A Guest Blog from Fay Sampson. Fay is the author of numerous books for both adults and children. She has been shortlisted three times for the Guardian Children’s Book award, and is winner of the Barco de Vapor award for The Watch on Patterick Fell. More recently she has been writing Crime Novels, like the Suzie Fezwings series, with a genealogical or historical interest. She also writes non-fiction books on historical themes.
One of the big problems many of my clients have is punctuation. If you are lucky, like me, you will have absorbed good practice over many years of reading, without going to too much trouble to learn the rules. But it doesn’t happen for everyone.
I think it is all in the hearing. I treat punctuation like musical notation, telling people how I want my words to be read. I am not one of those who listen to music while I write. I need to hear in my head the music of the words themselves.
I would advise anyone who has trouble with punctuation to read their work aloud. Listen, not just to the words, but to the pauses. If you make a slight pause, like this, you probably need a comma. If you come to a more definite stop, and perhaps draw breath before starting again, it’s a full-stop.
I often find a shortage of commas in dialogue. The name or designation of the person addressed needs to be separated from the rest of speech by a comma. “Dad, I’m gay.” “Put down the gun, you idiot.” Leaving out the comma can result in a meaning you didn’t intend: “You need to eat Jemima.”
If this is one of your weaknesses, then go through your manuscript checking every speech for those missing commas.
You also need to set each speech in a separate paragraph. Don’t include two people’s words in the same one. And separate the speeches from the narrative with more paragraph breaks.
I wince when I see an exclamation mark. He hit her over the head! Your writing should be dramatic or funny enough to make the point for itself, without you nudging our elbow and shouting Shock! or Joke! Exclamation marks are generally considered a sign of weak writing, except in dialogue. And even there, you only need one if it genuinely changes the way the sentence would otherwise be read.
Like a musician, you can use sentence structure and punctuation to convey the mood you want the reader to feel at that point in the book. Longer sentences, with commas separating phrases or clauses, give a gently flowing feel more suitable to one of the quieter passages in your book. At times of high drama, use frequent full-stops to give a staccato effect. Brief paragraphs. You don’t need to be fussy about writing a complete sentence.
Do not breathe, Taliesin.
A helpful exercise for those who struggle with punctuation is to copy out a page of a novel, omitting all punctuation marks, capital letters and paragraph breaks. Now close the book and try to restore the punctuation. Compare your effort with the original. Note your mistakes. Can you see why you went wrong? Next day, repeat this with a different page. Keep on doing this until correct punctuation becomes second nature.
And for a real treat, read Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Or, check out the WW guide.