The RULES of Writing and Other Nonsense

Now for something completely different

AsQuinnMention “rules” to a writer and one of two reactions generally occur. Either the writer’s eyes light up with plaintive hopefulness that finally they are about to hear the One Great Secret that will make writing easy. Or, the writer responds like a cornered wolf ready to rip your face off.

Despite that, I am bravely putting on my editor hat and we’re going to discuss some rules for writing. (No face-ripping, please.)

RULES. I have only one hard and fast rule for writing: Don’t bore the reader. As long as you are engaging the reader, then your writing is working.

What about “good” writing and “bad” writing? The written word is a form of communication. If it communicates to a reader what the writer means to say, then it’s good writing. If it fails to communicate, then it’s bad. Any other criteria for judgement is entirely subjective and a matter of taste.

That said, there are a few “rules” every writer should know. Only let’s not call them “rules.” “Rules” seem to run counter to creativity (which I could argue exhaustively, but some other time), plus sometimes open me up to face-ripping, so to make this more palatable, let’s call them “Tools” instead.

TOOLS EVERY WRITER SHOULD MASTER

  1. Spelling.
  2. Grammar.
  3. Punctuation.
  4. Story/Narrative form/structure.

When I say “master” that’s precisely what I mean. You practice and learn and pound the principles into your noggin until you know them inside and out. Unless and until you have mastery of those four tools you are no more a professional writer than a guy who can’t tell the difference between oak and pine is a professional carpenter.

A lack of mastery of those tools tags you as an amateur, but mastery will not necessarily make you a great storyteller. Once spelling, grammar, punctuation, and form and structure are second nature to you, however, you will be ready to use the most powerful tool of all:

THE READER’S IMAGINATION

Storytelling is much like a magic show. The magician dazzles with misdirection, sleight of hand, patter and showmanship. Those skills allow the magician to control the audience and keep their attention focused right where the magician wants it. The writer does the same thing. Great writers understand and exploit readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief and ability to enlarge the characters and stories in their imaginations. Less-than-great writers don’t trust the readers to “get it” and don’t trust in the power of their own words. They try to do the reader’s job, and in doing so, their prose is boring.

Example: A door and a dog.

Now “dog” is a wonderfully evocative word and just about everyone knows what a dog is, and in many cases all you need to say is “dog” and the readers know what you’re talking about. But you want to paint a picture. You want to tell a story.

The writer who doesn’t trust his words or readers might write something like this:

I saw a big, black, shaggy dog in the yard. He guarded the door. He was scary. He stood 28 inches at the shoulder, and his head was square, and his fur looked rough, like nobody ever brushed him or petted him or called him, “Good boy.” A dog bit me once, when I was seven years old, and the scar is faded, but I still remember the incident vividly. The real scar is on my soul. My heart started pounding and my palms grew sweaty. I was terrified. The dog turned his head. His eyes were yellow. They were filled with hate and viciousness. I thought about running and thought about the dog catching me if I did run.

Technically, there is nothing wrong with the above paragraph. The problem is that it’s static in that it leaves nothing for the reader to do but watch. (The writer already filled in all the details and told the reader how to think and feel about it.) It also defuses the tension by burying the real problem. It’s overloaded with information that all sounds important. But what is the reader supposed to worry about? The mean, but unloved dog? The narrator’s boyhood trauma? Dog bites? When everything is important, then nothing is important. There is no suspense.

A writer who trusts his prose and the reader will keep the focus where it belongs.

She was inside and I was outside. All that separated us was a door. And a dog. Right now that dog glared at me as if it owed me money and I’d come to collect.

As a writer I trust the reader to fill in the blanks about mean, scary dogs and their own childhood traumas, while focusing on the narrator’s real problem about how to get to the desired prize on the other side of the door.

The right details build a word world for the reader to inhabit. Too many extraneous details turns into reportage, fact after fact after fact with no indication as to what is important and what’s not, leaving the poor reader with no room for his imagination to work.

