The Journal: A Light Discourse on Punctuation

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: A Light Discourse on Punctuation
* A couple of fairly slow days
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

This is one of the greatest quotes on creativity I’ve ever encountered. It goes to the very heart of writing:

“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest — as politely as you possibly can — that they go make their own f***ing art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.” Elizabeth Gilbert (Quote appeared in Farnam Street newsletter,

Topic: A Light Discourse on Punctuation

Writers often overlook the importance of punctuation as a tool in their writerly toolbox. As I mention in Punctuation for Writers (2nd Edition), we are all taught how to use the various marks of punctuation in school, but we aren’t taught why to use those marks—why they have the effect they have—or how to use them as writers.

In other words, we’re taught how to respond to punctuation as a reader, not how to actively use it as writers. In fact, I don’t know even of any writer’s course that teaches that valuable skill. In fact, I wrote that book back in the 1990s to fill a void.

Punctuation is a tool to be actively wielded, not simply a small black mark to insert when you want the reader to “take a breath.” And other inane “rules” about regarding the use of punctuation, most of them negative.

For example, “Semicolons have no place in fiction.” Well, of course they do. But that is a very specific place, a very specific usage. The use is seldom necessary, but it (like all the other marks of punctuaion) exists in order to create a certain very specific effect in the reader. So does the em dash, though writers are often told to avoid em dashes “like the plague.” Usually just before the instructor mutters something about also avoiding the use of cliché.

The wise writer actively uses punctuation to direct the reading of his or her work. In other words, you use punctuation to control the reader as he moves through your story, to more closely tie the reader’s emotional response to the character’s emotions in the scene. With the appropriate use of punctuation, you can actually create or punch-up that emotion and enhance the suspense in a sentence or scene.

Interruption, as conveyed by the use of an em dash (or “long dash” but NEVER an ellipsis), is a very strong technique for conveying character emotions and connecting them to reader emotions. An emotionally invested reader is a reader who is irretrievably engaged in your story.

This morning, as I returned to my current novel to cycle through yesterday’s last scene, the character added “can” as the last word of a sentence of dialogue just before the same character interrupted himself. And when that happened, I came over here to write this.

Here are the two versions of a quiet exchange between two characters who are standing near an electronic console and discussing that console. There are a couple of dozen other people at other consoles througout the room:

“I’m just saying, it never did this to you, right?”
Varney frowned. “So what’s different? Other than me being at the station instead of you, I mean?”
“Nothing as far as I — Wait.” He cupped his hand over his mouth. “The navigation computers—one of ’em’s new, right?”

“I’m just saying, it never did this to you, right?”
Varney frowned. “So what’s different? Other than me being at the station instead of you, I mean?”
“Nothing as far as I can — Wait.” He cupped his hand over his mouth. “The navigation computers—one of ’em’s new, right?”

In the first version, the character might have said almost anything after “I” in “Nothing as far as I — ”

In the second version, the character was a little more specific with “Nothing as far as I can — ” In other words, he more closely controlled how the reader would fill in the blank indicated by the em dash.

Also, the “as far as” forces the reader to fill-in a one-word thought, such as “see” or “tell.” Omit the “as far as” and the reader is more likely to go with something like “think of.” But the point is, you, the writer, are controlling the reader, even the reader’s emotions and level of suspense.

You’re leading the reader through your work, making him stop where you want him to stop and for the length of time you want him to stop. And you’re doing it all with the tiny black marks we call punctuation.

Since I mentioned that the reader will stop for the length of time you dictate, just for grins here’s a quick overview:

Punctuation that will force a long pause in the reader are the period, the question mark, the colon and the exclamation mark.

Punctuation that will force a medium-length pause in the reader are the semicolon and the em dash.

The only short-pause punctuation is the comma (and in poetry, the end of the poetic line).

And the aforementioned ellipsis ( … ) creates a pause the length of which is determined by the context.

Diacritical marks (I call these “spelling punctuation”) do not create a pause at all. They go unseen unless the’yre out of place (grin) and they aid in pronunciation. Those are the hyphen, the apostrophe, quotation marks, parens, and the en dash.

For comparison, here’s a hyphen, an en dash and an em dash: – – —

A couple of fairly slow days to start the current novel, but that’s par for the course, really. Now that I’ve gotten the minor discourse above out of my system, I move back to the writing ‘puter and see what today holds.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “How to Grow Your Mailing List with Ebook Presales” at

See “Quanta Magazine” at If you’re interested in all things science (or writing SF) I recommend a free subscription to their newsletter.

See “An Idea For Balance for the New Year” at

See “Tips to Create a Series Bible” at Wow is this ever an important post!

