i'm just a literary tease, my reputation's on its knees.

Book Discussion - A Dash of Style

October 25, 2007

After having read and enjoyed The Plot Thickens, I decided that, despite my hatred of all things grammar, I wanted to read Noah Lukeman’s A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. This is one of those books that I know I will have to read again and again. And not just because my punctuation is mostly atrocious either.

I love how the book is aimed at the creative writer and gives specific instances and examples of the problematic usage of the different types of punctuation. I read the exercises first, telling myself I would actually sit down and do them at some point, thinking that I probably wouldn’t. Later, however, I started writing a story, based on a title culled from a list I made in the way of Ray Bradbury, via word association and topics that popped out of my head. Without really thinking about it, I tried one of Lukeman’s exercises.

The title of the story is “Midnight Guitar.” The main character, Ryan, works at 4 a.m. every day and keeps being woken up at midnight by the girl who lives in the apartment upstairs. His sentences are long, impossibly long, and before I introduced guitar-playing insomniac, I already knew that her sentences would be quick, right to the point, contrasting Ryan’s meandering speech. This story, which is pretty awesome, I think, wouldn’t have happened without my read of A Dash of Style.

[Another, slightly odd way, that this book inspired my story was with the word “triumvirate,” which Lukeman uses to describe the period, comma, and semicolin. For reasons I don’t quite understand, there is a triumvirate in my story. Strange.]

It’s this practical application that actually helps me. I could read sixty books on punctuation and the like, and it would be like I was reading in Lalaland, re-reading the same sentence over and over again and completely spacing out the whole time. While I might absorb something unconsciously from such reading, it really doesn’t help me. Having specific examples as well as suggested exercises does. (In this respect, this book reminds me a little bit of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, for the practical nature of the text.)

The chapter on commas was of particular interest. I’m always conscious of commas and try not to overuse them. An eighth grade teacher told me I was “comma happy” once, and I’ve never forgotten it. For years, I shunned all comma usage, cut anything “ungrammatical” from my texts. [As I’ve said before, academia nearly ruined me.]

Luckily, Lukeman has a section “How to Underuse It” in the comma chapter which gives concrete examples of how underuse can benefit a text. (The next section details the dangers of underuse.) He also mentions that a great number of writers use the comma differently, stylistically, so maybe that eight-grade teacher was a teeny bit full of it. (Based on my experiences with education majors, I wouldn’t half doubt it.)

Another thing I really like about this book are the sections at the end of each chapter “What your use of _____ says about you.” Perfect, yet another opportunity to psychoanalyze myself, and my writerly friends, this time, using punctuation. I didn’t need the excuse, but it’s nice to have a practical method of analysis: “Well, friend, your overuse of commas means that you just need a little love and more confidence in your ability to say what you mean.” I love it. (My friends, on the other hand, might not.)

I borrowed this book from the library, but I’m going to buy my own copy I can actively work on improving my writing. I have fifty more titles from my Bradbury list (the exercise was suggested in Zen in the Art of Writing), and I know that Lukeman’s exercises will inspire some cool stories.

Moira at 8:35 PM :: Comments (1) :: ::

Hey Moira, that sounds like a really useful book! I hear what you're saying about the psychoanalysis, though. Handwriting analysis is a hobby of mine, and, for that reason, when I'm doing anything beyond personal notes I try to type and not write... But I love when people give me something hand-written (unless, of course, I'm supposed to get through it quickly). If I began looking at punctuation in addition to my styling of my letters? Well, I may possibly take forever to craft a sentence that was impersonal, haha.

Hope you're doing well in RI. I'm not in Harrisburg anymore... things weren't working out. But if you get any awesome sugarpackets, you know who to look for! ;)

Posted by: Karissa at October 25, 2007 11:41 PM
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