I can’t recall where or how I first heard about Noah Lukeman‘s book A Dash of Style, but I do remember making the decision within a minute that it was a book I needed to have. Writers loved it, lauding it as possibly the only guide on punctuation that spoke to them, since it addressed how best to use all of those little marks to enhance a story. The idea that punctuation could be more than what I’d learned through Strunk and White appealed to me, partly because I already had a decent semi-colon addiction going on. How might I reign that in? Did I need to? What might I do with commas and periods that I hadn’t yet imagined?
I was surprised when I started reading A Dash of Style, because often–too often–I buy books that sound good, then leave them to moulder on my shelf when I realize the content is beyond boring. This, a book about punctuation, was fascinating to me. Really! And it became the most dog-eared, annotated craft book on my shelf. I love this book, and I was thrilled when author/agent Noah Lukeman agreed to this interview so that you might better know this book, too.
Interview with Noah Lukeman
Q: How is A Dash of Style different from other punctuation books out there?
NL: A Dash of Style is the only punctuation book written specifically for creative writers. Rather than quibble over whether an apostrophe should appear before or after an “s,” A Dash of Style examines whether a well-placed semicolon or paragraph break might alter the intention of a scene, might help capture the inner nature of a character. So many punctuation books are entangled in semantics, bogged down with prosaic instruction; A Dash of Style instead sets out to grapple with what I term the “holy grail” of punctuation: the big picture. Intention. Style. Rhythm. Pacing. Does a particular semicolon give off a pretentious feel? Do the scarcity of periods make a work feel self indulgent? Did adding a particular comma ruin the rhythmic intention of a sentence? Whereas many punctuation books would eschew that gray area, mine seeks to embrace it, to dwell in that wonderful realm of uncertainty. This is where punctuation leaves the realm of the minuscule and can enter one of art.
Q: Which punctuation mark do you feel is the most misused?
NL: It depends on the author, but in general, the comma is probably most misused, if for no other reason than its frequency. It is also the mark with few hard and fast rules, the mark most open to interpretation, which leaves most authors unclear as to whether or not to use it. The comma can be used to pause, to provide clarity, to separate, to connect, to indicate a passing of time; it can also be overused, over-qualifying and slowing a text to a near halt. Of course, it all depends on context, which is why I offer myriad examples of proper (and improper) usage in the book. Suffice it to say that if you’re unsure, in most cases you’ll probably get into less trouble by omitting one than by adding one haphazardly.
Q: How can punctuation help to differentiate between characters in a novel?
NL: The most striking example comes in dialogue. A scarcity of commas and periods in dialogue might help capture a character who is long-winded and who speaks in a rush, possibly even someone who doesn’t allow others to interrupt. An abundance of commas, on the other hand, might help capture a character who speaks with multiple pauses, who qualifies everything. An abundance of periods might indicate someone who is terse, to the point, or possibly even simple-minded. And all of this can spill over to prose itself, to the narration. These are extreme examples, but by beginning to play with this, one can see how a striking contrast between characters can be created by simply altering the punctuation.
Q: What kind of punctuation can you use if you’d like a particular sentence—or thought within that sentence—to stand out and be noticed?
NL: You’ve just used it aptly yourself! The double dash is effective for helping a thought within a sentence be propelled into the limelight. If you’d like the entire sentence to stand out, you can offset it by paragraph breaks. A single sentence paragraph will certainly catch one’s attention, particularly if sandwiched by longer paragraphs. Italics work well, but one must be sparing, because they can be too easily overused.
Keep in mind that these can all be cheap tricks. I say constantly throughout A Dash of Style that punctuation must not be used as a crutch, must not be brought in to save ailing sentence construction. Punctuation should complement. Ultimately, the content itself must be constructed in such a way as to naturally stand out. Instead of merely reaching for italics, one should attempt to substitute a more powerful word choice.
Q: Is it true that some punctuation marks affect the power of other punctuation marks in a sentence? How?
NL: Yes. Punctuation is entirely about rhythm and speed. To different degrees, nearly all punctuation marks work to slow or stop a sentence. A comma slows a sentence a bit, a semicolon slows it more, and a period brings it to a complete stop. Thus the period’s stopping power will be on full display in a sentence devoid of commas and semicolons; it will likewise be compromised in a sentence filled with them. This is just one example—I discuss this at length in the book, particularly in the final chapter, “The Symphony of Punctuation.”
Q: Andy Rooney once spoke about semicolons and his belief that they should be abolished because they’re somewhat outdated. Do you feel semicolons are replaceable in today’s novels? What do they offer the novelist and the reader that other punctuation marks don’t?
NL: That’s a ridiculous statement. I couldn’t disagree more. For the simplistic thinker and writer, perhaps there is no place for the semicolon; but for anyone interested in evolving as an author, in allowing for greater sentence depth and complexity, there are few more valuable tools. In his wonderful book, You Have a Point There, Eric Partridge says “By its very form (;) [the semicolon] betrays its dual nature: it is both period and comma.” There are many instances in writing when, rhythmically speaking, one needs to connect two closely related sentences. The comma won’t always do, particularly when each sentence is longer or more complex. There are also many instances when one wants a complex, multi-layered thought under the umbrella of a single sentence. Clearly, the comma can’t be called upon to achieve this in every instance.
Abolishing the semicolon would prevent all sorts of creative and complex sentence construction. It is like suggesting one remove the color red from the palette because it was ubiquitous in the 18th century and is out of vogue today. Good writing is timeless. The punctuation that worked for Melville, Conrad, Faulkner, Camus and Hemingway works equally well for authors today.
Q: You have many exercises in your book. Will you share one with us?
NL: There are multiple exercises for each mark, and dozens throughout the entire book, so it’s not easy to choose. Here are two of the introductory exercises, both relating to the period:
• Start a new story, and let the opening sentence run for at least one page long. Where does this lead you? How did you compensate? Did you find a new narration style? Did not stopping allow you more creative freedom? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your writing?
• Start a new story, and don’t let any sentence run for more than six words. Where does this lead you? How did you compensate? Did you find a new narration style? Did the constant stopping allow you more creative freedom? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your writing?
Q: How can punctuation reveal the type of writer you are or more about the type of author you’re reading?
NL: As a literary agent, I can tell a lot about a writer very quickly by glancing at his punctuation. In extreme situations, a general scarcity of periods (resulting in long sentences) can indicate a writer who is pretentious or self-indulgent, whereas an abundance of them (resulting in short sentences) can indicate a writer who is impatient, action-oriented or simplistic. An abundance of paragraph breaks (short paragraphs) can indicate a journalist turned novelist, whereas a scarcity of them (long paragraphs) can indicate an academic. A work heavy on quotation marks (an abundance of dialogue) can indicate a playwright turned novelist, whereas one absent of them can indicate a literary author too in love with prose. Too many semicolons can indicate pretension, whereas a lack of them can indicate an untested author. Of course, it all depends on context.
What’s most important is for you to learn to step back and analyze your own punctuation, to allow it to objectively teach you about yourself. Punctuation analysis can teach you something about your style that other methods of writing analysis cannot. As I say throughout A Dash of Style, punctuation reveals the writer. And punctuation never lies.
Thanks so much, Noah Lukeman, for a fantastic interview. Readers, you can buy A Dash of Style online or at brick-and-mortar bookstores nationwide. You won’t regret it, and you’ll work will be all the stronger for it.