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1100 words

Writing of The Journey Home: Part 3 (novel)

Day 1…… 1568 words. Total words to date…… 1568
Day 2…… 2963 words. Total words to date…… 4531

Total fiction words for December……… 53954
Total fiction words for the year………… 506485
Total nonfiction words for December… 10580
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 195790
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 702275

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 8
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 13
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 53
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 214
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

8 thoughts on “The Journal: A Light Discourse on Punctuation”

  1. Hi Harvey, re: WITD thought you might be interested in the following passage taken from today’s Guardian obituary of John Le Carré. ‘In an introduction written for a 1978 reissue of the novel [The Spy Who Came in from the Cold], Le Carré explained that, despite the intricate complexity of his plots, he did not work with a written plan. “I never made a ‘skeleton’ and seldom planned beyond the chapter. I knew that, because I still don’t. I reach a point, sleep on it, go on to the next, or tear up and go back a step till the continuity feels organically right.” Even basic aspects of the plot were discovered en route.’
    Here’s a link:

  2. Thanks Harvey, good, useful stuff. More of the same, or similar, please, when or if you feel a need to share. Punctuation, especially placement of commas, has long been a weakness, I think, in my writing.

    I recall from memory Oscar Wilde’s response when asked how his day had been so far. “I spent half the morning putting a comma in, and half the morning taking it out. After lunch I’ll probably put it back in and call it a day.” He was obviously lampooning fashionable, precious writer-artistes of his time.

    A few observations:
    Use of the semi-colon in fiction. This was one of George Orwell’s pet hates, and I understand why the use of semi-colons in British-English fiction of his period raised his ire. As a symbol, or meaningful mark, a semi-colon does break the flow (as, when used correctly, it should), but its use often prompts a break a beat too long. The break prompted is often not as intended by the writer, but caused by the time the reader takes to translate the mark. It’s a mark, I think, which suffers from attracting too much attention to itself.
    As much as I admire Orwell’s work—he was a master of translucent prose—he was a far better essayist than a novelist. So, I regard taking his advice on the matter as optional.

    For me the use of the em dash is a curious case. It is used far more prolifically in American-English prose and fiction than in British-English prose and fiction. Prior to reading much American fiction I was only conscious of em dashes in poetry. As I became more acquainted with its use I began to use it in my own fiction. In many ways it was a liberatiing moment—but I am now guilty of probably over using the em dash.

    Your post prompted me to recall, quite a few years ago now, my rather pompous assertion at a writers’ group, that there was no rule of punctuation that could not be broken in the servive of a good story—except ‘never open a sentence with a period (full-stop)’. I cringe now when I think of the occasion. And, prompted by your post, I started playing around, trying to undo that assertion. So, for amusement, here’s what I came up with. And, strangely, they’ve kickstarted something which I’m going to tag along with for a while to see where they go. Two, separate opening lines:
    . Yep, there was a sentence there but I scrubbed it. I left the period to denote its absence. Intrigued? You will be.
    , ‘Whaddya mean, “,”? Where’s the rest of the goddam sentence?’
    All the best. And thanks again for a stimulating post.

    • Thanks again, Bill. I’ll address some of these issues in future editions of the Journal. Do you live in Great Britain? Either way, I enjoy the Brit spelling moreso than the American on many words. “Colour,” for example, seems so much more elegant and descriptive to me than “color.” I think this is a trait I shared with my favourite poet, Howard Nemerov.

      • Hi, I’m a Brit, yes, but I reside in Barcelona—as I have for the past 17 years. No, don’t start me on U.S./Brit spellings and meanings. My partner of the past 17 years was born in Washington D.C., raised in Mass. and schooled in Vermont. “Spatula? Whaddya mean, ‘spatula’? It’s a fish-slice!” And other domestic tales from the kitchen. All the best.

        • Interesting. I enjoy various dialects and inflections too. Some of my characters use “Hey, whaddaya doin’ over there?” and “Hey, whaddayou want from me? Eh?” In the meantime, I wonder whether extended Spanish families are as close as extended Mexican families. And back to the “what do you” “whaddayou” and “whaddaya” discussion, such things put me in mind of mobster tales. There’s a very real chance from this point forward I’ll think of you as an international jewel thief whose partner works on special assignments for the Genovese family of New York. The former might be known informally as Brit Bill from Barcelona. Thanks for landing intriguing characters from that world in my head whilst I’m in the midst of writing an SF novel. (grin)

  3. Hi, sorry to take your time—but an interesting theory I read many years back concerning U.S. U.K. divergences on spelling, viz color v colour, traveled v travelled etc etc etc was that ink was in short supply during the aftermath of the Revolution. To save on ink U.S printers started omitting unnecessary letters and diacritic marks. (Although that doesn’t explain why U.S. use prefers double inverted commas “) In much the same way as why Americans eat with a fork in their right hand (as did Brit colonials in the Caribbean)—most steel products, including domestic cutlery, had to be shipped across the Atlantic. Colonial steel production prior to the Revolution was weak and ad hoc—so, mindful of freight tonnage limits, for every four forks shipped from Europe only one knife was shipped.

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