Last updated on May 17th, 2018
Want to make an otherwise brilliant manuscript seem dull and amateurish? It’s easy: just fail to use the proper punctuation, and play fast and loose with capitalization. Those may seem like pesky details to some, but to those of us who make a living with words, it’s a pain in the neck. Consider the following sentence, with and without the pesky details. Apologies in advance if you find this example offensive, but I think it makes the case most emphatically:
I helped my uncle, Jack, off a horse.
As opposed to:
I helped my uncle jack off a horse.
Becomes rather disgusting, doesn’t it? Of course, all it really takes to get the sentence right in print is to add the proper capitalization:
I helped my Uncle Jack off a horse.
But say that out loud and see what it sounds like, eh?
And then there’s the famous panda example of “eats, shoots & leaves.” I won’t go into it here, but see Lynne Truss’s excellent book of the same title.
The reason I bring up punctuation is that too often, including in published books (especially self-published books), I run into stories that are nearly unreadable due to failure to use punctuation properly. Run-on sentences, sentence splices, lack of question marks, overuse of exclamation points or question marks, forgotten periods”¦ even before I became a professional editor, it drove me crazy, and now it’s unbearable. So many great ideas, so many interesting characters, ruined because I constantly have to pull myself out of the flow to decipher what I’ve just read. And even then, I can’t always be sure, because some differences are subtle. See the Uncle Jack example.
Now, I’m not talking about stuff like whether or not to use a comma before the “and” in a list of three or more (e.g., “Tom, Dick, and Harry” vs. “Tom, Dick and Harry”). That’s just a stylistic difference. No, I’m taking silliness like T,om Dick, and, Harry, that just slows you down and makes you wonder if the writer did any self-editing at all, or even noticed the red squiggles under the goofs. This is the kind of annoyance that makes readers abandon otherwise good books.
Lack of capitalization isn’t a sin quite on the same level as crummy punctuation, but again, it annoys. In an otherwise great fantasy series I recently completed, which was translated from Russian, the editor or writer often failed to capitalize personal titles and military ranks, like Sergeant or First Lieutenant So-and-So. Annoying, though not as bad as the fact that, in the sixth book, someone confused two similar characters (of different sexes, no less!) who had featured prominently in an earlier book of the series. But still it distracts the reader, yanking them out of the story and detracting from the reading experience. Maybe not enough to break off reading altogether, but enough that, when combined with errors like the above, may cause some readers to quit in disgust.
e.e. cummings could get away with ignoring capitalization, but you can’t at least, not yet. You have to know and practice the rules effectively for a while before you know when to break them. Pablo Picasso wasn’t just a bad artist who got away with painting funny-looking pictures; before and after he delved into Cubism, he was an excellent (if still experimental) representational painter. But no matter how good a painter you are, or how impressionistically you paint, it’s hard to beat photographs for realism. So he decided to break the rules by trying something new: showing all sides of a thing at once in the two dimensions he could work with. That’s why his Cubist work, including the classic Guernica, seems so unusual and yet so oddly compelling. The same goes for Marcel DuChamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, a wonderful study in time-lapse Cubism.
Outside of the popular genres-which generally stick to the tried-and-true of traditional storytelling, because the entertainment comes from the content, not the style-is it any wonder that so much writing is experimental? There’s nothing wrong with that, but before you start going primitivist, internalize how to do your art properly. Lay a solid foundation in the basics.
Many writers will tell you they live by Strunk and White rules, though I’m not one of them. I believe Strunk and White’s little book is helpful, but I’m a bit leery about its stance on passive voice and a few other matters. Its punctuation overview is, however, excellent, and worthy of the price of admission. Whether you write fiction, non-fiction, or both, get a copy of it and consult it regularly.
Another thing; be careful about following Microsoft Word’s suggestions as you write, assuming you use that very common word-processing program. Being a computer program, it follows the rules too rigidly, and some of Microsoft’s “rules” are dodgy anyway. For example: it wants you to put a comma after many uses of the word “so,” especially if it’s capitalized at the beginning of a sentence. Danger, Will Robinson! Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t especially when you’re trying to drive home a point. I don’t care for their stance on passive tense, either; because frankly, sometimes passive tense makes sense, if you have no idea who did something. Just don’t use it to dodge responsibility for an action, like certain politicians: “Mistakes were made,” or “The window was broken.” Even “Someone broke the window” and “someone made mistakes” sound better, though it’s best to admit who that someone was.
Punctuation and capitalization are important in most writing, so carefully consider each as you write, and especially as you rewrite. The may prove to be the only difference in kindly assisting a relative, as opposed to the first step in the process of equine artificial insemination.
In the twenty-odd (very odd) years since I first realized that I was more articulate with a pen than with my mouth, I’ve written just about everything a writer can: gags, letters of character and recommendation, book and music reviews, press releases, poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction, how-to, a play, software user manuals, web content, marketing copy, brochures, flyers, queries, book proposals, academic papers, academic theses, you name it. I’m intimately familiar with technical writing, having worked as a technical writer/editor for ten years. I’ve even published my own e-book about fiction marketing (100 Great Places to Sell Your Short Stories, Both On and Off the Web), which also includes pointers on basic manuscript mechanics and submission.
I’m educated as a historian and anthropologist, so when I write non-fiction I tend to stick to those subjects, although I have a wide range of interests and can write authoritatively on just about anything after conducting the necessary research. With fiction, my first love is science fiction/fantasy, though I’ve dabbled in mystery and mainstream as well. In addition to my e-book, I’m the proud author of hundreds of published non-fiction articles, both in print and on the web, as well as two published SF stories. My non-fiction work has appeared in many of the major U.S. history magazines, including America’s Civil War, Military History, Wild West, Old West, American History, and Persimmon Hill.