All that Pesky Punctuation

How a bunch of dots and squiggles can sink or save your written copy

I had just created a nice webpage for my boss, complete with some hard-hitting bullet points. He printed a screenshot of it and later came over to congratulate me.

But when I looked at the printout I saw a bunch of places circled in red.


“You put a period after some of the bullet points, but not others,” he pointed out. “Shouldn’t we be consistent?”

Of course, he was right. In creating my amazing work of copywriting genius I hadn’t paid attention to the punctuation—or lack of it—in my bullet points. But he noticed it. I should have, too.

So, what are the rules of punctuation for a copywriter, anyway?

In school, most of us learned rules to give our sentences proper form and clarity. But in copywriting, we’re encouraged to throw the rules out.

Well, maybe not all of them. But our objective is different, so the rules are different. For copywriters, every keystroke is meant to keep the reader interested and ultimately motivate her to act. In that light, the words matter—but the periods, commas, dashes and exclamation points do, too.

Punctuation is like a road sign. It can subtly signal the reader to:

  • Stop (period, paragraph)
  • Keep going (comma, ellipsis)
  • Watch for something important coming up (colon, ellipsis)

We usually don’t want the reader to stop. But sometimes we need him to focus on a particular word. Or phrase. So we put a period on it. Even if it’s not a complete sentence.

We might even give it its own paragraph for special emphasis.

That’s one way of using punctuation to keep the reader engaged. There are more.

What’s an ellipsis, anyway?

In normal writing, the ellipsis (…) indicates that something has been omitted:

“Oh say, can you see … what so proudly we hailed …”

Or, it can signal a pause:

“Well, I don’t know …” He stared out the window for a long minute. “… Maybe so.”

But copywriters can use an ellipsis at the end of a paragraph to tell readers that the thought is not finished …

There’s more coming …

So, they should keep reading …

I’ll also use the ellipsis at the end of email subject lines—because I want readers to feel they must open the email to finish the sentence. A cheap trick? Sure. But it works.

What about those dashes?

The em-dash is a good way to separate a thought within a sentence. (It’s called an em-dash because it’s the same width as the letter M. Now you know.) It can serve the same function as a comma setting off a phrase or subordinate clause—but it’s more dramatic. And I always want drama in my writing.

Nowadays the em-dash is often used instead of the stuffy, old-fashioned colon:

Rutabagas—they’re good for you.

I also like the em-dash because it mimics the way people actually talk:

I paid less than wholesale—by the way, you could probably get the same deal—so anyway, it was worth it.

(And parentheses?)

Direct mail wizard Denny Hatch addresses these things in his timeless book, Write Everything Right.  According to Denny, parentheses create distance, so they should be used carefully. They’re helpful when you want to downplay something:

(Individual results may vary.)

But they can also convey exclusivity:

“Original issue price (for our preferred members) just $99.50”

I like to use parentheses to convey a sense of confidentiality: (Pssst—what you’re reading now is private!) That can increase the reader’s involvement.

But all this comes with a warning …

Stop, already

Needless to say, all these critters can be overused. And then, instead of prodding the reader to keep going, you’re just annoying him. (Personal confession: Along with commas and colons, I tend to overuse the em-dash—as you’ve noticed. So I have to discipline myself to avoid that. Discipline—that’s the thing!)

Other overused devices:

“Quotation marks.” In general, don’t use them. Unless you’re actually, you know, quoting somebody.

Exclamation marks!!! They’re reserved for real exclamations:

My hair’s on fire!

Your hair’s on fire!

Walmart has women’s flip-flops at 50 percent off!

And never use more than one. Readers will get the point. No one likes to be shouted at.

So, learn the rules. And then throw them out. Or rather, use them shrewdly. Strategically. Effectively.

Oh, yes—what is the rule for punctuating bullet points? I’ve never found a style guide for this so I just apply what I learned in sixth-grade English class: If it’s a complete sentence, use a period. If it’s not, don’t.

Simple, right?

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