How do I use fewer parentheses?
February 17, 2012 11:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I use fewer parentheses?

I use a lot of parenthetical expressions in my writing. I just wrote an email reaching out to someone who is looking for a roommate and in only 196 words I used 5 separate parenthetical expressions.

My goal is to be less verbose and write simply and clearly.
posted by farmersckn to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Can you post an example of your writing that uses a lot of parentheses? Then maybe someone could edit it to demonstrate how you can change your style.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:49 AM on February 17, 2012

Yeah, an example would help.

I have this problem as well. I've started making more use of semicolons, commas and em dashes, based on how, exactly, I want the aside to read. I also realized that quite often the parenthetical thought could stand perfectly well as its own sentence.
posted by griphus at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Simple declarative statements are good. They make prose readable. It may feel awkward to write short sentences. Don't let that stop you. Not everything needs to read like Proust.

Give your reader one thing to take in, then follow that with the next thing.

Sequential simple sentences are easy to comprehend. Your ideas will come out fine spelled out one after the other. Ideas don't need to wrapped up tightly like a ball of string.
posted by alms at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

An example would be great! I coach business writing, and one piece of advice that was given to me that I always pass along (as a parentheses-abuser myself) is: try to say the sentence with the () in more than one sentence. Like: I'm a parentheses-abuser myself. I coach business writing and ...

Get the declare/full stop vibe going. Fewer asides.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:53 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I do this too, especially in short emails. I find it's helpful to read back through my writing once I finish and specifically look for parentheses. If the parenthetical information is vital to the message, then I decide it shouldn't really be parenthetical and I pull it out into the main text, often forming new sentences to do so. If it's not, I strongly consider cutting it entirely.

For the information or asides that fall somewhere in between, I try to set out some of the parenthetical phrases with other options, like commas or em dashes as appropriate. At the very least, this helps vary the writing, and makes for stronger writing, because it allows you to show the reader what level of separation you believe is appropriate for each aside.
posted by Partial Law at 11:54 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Write something as you would, naturally. Then, delete each and every parenthetical remark. Read through what you now have left, and ask yourself, "What information is missing?" Add in that missing information through new sentences or new clauses.
posted by meese at 11:55 AM on February 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

Work on your logical flow, and make your sentences simple.
posted by entropone at 11:57 AM on February 17, 2012

I do the same thing (and it drives my wife nuts). Parentheses, semicolons, what have you; despite being exactly 0% German (50% Croatian, 25% Czech, 25% Spanish) some friend swear I mimic the old German philosophers who wrote whole pages that were part of one sentence.

When this becomes a problem, I have a method. First, I try to mimic my wife's writing. However, you do not know my wife, nor her writing. Thus the second frame of mind. I attempt to write like the apocryphal Hemingway.

"Why did Hemingway's chicken cross the road?"
"To die. In the rain."

Go overboard. Each fragment should be a sentence unto itself. Formerly--now--each entire syllogism is a single sentence. Make each a complete paragraph.
posted by notsnot at 11:57 AM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should probably have pointed out that the choice between all the things I listed is tempo. Parenthetical asides are the "slowest," in that they make the most significant break while reading. After that are commas, which create the sense of a brief aside. Then, the "fastest" is the em-dash, which is just a quick plug of information. As far as semicolons go, you can use those when the parenthetical information is almost necessary to properly comprehend the preceding clause (and, therefore, doesn't need to actually be a parenthetical.)

Please note all text-based discussions about proper editing suffer from Muphry's Law.
posted by griphus at 12:00 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Depends on the kind of writing. You could use footnotes, endnotes, commas, semi-colons, dashes, simple declarative sentences, etc., instead of parenthesis. You could also edit the content out.
posted by spunweb at 12:03 PM on February 17, 2012

You could write more sentences.

If a sentence has a parenthetical phrase, try breaking it into two sentences. Or three.
posted by lewedswiver at 12:13 PM on February 17, 2012

I just wrote an email reaching out to someone who is looking for a roommate and in only 196 words I used 5 separate parenthetical expressions.

Are you trying to apologize for yourself? Don't apologize for yourself, you're fine.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 12:20 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yep, I got that feedback from an editor on a technical piece going on twenty years ago and it's still something I have to resist doing (it's just so much fun!) in my writing.

What she told me was that it either belongs in the main narrative to forward your point or it doesn't belong there at all. So the parenthetical is either a crutch because I don't know where something properly belongs or I am failing to edit myself so that I only forward what's really needed for my point.

For me it's the second. I like explaining and teaching and there's a good chance that if I am writing something it's because I'm interested in what I'm writing about. So if there's something related but not exactly pertinent the parenthetical lets me cheat and jam it in there, unnecessary as it may be.

