On Punctuation

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons & t3rmin4t0r.

In my first graduate class at National University in early 2009, one of the many required books was Ursula K. LeGuin‘s “Steering the Craft.” That was one of the first books on the writing craft I ever purchased, solely on the recommendation of an old college professor. She knew her craft books. But, I digress…

LeGuin says, “Prose writers are interested mostly in life and commas.” How true.

Punctuation. Love it or hate it, it’s an essential tool for a writer. It’s a difficult thing to master and personally, I don’t know anyone who has done so without the help of a style guide or two. I know I’d truly be lost without mine. Two of my favorites (also recommended by LeGuin):

People prefer to avoid punctuation. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve even done it a time or two. We all have. Punctuation is scary. Don’t worry. Many people feel that way, so you’re not the only one. What scares you about punctuation? What are you uncertain about? Talk it over with friends, colleagues, or instructors. Chances are, you aren’t alone in these things.

One of the best ways (in my opinion, anyway) to remedy your punctuation fears is to pay attention to the things you read, whether this includes magazines, books, or web content. Pay even closer attention to the way the author uses punctuation. Try to establish why the author has done and why/how it works within the sentence. Try to replicate that in your own writing.

In “Steering the Craft,” LeGuin offers the following exercise regarding punctuation. I recommend giving it a try. I promise that you’ll have a new outlook on punctuation afterward.

Exercise: Write a paragraph (150-350 words) of narrative with no punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices).

Consider the following questions after writing:

  • How well does the unbroken flow of words fit the subject?
  • To what extent does the unpunctuated flow actually shape the narrative?
  • Consider whether the writing led you to write differently from the way you usually write, or gave you a different approach to something you’ve tried to write. Was the process valuable? Is the result readable?

[What are your feelings on punctuation? Does it scare you? Are you comfortable with the many rules? Have you ever written without it? Share in the comments.]