Avoiding Exclamation Point Overuse

What do exclamation points have in common with antibiotic drugs?

First, do you know why some previously effective antibiotics no longer work? According to the Mayo Clinic, the problem lies in the misuse and overuse of antibiotic medications. When people take antibiotic treatments, sometimes bacteria manage to survive. The surviving bacteria develop resistance to the given drug and pass these drug-resistant characteristics on as they reproduce. Though this survival mechanism is beneficial for the bacteria, doctors are finding that drugs that worked in the past are losing their effectiveness against resistant bacteria strains.

Now, let’s return to the original question. How are exclamation points like antibiotic drugs? Exclamation points serve an important purpose in the function of a sentence. However, this punctuation mark is misused and overused. As a result, some of its effectiveness is compromised. People don’t respond to exclamation points as they once did. In order to combat this problem, it is essential to avoid overusing exclamation points. Have you seen the following mistakes?

Multiple Exclamation Points at the End of a Sentence

Typically, exclamation points are placed at the end of a sentence to express extreme emotion.


I won a new car!


That doll is looking at me!


Stop, drop, and roll!


No, I don’t want to go!

Sometimes people try to intensify emotion by using multiple exclamation points: I won a new car!!!!!! But multiple exclamation points are like an overdose of antibiotics. One exclamation point is sufficient to express the idea of excitement. How else can you express intensified emotion? One way is by adding description to the rest of the sentence.

“I won a new car!” my mom exclaimed.

“I won a new car!” my mom shouted, jumping up and down on the bed.

Exclamation Points and Other Punctuation Mixed Together

To express surprise and puzzlement, writers sometimes mix exclamation points and question marks or ellipses.

“My prescription didn’t arrive?!?!?!”
“My prescription didn’t arrive…!”

In the first example, the solution is to make a decision. Would you rather ask for confirmation or exclaim over your missing prescription? Once you have chosen your direction, the right punctuation is easy to identify. The second example is not incorrect. It is possible, though not widely promoted, to use an exclamation point in conjunction with ellipses. Whether the exclamation point is placed before or after the ellipses depends on the purpose of the ellipses. (See the article “Ellipses” for a complete explanation.)

Another area of confusion is how to end a sentence with a title containing an exclamation point. Dr. Seuss wrote a book called Oh, The Places You’ll Go! As you may have noticed from the preceding sentence, you don’t need to add a period.

Parentheses and Exclamations

The closing parenthesis or the exclamation point, which comes first? While not as widely pondered as the chicken-and-egg mystery, this question confuses some writers. The answer depends on whether the entire sentence is inside the parentheses, or if only a clause or phrase is. If the whole sentence is encapsulated, the punctuation mark goes inside. (People overuse parentheses as much as exclamation points!) But if only part of the sentence is parenthetical, place the exclamation point outside the closing parenthesis. Here is an example from The Chicago Manual of Style:

He will not accept any papers submitted even one minute past the deadline (5:00 p.m.)!

In the Middle of the Sentence

There are not many instances where exclamation points are properly used in the middle of a sentence. One of the most likely reasons to use a mid-sentence exclamation point is to express dialogue.

“Run for your life!” Philip cried.

Rarely, you may see writers use an exclamation point enclosed by itself in parentheses. Usually, this is to emphasize the irony or unlikelihood of a particular element of the sentence.

After eighteen hours(!) of reading, the girl finally finished the novel.

It is possible to avoid using an exclamation point in both cases. For quotes, you can replace exclamation points with commas.

“Run for your life,” Philip cried.

For unlikelihood or irony, build a description of the sentiment into the sentence:

After an astonishing eighteen hours of nonstop reading, the girl finally finished the novel.

Does your mind boggle at all the possible ways to use an exclamation point? Although it is widely used, the exclamation point is one of the most misunderstood punctuation marks. The conclusion? Every writer should learn to use exclamation points correctly. In formal writing, avoid exclamation points or use them sparingly. Think of them as antibiotics. If you want them to be effective, you must have the proper dosage for the situation.


Unfinished story … how the ellipsis arrived in English literature

A Cambridge academic claims to have found the first use of a ‘brilliant innovation’ that has endured as a mark of incomplete speech

‘A very useful resource’ ... once it arrived in English print, the ellipsis became rapidly popular and remained so.
 ‘A very useful resource’ … once it arrived in English print, the ellipsis became rapidly popular and remained so.

