Be smart with punctuation

Alice Hollis

True story…

I never enjoyed English at school. In fact, it was one of my least favourite subjects – right behind geography (which I was advised not to continue at GCSE-level) and history (which baffled me with its left wing / right wing, remember 101 different political leaders and their hugely complex manifestos). 

And it didn’t help that my teacher was less than encouraging. 

Sure, she adored my best friend, who was that annoyingly gifted child who ‘got’ everything and never had to try in order to achieve straight A* grades. But me – a straight B student, who literally put blood, sweat and tears into every single assignment and examination – she just wasn’t bothered. 

And the nail in the coffin… 

I didn’t (and still don’t) understand a single word that Shakespeare wrote.

So I did enough to ‘fly under the radar’ and avoid difficult conversations about what I thought of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ from our GCSE anthology. And then I tried my best to learn the rules around spelling, punctuation and grammar (if for no other reason than covering off SPAG meant easy marks in the final exam). 

But then I became a copywriter 

Somehow, becoming a copywriter a lot of those lessons about sentence structure, rhythm, pace and style started to click into place. Framed within a different context I was genuinely interested to learn more. And finally, I started to understand the importance of punctuation. 

Now, on a Friday afternoon, when people are kicking back at work and clock-watching until it’s time for the weekend, you tend to see lots of ‘comedy’ examples doing the rounds, like: 

Let’s eat, grandma” versus “Let’s eat grandma”. 

I’m not talking about this. 

I’m talking about strategically using punctuation to pull the reader into your copy and entice them to read from beginning to end. These are some little tricks I’ve picked up: 

You can’t not read the sentence following a colon:

I have to admit, I’d never used a colon much. But then I read this wonderful article that was packed with science (annoyingly I never made a note of what it was called or who it was by). It said using a colon in your writing forces the person to read the next line. It’s particularly useful if you’re about to cover several ideas around a central theme.   

Ellipses points create intrigue…

Think of the EastEnders ‘duff duffs’ at the end of every episode – they leave you on a cliff-hanger yearning for more. That’s what an ellipsis does, and because you want more, you’re going to read on to the next sentence. I’ve fallen in love with those 3 little dots because they force me to write differently so my words look visually more appealing on the page too. 

“Look at my quotation marks”

One element in storytelling technique is the power of speech. The moment you enter speech into your copy, the reader’s eye is instantly drawn because they know it’s something important. Plus, what better way to demonstrate that you empathise with the audience than to talk to them in their exact words? I love using quotation marks as headings, or to emphasise a particular pain point when setting the context for a piece. 

Use a hyphen for emphasis – it adds drama

Another juicy little tip I’ve picked up is inserting a hyphen into a sentence when you really want to drum a point, so it’s heard and remembered. Notice how I used one above: 

“Think of the EastEnders ‘duff duffs’ at the end of every episode – they leave you on a cliff-hanger yearning for more.” 

By emphasising my point with that tiny dash, it’s like a jolt to the system, making you take notice and creating a lasting visual effect in your mind’s eye. 

(add side comments in brackets)

This is a great way to draw the audience in to your personal thoughts or inject some side humour to your copy. But use the technique sparingly – once (or twice!) should suffice per piece of copy. 

Try it for yourself 

Next time you’re reviewing a piece of work, think about how you could insert some of these lesser used punctuation marks to ensure your piece packs a better punch.  

Alice Hollis

B2B tech marketer turned content writer and ghostwriter, with a specialism in thought leadership content.