I am not a copyeditor. Like most of us (she said hopefully), perfect comma usage eludes me. But a quick perusal of social media is enough to unleash the inner grammarian in all of us. Everyday, word nerds around the world can find examples of how punctuation alters meaning. This can be intentional, but the vast majority of the time it’s so not. Today’s writing exercise dives into this thorny grammar nest. Stop yawning--it comes from the indomitable Ursula Le Guin (she of the best National Book Award speech ever).
Before you begin, Le Guin advises you to ask yourself: “What issues do you have with punctuation? What do you feel uncertain about? What rules are you impatient with?” Look up the things that trouble you. You must get all Jackson Pollock on these things—you need to know the rules before you start throwing words on paper, rules be damned.
If you’ve never given a second’s thought to semicolons, Le Guin advises you to “sit down all by yourself and go through a few paragraphs of prose narratives that you like and admire, and just study the punctuation in them.” Be aware of what the author is doing and why. Beyond the mechanics of the grammar, ask yourself “how much of the rhythm of the prose is actually established by the punctuation, how’s it done?”
Now for the exercise:
I Am García Márquez
Write a paragraph to a page (150-350 words) of narrative with no punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices).
Suggested Subject: A group of people engaged in a hurried or hectic or confused activity, such as a revolution, or the first few minutes of a one-day sale.
To think or talk about in critiquing the exercise: How well does the unbroken flow of words fit the subject? To what extent does the unpunctuated flow actually shape the narrative?
The likelihood is that, read aloud…the piece wasn’t too hard to follow. Is it comprehensible to another person reading it silently?
To think about after writing it: What writing it felt like; how it differed from writing with the usual signs and guides and breaks; whether it led you to write differently from the way you usually write, or gave you a different approach to something you’ve tried to write. Was the process valuable? Is the result readable?
--from Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Ursula K. Le Guin (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998)