One of the earliest examples of the ellipsis, that tantalising piece of punctuation masterfully used to whet the appetite of Adele fans on Sunday night, has been traced to the 16th century by a Cambridge academic.

Dr Anne Toner believes she has identified the earliest use of the ellipsis in English drama, pinning it down to a 1588 edition of the Roman dramatist Terence’s play,

Andria, which had been translated into English by Maurice Kyffin and printed by Thomas East, and in which hyphens, rather than dots, mark incomplete utterances by the play’s characters.

Cambridge academic Dr Anne Toner believes this 1588 edition of Roman dramatist Terence’s 
Andria is the first time the ellipsis was printed in an English play's script.
 Cambridge academic Dr Anne Toner believes this 1588 edition of Roman dramatist Terence’s Andria is the first time the ellipsis appeared in print in English. Photograph: British Library

Although there are instances of ellipses occurring in letters around the same time, this is the earliest printed version found by Toner following her chronological research into the earliest dramas in print.

“This was a brilliant innovation,” she writes in Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission, a history of the use of dots, dashes and asterisks to mark a silence of some kind, which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.

“There is no play printed before Kyffin’s Andria and listed in WW Greg’s Bibliography of English Printed Drama that marks unfinished sentences in this way. This is not to say that these were the first ellipses in English print. There are appearances of the mark earlier in the 1580s. Henry Woudhuysen has identified dashes in letters printed in 1580 and 1585, where in both cases the mark occurs as part of an informal, conversational style.”

But drama was “especially important” in the evolution of the ellipsis, according to Toner, being the literary form “that is connected in the most concentrated way with speech as it is spoken”. And after its appearance in the 1588 Andria, the punctuation mark quickly caught on.

“It’s interesting to think about whose idea it was to use what turned out to be a very useful resource … was it the translator of the Terence play, or the printer? Who the agent was behind the mark is very unclear,” Toner said. “But you then start to see it being used relatively quickly in dramatic works … in Ben Jonson plays, for example.”

It also appears in Shakespeare. Toner writes of Henry IV, Part I, that “Hotspur dies on a dash”, with his last words cut short: “no, Percy, thou art dust / And food for–

By the 18th century, said Toner, it “becomes very common in print, and blanking starts to be used as a means of avoiding libel laws”, with series of dots starting to be seen in English works, as well as hyphens and dashes, to mark an ellipsis.

A page from the 1901 edition of The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story by Joseph Conrad and Ford M Hueffer.
 A page from the 1901 edition of The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story by Joseph Conrad and Ford M Hueffer, in which ellipses appear more than 400 times. Photograph: Cambridge University

Embraced by writers from Percy Shelley to Virginia Woolf, it was in the novel that the ellipsis “proliferated most spectacularly”, according to Toner. She points to Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad’s use of ellipses more than 400 times in their 1901 novel The Inheritors. Ford said that the writers were aiming to capture “the sort of indefiniteness that is characteristic of all human conversations, and particularly of all English conversations, that are almost always conducted entirely by means of allusions and unfinished sentences”.

The ellipsis makes its first appearances in the very first lines of The Inheritors:

‘IDEAS,’ she said. ‘Oh, as for ideas——’

‘Well?’ I hazarded, ‘as for ideas——?’

Not everyone approves of its use, however. Toner highlights Umberto Eco’s description of “the ghastliness of these dots” in 1994 – and today, according to Cambridge University, “we avoid using dots and dashes in formal writing”. But Adele’s Sunday night teaser, welcomed in the Guardian with the line “All hail the power of an ellipsis”, showed, according to the university, that “in our haste to communicate the moods of our thoughts, we just can’t resist them’.

Six of the best ellipses in literature

From Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne: 

“Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?—Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.”

From The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by TS Eliot:

“ I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

From The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

“… I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.”

From “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson:

“’Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all -”

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West:

if I saw you would you kiss me? If I were in bed would you—”

Virginia Woolf imagines death by a bomb in her diary:

“Yes. Terrifying. I suppose so – Then a swoon; a drum; two or three gulps attempting consciousness – and then, dot dot dot.”


Once upon a bot: can we teach computers to write fiction?

