Thursday, September 6, 2012

Killing Em-Dashes

I just spent the better part of my morning tracking down em-dashes in my work-in-progress, book 3 of my Cumberland Creek Mysteries. One of my beta readers pointed out that I use a lot of them, And I do.  
For those of you who are not sure what an em-dash is, it’s the long dash that writers use to break up unwieldy sentences, or for emphasis. Sometimes it’s to interrupt ourselves. Looking over my WIP, I think I’m guilty of all of that and more.
Years ago, I had the great pleasure of meeting writing coach Don Fry at the Greenbrier Symposium for Professional Food Writers. He sat next to me at dinner. Among many things we discussed, we talked about the em-dash. I’m not sure how he feels about it these days, but then he said the trend for writers to use it frequently was just laziness. “Don’t get into the habit,” he advised.
And wow. I should have listened. It’s become quite a lazy habit for me. When I reviewed this manuscript, I saw that I used it in place of commas, semi-colons, and even prepositions and conjunctions, way too much.
But let me say that I do love the em-dash and won't give it up completely. I can’t say why other writers use it. For me, the reasons are rhythmic in nature. Yes, rhythmic. By that I mean the way the sentence sounds to my ear. I don’t want a pause. I want a quick bridge with a louder, concise, emphasis.  I also want the reader to hear that as they are seeing those words. It’s a visual clue to the way I want it to sound in my reader’s heads.
But if a writer uses it too much, for whatever reason, the affect of it dwindles and probably irritates. I agree with Lynne Truss author of her best-seller Eats, Shoots and Leaves. She says that people use the em-dash because "they know you can't use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue."
So I cut about ninety-five percent of my em-dashes and am vowing to be more careful about it in the future.
How about you? Do you use the em-dash? Readers, does, it bother you to see it used?


Aimee Hix said...

Ellipses are my writer's Achilles Heel. Oh, how I love my ellipses.

Aimee Hix said...

Ellipses are my writer's Achilles Heel. Oh, how I love my ellipses.

marlenedotterer said...

This is me all the way. I use em-dashes all through my manuscripts. Like you, I go back through and take out at least 95% of them. More than that, actually. I try to leave no more than five in any 100K novel. I'm also training myself to not use them. If I put one in, I immediately stop and figure out another way to write the sentence.

But I agree with you. Sometimes they just do the perfect job that you need done. If it's the best way to get that thought across, then I'm all for it.

Madeline Iva said...

I am another em-dash addict. So was Emily Dickinson, from whom, I confess, I picked up the habit. :(

But you know, I had a writing mentor say to me, "the comma is your friend". No it's not. The em-dash is. Hearing that you can't use it wrongly--it's a balm.

Mollie Cox Bryan said...

I'm not too fond of ellipses, Aimee, but we all have our "thing," right? I agree that the comma is NOT your friend, Madeline, or MINE! I thin that's why I love the em-dash. Way to go Marlene, to stop yourself while your writing. I am impressed. Thanks so much everybody for commenting!

Betty Hechtman said...

I like em dashes for the same reason you do, It's all about the rhythm of the sentence.