“Write drunk; edit sober.” –Ernest Hemingway
Punctuation is a personal struggle. It begins that way for anyone who wants to be a memorable writer. Who doesn’t love the writing part, putting words on a page, the sloppy rough drafts with their mystery stains and oil spills, the nostalgic spiral binding? Composition notebooks are like Christmas. Paper and pen are a playground; punctuation is arithmetic, and the only way to get better is to identify your weaknesses and focus on strengthening those areas. Practice, practice, practice. For me, those areas are: line breaks, commas, and colons.
First, I read through the bare bones of my poems or vignettes and attempts at short stories. I imagine them as decomposing bodies in need of immediate preservation. I clean the face because it decays the fastest, then I break down the rigor mortis to form the arms. They are the line breaks.
After that I take a needle gun to the mouth and weave in wire as I simultaneously stuff if full of cotton. I do this to silence my self-doubt.
“The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Next comes cutting. I omit unnecessary and redundant words before I tie off the carotid artery. I insert the arterial tube and begin embalming. The machine at my feet is like new life. All of the old blood drains out and pink replaces it, makes the writing look plump, as though health has been restored. The dirtiest work I’ll do is to drain out the internal organs with a trocar and a hydro-aspirator. There are some words you’ve probably never heard of before.
I pump in more than just formaldehyde but a cocktail of chemical death; formaldehyde is a cliche. If you’ve made it this far, you can finish. I have a syringe for filling in any gaunt skin, adding words, rounding out its form. Make-up is the punctuation. Editing can be art. Enough about dead bodies.
Line Breaks and Louise Gluck
Poetry is the bulk of my writing, and there lies the task of line breaks. I prefer to type them, and I like typing because I can see the line breaks better. The words come out clean and organized and give me a sense of completion; they serve a different purpose than pen and paper. Fellow writers in the forum, Poetry Circle, have helped me with my lines and encouraged me to experiment. Reading poetry has helped a lot too. In almost every book on writing I’ve read it says that if you want to be a successful writer you must do two things: read a lot and write a lot.
Here is one of my favorite poems by Louise Gluck:
Her line breaks are gold. Each one can stand alone and still hold meaning. There is a certain flow. The breaks create pauses that leave an indelible, emotional impact. This should be the overall goal. This is what I love about poetry.
In my poem, Dark Chocolate, I struggled to get my lines right. This is what I started with:
By Kaci Skiles Laws
There are some decent line breaks here, but I knew I could make it stronger. I took careful attention to my lines, omitted unnecessary words, and I changed my poem to present tense. I applied some of the skills I mentioned in my first blog How to Edit Your Writing. Here is the link if you missed it: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/kaciskileslawswriter.wordpress.com/150
I think my new version of Dark Chocolate is better overall because I took it further and analyzed the hell out of it. I wasn’t afraid to chop at it, change words, cut out ideas entirely, and draw emphasis to its sexual innuendo.
–from Strange Beauty, by Kaci Skiles Laws
What I began to say with this poem was me saying it lightly. What I ended up saying was the truth. Writing can be liberating in that way, if you aren’t afraid to be too honest with yourself. Who cares what anyone else thinks? My demons have been exorcised. Isn’t that the whole point of writing?
Line breaks are the least cumbersome of the three formalities because there are no definitive rules. Play around with them. Read your poems a hundred times if you have to; let other people read them. It will get easier if it isn’t easy already. However, commas and colons are trouble.
Commas are a Contradiction
We must carefully color in the nose, the lips, the eyes, the ears, and nails. Punctuation is everything tedious and beyond belly buttons and nipples. Still life portraits have never been my forte, and by nature I am an abstract artist. Commas are the Mona Lisa of writing; they are not the Jackson Pollocks. There are rules, of course, everyone who has taken an English class knows this. Comma worksheets are almost as painful as D. O. L. (Daily Oral Language) and diagramming sentences. Do you remember D.O.L. and sentence diagrams? Bleh.
I reference the comma rules as often as I edit, read and pay close attention to comma usage, yet I find them to be contradictory especially in creative writing.
“I like cooking my family and pets. Use commas. Don’t be a psycho.”
I find it more annoying for a comma to be in a place it doesn’t belong verses a missing comma. It’s easier for me to say– ‘Oh no, they made a grammatical error’–rather than to wonder if there is some odd exception I am unaware of–like I before E except after C.
