Can You Take Artistic License with Punctuation Rules?
Editor's Note: I'm thrilled to have this piece from Barbara McNichol. Hope you enjoy it. WTW
by Barbara McNichol
When I’m editing manuscripts, I sometimes wonder how much some authors struggle with their use of commas, dashes, and other punctuation. In many cases, I wonder whether they question it at all!
Now, at times, it’s fine to relax strict punctuation rules, especially when writing artistic pieces. But beware. Unconventional punctuation tends to create confusion. I faced this recently when editing a book of vignettes crafted to convey the author’s feelings about an experience more than the experience itself. She tackled the challenge with a great deal of artistry, breaking many punctuation rules in the process. I kept thinking, “Maybe it’s okay in this context.”
But when I changed the “artistic” punctuation to conventional, a clear answer emerged. As a reader, I didn’t have to struggle with her meaning; it came across easily. In fact, it guided the meaning. My conclusion: If authors don’t struggle a bit by questioning when to use commas, they’re likely forcing readers to struggle with “getting” what they mean. That’s when relying on the rules takes priority over artistic license.
This Comma Rule Especially Got My Attention
A fascinating article from a New York Times columnist adroitly addresses the correct use of a comma. I encourage you to read this article “The Most Comma Mistakes” and learn from a master, Ben Yagoda. He beautifully explains the tricky rules for using commas. For example:
I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.
Do you put a comma after “movie,” a comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well? None are correct—unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:
I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.
If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:
I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.
Do you see how the correct punctuation set up clarity in the meaning? Subtle but important distinctions.
This example got my attention, and I hope it gets yours, too. I’ve created a handout that simplifies punctuation rules—one that’s become part of my “How to Strengthen EVERYTHING You Write” workshop. Feel free to request this Punctuation Handout by emailing me at email@example.com.
Barbara McNichol, Barbara McNichol Editorial, edits articles, website copy, book proposals, and manuscripts for authors and entrepreneurs. She offers a writing workshop for improving anything you write. Find details about her upcoming workshops here.