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Punctuation, Voice, and Control

24 March 2019

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

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.

. . . .

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.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch


Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Writing Advice

One Comments to “Punctuation, Voice, and Control”

  1. Ha!

    Long ago and in a class I did poorly in we had a substitute English teacher. With no game plan she gave us several local news stories to play with by only changing/moving around a few words/punctuation. The results had other teachers checking on the class towards the end as we cracked up to the translated/corrected news stories.

    Good times. MYMV and you not have an editor change the whole meaning of your story. 😉

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