A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation
By Noah Lukeman
(W.W. Norton and Co., 206 pp)
Overview: A Dash of Style devotes itself entirely to punctuation. Don’t cringe; it’s not a throwback to grade school sentence diagramming. This book assumes you already know how to punctuate: the basic precepts of periods, commas, semicolons, etc. Instead it teaches us how punctuation can enhance and complement your creative writing. For example, how does a series of commas, strung together between phrases, one after another, strengthen or weaken a sentence? Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, it can do either. Maybe you’ve heard never to use a semicolon in your fiction. A Dash of Style dispels that myth and many others.
The book discusses all of the major players and even a few of the less-considered marks—the colon, the dash, the line break. Each topic is followed by examples; each chapter concludes with exercises to try in your own writing.
Punctuation is powerful. Artfully employed, it can make an important sentence standout and a lyrical sentence sing. Just as you consider word choice and order, so too should you consider each punctuation mark, and how, in concert with the other marks around it, it can best serve your writing.
- “No punctuation mark acts alone”
Semicolons steal power from the period. Commas lessen the effect of semicolons. Always consider the context in which you are employing a particular mark. What punctuation has come before? What will follow? What pacing and rhythm are you trying to achieve?
- “As a writer your foremost concern is keeping readers turning pages, and thus you must be keenly aware of when you’re slowing the pace, and only do so for an excellent reason.”
Commas, semicolons, and long sentences all can slow the pace of your writing. Use them, but use them consciously.
- “You must also consider stylistic consistency.”
If you write with long sentences, keep writing long sentences until you have reason to write a short one. If you employ several commas per sentence stick with that general pattern. Keep the reader’s ride as smooth as possible. Then, when you do vary your usage, it will work to greater effect.
- “[The colon] is one of the most effective punctuation marks to propel a word or clause into the limelight.”
Don’t be afraid to use the colon or it’s much decried sibling the semicolon. Both create a significant pause in the flow of a sentence and can be used to draw attention to the material that follows. But they stand out; use them sparingly.
- “Let your punctuation unfold organically, as the text demands…It is not here to save—it is here to complement.”
Content is still king. Great punctuation cannot save otherwise weak writing and story telling. But it can make that which is already good shine.
I employed several of the punctuation techniques I learned from the book in the “Overview” portion of this post. Which ones did you find effective? Ineffective? What punctuation marks do you overuse in your writing? Which ones do you underuse?