Henry Ford famously said that “nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” That’s just as true for copywriting as it is for cars—and punctuation is the easiest way to divide writing work into “small jobs,” to the benefit of both your sanity and your time.
For example: the paragraph you just read (above) wasn’t channeled into our keyboard as some perfect stream of consciousness. By our count, it’s five functional blocks: (1) intro clause about Henry Ford, (2) Ford quote, (3) bridge to copywriting, (4) thesis/central argument, and (5) impact statement, or why we care. We focus on one block at a time during drafting, but punctuation chains all the finished blocks together.
If you can see copywriting in this way—as a series of ideas linked together in order by punctuation—then you’ll understand the importance of a good outline, even for short-form content. With a good outline, you can focus on wording one idea at a time, then choose the punctuation that best connects one idea to the next; you don’t have to try and manage eighteen different thoughts at once. Let’s call this the Structural Value of Punctuation.
But there’s also a Vocal Value of Punctuation because, to the extent we can “hear” what we’re reading, punctuation is how writers can mimic the cadence of speech.
The biggest differences between bits of punctuation are the types and lengths of pauses they add to the text we read…
Hyphen (-) — Negative pauses (i.e. a hyphen actually shortens the natural, tiny one-space pause between words)
Apostrophe (‘) — Super-short pause, usually equivalent to the omitted letters and/or spaces it replaces
Comma (,) — Short pause, direct jump to next part of idea
Parentheses () — Short pauses before and after an aside, i.e. a tangential comment “spoken at lower volume”
Em Dash (—) — Moderate pause for interruptions, interjections, and mid-sentence pivots
Semicolon (;) — Moderate pause between two free-standing (but contextually-related) ideas
Colon (:) — Moderate pause between a term and its definition (or formal connections of that sort)
Ellipsis (…) — Full pause without conclusion (open-ended)
Period (.) — Full pause with conclusion, end of idea (downward tone)
Our grammar teachers are probably rolling in their graves at this simplification of Proper Grammar and Mechanics, but as we’ve said before, we try not to care what they’d think.
Most of them never wrote a word of real copy anyway.