They submit manuscripts on time. They never suffer writer’s block. And they don’t spend hours Googling their Amazon sales. There’s just one thing wrong with robot authors – their stories stink. Tom Meltzer talks to the scientists teaching creative writing to the next generation of androids, while Nicholas Lezardreviews the latest robot fiction

Two little boys and a robot
Tell us a story … computers find metaphor and sarcasm challenging. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty

This month, several thousand aspiring authors are attempting to write a novel in 30 days. They are taking part in an annual event known asNaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, in the hope that the time pressure will spur them on. For a small community of computer programmers, though, NaNoWriMo has a lighthearted sister competition:National Novel Generating Month, the goal of which is to teach a computer to write a novel for you.

However, finished NaNoGenMo projects are unlikely to trouble Booker judges. They include a version of Moby-Dick in which the words have been swapped for meows of the same length (immortal opening line: Meow me Meeeeow); another version in which a few key words have been swapped out for emoji; and a novel made up of unconnected excerpts from an online database of teenage girls’ accounts of their dreams.

“I don’t think anyone’s really taking it seriously,” says Mark Riedl, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Riedl and his colleagues are not taking part, but they are among the many computer scientists working on far more sophisticated digital storytellers. For the past two years, they have been tinkering with a program calledScheherazade, which learns how to describe tasks by analysing crowd-sourced human accounts, and then attempts to produce plausible short stories about, say, going to the movies or a restaurant.

At its best, Scheherazade writes fairly convincing vignettes: “You entered the movie theater … You find the seats as indicated on your movie ticket … You sat comfortably in your seats.” But it’s prone to telltale errors. “For Scheherazade, a successful story is one in which people will read the story and recognise the activity and not find too many obvious errors,” says Riedl.

Novels require more than that, of course. Part of the challenge is teaching a computer not merely to describe, but to imagine. This is the goal of the What-If Machine (Whim) project, a venture involving teams at five universities across Europe. Like Scheherazade, the Whim, as the program is affectionately known, seeks to understand what is possible by analysing vast databases of human prose. It then inverts or twists what it has learned to produce a new idea that could serve as the premise of a story.

The results would not look out of place as taglines for children’s books: what if there was a little whale who forgot how to swim? What if there was a little cat who learned how to write? The next step is for the computer to figure out which of its ideas will resonate with human readers, by feeding it reams of data about how we respond.

“The What-If Machine was trying to do that with one of our experiments,” says Teresa Llano, of the team at Goldsmiths, University of London. “We were doing a survey about ideas for characters for Disney films. We had ‘What if there was a little goat that was afraid of eating?’ and people didn’t like it. They didn’t want to see a goat dying.”

Then there is metaphor, sarcasm and all the many ways we avoid saying precisely what we mean. Computers struggle enough with the literal. How can we teach them to talk figuratively? At the University of Dublin, Whim member Tony Veale is working on just that. His programMetaphor Magnet is designed to produce metaphorical insights and ironies by inverting and contrasting stereotypes harvested from the web. The results vary from the oddly witty (“When the sandals that are worn by humble monks are worn by the smuggest hipsters”) to distinctly robotic definitions (“Referee. noun. A fussy fusion of 5 parts evaluation-performing valuer to 4 parts jersey-wearing runner.”) “I suppose the outputs of @MetaphorMagnet might be described as cynical fortune cookies,” says Veale.

There are many other challenges, from the rhythmic qualities of the prose to character arcs and plotting. The hardest to crack will be the elements of great writing we ourselves struggle to explain: the poetic force of the sentences, the unique insights of the author, the sense of a connection. “It’s not hard to generate a story,” says Riedl. “It’s not hard to tell a story. It’s hard to tell good stories. How do you get a computer to understand what good means?”

Figuring this out involves stripping human creativity down into its numerous constituent parts, devising algorithms for every device an author might deploy. In building a computer that can write, we are exposing the computer within the writer.

The What-If Machine.
Science fiction … the What-If Machine.

‘I want to unplug the machine’ : robot fiction reviewed by Nicholas Lezard

Metaphor Magnet

How might a soothing mother become a threatening bank robber? What if soothing mothers were to give up their babies, plot bank robberies and become threatening bank robbers?

The most daring bank robber is not more demanding than the most scared child.

Bank robbers embrace criminality. Profiteers profit from the wars that encourage criminality. Who is worse?

When the bank robbers that break into calm vaults hide behind livid masks.

What if a principled scientist isn’t crooked enough to perform expensive research? Might this methodical scientist embrace criminality, become a methodical bank robber and steal the necessary money?

