Look, if you’re a writer, you probably know something about punctuation. I would assume you’re at least literate enough to type out a sentence, if only to leave a scathing comment on my blog. You probably know what a question mark is good for, and you may have a deep and abiding love for the exclamation point or the semicolon. All very good.
But let’s be real here. Do you think a comma splice is an unfortunate back injury? Would you be lost in a game of “pin the hyphen on the appropriate phrase?” Do you hesitate when using anything more complicated than a period or a question mark?
If so, you should invest in a copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. The book takes a mark-by-mark tour of the world of English punctuation. The book not only contains the rules you need to know in order to send your story out into the world with its hair combed and its shoes polished, but also provides some delightful backstory on each mark to explain why it behaves the way it does.
For example, if you read Alice in Wonderland or Pride and Prejudice, you might notice an abundance of hyphens, like in to-morrow, that look weird today. Lynn Truss discusses this at length, as well as the origins of the comma and the period. Not things you need to know as a writer, but let’s be real here. If you like to write, you’re interested in this stuff. If you don’t have strong feelings on the semicolon, then frankly, there’s something wrong with you. (It’s awesome, by the way.)
I don’t know if they make the delightful edition I have, which came with a set of punctuation stickers. But if they do, you should buy it, if only to baffle your friends. There’s also a children’s version for those of you who wish to make your friends concerned about you.
And yes, we do pay people for this. (Not as much as you think. Proofreading is a freelancer’s gig these days.) But publishers don’t pick up books based solely on the strength of the work within. Big surprise, I know. In a world glutted with written content, publishers want books they know will sell and that require the least amount of effort on their part. It doesn’t matter if your book is the next Harry Potter if it’s also a nightmare tome littered with extra apostrophes and run-on sentences. Ain’t nobody got time for that. So brush up on your rules. Your book will thank you.
(Note: I’m not addressing anyone who already feels comfortable with the vagaries of punctuation. I know my kind. You’ve already got a copy of this book. If you don’t, you’ve read it, and if you haven’t read it, you’re looking it up. You’ll enjoy it. Trust me. And you’re probably already typing a screed to tell me how I’ve mangled something you love, to which I say: Bring it.)