There are many ways to paint a picture. Georges Seurat (1859-1891) often used brush strokes in a technique called pointillism.
The modernist painting (below) by Tom Sulcer, using a technique similar to that of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), employs the same colors that Seurat used, but the message it communicates is entirely different.
Bob Ross (1942-1995), another realist painter like Andrew Wyeth (and whom the avant–garde also loved to hate), didn’t always paint his pictures with the kind of tool you’d expect to see in the hand of an Artist. Sometimes his brush looked like a house-painter’s brush. Sometimes it wasn’t a brush, at all: it was a knife. Bob Ross was known for his ability to produce a completed landscape painting in fewer than 30 minutes, and for his use of “happy little trees,” to punctuate his pictures.
Writers are Artists who paint invisible pictures inside their readers’ heads. Our paint is colored by the pigments of words, carried in grammar that’s applied by tools that use strokes in a variety of shapes and techniques collectively known as punctuation.
Rule #3 of The 7 Reasonable Rules of Writing stipulates the use of sufficient correct punctuation for signage on the path to meaning. Punctuation is what makes the good grammar that carries our excellently spelled words to flow from our pages into our readers’ minds.
“Sufficient” punctuation is slightly more flexible than “good” grammar. There are times when punctuation is required, to form things like correctly spelled possessives and contractions, and to set off other grammatical elements, such as dialogue, questions, exclamations, parenthetical expressions and dependent clauses, in order for meaning to be clear.
At other times, punctuation serves an artistic function of its own, by its contribution to the appearance of the text on the page. In these cases, formatting such as italics, bold or “strong” characters, and occasionally UPPER-CASE letters, along with the use of alternate forms of punctuation can paint a different sort of picture.
For example, in Irish Firebrands, I used italics to show rumination (unspoken thoughts), and en-dashes, ellipses and fewer commas, to communicate the mental states of the main characters. The result was a technique that, until recently, I hadn’t even known had a name of its own: “deep 3rd-person point-of-view.”
All general grammars will teach about punctuation, but a good resource to specifically review it is this book. The author is an entertaining writer whose examples of punctuation use and abuse can help clear up many misunderstandings about those ink-spots that can dramatically affect the meaning and effectiveness of written communication.
Authors, like Painters and Sculptors, are Artists who specialize in a form of visual communication, but most of our visual art can only be seen by the mind’s eye. Whether the tools we use to produce our Art are pencils, pens, or Happy Little Keys, how we punctuate our words and grammar will make a difference in how clearly our stories will convey their invisible images from our minds, to the minds of our readers.