Sunday 25 April 2010

Punctuation (The Semi-Colon)

One of the main functions of punctuation is to clarify writing in a way which words alone can’t. Three ways in which punctuation achieves this clarification are:

• by separating, grouping or linking words
• by differentiating between similar words and structures
• representing emotional aspects of speech

We’ve looked at how to use the full stop and the comma. Today is the turn of the seductive semi-colon.

Why seductive, you may ask? Because the semi-colon seems so sophisticated, so professional, that it’s tempting to use it all the time.

The best place to use a semi-colon, though, is when a full stop is too strong and a comma too weak to create a break in a sentence that produces just the pause one needs. If you need to link two closely related sentences, which are yet too independent to be separated by only a comma, that’s when you turn to the semi-colon. Consider:

He ate his peas with his knife. He had forgotten he had visitors.

Although the use of the full stop here is grammatically correct, these two thoughts are so closely linked that the break seems to jar the reader.

Yet they are complete and independent sentences, so a comma won’t do:  He ate his peas with his knife, he had forgotten he had visitors.

This is when you use a semi-colon:

He ate his peas with his knife; he had forgotten he had visitors.

This links the two thoughts – independent, yet related – in an appropriate rhythm. Thus, a semi-colon works best in a position where neither a comma nor a full stop will do.

A semi-colon can also be used when a paragraph is choppy with an over-use of full-stops. Too many short sentences and full stops create a staccato feel to a paragraph. The semi-colon smoothes the cadence and yet allows each thought its independence. And a semi-colon shouldn’t be used if you link your thoughts with a conjunction (words such as and, or, but, so, while, because).

As seductive as it is, try not to become addicted to the semi-colon. There is the danger that you can slip into the habit of linking half-thoughts, rather than developing a single, more complex, thought. Commas and full stops serve their purpose well; allow the semi-colon to keep its mystique by using it sparingly.

"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman
"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
Free image from ClipArt

Monday 12 April 2010

Punctuation (The Comma)

When we’re speaking to someone in a face-to–face situation, we have body language to help us make our point. The way we use our facial expressions; the way we use our hands and the way we pause to emphasise the point we’re making. All these and more help our listener to understand what we’re really saying.

‘He’s not coming?’ said with a grimace and ‘He’s NOT coming?’ have different meanings. The first implies disappointment; the second, surprise.

When we’re writing, how do we explain to a reader what emphasis (and therefore meaning) we’re placing on our words?

Punctuation is the tool that we, as writers, use for this purpose. We’ve already looked at the Full Stop in a previous blogpost. Today, we’re going to explore the ubiquitous comma.

Daphne du Maurier opens her great novel Rebecca as follows: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

Let’s break down her use of punctuation.

She opens with a short dramatic sentence, using all the power of a full stop. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. We want to know what happened at Manderley that was so important the character still dreams of it. Then she segues into a long complex sentence. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

And, with that one sentence, du Maurier sets the scene for what follows. On an overt level the use of harsh words such as “iron gate”, “could not enter” and “way was barred” let the reader know that whatever happened wasn’t pleasant. But, on a more subtle level, du Maurier uses the comma to imbue an unmistakeable atmosphere of foreboding.

How does she do it with only two commas?

Firstly, she controls the ebb and flow of a story’s rhythm by dividing the ideas (or clauses) that make up the sentence.

If she’d used as many commas as she could have, the sentence would have jerked along, rather than flowed with the sense of surreal helplessness that characterised the second Mrs de Winter’s experience of her husband’s ancestral home, Manderley.

Listen to what happens when you add in more commas: It seemed to me [,] as I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and [,] for a while [,] I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.

All of a sudden, there are more pauses, more breaks in the rhythm of the sentence, which detracts from the sinister, dreamy overtones. There is also an extra word needed (the ‘as” after the first inserted comma) to make the sentence work with the extra commas.

And that’s a second use for the comma: you can delete unnecessary words. The original use of commas not only slowed the pace to create a specific atmosphere, but also used fewer words to do it.

Thirdly, when a comma is used with a conjunction (a word such as ‘and’ that links simple sentences), it can connect or contrast themes and subjects. Here, du Maurier has used the comma to contrast different ideas.

The object of the first main clause (or idea) of this sentence is “the iron gate”. The subject of the sentence is the “I” (the narrator) and the verb is “stood”. The object of the second main clause (or idea) of this sentence is “the way” (or the path). The subject of the sentence is again the “I” (the narrator) and the verb is “enter”.

The first comma du Maurier inserted divided the two main clauses (“I stood by the iron gate” and “I could not enter”), but contrasted their themes. With the first sequence of main and sub-ordinate clauses (“it seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive”), the idea is that the narrator can open the gate to access Manderley. At this point, the reader may still think that what awaited the new Mrs de Winter at Manderley was good. Then comes the comma, the conjunction and, immediately, a contrasting idea is presented: “for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me.”

