by Winter Bayne posted April 24, 2014
Having been inundated with editing jobs, I’ve come to realize that my corrections aren’t entirely based on grammar. Apparently, there are unwritten laws that also govern our writing. These laws are perhaps the difference between a good writer and a genius wordsmith. What follows is advice that could put me out of the job.
The music of punctuation
We’ve all probably heard our high school English teacher say, “A comma is a pause, a chance to breathe.” This is, of course, utter bs but the teacher was on to something. A comma merely gives writing syntax, but it does constitute a small pause.
Semicolon: 1/2 beat
“Hitchhiking can be dangerous; it should never be attempted by a minor.”
Comma: 1 beat
“One fine day, with a woof and a purr.”
Colon: 1 and a 1/2 beats
“Remember to bring: lube, a banana and your tennis shoes.”
Em dash: 2 beats (per dash)
“I think — therefore, I am — me.”
Period: 2 and a 1/2 beats
“We were once men. Now we wear skinny jeans.”
You might assume that a semicolon is more emphatic than it really is. This is because we have a natural tendency to keep reading when we see a semicolon; we already know that what comes next is directly relevant. Likewise: the colon takes us longer to read than the comma (not by much) because it’s extremely abrupt and we have a tendency to reread what comes after the colon so that we’re sure we understand. The em dash is the most emphatic punctuation because — it actually takes time — for our eyes to reach the text! The period is the real hero of punctuation. We usually take a literal pause when reading these aloud.
A paragraph represents 5 beats and the end of a page represents 10 beats. This would mean, in practical terms, that the transition between text is a writer’s primary way of making a reader’s body feel physical tension. This is perfect for taking your story to the next level. Make your reader feel physiological anxiety as they frantically skip between empty space or indentations to find their spot. There should be significant anticipation in the reader as they turn the page, and by definition, this is the mechanics of writing ‘a page turner’.
Lastly, it’s also how you sell your next book or crappy blog article for that matter. ;)