Thursday, September 24, 2009

¡Happy Punctuation Day!

That's right folks, today is officially Punctuation Day. So corral your commas, saddle up your semicolons, and let's hit the dusty Publishing Trail. (If you're wondering about the cowboy theme, it was also recently Louis L'Amour Day.) Today's topic: the importance of good writing.

True, our dear friend The Rejectionist has a point: no matter how heartbreakingly beautiful your prose, you're not going to sell a book if nothing actually happens in it. And, to be brutally honest, you can probably sell a copy or two with a great idea, great pacing, and relatively average writing. However, you cannot, cannot, cannot make errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation and assume they'll all be caught by editorial before your book goes to print. You can't be stylistically boring. In fact, you can't just be good. You can't even be great. You need to be as perfect as humanly possible.

Here's why: every week in this country, tens of thousands of books are published. Said published books are only a fraction of the books that are accepted by agents and shopped to publishers, which are in turn only a fraction of all the books written and submitted by you, the unpublished. (Much like Editorial Anonymous, I am not a fan of the phrase "pre-published." Litotes, people!)

The point is, there are hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people competing with you for book deals. Since (sadly) most of you won't get one, you need every advantage possible if you want even a prayer of seeing your work on a book store shelf someday. Now, it might be enough to have a solid plot, great pacing, good voice, strong characters. You might be able to get away with average writing/spelling/grammar if you've got a stellar agent and editor on your hands. Then again, maybe not. Why leave anything to chance?

In short: make sure you dodecatuple-check your MS, get all your !s, ?s, ""s, ;s, and —s squared away, and only send agents the absolute best piece of work you are capable of creating. They're going all out for you. You need to go all out for you, too.


  1. Punctuation Day? How funny! I just re-found Victor Borge's phonetic pronuciations of punctuations. See

  2. I am not unhappy with this post.

  3. This is my biggest fear- commas, hypens, and semi colons.

    When is it better to use a semi colon versus a hypen? Didn't really pay attention to that lesson in school.

    Commas, if you use too many of them you get splices, don't use enough you get run ons. So hard to find that happy medium.

  4. Punctuation Day? That's awesome!

    I don't fear punctuation and grammar - those are my writing strengths. It's plot that plagues me so. Oh, literary fiction, why have you forsaken me?

  5. Hi Anita—

    I think you're thinking of the em-dash ("—") rather than the hyphen ("-"). The rules for em-dashes are here; the rules for semicolons are here.

  6. Semi-colons are my waterloo. I discovered an unfortunate obsession with them while editing. I use them correctly but all the time. Many, many semi-colons had their lives cut short at the hands of my first editing pass.

  7. This business isn't just about words. Words make no sense without punctuation. Period.

    Don't fear what can help you. Proper punctuation is your friend. Semicolons (yep, it's one word, not two, and not hyphenated) are not interchangeable with hyphens (that's hyphen, not hypen). I think you might also be confusing the hyphen with the em dash, and no, those aren't interchangeable with semicolons either.

  8. Sorry, Eric, I didn't mean to repeat. We must've been typing at the same time. :)

  9. I have a question on punctuation. If you're writing dialogue that needs pauses to convey emotion, which is more commonly used/appropriate an ellipsis or a dash?

    Punctuation is tricky. I've been working on removing adverbs from my current manuscript and replacing them with more appropriate verbs or participles or particple phrases. I feel like I've been eating, drinking, and sleeping commas this week. Sometimes practice is the best way to learn the rules even if it makes you want to claw your eyes out and throw them across the room. I also found myself adding profanity to my manuscript, but I'm pretty sure that's a coincidence.

  10. Wendy, I was always taught that a dash in dialogue implies that the speaker has been interrupted, while an ellipsis implies that the speaker's words have just trailed away. So neither really imply a pause.

    However, a dash is probably more correct to imply that the speaker is making an aside--telling the reader something related to the action, but not part of it--just like I did there.

