C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Writing: The Rule of Three & the peril of semi-colons

Massey Hall, Toronto

Image via Wikipedia

Saturday night I saw Bill Maher at Massey Hall in Toronto. Good show, fun time. Bill is known for Real time with Bill Maher, his documentary Religulous, his comedy and his New Rules books. Watching him perform, I noticed he never breaks the Rule of Three. It is a good rule, an effective rule and a memorable rule that I just demonstrated with this very sentence.

Wikipedia puts it like this: The “Rule of Three” is a principle in writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.”

Of course, you will write longer lists, but when you use a colon, do so sparingly unless you’re composing a scientific paper. Semi-colons can be very useful in separating elements in a list after a colon. However, if you use the semi-colon to separate related clauses, please do so sparingly. Wikipedia says, “According to the British writer on grammar, Lynne Truss, many non writers avoid the colon and semicolon…”

I disagree. It’s not just non-writers who avoid the semi-colon to separate interdependent clauses. 

The semi-colon can be a useful device occasionally, but as a punctuation mark, it is often either misused or has fallen out of favor.

When Lynne Truss refers to “non-writers”, does she not also mean people who are readers? Shouldn’t it be the common reader who sets the standard for what’s easily read and understood? I invoke the common usage rule here. When something has fallen out of common use, it’s too rusty to use without a lot of irritating squeaking. For instance, if a writer uses the word “behooves,” he sounds like he’s trying to be Charles Dickens. You just aren’t old enough for that.

Similarly, the semi-colon has fallen so far out of common use that when a reader encounters one, it pulls them out of the narrative to think, “Hey, look! A semi-colon! Why did the author feel it was necessary to separate related thoughts with a semi-colon, instead of separating those ideas with a simple period? Anything that stops me from breezing along through a novel is a speed bump that I would prefer shaved down so I can speed along and focus on content instead of transmission static.

I have never read a sentence with a semi-colon that I did not reread at least twice.

I’m not saying  you shouldn’t use semi-colons, if they suit you; I am saying, I won’t use the semi-colon.

Anymore.

Filed under: Editing, Editors, grammar, , , , , , , , , , ,

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!: My Night with Obama

I had all the answers.

President Obama was visiting my parents. I was a kid, maybe fourteen, living on a Kennedyesque estate (but without the accent). I somehow convinced the president I knew what to do. I called in emergency help.

Two jets and two helicopters later, the team arrived.

1. Rachel Maddow appeared in the doorway, confused that she’d been called to the Hamptons for a secret meeting with the president. I told her to explain her genius idea to the president. All the Republican candidates took TARP funds for their states and took credit for creating jobs while condemning the same funding. Spending is frozen, but as Miss Maddow explained, they still want to fund their pet projects to create jobs by fixing bridges and highways. “So say yes.” Maddow said. “Michelle Bachmann is first in line. She wants a bridge fixed. Say yes, Mr. Obama. Say yes to all of them. The USA needs infrastructure, so say yes. They won’t say no to that. They already asked. We have the documentation. Rebuild America like Truman did.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I got a guy coming who will make sure the Republicans don’t steal the credit. But first, have you met Mr. Maher?”

2. The secret Service ushered in Bill Maher, stoned, flanked by two models. “We had to take him by force, even after we explained who was asking,” a big Secret Service agent shrugged.

“Mr. Maher, we need your patriotism. You said, ‘The problem is we have one party with no brains and one party with no balls.’ Mr. Obama needs a life coach. Be the balls, Mr. Maher. Be the Cheney, but with a heart in your chest instead of The Pulsing Stone of Pure Evil. We need a Cheney in the administration, but with blood instead of bile. Your country needs you.”

Mr. Maher refused immediately, of course.

I looked over to Mr. Obama. He nodded.

“He’ll legalize it,” I said.

For the cause, Bill agreed to help, with the proviso that he could handle all the renegotiation on his own (and that clouds of marijuana smoke would be pumped into Congress during all debates.)

“New Rule!” Maher said. “No more golf with Boehner! You sit with him in a room with the doors locked, don’t let him have any cigarettes or booze and nobody gets to go to the bathroom until we fix the country because the bathroom is for closers! And Mr. President? You’ll be wearing Depends.”

3. Jon Stewart walked in chewing a bagel and cracking up the Secret Service. He had the air of a guy who always knew it would come to this and it was about fucking time he was called in.

“Mr. Stewart, Rachel’s the brains, Bill’s the muscle. You’re the mouth. We need a press secretary who can effectively mock stupid ideas. Do what you do. Get the Democrat’s message out there. And destroy from the podium like you’re on stage at the Comedy Store on a Saturday night. When the press tries to say ‘On the one hand, on the other,’ mock them until they cry. Shame them until they admit crazy ideas are crazy and the truth isn’t always in the middle. Bring along John Oliver, too, if you want. He’s fun.”

