Chain Letter Madness

Remember chain letters? You'd receive one in the mail, unsolicited, and it would request that you make ten copies of it and mail them to people you knew. There were incentives for doing so, some positive and some negative. If you complied, a truck would arrive one day in your driveway and deposit an immense pile of gold, silver, and precious stones. If you blew off the request, then the pile would consist of something else. Chain letters used manipulation in order to propagate themselves. Chain letters still live today. They just rarely come by snail mail anymore. Instead, they're a common phenomenon on Facebook. Someone posts a message in his Facebook status which ends by requesting that his friends likewise copy and paste the message in their Facebook statuses, thereby getting more Facebook friends to copy and paste, and so it goes. The message concludes with something like, "I wonder which of you will take the time to show you care," or, "I'll know from this which of you actually read my messages," or something along that line. No arm-twisting there, eh? I don't mind requests to copy and paste. But I hate the baggage that usually accompanies them, which translates as follows: If you don't do what I ask, then (choose one)

(a) you're not really my friend

(b) you have no heart

(c) you don't really love Jesus

(d) you'll be revealed at last as the miserable, self-centered person you really are

(e) all of the above, you bottom-feeding, booger-eating wad of human scum

I don't believe most people who post such stuff really feel that way. They're just blithely cutting and pasting something that someone else wrote without bothering to edit out the stink. But the stink still stinks, and I'm not about to involve others in anything that makes me hold my nose. But let's say that, not wanting to hurt a friend's feelings, I do copy and paste his copy-and-pasted Facebook message. Now other of my friends, not wishing to hurt my feelings, do the same. Pretty soon, the message I've copied and pasted resurfaces in another friend's post. Not wishing to hurt that person's feelings--wanting her to know that, yes, I'm really her friend, and I stand with her in her intense concern for endangered freshwater barnacles because I care, really care, deeply--I once again copy and paste the same message. In short order, it surfaces again from several other Facebook friends, and I repeat the procedure accordingly. Meanwhile, the message continues to spread in ever-expanding ripples through Facebook circles, and countless other people are responding in similar fashion. After a while, we're all so busy copying and pasting out of loyalty to our friends that we barely have time to attend our codependency support groups. Dark, raccoon-like semicircles deepen beneath our eyes. Days go by between showers. Then, finally, someone short circuits and sends out another message that says, "STOOOOPPPPP THE INSANITY!!!" Everyone copies and pastes that message too, even though this time there's no request to do so, and eventually we're all let off the hook, and, breathing a sigh of relief, we reach for a beer. That is why, if you include me in a Facebook chain letter, you can count on me not to forward it. The follow-through is exhausting and therapy is expensive. If you agree--and it goes without saying that anyone who doesn't lacks the intelligence, patriotism, and basic decency of slime mold--then take a moment to forward this post to everyone you know, and request that they do the same. I'll be curious to see whether you truly care. I have ways of finding out, and the truck driver knows your address.

Writing Tip: Do You Overuse Parentheses?

You know parentheses? (Those little crescent-shaped thingies?) Well, sometimes they drive me crazy (overuse, lack of clarity, fuzzy writing).

I have nothing against parentheses in themselves. I'm just not so fond of them that I crave a steady supply. Used heedlessly, they irritate me, much like someone whispering in my ear ("We're out of milk") while I'm talking on the phone. I mean, was that really necessary?

Parentheses serve a purpose. It's just not nearly so ubiquitous a purpose as many people think, judging by their writing. Some folks are as liberal in their use of parentheses as a sower with a bagful of seed, blithely scattering handfuls of little grammar-curls across the meadows. That approach may make for easy writing but not for easy reading. The result is often confusing or irrelevant and almost always annoying. With a little thought, a writer usually can find a much better solution--and should.

Sometimes it seems like my main function as an editor is weed-whacking parentheses that crop up in a writer's paragraphs like quack grass on his literary lawn. Removing them--or in some cases, clarifying their content--almost always improves the lucidity and forcefulness of a sentence. That's because parentheses too often are the product not of judicious usage but of inexperienced or just plain slapdash writing. Such writing can't be improved simply by wrapping extra information inside a couple of curlicues and dropping it into a sentence. The solution isn't parentheses: it's taking the time and thought necessary to state one's ideas logically, fully, concisely, and readably.

But don't take just my word for it. Mark Twain, a man not prone to velvet-coating his opinions, wrote, "A parenthesis is evidence that the man who uses it does not know how to write English or is too indolent to take the trouble to do it."*

I'm not as brutal as Twain. I believe that parentheses, rightly employed, are useful and even necessary. I don't advocate their eradication, just their careful use, which in many cases will result in their much-reduced use. Often, commas will serve better.

Frequent use of parentheses usually indicates other problems in a person's writing. Next time you find yourself resorting to a parenthesis, stop and consider why. Have you adopted the passive voice as your default? Blurred the link between a pronoun and its antecedent? Tried to cram too much information into a single sentence? Moreover, is your parenthetical content clear or opaque? Essential or redundant?

Examine your motive for using a parenthesis. Are you doing so because it truly is your best solution, appropriate for the context--or are you merely seeking a shortcut because, for whatever reason, you don't want to take the time and thought to express yourself in the clearest way possible? If the latter is true, then, trust me, a parenthesis is no magic bullet. You'll only shoot yourself through the foot with it, and some editor like me will have to remove the slug later on and bandage you up.

So take the time to say it well from the start. That doesn't mean you should utterly avoid using parentheses. Just use them sparingly, know why you're using them, and make sure your reasons for doing so are good. Your readers may never recognize and appreciate your parenthetical maturity, but I will (if I ever edit your writing).

_______________ * Thanks for cluing me in on the Twain quote, Lis! Samuel Clemens had much to say about literary matters, all of it valuable and wise.