NL: The Metaphor Magnet looks the most formally intriguing of these, and the most plausible, but only because (a) it is in note form, and (b) its repetitions and stylistic stiffness suggest an avant-garde literary project that exploits repetition and stiffness, or deliberately seeks to emulate the kind of prose that might come out of a machine. Had these been presented to me as an early experimental work by, say, Ben Marcus, I may have been fooled, had it not been for the general sense of ineptitude. Then again, I rather liked “When the bank robbers that break into calm vaults hide behind livid masks” – “calm vaults” reminds me ofan Emily Dickinson poem.

What-If Machine

What if there was a banker who lost her bank and couldn’t get money? But then she discovered that a robbery would solve her problem, so she forgot all about her old bank.

What if there was a doctor who lost her medicine and couldn’t heal? But then she discovered that a spirit would solve her problem, so she forgot all about her old medicine.

What if there was a poor, sluggish bird that couldn’t sing because he didn’t have enough practice? But he decided to perform anyway.

What if there was a banker whose regulator ran away and she suddenly became as excessive as traffic?

What if there was a clumsy banker who lost his hat and suddenly became as conservative as a nun?

What if there was a clumsy banker who lost her crony and suddenly became as tough as a brute?

What if there was a banker who woke up in an alley as a cat but could still use the phone?

What if there was a nurse who woke up in an aquarium as a fish but could still talk?

NL: The What-If Machine clearly signals itself as something whose first language is hexadecimal. “Couldn’t get money” means what? That is: what does “get” mean? Nothing, or nothing specific enough. There is perhaps a surreal charm in some of these scenarios, but even someone who did not know that they were computer-generated would experience something like the effect of the “uncanny valley”, whereby the attempt to get as close to human expression as possible only results in a sensation of great creepiness. Once you notice the formal similarity between the banker and the doctor in paragraphs one and two, of course, the jig is up (the bird who couldn’t sing etc). Three sounds like the proposal for a children’s story that will – indeed must – never be published, while “excessive as traffic” in four is word salad, not invention. As for the “clumsy banker”, at this point I want to unplug the machine from its power source to stop it from irritating us ever again, which is, rightly or wrongly, not an option available to writers made of flesh and blood.


John got into his car with his disguise, gun and note in his knapsack and headed towards the Old Second in the next town over, repeating his rehearsed demands silently over and over in his head.

John watched while a little old lady left the bank and walked to her car and then slipped on his gloves, slipped his gun into his coat pocket, grabbed his mask and strode determinedly to the lobby door and pulled it open.

John looked at his reflection in the glass of the door, gave himself a little smirk and covered his face. John took another deep breath as he wondered if this was really a good idea, and entered the bank.

John looked around the bank, making sure his timing was right.

John spotted a young blond teller, Sally, behind the counter.

John stood behind the lady and toddler and politely waited his turn, noticing the nameplate on the counter … “Sally”.

When it was his turn, John, wearing his Obama mask, approached the counter. Sally saw Obama standing in front of her and she felt her whole body tense up as her worst nightmare seemed to be coming true.

Once Sally began to run, John pulled out the gun and directed it at the bank guard.

John wore a stern stare as he pointed the gun at Sally.

Sally screamed hysterically which alerted other people in the bank.

NL: My first thought was: “Oh look, it’s an extract from Dan Brown’s new novel.” Then I realised it was even clumsier than the master of turning rubbish into money. But not that much clumsier. I suspect that Scheherazade may even have been programmed using algorithms determined by genre fiction in general and Brown in particular, so relentless is the parade of cliches, redundant modifiers, and dimwit expositions. “Sally screamed hysterically which alerted other people in the bank” is a killer of a closing sentence, isn’t it?

The disturbing thing is that a little tweaking of the program, such as getting the machine to learn that you don’t begin six consecutive sentences with the same word, especially if it’s “John”, could have turned this into something that might have been written by a very stupid human being with a tin ear; and there is plenty enough of that around. But even if one day the computer will pass muster at the level of the sentence, there is, on this evidence, no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping. You may breathe easy. Unless you are Dan Brown.


In defence of the cliche

Their use is universally disparaged, but they are vital to keeping conversation flowing

St. Ives Sunset, Cornwall.

At the end of the day … an important use distinct from its literal meaning. Photograph: Alamy

What drives us to use cliches when we are all aware that they are widely disparaged? Every definition of cliche characterises the form of expression in one of these unflattering ways: ineffective, overused, trite, hackneyed, stereotyped, unoriginal, overly familiar. Why then do cliches persist and thrive, in an atmosphere that suggests they are always and everywhere unwelcome? The more I have studied cliches, the more I am convinced that they form an extremely useful and functional part of every natural language.