Stewart replied by doing a spit take and rubbing hits eyes in exaggerated comedic gestures as if he was Buster Keaton in a silent film. Stewart made that work and even the president allowed himself a grim smile.

4. I turned to Mr. Obama. “With respect, sir, you’ve got to stop showing so much respect. We know your internal monologue is, ‘I can’t believe I have to put up with this shit.’ Bill’s going to show you it’s okay to say that. In fact, people will love you for it. All the stuff you don’t say? That’s what he’s going to show you how to do. Be a more of a dick.”

Mr. Maher shrugged his agreement. “Call them on their shit. That’s my whole career, actually.”

“In fact,” I said, “I suggest we get the president a copy of the pussy/asshole/dick speech at the end of Team America: World Police.”

5. Next: While we waited for the last guest, I had more suggestions. “US forces are in 150 countries and they are all coming home. You know those YouTube videos where everybody gets choked up when soldiers show up and the family rushes in and hugs them so glad they’re alive? For the next month, there’s not going to be a dry eye in America. Everybody comes home and the military does two things: A. Help with natural disasters and build new bases in New Orleans and Detroit to revivify. B. Defend the borders. With everybody home, it’s going to be safer than Switzerland. From now on, you’re going to handle anti-terrorist strikes the same way you got Bin Laden. In and out and nobody stays. The United States is the only war-ravaged country where America needs to do  nation-building.”

6. Next: “Close tax loopholes and tax the rich. When the Tea Party and the Republicans cry foul, tell them the rich aren’t just “job creators” with untaxed private jets. They are patriots and patriots pay taxes. Mere Clinton era taxation will cut the deficit in half, not just shave it back over many years. When they whine about it, question their patriotism. When they keep whining, call them weak. When they say you’re a tax-and-spend Democrat, tell them you’re a tax-and-save-the-middle-class Democrat. And raise the debt ceiling with the constitution, not negotiation. When they complain about that, tell them you’re saving the country.

7. When you get flack for all that, pull a George Bush. “Tell them God told you to do it,” I said. “Mr. Stewart will handle burying them in ‘What would Jesus do?’ jokes while making funny faces and doing his Italian mob guy accent. Make sure to say it was the Christian God to head off Fox News. God trumps all objections. Really surprised you kept that in your holster this long, sir.”

8. One last thing. Doctor Brown? An old man with wild, white hair and a lab coat entered. Mr. Obama stood, looking at him curiously. His jaw dropped. “Is that?”

“Yes, sir. A fiction based in reality,” I said.

The old man extended his hand and gave a craggy smile. “Just call me ‘Doc’. Marty and I have rebuilt the DeLorean. It’s parked out back by the pool. We’re going back in time to get you a new policy assistant. The assistant will work with you and Mr. Maher to get some things done, like really shutting down Gitmo. Stuff like that.”

Mr. Obama’s eyes widened. “You mean?”

“That’s right!” Doc Brown explained. “We’re going back to 2007 to pick up the Hope and Change Obama to bring him BACK TO THE FUTURE!”

I woke up.

And waking up was disappointing. I didn’t have the solution after all.

Filed under: Rant, , , , , ,

Controversial blog posts, hate mail & puppies on fire

I write a column for a trade magazine. I get a lot of fan mail (he said modestly). I have a folder stocked with happy reader feedback so if I ever need talking in off the ledge, many kind subscribers’ letters to the editor might stop me from the jump to pavement lasagna. But,  of course, it’s the negative reviews you remember.  

What’s surprising about negative feedback is how surprising it is. Let me explain that obnoxious tautology: I’ve written columns I was certain would stick in somebody’s craw. I’m reasoned, but sometimes provocative and I do poke the odd sacred cow through the skull with a nail gun.

But it’s often the posts

I consider more bland which spark  readers’ ire most!

For instance, I wrote a humorous feature that detailed the uses of therapeutic laughter. The tone was light, though I did stir in an interview with a neurobiologist and instructive tips. Most people didn’t just like it. They loved it. We got a lot of really nice letters. It’s a special thing when people take the time to say good things about you. The spur to action usually skews the other way. Angry people write more letters than happy people do.)

As great as the response to the article was, from that same feature there was one letter from the reader who did not just like it. In fact, she loathed the piece (and me.) She objected to the jokes. It was clear she didn’t get the jokes. There are, perhaps, billions of people who don’t share my sense of humor. Not only can I not change that, I wouldn’t want to appeal to the humorless.

