Punctuation and Paragraphing: Who Knew They Could Be So Powerful?

I recently published a new edition of Fierce Resistance.

Yes, folks, there is a shiny, brand new version out there in both paperback and Kindle versions, spruced up and polished and reworked and technologically updated!  (Even in six years, phones and social media have changed so much that I needed to make some alterations to bring Beth up to date.)

Have I mentioned before that I am a tinkering perfectionist?  Every time I re-read my work, I always seem to find something I’m not happy with: a sentence won’t ‘sing’ the way I want it to, or doesn’t flow in quite the way I’d hoped.  When I edited Fierce Resistance with my eyes and ears on ‘critical overdrive’, I realised that, often, all I was doing was simply re-jigging the paragraphs and punctuation … and that this had a surprisingly dramatic impact on how it read.

Sometimes, ending a paragraph just a sentence earlier (or starting the next paragraph a sentence earlier, depending on how you want to look at it!) was all that it took to make the words tell the story in the way I wanted them to.

I also noticed that, if I followed the rule of using commas to separate a main clause from a subordinate clause, some of the passages I disliked because they felt ‘clunky’, suddenly had the flow and meaning I always wanted them to have.

That may sound like a terrible admission: an author, finally working out that punctuation rules are there for a reason and that they work?

The truth is, I was never taught about the finer points of punctuation at school It wasn’t considered an important part of the curriculum back then – and neither was grammar!  As a school kid, I learnt how to build sentences by reading books and working it out for myself – but, if you look in most books, you will see that a lot of authors punctuate however the heck they like (which they are perfectly entitled to do) – so I was never going to learn all of the ‘official’ rules by reading!  I only learnt the rules properly when I became a teacher.

And this has led me to muse about the teaching of SPAG (Spelling, punctuation and Grammar) in schools today.

Whilst I was deprived of basic rules and left to learn them for myself, primary school children these days are remorselessly drilled in the rules of grammar and punctuation.  They are expected to regurgitate phrases like ‘fronted adverbials’ and ‘modal verbs’ and ‘cohesion’, and demonstrate an omniscient knowledge of things that most adults don’t have a clue about … … AND I REALLY AM NOT SURE ABOUT THIS AT ALL.                                                It feels unnecessarily severe …. and, from discussions I’ve had with stressed 10 and 11 year-olds, it’s really taking all the joy of writing away from them.

But my discovery that punctuating clauses by the rule book made Fierce Resistance come across so much better, led me to revise my feelings about teaching SPAG a little.  Surely we want to give children and young people the tools they need to express themselves powerfully?  Enable them to communicate robustly as individual members of the human race?  But how do we do this without overloading them with rules and jargon and rules … and more jargon and more rules?

The answer is, I believe, not to force-feed children the ‘musts’ and ‘must-nots’ of grammar until they are as stressed and miserable as foie-gras ducks.  The clue is in the previous paragraph: it is all about teaching kids that grammar and punctuation are powerful tools which they can wield in order to give themselves a stronger voice.  SPAG knowledge is a superpower: the ability to make ourselves understood – and to make our stories and letters and playscripts and poems and reports as engaging, entertaining, informative, funny (and the BEST) they can be.

THAT is what punctuation and grammar are for.  If you use them in a considered way, it gives you a big, loud voice to help you make your way in the world.

So that’s where I’m going to end this: Punctuation and grammar are important, but nobody deserves to have the rules rammed down their throats until they hate them.  The rules of grammar and punctuation should be tools to help us express ourselves in a way that makes people listen … and be part of how we equip ourselves to handle life’s adventures.

The shiny new edition of Fierce Resistance is available on Amazon