I know – how incredibly dull, right? Thinking about punctuation will surely oppress our creativity and imprison us with rules. (Although, if you Google colon versus semicolon you may also be prompted to investigate colon versus intestine, which is surely slightly entertaining…) Perhaps you want to guard your dialogue against pesky quotation marks and other intrusions. Perhaps, like a Left-leaning editorial staff I once dealt with, you feel semicolons are a reactionary imposition, only used by those who feel themselves above deploying the nobly proletarian full stop.
The thing is, you have to be understood. If your writing can’t achieve that basic level of interaction with someone other than yourself then none of the other miracles of literature will be at your command. Your words on the page represent your voice, perfected and rendered into a handy form of musical notation for your reader’s mind to sing. Words are part of speech, but there are also necessary pauses. Punctuation expresses them and also tells your reader when to breathe. Think about that for a moment – punctuation lets you control someone else’s breath. That’s a fabulous emotional resource: the ability to unify a stranger’s breathing with your own, or your character’s.
If you’re noting down your characters’ direct speech, one of the ways you avoid writing appalling things like he expostulated furiously is by using punctuation with accuracy. Quotation marks, along with reparagraphing, help you reader know what’s speech, what’s not and who’s speaking. Go easy on the exclamations!
Be guided by your natural speech rhythms. Do you use long sentences? You’ll sometimes need to break them up, or differentiate your main flow from parentheses. Are you brisk, punchy? Always? Prose peppered with full stops may suggest you run some sentences together for a bit of momentum. Semicolons may suit you; they long to join complete, but related, ideas.
Currently. There’s a Fashion. Amongst. New Writers To. Use nothing but Full. Stops. In a relatively. Random. Way. I blame Facebook. For literally everything.
Yes, short sentences can be arresting. Too many will only suit a genuinely fragmented narrative and even then become wearing. (They want the reader to be short of breath, which is associated with illness and panic.) Single word sentences – well prepared for – can really pop and showcase your saying of so much with so little. But that only works when you’re not simply narrating as if you’re also having sex. (Most people don’t like a distracted storyteller.)
For me, commas are a pause and full stops a pause for breath. Dashes are nicely visual and can bracket parentheses (as, of course, can brackets) and break up chaotic, or dense narration. I love lists and facts, so I love colons, which are all about listing and explaining. Listen to yourself, even record yourself, look at your voice on the page. Check you understand how each piece of punctuation operates, then put your voice and the punctuation together, let them play. There’s nothing dull about that.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2018/19 by A. L. Kennedy.
A. L. Kennedy was born in Dundee in 1965. She is the author of 17 books: 6 literary novels, 1 science fiction novel, 7 short story collections and 3 works of non-fiction. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. She was twice included in the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list.
Her prose is published in a number of languages. She has won awards including the 2007 Costa Book Award and the Austrian State Prize for International Literature. She is also a dramatist for the stage, radio, TV and film. She is an essayist and regularly reads her work on BBC radio. She occasionally writes and performs one-person shows. She writes for a number of UK and overseas publications and for The Guardian Online.