People who get all angsty and vituperative about your writing share a common trait. They act like the one thing you write is the sum and totality of your writing. It kind of amuses me (okay, it amuses me after some time passes) when people get bent out of shape from one thing I wrote. I write lots of stuff. Read it all and get really pissed, or realize that if you don’t care for something, there’s always the next page. There’s always something else to read.

Don’t say something you don’t believe just to be provocative. Satire is fine. Parody’s good. Be fun and playful. Be as funny as you like, but make time to be sincere when you’re making a serious point. Don’t pander.

People sometimes accuse Bill Maher of saying outrageous stuff just to get a reaction. Not true. One survey showed that Maher’s die hard fans only agreed with him 14% of the time! He’s funny, insightful and can be cranky. But he’s not a crank easily dismissed. He’s thinking and doesn’t fall to one side of all issues all of the time.

This is counterintuitive to how many people act as they write their (unread) blog pasts. People often think that only people who agree with them will like them. If you’re funny and interesting and reasoned, thinking people will listen. Your blog’s grasp can go beyond the reach of your mom.

When I read blog posts I dislike, I rarely comment on something with which I disagree unless I know the people involved or think it will make a difference. I won’t be phoning Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck to try to disagree with him on air, for instance. People don’t listen to Rush to get ideas. They listen to confirm their own fears and prejudices. Echo chambers aren’t designed for more than one loud voice. Life’s too short to pursue debates with people who will never change their minds no matter what. (And I won’t change my mind on that.)

“Pearls before swine,” as Jesus said.

(Note to Mr. Beck: Jesus is an important guy in the bible whose words are written in red so they are easy to find. Like you, he talks about economics a lot, too. You appear unaware of the things Jesus said. Take a look.)

Real world example: Today a friend linked to a post so I checked it out. I found it utterly vile. The essay was an extreme so-serious-I-hope-it’s-parody, divisive, lying hit piece that underestimated both liberal and conservative thought. I didn’t comment on the post itself because I’m not giving that hateful essayist the satisfaction. Instead I left a comment on the original Facebook link to let my friend know I thought his link choice was disturbing.

To be fair to him, his intent puzzled me. I’m really not sure if he linked to it as an example of a good thing or a bad thing. Whatever his opinion on that issue, he’s still a great guy and a great friend and I’m not writing him off if he shares those (crazy) views. He no doubt has a lot of other views I agree with and I know he is an admirable, heroic fellow. (And no, I don’t know if he reads this blog or not since he’s not in publishing.)

Mental note:

Don’t provide links to hate-filled sites.  

Debate and dialogue of substance? Okay. 

Stupid shit? No time.

The take away? Don’t let negative feedback throw you. If what you write is so bland it never offends anyone, it often isn’t worth writing. There’s nothing new and interesting about your blog posts if every one of them is the equivalent of a basket of puppies. If you’re going to keep readers, you’re going to have to be compelling, informative or at least engaging. Don’t tell me about the weather. Say something you believe. Make me laugh. Make me spew my coffee over the screen. Set a basket of puppies on fire once in a while.

Case in point: You might expect conservative readers to object to me condescending to Glenn Beck. Perhaps defenders of the mentally unstable will chime in on that score, too. You might expect liberal readers to object to any mention of Rush or Beck since they already get too much attention everywhere. Maybe you think people will get angry about the notion of setting fire to a basket of puppies.

Personally? Since a basket of puppies set afire is an obvious joke in terrible taste, I’m betting someone will object to the reference to a nail gun through a cow’s skull. Vegans are fascists worse than Hitler. (Kidding! Kidding!)

As Bill Maher says, “I kid! I kid because I love!” 

Heh. 

Filed under: blogs & blogging, Intentionally Hilarious, Rant, Rejection, reviews, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , ,

Dreaming of Bill Maher (and Soccer is Bullshit.)

The promo: I love Real Time with Bill Maher and will miss Bill until September when new episodes are on HBO, Friday nights.

The caveat: I frequently dream of Bill. It’s not sexual…although if you’re Freudian you’re sure everything is sexual. Get over it. I watch past episodes of Real Time on YouTube so much he’s intertwined and entangled in my neurons. I invite you to read, but don’t read anything into it. And put some clothes on, you perve!

The dream: I was standing by a stage door and Bill Maher passed by after his show. “I love your show!” I said, self-conscious and a bit googly-eyed.

“Thanks,” he said, and shook my hand. “It was nice meeting me,” he said. He motored and as he walked away yelled back over his shoulder, “…which you really haven’t!”

It was so in character I woke up laughing. You wouldn’t guess it looking at my station in life, but my subconscious is a genius.

Filed under: Rant, , ,

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