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Good afternoon! Since my post last week was very long and fairly dense, I’m going to write something a little lighter this week. This article will talk about how you can use punctuation and formatting to refine the tone and flow of your writing. But first, I want to warn you against the dangers of punctuation and formatting abuse. Have a look at the paragraph below;

So obviously, in this article; when I talk about punctuation, what I mean are the more unusual items (semi-colons, brackets, hyphens): although sometimes commas (when they’re overused) can be a problem as well. Sometimes Often, I get emails that are, a) packed with formatting and, b) use every type of punctuation known to mankind – I find them (almost) impossible to read tolerate!!

I apologise for that. It hurt my soul just to write it. But as you can probably tell, this paragraph is an extreme example of what happens when you overuse special formatting like bold, italics and underline as well as less common punctuation such as colons or hyphens. Before you start thinking about how these elements can improve your writing, keep in mind that overusing them can have the opposite effect. But don’t panic. If you’re finding yourself too dependent on a certain piece of formatting or punctuation, you’re half way to winning the battle! In my experience, most people don’t even realise they do it.

One way to tackle the problem is to come up with some concrete rules on how you will restrict your use of the item. For me, I always used to use exclamation marks on nearly every sentence. With some advise from my tutors, I decided that I would limit myself to one per thousand words for pieces 2000 words or greater and one per five-hundred on anything shorter. It was very difficult at first and I would often tell myself it was OK to break the rule “just this once”, usually several times per thousand words. But over time, having a concrete rule to work by helped me to cut back my exclamation-mark abuse to the point where I no longer needed my rule

So now you know about the dangers of overusing formatting and punctuation, lets talk about how it can be used to improve your work. In general, punctuation can help you to change the pace which in turn can make the sequence of events you are describing more clear in a reader’s mind. For example, if you are writing an action scene where a lot of different things are happening at once, careful punctuation would help your reader keep track of the many elements in the sequence. Have a look at the sentence below;

The monster was catching up to Jeremy and he knew he shouldn’t have eaten that extra slice of cake even though it was delicious because his aching and bloated stomach wouldn’t allow him to run any faster.

You were probably able to get the gist of what I was trying to convey here, but with no punctuation to guide you through that sentence, it was likely uncomfortable to read. If an entire scene was written in this way, it would be almost impossible to follow. Now have a look with added punctuation;

The monster was catching up to Jeremy; he knew he shouldn’t have eaten that extra slide of cake, (even though it was delicious), because his aching, bloated stomach wouldn’t allow him to run any faster.

It’s still not perfect, but much easier to read. We can also add formatting to give it a little personality. I would recommend being very careful about how often you add formatting. It’s not the same as punctuation and your writing can get very unwieldy if you overuse it. I think of it like the hot-sauce in my chilli. It can add a nice flare if used sparingly, but if you go too far, it’s all anyone will notice.

The monster was catching up to Jeremy; he knew he shouldn’t have eaten that extra slide of cake, (even though it was delicious), because his aching, bloated stomach wouldn’t allow him to run any faster.

I admit that this is a little overstuffed so take this example with a pinch of salt; I’m trying to demonstrate many elements in one sentence but if you are writing a whole manuscript, you will have plenty of space to spread out.

My last piece of advice when refining your punctuation and formatting is simply to read aloud. It will very quickly become apparent if you need to change the way your sentences flow. If I had the money, I would hire Stephen Fry to read my manuscript out to me. That guy can make anything seem classy (although I suppose I wouldn’t be making many corrections that way). Perhaps one day I will have an audio book. Probably not. But a girl can dream!