Would you
like to make an editor’s heart sing? One way to do it is to pay attention to
the little things: commas, periods, question marks, em-dashes, ellipses,
semicolons, colons, and another punctuation mark called the paragraph.
I know
what you’re thinking. I’m going to spend an entire post explaining why proper
punctuation is important.
Proper
punctuation is important.
You’ve
seen the cute little pins on Pinterest that say something like this: “I love
eating my children and my home. Yes, punctuation really is important.” If an
author sends an editor a sentence like that without the proper punctuation, he
might get another sentence or two to prove that he’s serious about the craft,
because after all, it’s a big manuscript and mistakes are bound to be made. A
few more mistakes like that one, though, and the editor might question the
author’s seriousness about the craft of storytelling.
Yes,
commas have rules, em-dashes and ellipses have their own purposes. Likewise,
semicolons and colons are proud marks of punctuation, and without the
paragraph, we’d have just one long block of text. And everyone knows that large
blocks of text are skimmed, right?
I’m not
much of a musician. I’ve learned to read just enough music to plunk out a basic
hymn on the piano, but for me, punctuation marks are like musical chords. They speed
up or slow down the rhythm of prose. Punctuation makes the words ring for the
reader, and when used to their utmost, an editor can almost see the writer
orchestrating the flow of the words.
If the
book is a thriller, an author will take off, pushing toward a crescendo with
short, uneven sentences that show the urgency of each moment for the reader. The
period is an important tool for the thriller author. He uses it often and
quickly. However, if the story is literary, the sentences might weave and flow
about, creating a world in which the reader can sit and savor. For that reason,
a knowledge of comma placement is important to this author.
What
about the lesser used punctuation marks? There’s a rumor out there started by
someone who obviously hates or misunderstands the semicolon, but this wonderful
mark of punctuation is the difference in a soft pause and a blunt stop.
For
example: Jimmy decided to go to the store. Susan would be there.
These
are two completely different sentences, and Susan’s being at the store may or
may not hold importance for Jimmy’s reason for going there so long as the
period is the punctuation of choice.
Let’s
change it up, though, and replace the period with a semicolon: Jimmy
decided to go to the store; Susan would be there.
Now the
author has indicated that these sentences are bound to one another. Jimmy
decided to go to the store because Susan would be there.
That
attention to detail is sweet music to an editor’s ear, and they envision the
author as the conductor of the melody.
What
about a paragraph? I find that some authors have never mastered the art of this
punctuation mark. They haven’t learned that a paragraph consists of a main idea
and sentences that support that idea. In fiction, a character’s action and
dialogue should be kept together. This makes it easy for the reader to see who
is doing what. Yet a craftily placed paragraph can call attention to something
the author wants to provide particular emphasis for.
Here’s
an example: A heavy footfall on the pier made her skid to a stop. She closed
her eyes as fear shivered through her. She was alone. And vulnerable. Stupid.
Stupid. Stupid.
Now for
the change up:
A heavy
footfall on the pier made her skid to a stop. She closed her eyes as fear
shivered through her. She was alone. And vulnerable.
Stupid.
Stupid.
Stupid.
Giving
each “stupid” its own paragraph slows the action and gives the reader reason to
say, “Uh-oh, our heroine has done something…really stupid, and in this
paragraph apparently life-threatening stupid.”
One
last word of advice: never overuse a punctuation technique. That will make the literary
music sound to the reader like a needle scrawling across an old album (kudos to
you who are old enough to understand the sound I’m describing). In order to use
a punctuation mark incorrectly but to great effect, one must know first how to
use it correctly. Then break it sparingly to make beautiful music for your
reader—and editor.
Happy
editing.

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