Those (%$&*@) Parentheses!

One critique I get at all writing workshops is that I use parentheses too much. In fact, one critiquer, an excellent writer, commented that reading my work was like shoveling snow off a walk–every so often he hits an uneven spot in the sidewalk and it forces him to come to a halt. I suppose it’s possible to have too many (though I’m not sure). Oops–I just did it!

So why do I insert all those parenthetical comments into the books in the Broom series? I think the simplest explanation is that the writing style is completely informal. One fan wrote that she could imagine herself in my living room, sitting in front of the fire, listening to me tell the story in my own words. I must be succeeding, because that’s exactly what I aimed for.

I’m not alone in using parentheses. In fact, I’m in good company. No less a publication than the Economist uses them regularly. Here’s a quick example: “[In] tabloid (this meaning coined in 1902) journalese (1882)…” In the first case the parenthetical comment explains something, and in the second it adds detail. But why not just write without them?

The answer lies in emphasis. Let’s take a simple example from Broom 3 (which I hope to release in 2009). Consider the following three lines:

I set a glass of orange juice in front of him.
I set a small glass of orange juice in front of him.
I set a (small) glass of orange juice in front of him.

If you believe the grammar books about parenthetical phrases, the sentence should mean the same thing if the phrase is eliminated. Maybe not so! The first sentence is rather boring–in this case Hardy, a key character, had asked for some at our breakfast table. The second doesn’t tell much either–perhaps Hardy had asked for a small glass. But take a glance at the third. He’d asked for orange juice and I handed him a smaller glass than he might’ve been anticipating. Does this tell you something about my relationship with Hardy? Yes! The third sentence indicates he got less than he asked for, and conveys my dislike. I could’ve rephrased it: “I gave him a much smaller glass of orange juice than he requested.” But I think the parenthetical phrase is more revealing.

And, it has its benefits in other instances where it shows voice. This example comes from Broom I: “This required considerable effort, because I’m in lousy shape (overweight is a shape, right?), but I managed it.” That phrasing changes the entire voice.

So, how should you approach (or avoid) a plethora of parentheses? It depends. If the parenthetical phrase you’re crafting is really part of the sentence, then just make it so. If the phrase provides a needed short explanation, then go ahead if the explanation is not fully necessary to the narrative, but you’d like your reader to know anyway. I like to use parentheses to show my thought process, because I write the broom books in the first person.

How about you? Do what you (or your editor) wants!

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