What I Learned About My Writing By Seeing Only The Punctuation

· 5 min read
What I Learned About My Writing By Seeing Only The Punctuation
Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

I made a web tool that lets you spy your hidden literary style

Back in 2016, Adam J. Calhoun wrote a fascinating Medium post in which he showed off something quite cool: What novels look like if you strip away the words, and show just the punctuation.

He’d written some Python code to do this, then processed several famous books. As Calhoun pointed out, it gives you a weird new form of literary x-ray vision.

This image below? On the left, it’s Calhoun’s analysis of Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, compared to Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner, on the right …

As Calhoun wrote …

When we think of novels, of newspapers and blogs, we think of words. We easily forget the little suggestions pushed in between: the punctuation. But how can we be so cruel to such a fundamental part of writing?

Inspired by a series of posters, I wondered what did my favorite books look like without words. Can you tell them apart or are they all a-mush? In fact, they can be quite distinct. Take my all-time favorite book, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. It is dense prose stuffed with parentheticals. When placed next to a novel with more simplified prose — Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy — it is a stark difference (see above).

Yes, the contrast is stark. But the wild mix of symbols can be beautiful, too. Look at the array of dots and dashes above! This morse code is both meaningless and yet so meaningful. We can look and say: brief sentence; description; shorter description; action; action; action.

I love this concept! And he’s right — when you look at those writers’ punctuation, you can see, in a quick glance, how different they are.

They’re also gorgeous graphics — you want to print them up, hang them on your wall, tweet them out. Calhoun himself was originally inspired by a series of posters that stripped out the punctuation of famous novels and arrayed them in a spiral. When I tweeted about Calhoun’s project last month it quickly spread far and wide — I realized that a lot of people find punctuation-analysis both revealing and beautiful.

It made me think: We should all get in on this fun!

What would it look like if I visualized my use of punctuation?

What would it look like if you analyzed yours?

I give you a little tool to analyze your writing

So, le voila.

Last night I quickly cobbled together this simple web tool — “just the punctuation”.

Go there, and you can paste in any piece of text you want, and it’ll strip out everything but the punctuation.

It returns a little image designed with a font-and-color combo modeled directly after Calhoun’s viz of Blood Meridian and Abasalom, Abasalom! (I loved his mix of the beige-toned background and an old-school font, since it makes the dataviz reminiscent of a 1960s computer punch-card — a delicious, nougaty layer of meta.)

I have not yet built a way for you to save a visualization, but (for now) you can take a screenshot.

Pro tip: If you want to get a nice-sized result, i.e. one that’s the dimensions you see above, you should input about 6,000 to 8,000 words of text.

(Oh, and don’t worry, this is fully private: Nothing you input is saved or even transmitted anywhere online. The analysis is done entirely inside your browser. (Don’t trust me? You can see the code itself, or remix and reuse it — it’s here on Glitch.))

It turns out I use a *lot* of parentheticals

So, what did I discover about my own writing?

I processed six of my most recent Medium posts (below, and also the top image on this post), and a few things immediately leapt out.

One is — wow, I really love to use m-dashes for dramatic emphasis!

I also realized I don’t often use dialogue or quotes in my Medium posts; there are surprisingly few double-quotation marks.

You can spy passages where I suddenly start reeling off statistical or financial information. About a quarter of way down this graphic, you see a bunch of % symbols, and a few lines below there’s a burst of $ signs. It creates a funny sort of mystery: I can’t tell precisely what data I’m talking about, but I’m clearly talking about data.

My oddest quirk? I occasional deploy super-exuberant parenthetical statements — ones that consist of several sentences, each of which ends in an exclamation point. (It’s so weird! But I guess it’s true! I must do this with some frequency!) If you look at the top line of my dataviz, you can see one that’s really long (!!!!!), and then midway down there’s a shorter one (!!).

This quirk is a subset of a larger trend: I use a lot of parenthetical statements. I also write very long ones. Looking at that graphic, I can see about seven parenthetical statements, one of which contains a hefty fourteen pieces of punctuation, including an internal colon: ( “ ‘ — “ . — . , ‘ , : , , . ). That’s a really long, complex parenthetical.

So what’s going on here? It made me realize I cram my writing with lots of digressions; which is probably related to my thirsty desire to seem so very smart and clever; which itself stems from some intellectual neediness I am able to keep partially — but not entirely — in check; and which also likely explains why I often chain many many phrases together with semicolons, as if I were some Victorian dude peering through his steampunk monocle while cranking out pay-per-word pieces for The Strand. (But I digress.)

So, that’s what I can spy about myself.

What can you see about yourself?

Give it a whirl and see!

It’s also fun to use this tool — as Calhoun originally did — to crunch prose from famous books.

I tried out the opening pages of several novels, one thing I could spy quickly is which passages were based heavily in dialogue, and which were based more in description and narrative.

For example, here’s the opening to Moby Dick

Lots of m-dashes, questions, tons of commas — but not a lot of quotation marks, so little dialogue. (There’s more as the book goes on.)

Frankenstein looks the same …

… because the opening of the novel is epistolatory, with the captain of the north-pole-bound boat writing to his sister; so, again, there isn’t much dialogue up front.

In contrast, here’s the opening passage of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God …

… and you can immediately spy the pattern of Hurston’s prose: Paragraphs of declarative description and narrative (gorgeous stuff, too), that gives way to dense passages of characters talking back and forth. It’s quite visually different from Frankenstein and Moby Dick.

That same pattern is here in The Old Man and the Sea

… though the pattern is inverted from Hurston: Hemingway begins almost exclusively with dialogue, then shifts into descriptive narrative a few pages later.

It’s fun looking at famous writers, but honestly I’m more interested to see what you and other individuals can see about your own literary patterns.

Give it a try — and let me know in the comments what, if anything, you find!