Which shall it be: Slavery to punctuation or style?

One must be a slave to punctuation itself. But one must not be a slave to a particular style of punctuation as if that style is the final word on the subject in all instances because it isn’t. For instance, let us take the Chicago Manual of Style, which history I have taken — lock, stock, and barrel — from their own website in the following paragraph.

“The history of The Chicago Manual of Style spans more than one hundred years, beginning in 1891 when the University of Chicago Press first opened its doors. At that time, the Press had its own composing room with experienced typesetters who were required to set complex scientific material as well as work in such then-exotic fonts as Hebrew and Ethiopic. Professors brought their handwritten manuscripts directly to the compositors, who did their best to decipher them. The compositors then passed the proofs to the “brainery”—the proofreaders who corrected typographical errors and edited for stylistic inconsistencies. To bring a common set of rules to the process, the staff of the composing room drew up a style sheet, which was then passed on to the rest of the university community.”

Note that it was the University of Chicago Press’ style sheet for notating and formatting scientific papers with clarity and gravitas? That style sheet’s reputation grew and people began — willy nilly! — applying that style to everything. Except the Associated Press who said they were going to do it their way, for journalistic clarity, of course.

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Now we have people out there who, once having learned a style and having become a slave to the style itself, will go to war with one another and say the other is wrong. Neither is wrong. They are styles like mini skirts with boots and maxi skirts with sandals, or mini skirts with sandals and maxi skirts with boots. It’s a frickin’ style. One picks the style for the occasion. One should never wear a mini skirt with sandals to a meeting with the Queen or President. How rude can one get?

Therefore, when one writes a book, say a novel or memoir, one is not writing as a journalist or a scientist. Scandals with journalism and science reporting these days apart, of course, to slavishly apply journalistic and scientific editing marks and sensibilities to a made-up story or the story of one’s life, is silly beyond belief.

Instead, what a novelist or memoirist does is write. One first simply tells the story. Then one goes back and asks the questions: What is unclear? Why is it unclear? Then one works on the words, then one invents and applies one’s own style of punctuation that clarifies one’s own story, and one then uses it with slavish consistency throughout the story.

It is the mixing and random application of punctuation styles that causes such grief to a reader. Don’t make a reader mad. In the first chapter or two, train the reader to expect and understand your storytelling style, and awesomeness shall ensue.

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