentence. Don’t start a sentence with an idea, a quality, an inanimate object. “Anticipation” is not a good subject. It paints you into a corner. Start with the person or the people doing the action.

In your book, you mention “grace” as a quality that you look for in sentences. Can you give an example of a graceful sentence?

[Reads from Roger Angell’s Let Me Finish]: “One spring Saturday when I was seven going on eight, my mother brought me with her on an automobile outing with her young lover and future husband, E.B. White.” That’s my nominee. That’s writing well. That’s not just not writing badly.

How much space is there between writing well and not writing badly?

The not-writing-badly thing is a skill that can be learned, by reading, by following principles, by using the dictionary, by slowing down and all those things. Writing well is a little more mysterious. It’s art. There’s inspiration. There’s individual talent and style.

Certainly a lot of rules about writing and what’s good or bad change over time. 

Grammar changes and spelling changes and punctuation changes. Pretty much all of it changes. But it’s a question of how quickly, and you don’t want to be out there before everybody else.

How to Not Write Bad will be released on Feb. 5.