Punctuation and Visual Rhythm

Recently I was proofreading a novel draft of mine, and I came across this sentence:

Anne advanced; he retreated; she cornered him against a wall and pounded his shoulders.

Now, I love me some semicolons, so it’s no surprise that I would somehow manage to get two into a single sentence in the first five pages of a novel. One of my committee members on my dissertation systematically circled every semicolon in frustration until finally giving up two chapters in and writing “you get the point.” I only conceded on about half of them. I love a good semicolon.

Punctuation is often mistaken for grammar by students who have been taught both in a punitive, prescriptivist way that makes writing into a confusing labyrinth of conflicting and arbitrary but inviolable rules rather than a Lego-like toolbox of linguistic building blocks for expression.

But two in one sentence? That gave me pause. Especially occurring so early in the novel, so that it might easily be part of an agent, editor, or reader’s first impression. That was a risk.

But I decided to keep it. I rewrote it with no semicolons, I rewrote it with only one, and finally I put the semicolons back. It’s a very tense moment in the novel, and the semicolons gave me the rhythm I wanted, a sense of simultaneity that is nearly impossible to achieve in writing because prose is, by its very nature, linear. Semicolons by their nature hold two things as connected but equal.

How does punctuation affect your reading experience?

Punctuation for many writers is a tricky thing. In my experience teaching college writing, punctuation is often mistaken for grammar by students who have been taught both in a punitive, prescriptivist way that makes writing into a confusing labyrinth of conflicting and arbitrary but involable rules rather than a Lego-like toolbox of linguistic building blocks for expression.

Let me be clear: punctuation is not grammar; punctuation is orthography. Grammar has to do with how language speakers modify and arrange words to indicate their relationship to each other in utterances and make sense within the rules of the language. Punctuation often indicates grammar, but it is not a convention that is natural to the spoken language the way that grammar is; it is strictly othological, in that it is strictly a convention of how the language is written when it’s written.

Punctuation as a writer’s tool, though, is similar to rhythm as a musician’s tool. It has very much the same purpose: it helps organize material and indicate relationships between concepts while also setting the pace and tone of the work.

I often tell my students that I didn’t really learn writing in a classroom. I tell them this so they understand that what they’ve been taught in school isn’t the whole picture and, in some cases, may even be hindering them. I learned writing through critique groups and through reading. For punctuation in particular, I learned it from reading. Specifically: from reading Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett is one of those writers with an unmistakeable voice. One of the notable features of his writing is that it’s very dialogue-heavy, which means in novels that it’s got a lot of white space on the page and a LOT of punctuation.

My biggest punctuation struggle in elementary school was paragraph breaks. Like a lot of students drawn to STEM fields, as I was at the time, I wanted answers and algorithms that worked all the time and fit into a larger system. But the rules for paragraph breaks didn’t make sense at all. Either my paragraphs were too long or too short. They never seemed to satisfy. Some said 3-5 sentences, some said 5-7, some said something else entirely, and it never quite fit with what I saw in the real world anyway.

Enter Terry Pratchett. I read my first Discworld novel, Small Gods, in 5th grade. I started really paying attention to what I was reading in 6th grade. There’s a strong correlation between these events. Pratchett’s paragraphs were obviously broken with intention and conviction in a way I’d never seen another writer do. Moreover, because of how much dialogue he used, I was able to easily analyze for myself and figure out the patterns for dialogue punctuation without the confusing assistance of school textbooks. Here it was in situ, where I could do fieldwork on grammar by looking at a professional author’s work. And suddenly it started to make sense.

Some of it was mechanical algorithmic rules, such as when an end punctuation mark appears inside a quotation mark or outside a quotation mark. But most of it was rhetorical, a term I didn’t really know back then but describes well what I was seeing. That is, it was punctuation with a purpose.

Punctuation is not grammar; punctuation is orthography.

When I teach punctuation, I teach John Dawkins’s concept of rhetorical punctuation. I give students the concept of punctuation as markers of “degrees of separation” and present a hierarchy of punctuation marks. I have them experiment with modifying sentences to change their meaning simply by changing the rhythm with punctuation.

Which is exactly what I was doing with that sentence we started with:

Anne advanced; he retreated; she cornered him against a wall and pounded his shoulders.

I might have used dashes—those are more flashy and would have served a similar effect to emphasize the tension and simultanaeity of the actions in the scene. But they also are interrupting, and I wanted fluidity to the motions, like a dance; in this case, semicolons, with their unobtrusiveness and ambiguity, had the rhythm I wanted.

How exactly does punctuation do rhythm? It’s not quite as simple as “put a comma where you want your reader to pause.” There’s a visual element to it. I mentioned that Pratchett’s writing characteristically uses a lot of white space on the page (with some very notable exceptions he uses for effect). That white space helps set the rhythm of the prose as well. It’s why a fantasy novel by Pratchett feels breezy and fast compared to, say, a fantasy novel by Tolkien, who uses deliberately long and lush sentences and paragraphs that echo the alliterative rhythms of Old English long-line verse. It’s not just the representation of the spoken words, but the way they appear on the page.

How might thinking about writing as visual affect your writing?

This, of course, leaves the question: What about audiobooks? While that’s a topic for another post entirely, I do want to answer that I believe the reader’s performance and use of rhythm, voice, and tone suffice in completely equal measure (and in some cases superior measure) to any considerations of punctuation’s visual effect on rhythm on the page.

So how do you implement this in your own writing? Firstly, don’t worry about punctuation in first drafts as much. This is a revision level concern. Secondly, think of punctuation the way you might think of color: yes, there is theory that you can study quite satisfyingly, there are rules that can help, all of that exists, but at the end of the day the question is only “Does this achieve my goal?” and not the restrictive “Is this correct?”

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