Five Punctuation Marks You Won’t Need in Your Memoir

Woman pushing out with hand spread into five fingers

Learning all about punctuation will make you a more skilled writer, and our Write My Memoirs Grammar and Writing Course explains how to use all the punctuation marks. But do you need to have that level of skill to write your memoir? No, you don’t.

Know how to end a sentence. You’ll need either a period, a question mark or an exclamation point, and in a memoir you may never need that exclamation point except in dialogue. Know how to properly use a comma. An em dash like this—and often we use two to enclose a thought fragment—comes in handy, so you might want to find out how to use that. You’ll need hyphens for hyphenated terms like father-in-law and cold-hearted.

You must learn how to use an apostrophe. That one is important, and we cover it thoroughly in our course.

But that’s about it. Here are five punctuation marks you don’t need in order to craft a memoir.

  • Semicolon. A semicolon acts like a period to end a sentence. The distinction is that the semicolon ends a sentence that immediately precedes a second sentence closely related to the first. You’ll be good at this job; your background is perfect. That’s an appropriate use of a semicolon, but you also can just stick a period in there.
  • Colon. A colon introduces a list or a thought. It’s easy to avoid. I packed the following: shorts, a bathing suit, gym shoes, three t-shirts and a pair of jeans. To avoid the colon, just omit “the following:” and write what you packed.
  • Parentheses. You just don’t need parentheses. Anything you want to enclose in parentheses can be enclosed between commas or em dashes instead. Parentheses tend to weaken the impact of writing, and you certainly don’t need them in a memoir.
  • Brackets. This is a rare punctuation mark in general. Brackets serve as parentheses within parentheses, and we already know that we don’t even need the first set, much less the second set within the first set. Brackets also serve to speak directly to the reader, as in [sic], which will never come up in a memoir.
  • Single quotation marks. Although it’s become common to use single quotes to indicate little phrases that writers think don’t warrant actual quotation marks, this is a completely fabricated use. The only use for single quotation marks is to indicate a quote within a quote. In dialogue, it can come up. “I want to see ‘Titanic’ this summer,” she said. So you may need to use single quotation marks, but you probably won’t. Also, you can just italicize a movie title like Titanic instead.

So don’t worry about those five punctuation marks. To learn more, take our online course!

Memoir Writing Tip: Avoid Parentheses

Meme about use of parentheses

No matter how you’re structuring your memoir, I can predict one thing about it: you don’t need parentheses to write a good memoir.

Now, I’m not talking about brackets, which look like this: [ ]. In academic writing and for other reasons, you may need to use brackets. Let’s say you’re quoting a note someone wrote to you, and you want the reader to know that the word spelled incorrectly is from the original note rather than your typo. To indicate that, after the word you can use: [sic].

But ordinary parentheses look like this: ( ). They come in handy when you’re trying to give the reader information pertinent enough to include at that moment of reading but extraneous enough that it sort of interrupts the flow. Enclosing that information within parentheses lets the reader know that you are aware it’s not directly related to what they just read.

Why Writers Use Parentheses

Memoir authors and other writers use parentheses for one of three bad reasons:

  1. The information is essential, but the writer is trying to wedge it into the wrong spot. This is lazy writing. As you’re writing, something has come to mind that is tangentially related to the topic at hand, but it would work much better somewhere else.
  2. The information is so non-essential that it doesn’t belong in the book at all. You’re indulging yourself with something you want to include that has little to do with the narrower memoir topic.
  3. The writer is just a parentheses person, and the parentheses serve as a crutch. We all tend to have our go-to punctuation, whether it’s an em dash, a semicolon, a comma, or parentheses. By relying heavily on em dashes and parentheses to set off phrases and clauses, you’re just revealing that you don’t know how to use commas. I admit to being a fan of what these days has become the hardworking em dash; I also like mixing it up and not relying on the same punctuation all the time. But so often parentheses and em dashes are the writer’s way of not having to figure out where commas would go.

Examples of Parentheses

When I google examples of parentheses use, I see sentences that I would edit to drop the parentheses. So let’s do that exercise together. I’m taking these examples either verbatim or edited from grammar.monster.com and grammar.yourdictionary.com. I have nothing against these websites; they’re just two that came up in my search.

Here’s a justified use of parentheses for some audiences, although it can be condescending if the target reader already knows the explanation. The information contained within the parentheses gives a quick explanation without taking up its own sentence:
Sometimes numerals (1, 2, 3) are used instead of writing out the numbers (one, two, three).

Often, you can’t express the thought as succinctly without the parentheses. Still, unless you’re under a restrictive word count, I don’t consider that a good enough reason to use the parentheses.
I got a great deal on a used camper (just $500).
I would rewrite it:
At just $500, the used camper I bought was a great deal.
Or:
I got a great deal on a used camper, which cost me just $500.
Even the em dash works better, I think:
I got a great deal on a used camper—just $500.

Take this quote from H.L. Mencken:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
This is the use I see the most. All it does is avoid commas or using two sentences instead of one. Why? I have no idea. Mencken sticks “hence” in there, which connects the parenthetical to the rest of the sentence. Why also set it off so dramatically? Another problem is that “hence” should be enclosed in commas. I would edit it to be:
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and, hence, clamorous to be led to safety by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

One last example:
This month’s sales figures are sure to wow you. (Chances are, you’ll be really impressed.)
Oh, come on! Repeating what you just said in a new way is the worst reason to use parentheses. The parentheses mean you’re admitting that the sentence is completely unnecessary.

I urge you to look over your memoir and see whether you can eliminated any parentheses. I bet you’ll find at least a few instances.

Like these tips? You’ll love our grammar course. Just $39.

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Then just set up a chapter and start writing your memoir. Don’t worry about rules. There are no rules to writing your memoir; there are only trends. These trends are based on techniques and features identified in current top-selling memoirs. At best, they’re the flavor of the month. If you’re capturing your life in print for your family, for your own gratification or to inspire readers, rather than aiming to set off Hollywood screenplay bidding wars, these trends don’t even apply to you. You’ll write the memoir that suits you best, and it will be timeless, not trend-driven.There are no rules, but there are four steps:

1. Theme/framework
2. Writing
3. Editing/polishing
4. Self-publishing

You’ve researched this, too, and you’ve been shocked at the price for getting help with any one of those steps, much less all four. That’s because most memoir sites promise to commercialize your work. They’ll follow a formula based on current memoir trends, because they want to convince you that they can turn your memoir into a best-seller. These sites overwhelm you with unnecessary information not to help you, the memoir author, but to address Search Engine Optimization (SEO) algorithms so they can sell more.

That’s not what we do at Write My Memoirs. Our small community of coaches, writers and editors are every bit as skilled as any you’ll find, and we charge appropriately for their expertise and the time they’ll spend helping you craft a compelling, enjoyable read. But you won’t pay an upcharge for that extra commercialization, the marketing that follows, and the pages of intimidating “advice.” You can sell your book if you like—we have ISBNs available for you—but our organic process of capturing your story takes a noncommercial path.

If you want help with any or all of the four steps above, choose from our services or save money by selecting one of our packages. SCHEDULE A CALL TODAY if you’d like to talk about what’s right for you. One year from now, you can be holding your published memoir in your hand. And at that point, it will be a big deal!