In January, while I was preparing to teach a craft workshop here in Las Vegas, I was happily reading a lovely essay on the comma in the Oregon Quarterly. The essay, titled “For Love of the Comma,” written by Kate Dyer-Seeley, is beautifully done, and as I read, I was thinking of recommending the piece on my monthly recommended reading list—until I hit this:
…I never flinch when editors suggest changes in a manuscript….When my first manuscript went through copy edits, every introductory comma was removed. I made note and intentionally didn’t use a single introductory comma in the next manuscript. But stop the presses! Don’t make assumptions or get attached to the pesky punctuator, because the next copy editor added every introductory comma back in.
Sigh. I wanted to intervene somehow. Because Dyer-Seeley, who writes mysteries as Ellie Alexander, has a lovely voice. That’s clear from her word choice alone.
However, she lets others dictate the most important part of her voice. Punctuation.
Punctuation is the most sophisticated tool that a writer has. The writers with the strongest voices also have the most eclectic punctuation. If you run a grammar checker on a passage from those writers’ works, the grammar checker will light up with “mistakes.” They’re not mistakes. They’re evidence of a writer who knows her craft and knows how to make the best of it.
Punctuation, like words themselves, is a tool for writers to use. And as is the case for any tool, you have to learn how to use it properly before your usage can become more sophisticated.
A lot of you who felt vindicated when I said the grammar checker would light up may now pack that vindication away. Most new writers misuse punctuation terribly. Those writers have no idea where to place semicolons or what an exclamation point does. They don’t know how to use quotation marks properly and would probably get the hives if I tried to explain nested quotation marks.
Writers feel like they got enough of that “grammar crap” in school, when they probably got very little at all. And what they did get, usually, was a turgid discussion of hard and fast rules which aren’t really hard and which certainly aren’t fast.
So, (she writes, with an introductory comma and a second grammatically unnecessary comma), here’s the short version of my comma rant.
The manuscript you have just finished writing is not your story. Your story lives in your mind. The manuscript is a tool that takes the story from your head and puts it in my head.
The very best writers use that manuscript tool so effectively that readers can actually hear the writer’s voice as they read. That’s why so many readers have a visceral response to writers like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. (Oh, I hate them. They can’t write. Or Oh, I love them. They could tell me stories forever.) That’s why so many English students and unsophisticated writers will complain that certain bestsellers “can’t write their way out of a paper bag.” Those reviewers, students, readers, and writers are all reacting to upper-level voice, without realizing it.
Writing itself comes from the oral tradition. In class, I always tell writers that we’re storytellers first, and writers second. Before the invention of paper and pens, stories only lived orally. A lot of great storytellers only speak their stories to this day. (Listen to stand-up comedians some time.)
Generally speaking, though, writers are introverts. We don’t want to stand up in front of our audiences and regale them with adventures. We don’t care (and might not ever want) to see the audience laugh at our jokes or cry at our tales of woe. We want to tell stories, yes, but we want to do so in the privacy of our own offices. We want others to enjoy the story, but at their own pace, and far away from us.
Hence the manuscript. Which is nothing more than a delivery system.
We all understand delivery systems. When the system breaks down, you’ll need a new and different system. (You don’t try to patch the old system.) That’s why writers in my class learn to redraft a failing manuscript. Tinkering with the words doesn’t work. Adding stuff to a failing system only makes it fail more.
Writing the story again, from scratch, will improve the delivery system, so that the reader can actually understand what the writer wants to do.
The best writers in any language use their manuscripts to hijack the reader’s mind. The reader no longer thinks in their voice. They are absorbing the writer’s voice, at least for the length of the story.
We do that all the time when we consume stories. Listening to a friend at a party, watching a program on television, going to a movie, getting deep into a video game—all of that takes us out of our own heads and puts us somewhere else.
We call that escape.
The best writers control the escape down to the tiniest detail. And those details include voice.
So let’s discuss upper-level punctuation for a moment. Just for a moment, because I can’t effectively teach this concept through a blog post. But I shall try to give you a taste of what I mean.
Punctuation at the upper levels of craft controls voice. Readers generally don’t see punctuation unless you want them to. They hear punctuation.
Punctuation is sound. A period is an actual break. A comma is a breath. A colon is a pause. A dash is breathless. And ellipsis trail off. (We’ve all met that uncertain person who never really takes a breath, who never really ends a sentence, who never really stops talking. You know, that girl…the one who…oh, I don’t know…but you know….)
Most of my examples when I teach are spoken. But if you want to see punctuation in action, read the Emily Dickinson poems as they were first published. Her editor put in “correct” punctuation, making her poems grammatical. Then read the poems as she wrote them, breathless and heartfelt.
One example from the first publication:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me.
Um. So polite and bland. (And puts the emphasis on kindly which is not where she intended it.) Then put in an em-dash at the end of each line, and realize that for Dickinson, the sentence isn’t anywhere near done.
I can’t reprint the poems as they’re supposed to be (although I did link to this one) because of copyright issues. Amherst and Harvard own the copyright to the correct versions of the poems. (You can see that at the bottom of the page the link takes you to.) The original publication is in the public domain, bland, and not in the poet’s voice at all (although whispers of it peek through in word choice alone).
