Melissa Joplin Higley
Punctuation tells the reader how to read a passage or poem: how fast or slowly to proceed, where to pause or stop, where to reflect or rush ahead, what information to consider together or separately, and where to breathe or not breathe.
Take a passage or poem you’ve already composed and see how changing punctuation and spacing affects the reader’s emotional state (relaxed, anxious, detached, comfortable). Where do you want the reader to slow down, go faster, pause for breath, run on breathlessly?
No pauses (no punctuation): fast pace / breathless / flowing
Short pauses (commas, single dashes, colons): normal speech / familiar / comfortable
Medium pauses (semicolons, em dashes, periods, additional spaces between words, line breaks): relaxed / expanded space / lengthened time
Long pauses (vertical lines, slashes, large white spaces, stanza/paragraph breaks): slow pace / reflective / fragmented
Consider Virginia Woolf (single-sentence, stream-of-consciousness paragraphs), e. e. cummings (disruptive spacing, no periods, many parentheses), Emily Dickinson (em dashes), and Lucille Clifton (no capital letters, spacing between words).
Examine works by your favorite writers. How are they using punctuation, and what is the effect on you as the reader? How does punctuation serve the purpose of the passage or poem?
Melissa Joplin Higley has traveled internationally as a sound engineer and has worked as a trumpet teacher, yoga teacher, editor, manuscript reader, and writing consultant. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches writing at SUNY-Purchase College. Her work has appeared in Mom Egg Review, Writer’s Digest, and Grief Dialogues: Stories. She lives in Mamaroneck, NY with her husband and son. Find her online at melissajoplinhigley.com.