Just the punctuation

Left: Just the punctuation from the opening of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Right: Just the punctuation from Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner.

I recently read Clive Thompson’s article on what he learnt about his writing by seeing only the punctuation. He also created a website for anyone to paste their writing into and see just the punctuation for their own analysis. You’ll even get a graphic similar to the one above. So that’s exactly what I did.

Seeing just the punctuation of your work — aside from looking pretty — is a useful tool for analysing your writing quirks. Here’s what Thompson realised about his own writing after seeing just his use of punctuation:

I use a lot of parenthetical statements. I also write very long ones. Looking at that graphic, I can see about seven parenthetical statements, one of which contains a hefty fourteen pieces of punctuation, including an internal colon: ( “ ‘ — “ . — . , ‘ , : , , . ). That’s a really long, complex parenthetical.

So what’s going on here? It made me realize I cram my writing with lots of digressions; which is probably related to my thirsty desire to seem so very smart and clever; which itself stems from some intellectual neediness I am able to keep partially — but not entirely — in check; and which also likely explains why I often chain many many phrases together with semicolons, as if I were some Victorian dude peering through his steampunk monocle while cranking out pay-per-word pieces for The Strand. (But I digress.)

To get a graphic as lengthy as the one above, you need to post around 6,000 words. So I took four lengthy pieces I’ve written between 2014 and now to see what I might learn from my own writing. I also wanted to know how much would have changed.

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First up is just the punctuation from the third (and final) chapter that I wrote for a novel I started (and then abandoned) in 2014.

Just the punctuation for a chapter of my first unfinished novel

The first thing I noticed was the excessive use of exclamation marks, often considered a cardinal sin by many writers. Exclamation marks used to show up quite a lot in the songs and poems I used to write. The first writing habit I recall trying to train myself out of was my liberal use of exclamation marks. I’ve since learnt that the mark is rarely warranted. Although, as I later discovered in further analysis, the exclamation mark is not as absent from my writing as I had first thought.

I’m also quite surprised how often I used a semi-colon. Microsoft Word must have insisted on them, and I was not confident enough in my grammatical knowledge to argue.

What’s unsurprising to me — and what I expected would be consistent across all my pieces — was how often I wrote dialogue. Most amusing to me, though, is how clueless I was about whether punctuation went inside or outside the speech marks. The uncertainty shows in the inconsistency. But this was a lesson I recall learning quickly within my first year of university.

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The second piece comes from 2016 and was written in the summer between my second and final year of my undergraduate degree. It was a short story turned novelette that I have not shared with anyone, nor do I plan to. Trust me, it’s for the best it never sees the light of day.

But I chose it because it was the first long piece of writing I did after that third chapter for the unfinished novel. So I figured it would make for an interesting comparison.

Just the punctuation of a novelette I wrote in 2016

Enter the hash to signify a scene break. This was something I picked up from a guide on how to format a manuscript professionally. I much prefer the three asterisks (like what I use in this post), but this is also the default punctuation Scrivener uses for scene breaks, so it’ll no doubt be a recurring punctuation point.

Most worthy of note is that I clearly acquired a love of the em dash — as many writers do.

Occasionally, I’ve utilised the em dash to signify an interruption. This was a common occurrence when I wrote dialogue. I had it fixed in my head that interruptions gave dialogue a more natural appearance. And yet, the more I read, I’ve found that interruptions are not as common in prose as I had convinced myself.

The exclamation marks, whilst less frequent, do in fact remain. So I must not have untrained myself as well as I had thought.

And as I expected, there are a lot of speech marks. It’s clear to see why I pivoted into writing plays for my final years of university. Dialogue is just something I am drawn to write.

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The next one comes from another short story turned novelette that I wrote during the very first lockdown. Short stories becoming anything but short might just be the most consistent habit I have. And yes, it’s another piece that will probably never see the light of day. There’s another habit I must break.

Just the punctuation of a novelette I wrote in 2020 during the first lockdown

Whilst not gone completely, I noticed there are far fewer semi-colons in my writing than there used to be. I’m more confident in using punctuation now than I was back in 2014, so I’m a lot more stubborn when it comes to ignoring the squiggly lines Word adds when it has a problem with my prose. I also use simple and compound sentences more frequently than complex ones. Consequently, the semi-colon has been neglected.

Brackets have also now made an appearance, which is not surprising. In 2014, I recall thinking little of brackets and avoided using them in fiction. Now, though, I use brackets more often than I probably realise — especially in blog posts. I find them useful for digressions and inserting quick thoughts.

Still plenty of speech marks, though. My love of dialogue remains.

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This final one comes from a chapter sample I sent to literary agent, which was part of my prize for winning the Green Shoots Writing Competition. It’s for the novel I started writing and am passively working on in the background alongside other projects.

Just the punctuation for the opening chapter of a novel I started this year

What’s tricky about this one is that this chapter currently consists of diary extracts. Thus, this is not representative of my usual prose (although I will most certainly use the journal style more often). What this means is that this is the first time speech marks are less frequent than they normally would be.

Turns out I was right that exclamation marks are not as absent from my work as I had thought. The brackets are back, too. Then there’s the hash signifying a scene break, which messes with my lovely graphic again.

Something I’ve noticed that is prevalent from 2014 through to 2021 is the prevalence of question marks. This also appears to be true of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner, the question mark recurring frequently in their work. I wonder if this is true of most prose. Perhaps some further analysis by looking at the punctuation of my favourite authors is in order.

Furthermore, as I suspected, I’ve come to write many more simple and compound sentences over long complex ones.

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I thought I’d finish this post with a side-by-side of that 2014 graphic with the one from my opening chapter this year.

Side-by-side comparison. Left: Just the punctuation for the chapter I wrote in 2014. Right: Just the punctuation for the chapter consisting of diary entries I wrote this year.

Even if we ignore the fact that 2021 is a collection of diary entries, it seems clear to me that my use of punctuation is a lot cleaner. It’s less messy and I don’t use as wide a variety of punctuation as I used to. But I know this is a result of using punctuation with more certainty, rather than relying on Word to compensate for my cluelessness.

I also believe adopting a more simplified style makes for better reading. Nobody who has read my work has said otherwise, and it’s what I spend a great deal of editing time trying to achieve.

For me, this graphic is a visual representation of growth. I’ll have to revisit this in future and document how my use of punctuation changes.