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.
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.