How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: the beauty of good punctuation


Welcome to Part Twenty of this popular series – this week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher looks at punctuation: not a boring technical issue, but an incredibly valuable tool to bring your writing alive with meaning, depth and added interest. 

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Punctuation – sense and sensibility

In my experience as an editor, too many fiction writers seem to think that the rules of grammar, and especially those of punctuation, just get in the way of their creativity. Nothing could be further from the truth…punctuation is there to enable you to communicate your ideas clearly to your reader. Mispunctuation can not only make your writing hard to understand, it can completely change the sense of what you want to say.

This isn’t an original example, but it makes the point:

A woman without her man is nothing

If you punctuate this sentence with a couple of commas to create a subclause in the middle, it means one thing:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

However, if you use a colon for expansion and add a comma to separate an opening clause, without altering a single word it means almost exactly the opposite:

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

The best way to remember the right applications of the different punctuations marks – and there aren’t that many of them, after all – is to limit the situations in which you should use them. If you’ve stuck a comma in a sentence but it doesn’t seem to be for one of these three main uses, it probably shouldn’t be there.

Three main uses of commas

1.Commas contain clauses

If in doubt about where to place commas in a sentence, remember the above title. Commas should not be used, as is often taught in school these days, simply to indicate where a pause occurs in spoken speech. Understanding where to place a comma correctly is more often about separating the subclause from the main clause of a sentence.

When the subclause (in italics below) is placed at the start or end of a sentence, it only needs one comma to separate it from the main clause:

  • Despite having been neglected, the garden was a riot of blossom.
  • The garden was a riot of blossom, despite having been neglected.

But when the subclause falls in the middle of a sentence, it needs a comma either side of it to enclose it:

  • The garden, despite having been neglected, was a riot of blossom.

In the sentence above, it would probably be better to use no commas at all than to put only one before, or one after, the subclause.

2.Commas separate qualifying words and phrases in a sentence in exactly the same way:

  • However, I’m delighted to say that…
  • I’m delighted, however, to say that…
  • From my perspective, it looks like…
  • It looks, from my perspective, like…

3.Commas separate items in a simple list, eg:

    • When writing fiction it is important to be clear about your plot, theme, characters, setting and writing style.

As a general rule, don’t put a comma before ‘and’; always put a comma before ‘but’.

Link and separate – the only two uses for the semi-colon

Too many writers don’t use semi-colons, that most delicate and subtle punctuation mark, because they don’t know what they are for or where to place them. As there are only two main uses, it’s not too hard to remember.

1.Semi-colons link two related clauses which could otherwise be joined by a conjunction or separated by a period/full stop.

  • medium_5868090951So: ‘I love Paris. It is a beautiful city.’ Or: ‘I love Paris because it is a beautiful city.’
  • But more subtle and interesting: I love Paris; it is a beautiful city.

Don’t  use a semi-colon to link two unrelated clauses – ‘I love Paris; let’s have pizza tonight.’ would not be correct. Don’t use a semi-colon and a conjunction to link two clauses – ‘I love Paris; because it’s a beautiful city.’ is also incorrect.

2.Semi-colons separate items on a complex list (a list with long items and items that have internal punctuation, such as a comma).

  • Breakfast consisted of newly laid, hard-boiled eggs; grilled, smoked bacon; mushrooms fried in butter; and wholegrain, toasted slices of bread.

In complex lists like this I would put a semi-colon before the final ‘and’.

Most people are pretty secure in their use of colons, though I have seen them used in place of a semi-colon, so let me remind you of:

The three main uses for colons

1.Definition or expansion of an initial statement

  • I felt a sudden twinge: the wound in my knee was playing up.

In this case, the phrase following the colon should start with a lower case word, unless it’s ‘I’ or a proper name; or if the definition/expansion continues for more than one sentence.

2.To set up a quotation

  • Polonius tells Laertes: ‘… to thine own self be true.’

If the quote is more than a sentence long, it should start on a new line following the colon.

3.To introduce a list

  • This recipe requires the following ingredients: 3 eggs, 6 oz flour, 6 oz sugar and 6 oz butter.

Items can also be numbered or bulleted following a colon. If the introductory phrase does not stand alone as a sentence, a colon is not required.

  • This recipe requires 3 eggs, 6 oz flour…

The two main uses of the apostrophe

If you really want to irritate a reader or an editor, putting your apostrophes in the wrong place is a quick and easy way to do it. The first of these is obvious, but do not mess up your ‘its’ and your ‘it’s’. And take serious note of how to use a possessive apostrophe to mean what you intend it to.

1.To show where a word has been contracted and a letter(s) left out

  • Don’t for ‘do not’; she’ll for ‘she will’; he’s for ‘he is’ or ‘he has’.

Simple enough, apart from using an apostrophe with the word ‘it’. The possessive, its, has no apostrophe; only put an apostrophe in it’s when it’s a contraction of ‘it is’.

2.To denote possession – apostrophe+s

  • Anna’s book (the book owned by Anna); In a week’s time (in the time of a week).

If the word ends in ‘s’, whether it is plural (books) or is singular but ends in ‘s’ (James), add the apostrophe alone:The books’ covers (covers of the books); James’ coat (the coat belonging to James). Plurals that do not end in ‘s’ (eg, women, children), take apostrophe+s in the possessive: the women’s bags, the children’s toys.

Don’t use an apostrophe to make a plural, even of acronyms or dates. The plural of PC is PCs, not PC’s; the flower power decade is the 1960s, not the 1960’s. The Smith family are the Smiths, not the Smith’s.

Finally, let’s look at those alternative sentence endings, question and exclamation marks.

It may seem obvious, but again it’s surprising how often question marks are misplaced and added at the end of statements that are not questions. As for exclamation marks – delete, delete, delete. A full length book rarely needs more than half a dozen exclamation marks in the whole manuscript; many more tell an editor or publisher that this is an amateur writer. As with adjectives and adverbs (more on these in a future post), less is much, much more. Your choice of words and writing style should make it clear to a reader where your emphases fall.

Question marks should only be used after direct questions:

  • How many copies will my book sell?

‘I wonder how many copies my book will sell.’ Is a statement, not a question and should not have a question mark.

When it comes to exclamation marks, F. Scott Fitzgerald says it all:

‘Cut out all those exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.’

If you really think one is necessary, make it one – never two or more. And if you must use both a question mark and exclamation mark together, it should be that way round: ?!

Next week, we’ll look over Act Two of your story.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

photo credit: christine zenino via photopin cc




  1. […] Use it to clarify what you mean. This article by novelist Lucy McCarraher in her HTWB series “How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss” gives you some very helpful tips on punctuation for nonfiction, too. Check it […]