Saturday, April 26, 2014

Fix Your Story: Punctuation and Quotation Marks in American Writing

Hello, folks. This is the first in a planned series on the nuance of writing. 

Learn to write effectively and you can have anything you want in life. - Sean Shesgreen, English professor, Northern Illinois University

Many of my writer friends are wonderful, capable writers. A few are true masters of the craft. A very few. As in I can count them on three fingers. Mastering any craft takes years of practice and honing. Trying and retrying. Creating, scrapping, recreating. Writing is not something a person can just "decide" to do with any measure of success. Just because one can string words together into a coherent sentence does not make one a writer. One cannot hope to write the great American novel if one has not spent years - if not decades devoted to understanding the nuance of the craft.

To write effectively, a writer must master punctuation, mechanics, grammar, and syntax. If you do not understand these words, please take a moment to Google them before reading on. I'll wait.

Welcome back. Let's start with one aspect of punctuation today. Far too often, I see errors like this from American writers (why the country distinction? I'll explain in a moment):

I just read Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher", and it was great!

Can you spot the blemish? No? I'll give you a hint: it's in the punctuation. Go ahead and Google "comma usage." I don't mind waiting; I'm patient. Incidentally, while we're waiting, patience is another thing every writer must have - you're going to learn to wait a long time for responses from publishers.

Here's another example to peruse while our Googlers are Googling:

My favorite story is Ambrose Bierce's "Chickamagua".

Same thing, only this time look up "period usage." In the U.S., at least, comma and periods defy logical placement. You'd think they would fall outside the quotation marks in these examples because they're not part of the title, but they don't. In Britain, logic dictates where to place those pesky punctuation marks, but not here. 'Merica: defying logic since 1776.

As an American writer, you need to know this. NEED. TO. KNOW. THIS. If you don't, professional editors/publishers will mark you as an amateur. And if the editor/publisher doesn't care about punctuation placement, then, as a writer, you should question their professionalism. 

The only exception to this rule is if you are enclosing a single letter or numeral in quotation marks as in these examples:

Shelly stepped through the door marked "A".

Bob's jersey bore the number "3".

On a similar note, colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks in both America and Britain, like so:

In October our class read "The Monkey's Paw"; we also read other scary stories.

These players must report to the room marked "Athletics": pitchers, catchers, and infielders.

I've spent thirty years writing stories. I went to college to study writing because writing is what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a writer. But not just to write stories; to learn to write them effectively. And doing that begins and ends with the nuance of the craft. 

Writing is like any other job: you learn to do it effectively or you fail. Period (see what I did there? Heh.).

No one who's never built one wakes up one morning and says, "You know what, I'm going to build a robot today!" and then does it with any degree of success. Same goes for writing. You must learn how before you can do it successfully. So get busy learning. Then go write the great American novel.

(Next post: Let's Strip! Eliminating Two Utterly Unnecessary Words from Your Manuscript)


  1. Thank you for posting this! As the managing editor of an American magazine, nothing frustrates me more than the sloppy punctuation I see on a daily basis.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I don't approve of my colleagues and peers being "called out" in public, Anonymous, whether I agree with your sentiment or not. Please refrain from name-calling in future comments. Thank you.

  3. What do you think of writers who use too many exclamation marks or none at all?

    1. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said exclamation marks, if used at all, should only appear once every 100,000 words. I tend to use them a bit more liberally than that, but I agree with the sentiment. Dialogue should be written in such a way that exclamation points become unnecessary. I just reread Stephen King's The Long Walk and it's littered with exclamation points. Do what feels right, but when in doubt leave them out.

    2. To me, writing with too many exclamations causes a deal breaker between the reader and the writer. It produces an environment that is akin to yelling all the time. Writers need to allow their readers more emotional range and the freedom to dialog in a normal tone of voice.