People who are called on to speak extemporaneously for the record, when they are not accustomed to doing so, often overload their speech with cliches. If you thrust a microphone in the face of a person on the street and ask for a statement about a situation you will probably get back a string of familiar phrases. This tuned me in to the vital role of cliches in making conversation flow.

Many cliches are also idioms. It’s possible for a phrase to be both a cliche and an idiom, one or the other, or neither. What is the distinction? Saying that a phrase is a cliche or an idiom answers two entirely different questions, one about meaning and one about usage. A phrase is an idiom if its meaning is noncompositional; that is, it can’t be understood merely by the literal meaning of the words that comprise it (“kicked the bucket”, “butterflies in my stomach”). A phrase is a cliche, on the other hand, if in usage it is overused and ineffective. Neither of these qualities is objectively measurable, and so the declaration that a phrase is a cliche will always be a subjective one. “On the other hand”, which I just used, is an idiom, by virtue of being mostly noncompositional. Is it a cliche? No, because it has a clear and helpful function in discourse, to signal to the reader a contrast with what has been said before. It’s extremely frequently used, but not ineffective, not overused and rarely misused.

Idioms offer a way of expressing an idea that can be at once more interesting, colourful and concise than a more literal (compositional) expression of the same idea. We all use idioms, and language would be bleaker without them. Cliches gain a foothold in language for precisely the same reasons as idioms: they present a way of expressing an idea that seems like an attractive alternative to other ways of expressing the same idea. The other ways may be a literal expression, or another phrase that, when it first appeared in the language, seemed to be a clever alternative to that literal expression but is now, alas, a cliche. A prime example is “at the end of the day”, which could be the most tired cliche in English, though its use shows no sign of abating. What does it actually mean? Not much, but in speech it has pragmatic value in notifying listeners of a juncture: for example, that the speaker has uttered, or is about to utter, the gist of her argument, or that a contrasting idea is about to be presented. English has many ways for us to do this: “in short”, “in summary”, “when all is said and done”, “but the bottom line is”, “but the point is”, “but the thing is”, and so on. The demand for speech devices that signal turns in conversation is constant, and from time to time a speaker will invent a new and clever way of accomplishing the task. If the new way is deemed admirable, it is widely imitated, and in a short time it passes from being a clever speech novelty to a cliche that everyone has heard, perhaps too many times.

The familiarity of cliches is their greatest attraction. The trepid speaker, with the vastness of the English lexicon lapping at his feet, can take comfort by easily stepping on to one of these clumpy islands we call cliches with the knowledge that it is a place of safety. When you use a cliche there is little chance of being misunderstood, and at the same time you have made a declaration of unity with your audience, invoking an instantly recognised commonplace that puts you “on the same page” (if I may) with them. Cliches in speech are more acceptable than cliches in writing. Still, listeners and readers absorb cliche like diners absorb comfort food. Only when there is a glut of such fodder do we feel that creativity has failed. Most of us have something to say, most of the time, and most of the time it is not something that calls for startling creativity. Cliches provide a stock of dependable formulas for conveying the ordinary, which is often the central subject of our discourse.

• Orin Hargraves’s It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches is published by Oxford.


Can You Guess The Famous Book From The First Line?

