Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know–Introduction

In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.

One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:

“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” As I began to consider answers to these questions, I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.

But what exactly are those techniques? This next Writer’s Toolbox series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.

Next Up:

Technique Number One: Writing with a Reader in Mind

The first (and most important) technique discussed in this series is to always write with a reader in mind. This is the most important technique because all of the other techniques discussed in this series fall under this larger, overarching goal of writing: to reach our readers. To learn more about how to reach readers with effective, moving writing, click the link below.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Punctuation Toolbox, Introduction: Why Writers Need More Than Periods and Commas

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points. With a bit more consideration, they may think of some mid-sentence punctuation like the comma or the semicolon.

If your punctuation toolbox stops there—with periods, commas, and question marks—then I expect that you often struggle to put what you want to say in writing. Consider the first sentence of this article. You may have noticed that I used a colon (which looks like a dot over another dot) to introduce that list of the most commonly known punctuation techniques:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

But what if I did not know this function of the colon? How would I introduce my list?

Well, I might make the most common substitution of using a comma in place of a colon. After all, commas can be used to introduce certain elements in writing, like quotations. If I had used a comma, the sentence would look like this:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation, periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Ugh. As you may have noticed, the problem with using a comma to introduce this list is that the term “end punctuation” appears to be the first item in the list when “end punctuation” should sum up all of the items that follow. That didn’t work.

Other writers may simply choose to put nothing there. Here is the sentence that this let-it-be approach yields:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Do you see the issue here? Now, that first item appears to be something known as “end punctuation periods.” This let-it-be approach didn’t work any better than the comma approach.

Others might try using a semicolon:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation; periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

This is the best solution so far, since it creates a clear-cut break between the category, “end punctuation,” and the list of examples that follows. The problem, though, is that introducing lists is not really a function of the semicolon, and this slight misuse confuses readers. Aside from one specific exception, the semicolon is used exclusively to combine two complete sentences. In other words, you might think of the semicolon as being able to replace a period–but with one stylistic difference: whereas the period creates a break and a disconnection between the two sentences, the semicolon creates flow and connection between the two sentences. And the phrase “between the two sentences” is the key; the semicolon would not be used to separate a mere list of words from a complete sentence.

Well, if a semicolon doesn’t work, then how about a period? Let’s try it:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation. Periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

Do you see the problem now? Since the period brings the sentence to a full stop, the attempt backfires by leaving us with a sentence fragment error: a non-sentence written as if it is a sentence. While the first sentence is fine, the second “sentence” is not, in fact, a sentence. In other words, the list “periods, question marks, and exclamation points” is not a sentence, but the writer has set that list off as its own standalone sentence. This non-sentence-written-as-a-sentence deceives and confuses the poor reader.

Come on, dear writer: use a colon already! Here, once again, is our original sentence with the colon. Notice how clear-cut the message is:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

With the colon introducing the list, the commas serve their function of separating the items, so we know that the two-word term question marks is not two separate items—question and marks—but one item: question marks. The colon is not mistaken for combining two sentences (the problem with the semicolon), nor is it mistaken as part of the list (the issue with the comma). Simply put, the colon is the right tool for the job.

But it’s not the only tool for the job, although up to this point I have misled you to think so.

I could also replace the colon with a dash, if I intend a bit more spontaneity—a bit more ah-ha!—in introducing the list:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of end punctuation—periods, question marks, and exclamation points.

My rule of thumb for using dashes: think of a dash as a replacement for colons and some commas, used when the writer wants a tone of spontaneity and suddenness in the punctuation. Think of a dash as a sudden colon or a spontaneous comma. It does not merely walk readers gently into the next part of the writing. It throws them into it! (You can read more about replacing commas with dashes by clicking here.)

If I want to be extremely clear, I might employ yet one more technique. This technique does not replace the colon, but it helps keep the items distinct and separate:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation: (1) periods, (2) question marks, and (3) exclamation points.

As you can see in this example, one use of parentheses is to set off numbers in a mid-sentence list. Notice that I used this technique after stating the total number of items in the list. (Look again: I told the reader beforehand that there would be three items in the list.) The numbering drives that point home, and it assists the commas in separating the three items further. It also acts as an at-a-glance visual aid for the reader, should she feel the need to reference the list later.

And, yes, I could also use this parenthetical item numbering with the dash introduction:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation—(1) periods, (2) question marks, and (3) exclamation points.

Both examples are crystal-clear, aren’t they? But what if I used the numbers without setting them off in parentheses? The sentence would look like this:

When many people hear the word punctuation, they think of three forms of end punctuation—1 periods, 2 question marks, and 3 exclamation points.

Yuck! That looks horrible. It looks horrible because we are conditioned to see numbers as pluralizing or quantifying the nouns they precede. In other words, when the reader sees the phrase “2 question marks,” she thinks that I am talking about two question marks, not “item number two: question marks.” See the difference? Notice how, with the parentheses separating the numbers from the language of the sentence, their role as numbering labels is clear.

Behold, dear reader, the power of advanced punctuation! The art of writing, first and foremost, involves writing exactly what you mean to say. A big part of developing that skill is in the words and phrases you use, but of equal importance are the absences between the words—the pauses, the lurches, the hesitations, the shifts, and the stops. Accomplishing these distinct effects is the number-one reason for building a diverse punctuation toolbox. Commas and periods are just the beginning.

Do you want to learn more about advanced punctuation? Read on!

Stay tuned for articles on advanced punctuation. In this series, entitled “Punctuation Toolbox,” I will commit articles to punctuation techniques for hyphens, dashes, colons, semicolons, parentheses, and more. I will post links to each article here, at the end of this introductory article.

Note: As this list grows with each article added to this series, you may notice that I will not include articles on the apostrophe. That’s because I’m going to commit two series to the apostrophe: “All You Need to Know about Apostrophes” and “Apostrophe Mania: All You Want to Know about Apostrophes.” Stay tuned for those series as well.

Next Up: More on the Colon!

In this article, I used the example of the colon to introduce the necessity of a developed punctuation toolbox. Ironically enough, that’s precisely what the colon does: it introduces! To learn more about the colon and its functions in writing, see the next article by clicking the link below:

Here are other punctuation techniques covered in “Punctuation Toolbox”:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).