“I before E: Except when your foreign neighbor Keith receives eight counterfeit beige sleighs from feisty caffeinated weightlifters. Weird.”
It makes me feel better about my own published typos, finding missing and misplaced commas or an occasional stray letter ‘a’ in chapter fifteen, paragraph seven. It allows me to be kind to myself knowing that even the most experienced editors and writers still make mistakes. Currently, I am reading Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Haunted, and I am pretty sure an indefinite article is missing somewhere near the middle of the book. I can’t remember its exact location. Maybe you can spot it, if you can get past Saint Gut-Free’s story, Guts, which begins,
Reader beware. Once you commit, you won’t be able to look away, and your face will hurt before you’ve read it all the way through from clenching.
I’m just gonna leave this right here: https://chuckpalahniuk.net/features/shorts/guts
“In the end, it’s never what you worry about that gets you.” –Chuck Palahniuk
I feel, if I can catch these nine rules, my writing is pretty well polished. I don’t worry too much.
1. Use commas to separate things in a series.
e. g. Writing is the act of stirring up the poisons in us, grieving every emotion, and a slow-onset addiction to self-expression.
Sometimes I use the Oxford comma rule or serial comma in regards to this rule. It is contradictory, but sometimes you just need an Oxford comma. It states:
“In English language punctuation, a serial comma or series comma is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more terms. For example, a list of three countries might be punctuated either as “France, Italy, and Spain”, or as “France, Italy and Spain”. Wikipedia
2. Use commas to separate independent clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction.
e. g. I write to connect, and I use commas to connect.
3. If a dependent clause starts a sentence use a comma to separate it from the independent clause. None is needed if the independent clause is before the dependent clause.
e. g. At the end of each nightmare, I read under a tent of cotton blankets.
4. Offset appositives with commas.
e. g. My writing, often referred to as indie, comes through the same as my music.
5. Use commas before quotes.
e. g. I yell, “How is it not dead?!” because I want it to be over.
6. Use commas after introductions.
e. g. Yes, all good writing is poetry.
7. Use commas when addressing someone.
e. g. Leave the adverbs to me, Bernard.
8. Use commas to separate adjectives that modify the same noun.
e. g. Her music is a medley of discordant, melancholy chord variations.
9. Use commas to set off negation.
e. g. I write early in the morning while the cockroaches sleep, not at night, if I can help it.
These are the rules I have found to be the most useful in my writing.
Colons are Convenient
Colons are more simple than commas and not needed most of the time. I like that about them. I like the visual variety they add to my writing too. I recently got a lesson in colons when I wrote my poem, Addictions.
I invite people into my life, collect them like clutter. Only when I clear them, it is obvious; their presence was never a need, is never missed.
See what I did wrong there? You can probably hear it too. Now read the final edit below:
I invite people into my life,
collect them like clutter.
Only when I clear them, is it obvious:
their presence was never a need,
is never missed.
from Strange Beauty, by Kaci Skiles Laws
This colon adds emphasis to the sentence it is paired with which is why it is needed.
Here are some other times in which you may need a colon: to introduce a long quote or excerpt (like the one I used before Gluck’s poem Snow Drops), before a list (like the one I used to map out my most used comma rules), following a greeting like To Whom it May Concern: (though I think a comma would do just fine), or introducing items in a list within a sentence (like in this sentence.)
Semicolons are Simple
I love semicolons because they don’t make my head want to burst. I use semicolons to connect two independent sentences that relate; these types of sentences are simple in terms of punctuation and complex as a whole sentence. They are the mascara on the eyelashes of everything I write. I like having the option of semicolons.
Semicolon: Where the author could have ended their sentence but chose not to.
When the technicalities of writing stump me, I refer to online help and books like The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, as well as the LB Brief by Jane Aaron. English is one of the harder languages to learn because it is full of contradictions. The best we can do–is the best we can do.
“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.” – Doug Larson
Don’t hesitate to leave a comment if you notice any grammatical errors I made, so I can correct them! I am still learning too. I welcome and appreciate feedback.
I leave you with a Tanka:
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My original blog can be viewed here: https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/kaciskileslawswriter.wordpress.com/182