  1. 1.
    1. Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five”
    2. Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita”
    3. Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”
    4. Toni Morrison, “Paradise”
  2. 2.
    1. Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
    2. Gabriel García Márquez, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”
    3. Herman Melville, “Moby-Dick”
    4. Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway”
  3. 3.
    1. Mark Twain, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”
    2. Harper Lee, “To Kill a Mockingbird”
    3. Walter Abish, “Alphabetical Africa”
    4. G. K. Chesterton, “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”
  4. 4.
    1. Stanley Elkin, “The Dick Gibson Show”
    2. Flannery O’Connor, “The Violent Bear it Away”
    3. Sylvia Plath, “The Bell Jar”
    4. Thomas Pynchon, “The Crying of Lot 49”
  5. 5.
    1. James Joyce, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”
    2. Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice”
    3. Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”
    4. Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities”
  6. 6.
    1. Louisa May Alcott, “Little Women”
    2. William Goldman, “The Princess Bride”
    3. Roald Dahl, “Matilda”
    4. Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”
  7. 7.
    1. Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”
    2. Felipe Alfau, “Chromos”
    3. Jean Rhys, “Wide Sargasso Sea”
    4. Gabriel García Márquez, “One Hundred Years of Solitude”
  8. 8.
    1. Chuck Palahniuk, “Choke”
    2. Samuel Beckett, “Murphy”
    3. John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”
    4. Raphael Sabatini, “Scaramouche”
  9. 9.
    1. William Shakespeare, “Romeo and Juliet”
    2. William Shakespeare, “Twelfth Night”
    3. William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”
    4. William Shakespeare, “Much Ado About Nothing”
  10. 10.
    1. Yann Martel, “Life of Pi”
    2. J. R. R. Tolkien, “The Hobbit”
    3. Iain Banks, “The Crow Road”
    4. Margaret Atwood, “The Blind Assassin”
  11. 11.
    1. Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
    2. Anita Brookner, “The Debut”
    3. C. S. Lewis, “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”
    4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”
  12. 12.
    1. Shel Silverstein, “Where the Sidewalk Ends”
    2. J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan”
    3. Dr. Seuss, “The Cat in the Hat”
    4. Jack Prelutsky, “New Kid on the Block”
  13. 13.
    1. George R. R. Martin, “A Game of Thrones”
    2. George R. R. Martin, “A Feast for Crows”
    3. George R. R. Martin, “The Winds of Winter”
    4. George R. R. Martin, “A Dance with Dragons”
  14. 14.
    1. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Notes from Underground”
    2. Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”
    3. Albert Camus, “The Stranger”
    4. Dorothy Allison, “Bastard Out of Carolina”
  15. 15.
    1. Stieg Larsson, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”
    2. Jane Rule, “Desert of the Heart”
    3. Cormac McCarthy, “The Road”
    4. Gillian Flynn, “Gone Girl”


Ten Worst Opening Lines


We’ve all noticed them: first sentences of a novel, either overwrought or just plain embarrassing, that elicit a groan or a smack of the forehead. Here are 10 opening doozies, lines that make it difficult to continue reading.

Our highly subjective list includes “worst firsts” from famous and infamous writers. We begin with Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who penned the most famous dead-weight line: “It was a dark and stormy night.” We end with the first sentence of the first published novel by John Edward Williams, one of our favorite novelists, who went on to write the spare, near-perfect Stoner, giving hope to clunky writers everywhere.

This is but a tentative beginning; we welcome your contributions. Fire when ready.

“Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?” said a young man of small stature, who wore his tunic in those loose and effeminate folds which proved him to be a gentleman and a coxcomb.

—Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii

It began oddly.

—Philip Roth, The Breast

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: “I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive,” then sat pen in hand with no more to record.

—Graham Greene, A Burnt-Out Case

Rumours are the begetters of gossip.

—Doris Lessing, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five

A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.

—Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

It must have been 1963, because the musical of Dombey & Son was running at the Alexandra, and it must have been the autumn, because it was surely some time in October that a performance was seriously delayed because two of the cast had slipped and hurt themselves in B dressing-room corridor, and the reason for that was that the floor appeared to be flooded with something sticky and glutinous.

—Penelope Fitzgerald, At Freddie’s

It was like so, but wasn’t.

—Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

Those of us acquainted with their sordid and scandalous story were not surprised to hear, by way of rumors from the various localities where the sorceresses had settled after fleeing our pleasant town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, that the husbands whom the three Gordforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable.

—John Updike, The Widows of Eastwick

Indian Summer is like a woman.

—Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

In this dream where he was weightless and unalive, where he was a pervading mist of consciousness that seethed and trembled in a vast stretch of dark, there was at first no feeling, only a dim sort of appreciation, eyeless, brainless, and remote, whose singular ability was to differentiate between himself and the darkness.

—John Edward Williams, Nothing But the Night


George Orwell on Writing, How to Counter the Mindless Momentum of Language, and the Four Questions a Great Writer Must Ask Herself

“By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

George Orwell was a man of unflinching idealism who made no apologies for making his convictions clear, be they about the ethics of journalism, the universal motives of writing, or the golden rules for making tea — but never more so than in his now-legendary essay “Politics and the English Language,” which belongs among history’s best advice on writing. Originally published in 1946, Orwell’s masterwork of clarity and conviction is newly published in Insurrections of the Mind: 100 Years of Politics and Culture in America (public library) — an altogether magnificent “intellectual biography” of contemporary thought celebrating the 100th anniversary ofThe New Republic with a selection of more than fifty timeless, timely essays from such formidable minds as Virginia WoolfVladimir NabokovJohn Dewey,Andrew Sullivan, and Zadie Smith.

