Barlow/McCarthy Blog

Healthy Writing: Embracing Punctuation as a Storytelling Tool

Jan 18, 2016

Healthy Writing- Embracing Punctuality as a Storytelling ToolBy: Jeff Cowart, MAH

One day the newspaper editor received copy from a young journalist that was filled with long and rambling run-on sentences. Exasperated, the editor typed a page filled with dots, printed it, walked over and handed it to the budding writer.

“These are periods,” the editor said. “Use them. When you run out, come back and see me. I’ve got more.”

This is a common story frequently told by editors in newsrooms to help young writers. And, it is a universal truth.

One of the most important punctuation friends of healthy writing is the period.

Humans have a tendency in storytelling to ramble in a stream-of-consciousness style, a kind of unedited rough draft of our thoughts. Just read some of the emails in your inbox to get a demonstration.

Think of a breathless and excited child telling this story:  “We went to the zoo and we saw the tiger and there was a monkey and a giraffe and a man with balloons came by and gave me one and we rode the train and had ice cream.”

A telltale sign of a rambling sentence is too many “ands”.  An effective and simple strategy to improve both writing and readability is to replace some of the “ands” with periods.

Here is the child’s edited story: “We went to the zoo. We saw the tiger and there was a monkey and a giraffe. A man with balloons came by and gave me one. We rode the train and had ice cream.”

Not only did a few well-placed periods improve the flow of the story, they allowed logically grouped thoughts to hang together, which improves the storytelling.

The period is one of the simplest editing tools. Try a few extras in your next email just for fun.

Jeff Cowart is a senior consultant for Barlow/McCarthy and editor of the blog HealthyWriting.com  He offers writing and editing services and executive message coaching through Barlow/McCarthy. Contact him at jcowart@barlowmccarthy.com.