When I’m editing, along with clarity and consistency, I’m looking for any place where the writer is interfering with the reader. Most writers, in my experience, can’t see how powerful, how good, their stories are, and so they tend to pile on the words to make sure the readers really and truly get it. Cutting the extraneous words is the cure. Here is my list of the major offenders:

  • Stage directions. Your characters are not puppets and you do not have to jerk every string. Example: “He reached across the coffee table and picked up the remote control in his right hand. He pointed the remote at the television set that sat against the south wall. With his right thumb he pushed the power button. The TV went dark. Silence filled the room.” Unless all that reaching and pointing is vital to your story and indicative of something really, really important going on, cut it. “He turned off the TV,” will suffice.
  • Control your dialogue tags. Writers get bored with “said” and I get that. Readers get bored and/or confused with “barked, hissed, ejaculated, interjected, interrupted, crooned, whispered, smiled, laughed, etc.” Dialogue tags have a purpose: Indicate who is speaking. The dialogue IS the action. There is rarely a good reason to pile on a bunch of adjectives and adverbs to tell the reader how it’s done.
  • Explainery. “He kicked the garden gnome over. Then he stomped on the cute little button nose, smashing it into the empty brain case. He hated garden gnomes.” Well, duh. The first two sentences show the reader all they need to know about the character’s opinion regarding garden gnomes. The last line is just you, the writer, not thinking the readers are smart enough to get it. As a reader nothing bores me faster than the writer wandering on stage and explaining to me what just happened.
  • Telegraphing.
    “He decided to leave. He walked out the door.”
    “He was so angry. ‘I’m gonna kill you!’ he said.”
    “By this time tomorrow, not one would be left alive.”
    In the first two examples, no need to tell me what you’re going to do or how you feel. Just do it. In the third example, I would stop reading. What’s the point? I already know what’s going to happen.
  • Action out of order.
    “They ran when the building collapsed.”
    “She slapped his face. How dare he call her a slut?”
    Rearrange those sentences. Cause then effect. Action then reaction. Stimulus then response. Putting your action in order prevents what I call “stutter stops” where the reader has a micro-second of wondering, Huh? Why did…? Oh, I see. Enough of those and your reader will start trying to rearrange your sentences for you and then they aren’t paying attention to the story.
  • Throat clearing. We all do it. We start sentences with “obviously” or “as you know” or “it’s been my experience” or some other bit of nonsense whose only purpose is the writer stalling while he gets his thoughts in order. Cut those, brutally and without regrets. Your readers will thank you.
  • Editorializing or justifying or apologizing. I see this a lot with timid writers. Their words are powerful, they sense the power, and it scares them. So they backtrack and try to soften the blow or to make a case as to why they said what they said. It’s much like explainery, except the writer isn’t explaining what a character did, they are explaining themselves. This is a tough one for writers to handle on their own. My best advice is to be aware that if you find yourself worrying that readers will think you, the writer, is a bad person for saying such things, then chances are you are justifying or apologizing. You may need another person, an editor, to point it out to you.

There are other ways writers get in the way of their own stories and interfere with the reader’s enjoyment. Covering them all would take a book. But if you start with these, I guarantee your writing will improve and you’ll get rid of much of the fluff and filler bogging down your story.

The Proof is in the Proofreading

quinnproofMy biggest gripe with ebooks is a lack of proofreading. (Trad pubs are the worst offenders–isn’t anybody at least giving the ebooks a quick scan before putting them up for sale? Judging by the multiple dumb errors and piss-poor formatting, I’d say the answer is no.)

When I produce an ebook I have two hard and fast rules, Number One: squeaky clean text going into production. Number Two: the ebook must be proofread post-production. I charge people to proofread their ebooks for them, and a lot of clients take me up on it, but I’m more than happy for the writer to do it him/herself or hire a third party. I even make it easy for them by providing a markup document and instructions (since they can’t make changes in the ebook itself).

Even though proofreading is essential, some would like to argue that they can skip it. They’ve already polished the manuscript to a high gloss, even had a professional editor have a crack at it, and, in some cases I’m sure, they are sick to death of that particular project and want to get on to something else. I get that. Been there. Even so, it’s part of being a publisher and it must be done.

Before I continue, let me explain what proofreading is NOT:

  • It’s not copy-editing
  • It’s not line-editing
  • It’s not editing at all

What proofreading IS:

  • Format checking
  • Typo searching
  • Error seeking

When I produce an ebook, I expect that the writer has edited, polished, tweaked and fine-tuned. They’ve made the text as clean as they are capable. They made their grammatical choices and established a style. When I proofread I’m just looking for goofs. I don’t change text unless it’s a patently obvious error. Double words (…he spelled the the word misspelled incorrectly…) or a mixed up homonym (…happy is the bear-foot boy…) or a missing word (…nothing finer than (a) sunny spring day…) and misspellings or incorrect contractions. For anything beyond that, I will make a note to the writer and they can decide how to fix it, or not. My main concerns are my own goofs in formatting, and little gremlins such as missing punctuation or words that aren’t fully italicized or spacing issues.

