Shannon opened the diary and said, "Oh my God."
Unless Shannon is heavily sedated, this sentence is missing something. Life, I would say. To be more scholarly: The PaG (punctuation and grammar) does not support what the writer was trying to convey. With italics:
Shannon opened the diary and said, "Oh my God."
Much better. When you write a grammatically correct sentence, you are not done. You always have choices, and if you want to write well, you should know those choices. Most authors DO NOT know all of their choices.
Then you have to choose wisely. That's your job, but I want to help. This book is NOT about conventionally correct PaG -- it is about using PaG powerfully and effectively, to make your writing great.
Let me remove the dialogue tag and add an exclamation mark:
Shannon opened the diary. "Oh my God!"
Now I'm happy.
Did I mention that you have more choices than you realize? This is from Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes:
Oh . . . my . . . God!
That's the whole paragraph. I love how he italicized only one word. King is a brilliant technician and we should learn from him. This is from my book Emotions Girl.
"OH! MY! GOD! She's bleeding. She's bleeding on her desk. Get me out of here."
So that's three very different ways of writing Oh my God, and they all mean different things. This is Stephen King again (from Misery):
"OH MY GOD OH PAUL WHAT ARE YOU DOOOOOING?"
You can be like Stephen King and use PaG well. I hope you do that. I also hope you enjoy that. (I do.) And it will make you a better writer.
Some issues are less dramatic. Like whether or not this sentence keeps its comma.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
Take the comma out? Leave it in? Frankly, you don't give a damn?
Hemingway cared. This sentence -- without the comma -- is the first line from The Old Man and the Sea. With the comma, this sentence is grammatically correct. Without it, the sentence has a different feel. It's perhaps a small thing, but you should want all of your sentences to be as good as they possibly can. So? You have a choice -- comma or no comma.
This "ungrammatical" sentence structure appears incessantly throughout Hemingway's book. Would that book have been as good with the commas put in? I doubt it -- I think this particular sentence structure is important to the success of that book; it certainly affects the feel.
When we talk about the less dramatic side of PaG, we'll be talking about decisions that you make hundreds of times an hour. They add up -- to good, clear writing if you decide well. PaG is not just ornamentation that gives writing life; it's also the bones that your ideas hang on. You want a skeleton that fits your ideas and brings them out clearly and elegantly.
It's almost preposterous to claim that Hemingway's choice to remove that comma was that important. I know that; I'm not stupid. Yet I think that might be true. I remembering wanting to scream to the world, "PaG is SO much more important than anyone thinks!"
Then I discovered PaG is even more important than I thought. To set the scene (from Dedication, by MacLaughlin and Kraus), Kate receives a phone call at 4 a.m saying that Jake is in her hometown. She is rushing around, getting packed to go confront him, when she realizes . . . that's insane. So she goes back to bed. Her thoughts in bed (pay attention to the changing punctuation):
Sleep, Kate. Go back . . . to sleep. You've been working non-stop -- the conference, the meetings, the forty-two-hour round-trip to Argentina. This bed was all you could think of. Aren't you comfortable? And relaxed? Living your life? Sleeping in your bed? Isn't it nice to be an adult . . . who can get into her own bed . . . in her own apartment . . . and go to sleep . . . on her own timing. My pulse deepens. And not be reduced to some stupid . . . knee-jerk . . . adolescent . . . obsessive . . . lunatic behavior . . . just because Jake's finally shown up -- finally shown up --
I sit up. Breathless.
The ellipses give us the sense that she's falling asleep. Then she has a thought of Jake, and -- as ellipses change to dashes -- she wakes up. It's magical.
I hadn't expected to find PaG doing most of the work. Yes, the words matter -- they sometimes support the message of the PaG, and they sometime supply new information. But the words could be changed a lot without changing the main message of this paragraph.
If the PaG can sometimes be more important than the words . . . how important is it the rest of the time? I say it's 30% of writing. And you basically cannot write like they probably taught you in school -- that's too boring and impotent. (Correct high school grammar is a PaG desert.)
Um, how this book got started: Once upon a time, I was studying three books, written by three different wizards, all using magical PaG. I noticed that there was almost no overlap! Doing the math . . . I realized there was a huge kingdom of PaG, and no one was using even half of it.
I intrepidly explored all of this kingdom. I was amazed. I still am. I was thrilled, and I still am. I actually traveled no further than my local library, but I feel like an explorer coming back from Africa in the 1800's -- I want to tell you about this amazing new continent with all sorts of incredible animals you never imagined. I traveled no farther into the future than 2016, but I want to tell you what PaG is like in 2016.
And, you know? If all that happens is you just start paying attention to PaG when you read, this book is a success. You'll learning a lot. And it's interesting how authors differ and fascinating what authors can do with PaG.
Um, there's no logical order, so we're just going to jump right into this amazing world. The first stop on this tour is . . .