Decades later, Orwell’s essay endures as a spectacular guide to writing well — an increasingly urgent reminder that language is first and foremost a tool of thought which, when misused or trivialized, does a tremendous cultural disservice to both reader and writer. Much like clichés poison language through their contagiousness, Orwell argues that our carelessness with the written word is propagated, in a meme-like fashion, by our relinquishing of deliberate thought in favor of lazy, automatic replication. His “catalogue of swindles and perversions” remains a remarkable clarion call for mindfulness in writing.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman from a rare 1995 edition of ‘Animal Farm.’ Click image for more.

Orwell opens with a characteristically curmudgeonly lament, all the timelier in our age of alleged distaste for longform writing:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to airplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Noting that the decline of language isn’t “due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer” but, rather, has deeper political and economic causes, Orwell nonetheless offers the optimistic assurance that this downturn is reversible. Such a turnaround, he argues, hinges on our collective ability to uproot the “bad habits which spread by imitation,” an act of personal and political responsibility for each of us. Citing several passages as examples of such perilous abuse of language, he points to the two qualities they have in common — “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” — and lists the most prevalent of the “bad habits” responsible for this “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” that poisons the English language:

  1. Dying metaphors: A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g., iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgels for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying.
  2. Operators, Or verbal false limbs: These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: render inoperative, militate against, prove unacceptable, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill,a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -izeand de-formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un-formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, the fact that, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that;and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by such refunding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, etc.
  3. Pretentious diction: Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual basic, primary, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on anarchaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, trident, sword, shield, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, status quo, gleichschaltung, Weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, clandestine, subaqueousand hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, lackeys, flunkey, mad dog. White Guard,etc.) consists largely of words and phrases translated from Russian, German or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -izeformation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentatory) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
  4. Meaningless words: In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality,as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly even expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word fascismhas now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice, have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word likedemocracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: Consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements likeMarshal Pétain was a true patriot. The Soviet Press is the freest in the world. The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with the intent to deceive. Others words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Many decades before our era of listicles, formulaic BuzzWorthy headlines, and the sort of cliché-laden articles that result from a factory-farming model of online journalism, Orwell follows his morphology of misuses with a timely admonition:

Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit.

His most salient point, however, is a vivid testament to what modern psychology now knows about metaphorical thinking as conduit of an active imagination:

By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images dash … it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

Orwell concludes with a practical checklist of strategies for avoiding such mindless momentum of thought and the stale writing it produces:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even yourself.

The remainder of Insurrections of the Mind offers a wealth of similarly sharp meditations on the vibrant variety of social forces and dynamics that we call culture. Complement this particular excerpt with more perennial pointers on writing, including Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writingVladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storytellerElmore Leonard’s ten rules of writingWalter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrinesHenry Miller’s eleven commandmentsKurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.


9 Books on Reading and Writing

Dancing with the absurdity of life, or what symbolism has to do with the osmosis of trash and treasure.

Hardly anything does one’s mental, spiritual, and creative health more good than resolving to read more and write better. Today’s reading list addresses these parallel aspirations. And since the number of books written about reading and writing likely far exceeds the reading capacity of a single human lifetime, this omnibus couldn’t be — shouldn’t be — an exhaustive list. It is, instead, a collection of timeless texts bound to radically improve your relationship with the written word, from whichever side of the equation you approach it.


If anyone can make grammar fun, it’sMaira Kalman — The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with Strunk and White’s indispensable style guide to create an instant classic.

The original Elements of Style was published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use and reprinted in 1959 to become cultural canon, and Kalman’s inimitable version is one of our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

On a related unmissable note, let the Elements of Style Rap make your day.


Anne Lamott might be best known as a nonfiction writer, but Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life affirms her as a formidable modern philosopher as well. The 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound wisdom-trove on the life of the heart and mind, with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and rationality.

On the itch of writing, Lamott banters:

We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

And on the grit that commits mind to paper, she counsels:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”

On why we read and write:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”


Hailed as one of the most successful writers alive, Stephen King has hundreds of books under his belt, most of which bestsellers. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part master-blueprint, part memoir, part meditation on the writer’s life, filtered through the lens of his near-fatal car crash and the newfound understanding of living it precipitated.