So ditching unnecessary parentheticals, for me, is about self-denial. I keep my mind on what I am actually trying to communicate and resist the urge to throw in stuff that's just fun for its own sake. After all, that's about me, not my audience. Now it's become something that's just hand in hand with trying to maintain brevity, something I value more and more in writing as time goes on.
posted by phearlez at 12:45 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

How to use fewer parentheses? Use more footnotes and em-dashes.
posted by ook at 12:52 PM on February 17, 2012

Anything in a parentheses can safely be ignored when I read your email because it's an aside. That means you can safely delete it without compromising your point. Not true? Then it doesn't belong in parentheses.
posted by jacalata at 12:52 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Read what you wrote out loud. If you lose track of it, change it. If you need to take a breath, make a new sentence.
posted by Etrigan at 1:14 PM on February 17, 2012

I do the same thing (and it drives my wife nuts) is a great example. Here are some other options:

I do the same thing and it drives my wife nuts.
I do the same thing, and it drives my wife nuts.
I do the same thing; it drives my wife nuts.

FWIW I virtually never use them. Shorter clearer sentences hardly ever require them.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:18 PM on February 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

He does the same thing. It drives his wife nutz.
posted by thinkpiece at 1:28 PM on February 17, 2012

The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

I would know; I too am addicted to parentheses. In fact when I use the Markov generator thingy on my own MeFi posts, it always tosses a bunch of them in there.

Though I've been only partly successful at removing the number that I use in my own writing, what I would suggest is writing normally, but then afterwards, going back through and looking at each parenthetical -- with the goal of either taking it out of parentheses if it's truly relevant, moving it to a better place where it's relevant and can stand on its own, or removing it entirely. Often, I just end up removing them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:34 PM on February 17, 2012

How do you do it? You basically just convince yourself that you really really don't want to have them there, and that there is truly no remark that would look better in parentheses than with some other form of punctuation. Then you read over your work, and take every parenthesis out. Many other punctuation options have been suggested, so just try it, and decide to like it.
posted by aimedwander at 1:36 PM on February 17, 2012

It depends on your writing style, but I find that 90% of the time, in my own writing, parentheticals can be directly converted to comma clauses with no need to edit further.
posted by threeants at 2:26 PM on February 17, 2012

Keeping writing that way, but resign yourself to removing them when you edit.

This means you need to edit everything, even emails. But it lets you indulge your parenthesis-compulsion and still send out clear readable prose. Your new budget: one parenthetical remark per short composition.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:31 PM on February 17, 2012

I have the same problem. I've had to consciously limit myself to no more than two or three parenthetical asides per paragraph.

I think for me, the root of it is that I feel compelled to provide complete and accurate information, and to explain to the reader what all their options are. Sometimes in editing myself, what I need to do is not just change the punctuation but eliminate the obsessively thorough information, and let some details remain implied or unspecified. For example, if I were sending an email to a potential roommate I might write something like, "I would be happy to view the room this weekend (but I'm also available Monday or Tuesday after 5:30 if the weekend doesn't work for you)." I need to just delete the entire parenthetical, offer to view the room this weekend, and leave it up to the other person to let me know if the weekend doesn't work for them.
posted by Orinda at 3:58 PM on February 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I do this too. I think the only thing to do is to let yourself do it in draft and then work on removing the parentheticals in revision. I hate removing them because it often feels clunkier in expression to me--but I think it's just one of those things where parentheticals mimic a certain style of thought which turns out to not be a very common one. I know most people get driven up the wall by them: personally, I'm happy to read them as well as being happy to write them.
posted by yoink at 5:53 PM on February 17, 2012

@Orinda, I think you nailed *why* I use parentheses so much. I have the same need to over explain.
posted by farmersckn at 6:00 PM on February 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hi. Copy editor here and rampant parenthesis and dash abuser. (Slate has a great article on those. Except look, this is a parenthetical. See?)

One of the biggest problems with parentheticals isn't the parenthetical, per se, it's the fact that whatever goes inside them is often a tangent, something that dilutes the main argument. There's absolutely nothing wrong with parentheses if they're used sparingly, but too many of them can suggest that your argument is unfocused and cluttered, or at least that it comes off that way. Sure, that's something that'll apply most to persuasive writing, but any writing is affected.

The way to fix that is to ask yourself, "Do I need to say this? Does it support my point?" If not, no need to say it. If so, there's often a way to rephrase it.

Also, in academic writing you can often turn a lot of these into footnotes, but that can get you into a whole different set of problems....
posted by dekathelon at 9:02 AM on February 18, 2012

« Older How does an ad-buyer make their money?   |   Do I get the leftover gold when my ring is resized... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.