Image Credit: Images created in Book Brush using Pixabay photos. One photo directly from Pixabay.
Paragraphs and punctuation may not be the most immediate things to spring to mind for the letter P in my In Fiction series but they have important roles to play in creative writing.
Clarity and Punctuation
Clarity is everything, whether you write fiction or not. Punctuation is an aid to clarity. Get punctuation wrong and you can have unintended consequences. The best known example of this is to compare “Let’s eat, Grandma,” with “Let’s eat Grandma”.
What a difference a comma makes! Technically you are going in for cannibalism with the last one as it stands! And then there is the Oxford comma, which is defined as a comma placed before an and in a list where there are three items or more. For example:-
I went to the National Gallery, the Tate Modern, and the Tower of London.
You could get away without the Oxford comma here as it is clear I went to three separate places. However, omitting it can cause confusion and hilarity too. The best known example of this is:-
“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
Not a lot you can say to that, is there? This example does show the importance of punctuation and its use in clarifying text though!
Paragraphs – Why Size Does Matter
I’m writing this post from the viewpoint of a writer and from the viewpoint of a competition judge. I recently judged a competition for the Scottish Association of Writers, I’m currently judging a flash fiction competition for the Nottingham Writers’ Club, and I’ve judged for the Association of Christian Writers too. I’ve judged other story competitions too and it is a fascinating experience.
Paragraphs matter. What your competition judge does not want to see is big blocks of text. Why? Simply because big blocks of text are off-putting whether you’re reading in print or on a screen.
You run the risk of your readers switching off. They see big blocks of text and will assume it will be big blocks of what is known as “info dump”.
This is where a writer puts lots of information into their story. You might think what’s wrong with that? The simple answer is because there are better ways of sharing what a reader needs to know with that reader. You get your characters to show the reader what they need to know by what they say, think and do.
Big blocks of text can look off putting in text but it is even worse on screen. For these posts, I usually keep my paragraphs to two/three sentences at most. This also makes it easier for someone to skim read the post and decide whether or not it is for them. If they see big blocks of text, they’re unlikely to bother to find out.
Big paragraphs also slow down the pace of the story. So if you’re writing a tightly written tale with plenty of pace to it, you want the paragraphs to match that.
The way I stop myself writing big paragraphs is to focus on having the ratio of one idea to one paragraph. Speech should always stand alone in its own paragraph, as should the thoughts of a character.
A good idea for any writer is to get the story down first. You can, of course, put the right paragraph breaks in later.
Keeping It Simple Pays Off
As for punctuation, keep it simple. Most of the time what you need to use are the full stop, the comma, and speech marks.
Keep exclamation marks to a minimum. These can come across a little like laughing at your own joke, especially in a humorous tale. It is also for the reader to pick up on dramatic emphasis.
It should be clear where this is without your necessarily needing to use an exclamation mark to draw attention to it. It is a little like putting a big “Here It Is” sign above something someone can obviously see. It is going to irritate.
I do use the occasional semi-colon when I need two phrases but in one sentence and I need the punctuation here to link them. Most of the time though I can and do get away with using two separate sentences. I find my pace is sharper doing that. For my flash tales with the limited word count, that makes a huge difference so I think carefully about what I need to use punctuation wise. Naturally my paragraphs are short and crisp as well!
Checking Out House Style
If you’re submitting to a publisher, a magazine, or a competition, do check out the submission requirements. Where you can, look up what the publisher has already produced, get recent copies of the magazine you want to submit to, and look up past competition winners. (Their entries are usually published).
Study the house style. See how the publisher, the magazine, and the competition like their submissions to be laid out.
Some places still use double quote marks for speech, others use single. It does vary so check. You want to fit in with them. You can also get a good “feel” for whether the stories you’re studying have in terms of paragraph length and so on. You can again tailor your story to fit in with that. You do want to be the square peg in the square hole here.
Generally, most places will want the first paragraph of a story (and the first one after a scene break) to be to the left hand margin with all others following to be indented. I set up a first line indent for my paragraphs and then just remove it for my opening one (and any opening one after a scene break).
Always check out what people want here. They do ask for good reasons and it is usually to do with their formatting requirements. House styles vary so it pays to check from publisher to publisher (they always put their guidelines up) and the professional writer tailors their material to suit that house style.
It shows the publisher you’re paying attention to their submission requirements. It won’t guarantee publication. Nothing can. It does mean you get off to a promising start by not irritating the publisher by ignoring their guidelines.
Again, people are busy so being able to read a piece quickly, thanks to lots of short paragraphs, is going to help them assess your piece that much more quickly (when they get to it). You’re not going to be published if someone doesn’t assess what you do and decides yes they’ll take it.
I’ve always felt that editing and writing are two separate creative tasks. The nuts and bolts of getting a piece together, for me, are ensuring things like paragraphs and punctuation are carrying out their proper function within what I have written.
Boring, it may be; getting it right aids clarity and your chances of being published. It is worth paying proper attention to these things but you can do that once you’ve got your piece written. I always get my story down first and tidy up later.
Also publishers expect (rightly) for writers to be as thorough as possible before submission. Why wouldn’t you want to be?
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
Never miss out on another blog post. Subscribe here:
Subscribe to Blog via Email