Thursday, February 28, 2019

Car Horns

(Author's Note: I wrote this in 2005. I live in North Carolina now. One day I'll write about turn signals.)

Photo by Jimmy Chan, via Pexels
Let's pretend that you live in China. Let's also pretend that, unlike me, you own a car. A Volkswagen Santana, of course. Who do you honk the horn at?

Well, you honk at everyone who's in your way, and who you think is in your way, and who you are passing, and who you think is trying to pass you. Every bicycle needs a honk in case the driver can't see you. Every pedestrian, most definitely, because they're not looking at anything except their feet as they float out in front of you, or the text messages they're sending on their cell phones.

Every car does this, and the roads become a constant cacophony of car horns. The noise is such that everybody tunes it out in order to function, so the horns are pointless. Nobody is listening to the horns. Some of us wear MP3 players cranked up to full volume specifically to block the noise, which is why we're deaf. But honking is a habit the Chinese driver can't break. It's like breathing.

Okay, now here comes a legitimate reason to honk the horn: an emergency, perhaps some fool walking right in front of your car. What do you do? Flick the headlights. Just how stupid is that? If he can't hear your horn, he sure can't hear your headlights. Of course he can't see your headlights, because he's not looking at you. That's what caused the crisis in the first place. Plus, it's daytime. Nobody can see headlights in the daytime when he's facing the other direction.

I offer this little tale for authors who wonder why I prefer understatement. Exclamation points and superlatives are your car horns. Save them until you actually need them.

(Author's Note 2: I gave this to one of my Advanced English Writing classes in China. They weren't offended. Hey, it never hurts to check. Beep beep!)

Michael LaRocca has been paid to edit since 1991 and still loves it, which has made people question his sanity (but they were doing that before he started editing). Michael got serious about writing in 1978. Although he’s retired more times than Brett Favre, Michael is writing his 19th book. Learn more about him at, GoodReads, or Amazon.


  1. Great analogy. As an editor, I often remove exclamation points from a writer's manuscript, noting that so many exhaust the reader. As you mentioned, understatement does the job and with a lot less noise. Thank you for this excellent reminder.

  2. I learned from the wonderful editors in my life to use exclamation points almost never. As for honking my horn, I don't do that very often either, although I'm terribly tempted anytime I see a driver, pedestrian, or bike rider staring at their smartphone instead of the road and surrounding traffic. Thanks for being our guest today, Michael.

  3. Great post. I'm sorry to be so late in reading and commenting, but there is an old cliche that covers that. LOL I love the way you used the cars honking to make your point.


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