Creative Punctuation Can Be Key to the Narrative
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further... And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
So, how would you edit that? Of course, you had better not edit it. But a copyeditor hungrily wielding a red pen eager for blood might seize on those stops and starts and odd punctuation. And the literary world would be a bit worse off for the loss of that disjointed ending to The Great Gatsby.
Great writing takes us out of the familiar and forces us to look at the written word and the written world in a different light. This is true for us as readers and as copyeditors. Frankly, it can be difficult to decide when an author is being brilliant and when an author is being goofy.
I expected to see Fitzgerald's final paragraphs to The Great Gatsby in a wonderful collection of the five best punctuation marks in literature. Fitzgerald’s dashes and beautifully placed ellipsis didn’t make the list, compiled by Kathryn Schulz for New York Magazine’s entertainment site, Vulture. Fitzgerald’s ellipsis lost out to T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, though I am unconvinced on that choice. Schulz suggests that the ellipsis at the end of the introduction to the original Star Wars really should take the honor.
I don’t disagree with her choice for the em dash, the slap in the face provided at the start of chapter 29 of Middlemarch:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea — but why always Dorthea?
Schulz, book critic for New York Magazine, says “Good writing involves obsessing over punctuation marks.” Good editing does, too, and really good editing involves knowing when creative use of punctuation adds to the narrative in ways that the words alone cannot.