What I Learned About My Writing By Seeing Only The Punctuation

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

Clive Thompson
Creators Hub
Published in
7 min readOct 8, 2021

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The punctuation from six of my recent essays on Medium

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…

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Clive Thompson
Creators Hub

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net