After the “I could not enter” clause comes the second comma. What does this use of the comma at this point in the sentence achieve? It gives the reader a pause, a moment to absorb the shock of realising that, despite the gate leading to the drive, the narrator was, after all, not going to pass through that iron gate “for the way was barred to me”.

So there we have another use for the comma. This time, the comma had the dual purpose of giving the reader a chance to absorb the contrasting idea and clarifying this idea with the sub-ordinate clause “for the way was barred”.

This example has shown how the comma, in the hands of an experienced author, can:

• change the rhythm of the text

• maximise word economy

• contrast different ideas (or link similar ideas)

• clarify or emphasise meaning

So, the next time you need to make your sentence plod or sing, dance or drag, remember the common comma. For, used effectively, it can create magic.

"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman

Image source: 

Friday 2 April 2010

A New Take on Self-Publishing

Most writers hate this question. They reject the very idea of self-publishing because they think it is the final sign that they have abandoned their dream of becoming a published author. I’d like to suggest that rather than surrendering your literary ambitions, deciding to self-publish is increasingly becoming an artistic the rest of this excellent and encouraging article on self-publishing by Writers & Artists' Alison Baverstock by clicking here.

I'm moving more and more to the idea that self-publishing is the wave of publishing's future. Good books - whether self-published or traditionally published - will rise to the surface and, by the same token,  bad books will sink like a stone. It's up to the author to write the best book possible, get it published (even if that means self-publishing) and leave the rest to destiny.

Thursday 1 April 2010

Punctuation (The Full Stop)

Writing is both an art and a craft and, like all crafts, it has the tools of its trade, which must be diligently learned.

The first tool of writing is, of course, words. These are the foundation stones of any piece of writing and define the content of the text: creative or technical, academic or informal writing.

The second tool of writing is punctuation. The impact punctuation has on any written content is its most important function, for it defines the rhythm of the writing. Creative writing has a different sound (and purpose) to non-fiction; punctuation provides the cadence that makes a story sing.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the different types of punctuation commonly used by creative writers. Let’s begin with the full stop.

Whether they’re overused, underused or perfectly used, full stops are the most critical tools that any creative writer needs to work with.

The full stop:

• provides a boundary to thoughts. Its absence connects thoughts, while its presence divides them into separate sentences.

• restrains all other punctuation marks, which only modify the words that come between two full stops.

• sets the tone for style and pacing.

The most important use of the full stop is to change the length of a sentence.

• A long sentence will slow the pace down, creating a stream-of-consciousness effect that, used appropriately, can add an authentic feel of a character whose mind wanders either from drowsiness or dreaming and who thinks in a chaotic manner.

• A short sentence has impact. It can hook a reader. It can heighten the sense of drama. It keeps the pace moving fast.

The dangers of too few full stops (which produces too many long sentences) is that it can create run-on sentences. “Run-ons” occur when a writer does not know how to let a sentence (or a thought) end and lets it drag on and on without bringing it to a satisfying conclusion. An overabundance of ideas can get crammed into one sentence and this may confuse the reader. Remember the mantra: one sentence, one idea.

Too many full stops. Too many short sentences. The writing will be choppy. A reader can get sea-sick. He can’t settle. He stops. Starts. Stops again. Takes too much effort. Short sentences are only effective if their content has a definite purpose and each sentence can stand alone without relying on other sentences.

Let’s take a look at the impact of a full stop.

T S Elliot opens his poem “The Waste Land” with a long sentence:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

This opening sentence meanders over four lines and, before the first full stop, has already conveyed a sense of apprehension and incomprehension. This city, this waste land, is a grim place of people unable to live fully or see a way out of their deadness.

If Elliot had used the full stop more liberally this sense of dazed confusion would have been lost:

April is the cruellest month. Breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land. Mixing
Memory and desire. Stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Can you feel the difference in the rhythm between the number of full stops Elliot actually used (one) and the number he could have used (four)?

Here’s another example of a wonderful use of a full stop. Kazuo Ishiguro begins his chilling “Never Let Me Go” with the simply stated ‘My name is Kathy H.’  Who is Kathy H? And why doesn’t he introduce her to the reader by her full name? Because giving her a full name would have made her real and, as we slowly discover over the course of the novel, she isn’t quite real.

These two masterful examples show how the full stop can be used to vary sentence length. Each author made a careful choice as to where to place his punctuation mark to achieve the best effect possible. These decisions – like any decision about the placement of a specific punctuation mark – weren’t arbitrary.

And neither should yours be.

When revising your work, study the context of each full stop, assess its impact and consider other nearby punctuation marks. Only then can you decide whether you’ve put your full stop in exactly the right point for maximum impact.

"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman