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.

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