Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Punctuation As Body Language

While I love writing stories, the written medium is terrible for many reasons.  The biggest, in my opinion, is that it leaves out the subtleties we get when we're standing next to someone while having a conversation.  We rely on so much more than words to discern meaning - tone of voice, body language, use of hands, etc, all give us larger insight into what the speaker means than a simple litany of nouns, verbs, and modifiers strung together.

However, with writing, so much of this is gone.  A sarcastic and biting comment goes from witty to dorky in an instant, while questioning a concept goes from curiosity to a mean spirited vendetta.  The interpretation of what's on paper is left to the reader rather than the writer, and while using our imagination is one of the greatest aspects of reading, it also allows for a great deal of misinterpretation.

This is where punctuation comes in...and where it sometimes falls apart.  I make no bones about the fact that I believe most people are horrible writers.  One of the things that makes them horrible is the dryness with which they present their ideas.  It often boils down to a rote listing of what they want to get across, but there's no flair or attempt to drive the true meaning home.  After all, the writer knew what he or she meant, so why shouldn't you?

The proper and sometimes imaginative use of punctuation lets us bridge the gap between meaning and intent.  Just now, in the previous sentence, I debated about whether to add commas between proper and and, as well as between imaginative and use.  These pregnant pauses, or lack of them, convey tone of voice and let you hear my words more in my voice, thus leaving less room for misunderstanding.

Other punctuation plays a big part.  Exclamation points help convey excitement.  Dashes and semicolons aid either emphasis or lecturing.  The suspension point of ellipses - the dreaded triple dot - allow us to either convey "blah, blah, blah"...or they help us get across a slight change in meaning and tempo.

Lots of writers seem almost afraid of punctuation.  They use just enough to get by, and no more.  To me, risk taking with punctuation adds spice to our words and lets us get across how we intended to say something, bringing us closer to the real meaning.  It separates okay writing from good writing, and good writing from great writing. 

It also requires practice to do it right.  You have to take the time to use it, and you have to be prepared for mistakes.  Find others who are willing to help and see if they can figure out what you meant.  I like to hand out original work with bland punctuation, and then I give out the new version.  The change in tone is fascinating to watch, and sometimes I miss, but that doesn't mean I don't try.  After all, bland rarely excites.

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