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Writing with focus: Editor's Notes #382
January 11, 2023

That thing that you are proud of required a huge amount of sustained focus and attention.
—Johann Hari

In this issue:

1. Writing with focus
2. Tickled my funny bone
3. Interesting Web site
4. Writing prompt
5. Letters to the editor

1.Writing with focus
When Johann Hari, the author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again, said that American teenagers can focus for sixty-five seconds and office workers for three minutes, I started to pay attention. Here are some facts I heard that may influence your lifestyle because, as a writer, you need to focus.
  • If you do manage to deeply focus and are interrupted, it takes twenty-three minutes to get back to the level of focus you were at before the interruption.
  • When Hewlett-Packard tested their employees by having them work in an environment that allowed total focus and in an environment where they were interrupted by phone calls and emails, people scored 10 points better on an IQ test after they worked uninterrupted.
  • If you stay awake for nineteen hours, you have the ability to focus of someone who is legally drunk.
  • During sleep, cerebrospinal fluid cleans your brain and gets rid of the waste that accumulates throughout the day.

Hari gives twelve things in conflict with our ability to focus. Check out his book if you are interested in all of them and want more than this short piece tells you. He is insistent that our lack of focus is not all our own fault. In the mean time, give some thought to how you can get enough sleep and block interruptions. That is a balancing act for many people who write. If you choose to share your ideas on this, I will add them to a subsequent edition of Editor’s Notes.

2.Tickled my funny bone
I had to give up my career in photography because I kept losing focus.

3. Interesting Web site
If you want to know more about the interrobang (see Letters to the editor below), Wikipedia has some good information.

4. Writing prompt
The word focus can be a noun or a verb. Spend some time thinking about both usages. What new understanding did you come to as you spent that time? Write about what you learned or the process itself.

5. Letters to the editor
I was wondering your thoughts on another trend, that I am finding in more places than I’d expect. That is the putting of both a ! and a ? together. Eg “She said that !?” (maybe not the best example) but generally it is a question they want to come out as an exclamation.

I would love to hear your thoughts on whether there is a good reason to allow that.

—M. Gregory. Melbourne, Australia

Audrey replies

There’s a mark for that. It’s called an interrobang, a question mark with a vertical line drawn through the fat part so that the question mark and the exclamation mark share the dot at the bottom. So far, it hasn’t caught on. In fact, I could not find a way to reliably put an interrobang into this message because so many different versions of software interpret what I code in. If you want to see examples, do a Google image search, and you can see the interrobang in different fonts.

Back to the query about my opinion on the liberal use of question and exclamation marks at the end of a sentence. So much I could say about this. At base, all of our conventions are just that, conventions. That’s why style guides are guides, not law books.

In formal writing, I would avoid mixing the punctuation. I trust readers to figure out how to read a sentence. And if a reader interprets a sentence differently than the way the writer hears it internally, is that really critical? If it is, there are many ways to signal what you want. Here are few for the example sentence.
  • “She said that!” said John with a questioning lilt.
  • In outrage, John exclaimed, "She said that?"
  • John, hovering between disbelief and excitement, whispered, "She said that?"

But, and this, to me, is an important but, I do not think it is evil or unforgivable to use the multiple marks because my philosophy of language allows for a wide variety of forms of expression. If a writer wants to signal something important in using the multiple marks, I say, "Go for it." If the writer asked me my professional opinion, I would caution what might be unintentionally signalled. Right now, the use of multiple marks, in the main, signals lack of education or imagination. This is changing, but the weight of opinion still comes down on single end punctuation.

The fact that there is an interrobang tells me that lots of people see a need for something to help writers express a tone, something that doesn’t yet exist, so they improvise by adding bits of punctuation. Emojis are another way many people handle the situation. So far, emojis are seen only rarely in formal writing, but I have seen them in young adult fiction.

As an editor, it’s my job to help a writer to be as clear as possible using the tools of our society at this time. Sometimes there are questions with multiple "right" answers. I think this is one of them. Beware of multiple end punctuation marks in formal writing, and always be aware of your audience as you write.

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