Writing Prompt: 05/31/10

"Your phone rings. When you answer it, you make a startling discovery: the person on the other end is dead. What does he/she say and why are they calling you?"

Write for 15-30 minutes. My response will be posted 6/02/10.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Essay: On Punctuation

Katie Weiland, who is fast becoming one of my favorite people (if for no other reason than because she actually seems to understand my warped sense of humor) has a fantastic video blog about the use of emphasis in your writing.

There are three reasons you should rundon'twalk to check it out. First, Katie knows her craft, with some six or eight published novels in a broad spectrum of fiction. Second, grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the tools we need to master to make our writing better, and c) Katie is a very pretty girl, and if you won't take two minutes to look at a pretty girl who wants to make you a better writer then I question your sexuality. (Gender is irrelevant in this case... because I'm being a wise ass.)

In the comments Katie and I had a little discussion about what a professor I had in college called "Alphabetic Kudzu." Kudzu is a plant that grows around trees and stifles them, sometimes growing so thick that it chokes out all the nutrients in the soil.

Here's an example. You tell me which passage is more powerful.

"With a snap of his fingers, Rincewind released a spell that arced across the field and detonated on the wall."

"With a snap of his fingers, Rincewind released a spell!!!" It arced across the field and detonated on the wall!!!"

Although the two phrases are virtually identical, one carries a lot more weight to the reader because it is easier to get through on a visual level. An exclamation point has no meaning in and of itself. It must be placed in context to achieve meaning. Multiple exclamation points do not increase this meaning they detract from it.

Another technique that sometimes gets away from people is the use of the comma splice. A comma splice occurs when you have two sentences that should be separated by a period (or semi colon) but are instead separated by a comma.

Here's an example from the above passage: An exclamation point has no meaning in and of itself, it must be placed in context to achieve meaning.

I specifically mentioned that passage because I have a tendency to use comma splices. I catch one or two on every read through of every thing I write. Pisses me off, but apparently that's the way my internal monologue speaks.

Remember that the purpose to grammar, punctuation, and spelling is to be invisible to the reader. Just as the camera is not visible when you're watching a movie (unless you look closely and see it reflected in C3PO's metal skin-- Lucas, I love you but you're a dumbass), the mechanics of writing should also be hidden from the reader.

Punctuation and spelling mistakes, in particular, jar the reader out of the smooth flow of information from page to brain. They make the reader pause and think, "Huh?" When that happens, generally there is a second or two-- which usually equates to a paragraph or more for faster readers-- that the reader is thinking of something other than the story.

There are times when this rule is not always applicable. For example, in Dune Frank Herbert uses phrases like this: "Paul rolled to his feet, raised the crysknife."

Grammatically, this is not correct. The subjunctive clause "raised the crysknife" needs another subject and should be its own sentence. At the very least, there should be a grammatical conjunction between the sentences to make a single compound sentence.

So why do it that way, and why did editors allow it?

Simple. As you can tell from that simple sentence, Herbert was writing an action scene. While I'm a dedicated anal-retentive when it comes to punctuation and spelling, I intentionally misuse grammar to make a point all the time. I use that exact technique in fight sequences more or less consistently as a device to demonstrate how people think while they are in a life and death situation.

Most people don't realize how thoughts flow in combat. Sometimes there are periods of "no-mind." These are scary, because you're usually just reacting by instinct with no reason whatsoever.

When you are capable of thought, it's usually twisted, shadowdark humor that would make a normal person cringe, or it's flashes of sentences and concepts. By eliminating conjunctions and other "kudzu" from the action words, we can get right to the essence: "I threw myself flat, sword whipping away, fireball flashburning my hair."

This is a bit longer post than usual on a Friday, but I didn't blog yesterday because I was super-hella-mega busy.

Now that you've read this, I want you to take a look at a book written by a friend of mine. Niki Morock is the author of The Perfect Circle, a book about paranormal experiences. The book is fiction, but the experiences have actually happened to her. Next month she will be at a book signing on April 8th. (I'll post more information as we get closer.)

Niki is a great person and a wonderful writer, so please check out her book by clicking on the picture below:

Write on!

Christopher Rivan

Virgins Slain, Dragons Rescued.
Reasonable rates for all budgets!




  1. first, second and C eh?
    I like the first example better but I have an aversion to unnecessary 'that's and '!'s kudos for figuring that out ;)
    Comma splices... so that's what they're called. I wrote those all the time 'till I discovered the TRUE use for semi colons. I didn't learn much about practical uses for grammar in high school but who does? I had to re-teach myself everything once I got serious about writing. I don't want someone to discover my stuff long after I'm dead and laugh!!! (catch that?)

  2. It's always good to brush up. Thanks.
    Now that I am writing more and paying more attention to grammar I am facing another problem... Driving my family insane when I make them correct their horrible punctuation.

  3. I seem to be much better at punctuation than anything else, although the comma still tends to elude me.

    As a teacher I'm sort of a professional public speaker, so I use a lot of tricks like pausing for emphasis. Unfortunately, these pauses tend to bleed over into my writing, so I tend to stick commas in there where I would naturally pause in the prose.

    I find about half my proofing involves running back through and yanking the damn things out from where I put them.

    Mostly, though, I just want my punctuation to not be in the way. If a word is badly misspelled or the wrong punctuation is used, it tends to give the reader a little mental slap that knocks him out of his state of willing disbelief. That's a way bad thing.