Do I overuse the italicize button? How about the bold button? If I say something that’s meant to be a sidebar remark and I use the phrase “parenthetically speaking,” why not just use a set of parentheses? How many times a month can I use the word “dandy”?

This is the nonsense that occupies my thoughts as I’m writing my weekly column, which in and of itself is a steaming pile of nonsense, but in a totally different way. You see, we writers are a fickle bunch. Not only must we be able to present ideas in a coherent and concise manner, but we’re also expected to be witty with a phrase. Often, it’s all about presentation. Even if you’ve dug up the most important and groundbreaking facts in human history, you still have to get it down on paper and make it interesting.

Sometimes, if you know what you’re doing, writing can be a real pain. I’ve often thought that people who aren’t very good writers probably have an easier time of it. They don’t labor over every little word, phrase and paragraph. To use the golf vernacular, they simply “grip it and rip it.” How liberating that must be! What a treat it could be to write without the burden of grammar’s rules or proper syntax! Most of the time the “grip it and rip it” approach leads to improper verb tense, no structure and dreadful hooks that slice way over into the neighboring fairway, but every once in a while, if for no other reason but random luck, they pull something magical.

I’m no Hemingway but I’m also no slouch. I can string a few interesting words from time to time. Because I write and read so much, I have a fairly good sense of what good writing is. For me, it’s kind of like the old Supreme Court justice’s definition of obscenity: I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.

But as I said, writing can be laborious. I write about 50 columns a year, and one of my greatest fears is that I’ll write the same one today that I wrote four years ago. It can be difficult to come up with a fresh idea every week. I don’t want to rehash what has been written by other people. The day I can’t bring something new to the marketplace is the day I stop writing, but there are forces at work against me. I don’ want to rehash myself either. My memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and the list of old columns grows longer every year. I must tax my brain to remember whether I have written a column about George Brett coming up during a game of Trivial Pursuit (I did, about five years ago). I’m bound to slip up eventually.

Part of writing’s labor is not being redundant, not only from week to week or year to year but also from paragraph to paragraph. Sometimes I like to italicize a word for particular emphasis, like I did with myself in the previous paragraph. It adds a little punch to the sentence and, in my head at least, it makes the sentence read the same way it sounds in my head. Everyone talks to themselves in their own heads, and writers — at least this writer — talks to himself constantly while he’s tapping away on the keyboard. I even try to imagine what a reader thinks while he’s reading my column. I anticipate what questions he’d ask and what comments he’d make along the way, and in a strange, possibly psychotic way, I produce a column that not only includes my thoughts but your thoughts as well.

Oh yeah? Well, so are you!

Sorry about that. Someone was being rude.

Not only do I have little conversations with imaginary readers, but I also try to stay aware of my silliness. There’s nothing wrong with being silly, but I’d hate to be repetitively silly. For example, the word “dandy” is one of my favorite silly words. I don’t know why exactly; it just is. I’m always looking for a legitimately silly reason to insert it into a sentence. No one uses “dandy” in a serious, everyday manner. “Dandy” must be unsheathed only at the proper time. Too many “dandy’s” will sour a reader’s stomach, but a single, well-placed “dandy” can be a whole lot of fun for everyone.

Incidentally (or possibly parenthetically) “unsheathed” also is quite silly. It needs to be used guardedly as well. In fact, the word “silly” itself is rather silly, but since there really is no other word that conveys the same feeling and tone as “silly,” I tend to use it a little more liberally.

At least I don’t italicize it. One of my imaginary readers told me a long time ago that an italicized silly wouldn’t be silly at all.

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David Spates is a Knoxville resident and Crossville Chronicle contributor whose column is published each Tuesday. He can be reached at

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