How punctuation helps your writing to speak

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Effective writing flows into the reader’s mind like well-constructed speech. To do so, it needs pauses, emphases and lilt, just like speech does. No rewinding is needed to figure out what was being said; the readers or listeners instantly understand each point as it’s read or spoken, and their concentration moves on to the next idea.

One of the best ways to create pauses, emphases and lilt is punctuation. Without it, the reader can’t be completely captivated. He or she has to slow down or re-read to get the message.

Poor Princess Ella!

I tutor a friend’s daughter in writing. She writes a story for me each week, then I read it back to her. I only vary my voice where there’s a punctuation mark telling me to do so.

Can you imagine how this one sounds?

Ella took a photo with the magic camera then bang she found herself on the school roof Help said Ella.

As soon as my student hears my robotic voice following her commands, or lack of them, she realises how different this sounds to what she intended! If she reads it to me, there are ups and downs and drama in her voice. She is a wonderful young actress, and I enjoy her performances! But the robot really needs her help.

So she starts to insert punctuation. I have been drilling her on this for two years, so she has a fair idea of what to do.

“Ella took a photo with the magic camera. Bang! She found herself on the school roof.

“Help!” said Ella. (We might change that to ‘yelled Ella’ or something punchier.)

Only a small family of helpers

We don’t have a lot of instructions available to give the robot; there are only a few punctuation marks.

We have the full stop, comma, apostrophe, exclamation mark, question mark, speech/quotation marks (single and double), colon, semi-colon and some dashes. You might also include the ellipses or ‘triple dot’ (as my student does very regularly …).

Consider the comma. It is overused and underused, and can play different roles.

The comma’s potent pauses

The comma is our friend when it comes to creating pauses in written language. It generates the pause that is so important in speech. For example:

Well, now, what have we here? A skinny cat wrapped in a fluffy grey rug?


Can you hear those pauses? It wouldn’t be the same without the commas:

Well now what have we here?

The pause created by a comma can even change the meaning. Consider, for example:

  1. The comma is our friend when it comes to pauses.
  2. The comma is our friend, when it comes to pauses.

It the second version, the comma is incorrect unless the sentence is followed up with something like:

But when it comes to energy, it’s our foe.

Ah, the subtle power of the comma!

Comma rules

There are a few comma rules you need to know in order to correctly use those small, powerful curls to create speech-like flow in your writing. Rather than overwhelm you with them now, I plan to write about them in future blog posts.

Many of us know what’s correct just from years of reading and noticing – but many don’t. I find myself needing to do a lot of comma editing to correct my clients’ text and make it flow properly. Happily, it’s something I love to do!

Click here to contact me if you need your writing to be checked.

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