    If you want to imply a pause, then commas, full stops and semicolons are better, I think, or perhaps a break in the dialogue, filled with a small action. But what do I know? I'm bound to have made a few mistakes in this post, which I'm sure people will point out to me!

  11. For some reason, I was under the impression that colons and semicolons were frowned upon in fiction writing lately. I may well be wrong.

    Also Anita, it seems most everyone finds commas tricky. If I'm having a problem, I read the graph aloud and see where I naturally pause. That helps.

  12. I'm personally addicted to ellipses, myself. Can't get enough of those suckers, hah! Jane, I was also under the same impression with ellipses vs. dash. Perhaps we're onto something, you and I! :)

    BTW, Eric, thank you so very much for offering me the opportunity to spray my screen with lukewarm coffee upon reading the link re: "pre-published". I'd not seen that before. Yes, it's possible that I live under a giant rock.

    In honor of Punctuation Day, I will forward this to my good friend/crit-reader-who-finds-all-of-my-misused-apostrophes/semicolons/commas. Thanks!

  13. This comment is not directed at any one person, just the topic in general. I'm loving this Punctuation Day. Cupcakes, anyone?

    The main purpose of a comma is to separate the structural elements of a sentence. We naturally pause at a comma (usually, but not always) because it is placed at the point of separation. If you're placing commas in a sentence for no other reason than to make the reader pause, then, quite frankly, you're doing it wrong. For more detailed info, read "Elements of Style" and the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

    A dash usually means the speaker was abruptly cut-off in some way, either by another person interrupting, a sudden action, or the speaker him/herself stopping for whatever reason. An ellipsis, as Jane said, implies trailing off, if used at the end of a sentence. When placed between words, it conveys a pause, but those pesky little dots can lose their impact quickly if overused or used incorrectly.

  14. Thank you Lydia and Eric.
    I feel absolutely silly for my typos. And now I know its a dash, not a hyphen. Didn't really know there was a difference.
    Grammar is not my forte, but I want to learn.
    I appreciate the help.

  15. Ahem, and no offense taken, Lydia.;) See how nicely my commas are placed.

    Eric, I just wanted to thank you for posting this reminder that I would be better off buying lottery tickets for a living than trying to get published.

  16. Statistically, I think the chances of being published are still greater than that of winning the lottery. Save those pennies;polish up the punctuation.

  17. So, ellipsis and dashes aren't interchangeable? I can't get Windows 7 to do dashes easily, so I stick with ellipsis.

    Thanks for the help. That'll be one more thing I look for during rewrites.

  18. If you want to read a writer who uses commas incorrectly and gets away with it (because his books are/were monster sellers) it's that guy who writes the "What Color is Your Parachute?" series. Again, his name escapes me because I have this drinking problem... Anyhoo: He uses commas to replicate his speech pattern -- he sticks them in whenever he takes a (mental) pause in speech. It's hideous, and soooo ugly. So, if you're thinking of using commas that way, read what's-his-name. It will cure you of a comma habit toute de suite.

  19. I'm punctuation obsessed, particularly with apostrophes. Yay, a day for me!

  20. Agreed. If writers were ninjas, punctuation would be our kata.

    Elaine wrote: "Statistically, I think the chances of being published are still greater than that of winning the lottery."

    I agree, but the payout is a lot smaller and the purchase price of a ticket is about 5-10 years of one's life, give or take. And yet I continue to pursue it...

  21. I think National Punctuation Day is a hoot! One of the local papers (Toronto Star) had a fun article on it; friends have sent me punctuation poems (The Sensual Comma), lots of funny pics and post on Facebook.

    Amusing ... and maybe a few people will learn from it and correct bad habit's like using apostrophe's to make plural's which drive's me crazy!!!!

    Cheers, Jill

  22. HA! You should tell that to published authors, not just unpublished authors. Some of things I've seen in my time in production-side publishing are downright ridiculous.

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