The more craft you learn, the more tools you put in your toolbox, the more your manuscripts will sound like you. Then your peers in your peer workshop will beat all over you, telling you that you have screwed up the sentences and the grammar. Flee that workshop. You’ve graduated. Move on. (See my posts on perfection and workshops to understand this.)
As you learn more and more about the craft of writing, and how to take the way you speak and put it accurately on the page, the farther you will go from “good” grammar. Every sentence you write—from your subconscious, mind you—will be in service of the story, not in service of beautiful language and some weird concept that there is a “right” way to tell your story, which everyone knows but you.
It takes confidence in yourself to use your writing tools properly. You have to trust the process. If your subconscious wants you to write a poem about Death, and wants that poem to sound breathless, filled with asides, then write it with em-dashes.
Not only must you be creative and courageous in the act of writing, but you also need to be fierce when it comes time to defend your work. What do I mean by defend? I mean the opposite of what Dyer-Seeley discusses above.
She tried to learn what her editors “wanted” when it came to the comma, rather than telling the original editors that she believed in the introductory comma, at least for the piece she had written for those editors. Dyer-Seeley’s subconscious had believed the introductory comma needed to be there, so she had put it there. And then meekly removed it when asked by someone who “was in charge” or “knew better.”
What Dyer-Seeley should have done—what you all should do—is defend her use of the introductory comma. She should have put those suckers back into her manuscript, rather than trying to second guess the people who don’t know her voice.
When you’re working at the next level of craft, going beyond grammar to actual voice, you defend grammatically incorrect sentences. You have one-word paragraphs. You use sentence fragments. You stick periods in places that make grammarians shudder.
You realize that exclamation points aren’t there for emphasis. They’re screamers. Someone is screaming at you when using them.
I mean it. Run!!
Look at all the ways I mangled the language. I added too many “u”s, and too many exclamation points.
You could write the same three lines like this:
I mean it. Run!
The problem with that last paragraph is that it sounds different. Ruuuuuuuuun!!! is a long drawn-out scream of panic. The all-caps italicized RUN! is a forceful command.
Both use screamers. Or rather, exclamation points. But they have a different emphasis.
You can learn some more on this by reading Stephen King’s short story “L.T.’s Theory of Pets.” After you’ve read it, listen to the audio book. He reads it. See how surprised you are (or not) by the sound of his voice. (Ignore his accent.) After you’ve listened, listen again with the story in front of you. You’ll see what he intended with each piece of punctuation because he is literally giving you the sound of the story as it runs inside his head.
Does my saying that a writer needs to defend herself against the copy editor and editor mean that copy editors and editors have no place in fiction? Not at all. They find inconsistences, dropped words, misspellings, and yes, the occasional punctuation error.
But they can change your voice terribly if you let them. My Kristine Grayson novels are deliberately filled with em-dashes. One copy editor I had at one of my traditional publishers pulled out every single one.
I called my editor and told him that I couldn’t repair that with a thousand “stets” (look it up). I was just going back to the original, and I would put in the copy edits that I believed were viable myself.
Instead, he had the book copy edited a second time (by someone who wasn’t politically opposed to a creative use of the em-dash), and from that point on, he used my books to train new copy editors. If they had more than two corrections per page on my work, they never got another job from him. Because that traditional editor knew they were messing with my voice. He understood voice and the importance of it.
Many editors do not. And almost all of the “editors” you can hire as an indie writer—those editors who call themselves “content editors” or “line editors”—they don’t understand voice at all. They’ll remove all of your voice and make it as bland as those two stanzas I reprinted from the original publications of Emily Dickinson.
Don’t let someone do that to your work. Certainly don’t look on letting people mess with your voice as a virtue.
Learn the upper level of craft—the stuff that takes you beyond good grammar and the dull repetitiveness of college-textbook English—and then defend your craft. Look at what copy editors do as suggestions, not instructions. If the copy editors have a heavy hand and that hand changes your voice, hire a different copy editor, one who understands you. If you’re traditionally published, don’t be afraid to tell your editor that the copy editor has murdered your manuscript.
Believe me, it happens more often than you think.
How do you learn all the tools of your craft? By reading. For enjoyment. You won’t hear an author’s voice if you read critically. Shut off the critical brain and read for pleasure. Stuff your brain full of the fiction that you love.
Eventually, you will see what others have done, and that will come out your fingers.
Sometimes a writer will stop you with a technique. You’ll get done reading a chapter of a thriller and realize that your heart is pounding, your breath is coming in short gasps, and you are shaking. That’s the power of good storytelling. When you finish reading the book, it might be worthwhile to go back to that stunning chapter, and type it into your computer. You won’t get lost in the story that way. You’ll be down in the words and the punctuation. It’ll feel awkward, because you’ll want to change things.
That’s your voice fighting with the other author’s voice. Learn from that. Realize that the fight is a common reaction—because you don’t talk the way they do. You talk like you.
Learn your craft.
Trust the process.
Defend your voice.
You’ll be a better writer for it—and you’ll have a lot more fun.
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“Business Musings: Punctuation, Voice, And Control,” copyright © 2019 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / gpointstudio.