Monday, January 21, 2013

Punctuation Pitfalls

Greetings fellow readers, bloggers, and writers.
I know, I know, I have been really quiet on the blogging front as of late. I've been struggling for the past year on how this blogging thing works, and, to be honest, I also feel rather silly and inexperienced, but have decided to post about what I find important, or would find helpful anyway. If others find it useful as well, great! If not, then at least I have an outlet for the randomness clogging my brain. Either way, I'm happy, and, sometimes, that is all that really matters. Don't you agree? So for this wonderful year of 2013, my goal is to post at least something once a week on Mondays. We'll see how this goes.

 Today I decided to post a little bit about a personal irritant of mine: punctuation. Yes, that awful P-word has caused me more headaches than I care to admit. Often my sentences are all very short and choppy because I'm hesitant to look like an idiot who obviously doesn't know the difference between how to use a dash and a comma. I know it sounds silly, but there you have it.

Some of you may be thinking, "What, punctuation? That is like the easiest thing on the planet." I applaud your awesome skills, and bow to the pros. For those of you who, like me, find themselves perplexed by periods, dumbfounded by dashes, confounded by commas, and so on and so forth, I wish to offer some lifelines I have found incredibly helpful.

# 1 Punctuation Power: Punctuation and How to Use It
This handbook has been a lifesaver on so many occasions. It is inexpensive, but worth its weight in gold. It contains a very thorough collection of every form of punctuation used in the English language, and how to use them in their various manifestations. This includes a lengthy section on how to use those slippery commas which are, according to the author, "the most overused, underused, and abused" punctuation mark.
The poor little guys! I know in my WIP alone they are very much mistreated. I'm hoping they don't one day get so fed up with me that they go on strike. Yikes!

# 2 A very funny, yet helpful, blurb about semicolons a friend sent to me entitled, How to use a semicolon: the most feared punctuation on earth.I laughed when reading this, but I also got the point. Enjoy!

#3 Punctuating dialogue. This is something I struggled, er, I mean struggle with. These tips I received on a handout from Angela Morrison, author of Taken by Storm and Sing me to Sleep, helped with editing trouble

spots in my own writing. Here are her tips:


Punctuating your dialogue wrong can sink your manuscript, but it’s not like any other punctuation, and its hard to find a short list of the rules. Here’s the basics plus a few tricks from my copy editor. I use the term “stage direction” to mean all the different types of beats you can surround the lines of dialogue with.
1. If your speech tag comes at the beginning of sentence, you need a comma, a quotation mark, a capitalized first word, and then period, quotation mark. (What a mouth full! It’s so much easier just to show you.)
ex. Scott says, “Only three months until they graduate.”
The rule is the comma ALWAYS comes before the quotation mark.  

2. If your speech tag comes at the end, start the sentence with quotation mark, capitalized first word, comma, quotation mark and a final period to end the sentence.
ex. “See you in choir,” he whispers.
You can only use commas with speech tags/attributions.  

3. If you start with stage direction or put a line of stage direction after a line of dialogue, the opening or closing dialogue lines need a final end mark (period, question mark, exclamation point).
ex. He pats my shoulder. “See you in choir?” OR ex. “See you in choir.” He waves.  
4. I LOVE to break up a character’s longer line of dialogue with stage direction.
ex. “You’re worried?” He pats my shoulder. “That’s nice, Beth. See you in choir.”  
This example is pretty straightforward. Both bits of dialogue and the stage direction are full sentences. No commas called for. I often see something like: ex. “You’re worried,” he pats my shoulder, “that’s nice, Beth.”  
Don’t do that. It’s WRONG. You would only use those commas if you added speech tags.  
ex. “You’re worried,” he asks, pats my shoulder, and says, “That’s nice, Beth.” 
 But why would you want to muck up your dialogue that way? Unless he’s whispering. Whispering is worth mucking up dialogue for. 
ex. “You’re worried?” he whispers and pats my shoulder. “That’s nice, Beth.” 

5. What if you want to break up a sentence with a beat of stage direction? Here’s where it gets tricky. You’ve got lots of options. If you can punctuate these right, you can get a job as a copy editor. Let’s stick with our simple example. ex. “You’re,” he whispers and pats my shoulder, “worried? That’s nice, Beth.” You can only use commas if you include says or said or whispered, etc. Otherwise, you have to do it like this. 
 “You’re”—he pats my shoulder—“worried? That’s nice, Beth.”  
6. Use a dash inside the quotation marks to show that one speaker interrupts the other. 
ex. “See you in—”

“I’m not going.”

7. Using ellipses in dialogue marks you as an amateur—unless your character is chatting online. Never, ever do the this:

ex. “See you in choir . . . ” OR even,

ex. “See you . . . ”

 # 4 Last, and most important: Relax! Punctuation is not your enemy, but the tool that ensures what you really mean to say comes across as smooth as possible to your readers. Take a deep breath, and remember, no matter how many times you edit, you can't catch everything. Thank goodness there are professional copy editors, wonderful critique groups, and beta readers to help you catch the things you miss.

Now, go be brilliant and wow your friends with your sudden grasp of how exactly to use that slippery semicolon.
Happy Writing!

What is your biggest pitfall in writing? What helpful tools have you found to help overcome it?

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