Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Punctuation and Writing Voice

"When I hear the hypercritical quarreling about grammar and style, the position of the particles, etc., etc., stretching or contracting every speaker to certain rules of theirs. I see that they forget that the first requisite and rule is that expression shall be vital and natural, as much as the voice of a brute or an interjection: first of all, mother tongue; and last of all, artificial or father tongue. Essentially your truest poetic sentence is as free and lawless as a lamb’s bleat." - Henry David Thoreau

"You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life." - George Bernard Shaw

It's been suggested--strongly, at times--that I overuse the em dash in my writing.  For those unfamiliar with the fancy terms born in the typesetting era, the em dash is the longer version, the very biggest brother, of the hyphen.  It's actually fairly straightforward.  We use the hyphen all the time to join two words together in a willy-nillly fashion.  There's a slightly larger version called the en dash that's used to join two similarly-weighted concepts/words together; for example, you might use one to replace the word "to" in "The West Point football team beat Notre Dame 28 to 14" (hey, I can dream).  Meanwhile, the biggest dash--the em dash--is used to indicate a significant break in thought when a simple period won't cut it.

Me, I have lots of significant breaks in thought.  And I don't like periods much.  Thus, the em dash has always been my friend, even before I knew what it was called.

But it's bad, right?  Good, published, experienced authors rarely if ever use it, right?

Not necessarily.  It actually comes down to voice, or the way we want our prose to "sound" to the mind's ear when the reader is--well, reading, which is for the most part what readers do.  But check it out yourself.  Go snag a couple of books from your bookshelf and read prose from two different authors, just a few paragraphs, right now.  Trust me, I'll wait.

Did you "hear" a difference?  Yes?  Maybe not.  For many of us, including me a year ago, the voice of an author is something we pick up on intuitively in a passive manner, coming out as an "I like the way he writes."  Actually describing the voice in a cognitive fashion, though, is something that requires training and practice to accomplish.  I think.  Anyway, I'm better at it now than I used to be.

So what's my voice?  Do I want to "sound" more like Stephen King (the other one), or like Douglas Adams, or like Robert Jordan?  Well, frankly, I've always enjoyed the writing styles that tend toward sub-comedic, the ones that tell a story and occasionally--every couple of pages or so--have you chortling softly, and occasionally even guffawing loudly.  The ones that, if you notice, tend to be a bit choppy and hurky-jerky at times, because that's what comes across as funny. 

Writers like Bill Bryson, ferinstance.  I recently picked his book "A Walk in the Woods" back up.  It's out of my genre, true, but it's an interestingly-told tale of Bryson's hike along the Appalachian Trail.  In it he offends the hell out of us Southern boys, but that's not the point (besides, he does it in a humorous way, so it's all good). 

Point is, I picked it up this morning to read a little from where I'd left off last.  I got to the second page of my current chapter--Chapter 14--and noticed for the first time that Bryson uses the hell out of my buddy, the em dash.  On that page, in fact, I counted nine of them.  There's even a sentence that uses not only three em dashes but also a colon to really break the hell out of the line of thought: "The six sheets--maps is really much too strong a word for them--produced for Pennsylvania by a body called the Keystone Trails Association are small, monochrome, appallingly printed, inadequately keyed, and astoundingly vague--in short, useless: comically useless, heartbreakingly useless, dangerously useless."

How's that for choppy?  Oh, and he used six adverbs in one sentence there too.  Take that, Stephen King! 

Point is, the punctuation used by a writer is what sets the pace and the meter of the writing.  It's what makes a writer like Bryson sound brisk and bouncy while other writers lull you into the lullaby of their smoothly-flowing prose.  It's the punctuation, then, that sets off one writer's voice from another.

It's also, then, a matter of concern for editors (and for writers revising our own work).  It's pretty easy to go back over somebody else's writing, or our own from days or weeks ago, armed with a set of normally-useful rules like "em dashes are bad" and "adverbs should be minimized" and "coffee must be consumed black" and squish a writer's voice in the process.  Sometimes a passage sounds choppy, and that's a good thing because it was meant to sound choppy.

So on that note--have a great Wednesday!


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