Though some have voiced skepticism regarding the capacity of a “popular writer” to be taken seriously as an oracle of “good writing,” Roger Ebert put itbest: “After finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery.”

A few favorites from the book follow.

On open-endedness:

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

On feedback:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

On the lifeblood of writing:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

On the relationship between reading and writing, which I wholeheartedly second:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”


In Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within YouRay Bradbury — acclaimed author, dystopian novelist, hater of symbolism — shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from finding your voice to negotiating with editors with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts insight and enthusiasm.

On the key to creativity (cue in Elizabeth Gilbert’sTED talk):

That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.”

On what to read:

In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”

On art and truth:

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

On signal and noise, with an embedded message that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life”:

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”


Steven Pressfield is a prolific champion of the creative process, with all its trials and tribulations, best-known for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles — a personal defense system of sorts against our greatest forms of resistance. “Resistance” with a capital R, that is.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

Also of note: Pressfield’s recent companion guide to the text, Do The Work, one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life.


Advice to Writers is “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights,” originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum of the aspirational and the utilitarian, covering grammar, genres, material, money, plot, plagiarism, and, of course, encouragement.

Here are a few favorites:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.” ~ Charles Bukowski

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ~ Saul Bellow

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” ~ T. S. Eliot

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~Stephen King

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison

Listen, then make up your own mind.” ~ Gay Talese

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” ~ Mark Twain

Originally featured, with more quotes, last December.


Humbly titled yet incredibly ambitious, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish isn’t merely a prescriptive guide to the craft of writing — it’s also a rich and layered exploration of language as an evolving cultural organism. It belongs not on the shelf of your home library but in your brain’s most deep-seated amphibian sensemaking underbelly — an insightful, rigorous manual on the art of language that may just be one of the best such tools since The Elements of Style.

In fact, Fish offers an intelligent rebuttal of some of the cultish mandates of Strunk and White’s bible, most notably the blind insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. To argue his case, he picks apart some of history’s most powerful sentences, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Lewis Carroll, using a kind of literary forensics to excavate the essence of beautiful language. As Adam Haslett eloquently observes in his excellent FTreview:

[Pared-down prose] is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.”

To dissect the Tetris-like quality of words, Fish examines the following Anthony Burgess sentence from his 1968 novel Enderby Outside:

‘And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.’

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nested in the places ‘ordained’ for them — ‘ordained’ is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures — they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine.”

Originally featured here last January.


Ernest Hemingway famously maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing. Yet, over the course of his career, he frequently wrote about writing in his novels and short stories, his letters to editors, friends, critics, and lovers, in interviews, and even in articles specifically commissioned on the subject. In Ernest Hemingway on Writing, editorLarry W. Phillips culls the finest, wittiest, most profound of Hemingway’s reflections on writing, the nature of the writer, and the elements of the writer’s life. The slender volume packs insights on everything from work habits to mood management to discipline to knowing what to leave out, delivered with Hemingway’s unmistakable personality and his signature zeal for integrity.

On what makes a great book:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

On symbolism:

There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

(Cue in other famous writers on symbolism, from Jack Kerouac to Ray Bradbury to Ayn Rand.)

On the qualities of a writer:

All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”

First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these things in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.”

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”


How to Read a Book, originally written by Mortimer Adler in 1940 and revised with Charles van Doren in 1972, is the kind of book often described as a “living classic” — “classic” because it deals with the fundamental and unchanging mesmerism of the written word, and “living” because it does so in a way that divorces this mesmerism from its hard medium, allowing the essence to evolve as our culture has evolved over the decades. From basic reading to systematic skimming and inspectional reading to speed reading, Adler’s how-to’s apply as efficiently to practical textbooks and science books as they do to poetry and fiction.

One of the book’s finest points deals with the fundamental yin-yang of how ideas travel and permeate minds — the intertwined acts of reading and writing. Marginalia — those fragments of thought and seeds of insight we scribble in the margins of a book — have a social life all their own: just ask The New York Times’Sam Anderson, who recently shared his year’s worth of marginalia in a wonderful interactive feature. Hardly anything captures both the utilitarian necessity and creative allure of marginalia better than this excerpt from Adler’s classic:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

First featured here, along with a meditation on modern marginalia, in December