There is nothing particularly difficult about ebook proofing. That said, I recommend that writers NOT proofread their own work, but instead hire out the job or find a writer friend willing to barter or trade the chore. The reason is copy blindness. When you write something down, you know exactly what you MEAN to say. Your brain is more likely to “see” what you meant rather than what is actually on the page. It’s a very real phenomenon and it trips up the best.

What if it’s not in your budget to hire a proofreader? What if all your friends are busy? What if you HAVE to do it yourself? What if you WANT to do it yourself?

There is hope.

The Tools

  • An ereading device: Kindle, Nook, iPad, your computer, etc.
  • A style sheet
  • A style manual
  • A dictionary

The Device: Even though MOBI and EPUB are different platforms, the ebooks should look pretty much the same no matter what device the reader uses. So it doesn’t matter which version you proofread. If you do not have a dedicated ereader, then you need to use an online viewer. I recommend the Kindle Previewer, Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions. All three are free downloads. All three render well enough for proofreading purposes. All three allow you to double-check your ebook’s navigation.

A Style Sheet: This is basically a log of your preferred spellings, stylings and usages. I keep Notepad open when I proofread and jot down character names, unusual spellings, etc. to give me a quick reference. Consistency is the key to a good reading experience. The style sheet will keep you consistent. I also log product names and trademarked names, then double check to make sure they are spelled correctly and to see if there is any restriction on their use.

A Style Manual: Every publishing house and periodical publisher has an in-house style. Often it is based on a particular style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style. Every indie publisher should do the same thing. Pick a style and stick with it. For fiction, a far simpler style reference will suffice. I recommend Strunk & White Elements of Style. Short, easy and friendly. Buy a copy (then buy extras for when your kids run off with them).

A Dictionary: Depending on spell check can lead to embarrassment. If you’re like me, you have dozens of dictionaries and thesauri on your bookshelves. Pick your main reference(s) and stick to it/them for consistency’s sake. Language changes and evolves, but it shouldn’t do so within one story. If you’d rather use an online source try the Merriam-Webster site or the Oxford Dictionaries site.

The Process

  1. You must open the ebook on something. You cannot properly proofread the ebook by going back to the manuscript.
  2. Have a markup document ready. I use a Word doc in which I’ve created a navigation guide, but no other formatting. Here is where Track Changes* comes in handy. Do all your mark up and changes on this document (which you will then transfer to your actual ebook file after you are done).
  3. Work backward through the ebook. Truly, this is the number one best way to defeat copy blindness. It will help keep your mind out of the story and on task.
  4. If you get sleepy or hungry, take a break. Sleepiness makes you dull and inattentive; hunger makes you impatient.
  5. Periodically change the font, font size and line spacing. Just making the ebook look different goes a long way toward making you more efficient.
  6. Get in the habit of questioning everything. Homonyms can be the bane of many writers. It’s so darned easy to mix up words that sound alike. Here’s a fun reference: Alan Cooper’s Homonym list. Product names are another danger area. Google is a wonderful resource. BUT, sometimes it is not enough to just get the spelling right. Companies can be very aggressive about protecting their trademarks. If you are using a trademarked product name, double check proper usage here.
  7. Use Find/Replace wisely. I rarely use Replace All when proofreading–it can lead to strange occurrences. It is human nature to repeat errors, so if you find an oddball spelling, do a quick search to see if you’ve done it elsewhere.
  8. If a passage seems off to you, read it aloud. Read it aloud to someone else. This is an excellent way to figure out if you’ve misplaced a comma or skipped a word.

And a final word of wisdom: Don’t rewrite your book. Seriously. You’re proofing the final product, the final step before releasing it. If you cannot stop rewriting, tweaking, doing “just a little bit more”–procrastinating!–then find someone else to proofread for you.

If anybody has any other handy-dandy tips to make proofreading easier or more efficient, feel free to fill up the comments.

* Never, ever use Track Changes in a Word doc that you intend to convert into an ebook. Turn it off, keep it off, protect your ebook from the nastiness that Track Changes inserts.

Taking Some of the Pain Out Of Proofreading Your Ebook

Okay, everybody, raise your hand and wave it wildly if you love proofreading your ebook!

*crickets*

Yeah, me, too. Nonetheless, proofreading your ebook is essential. By that I mean, actually opening the ebook on your Kindle or Nook or iPad or phone or magic toaster, and going over it word by word, character by character. You’re not just looking at the text. Funny things can happen during conversion. You need to find the goofs and glitches and fix them.

If you don’t have an ereader? Download Calibre onto your computer. It’s free, the display is attractive, and while it doesn’t give you the exact display you’d find on a handheld ereader, it is good enough you should be able to spot the worst problems.

When I proofread an ebook I’ve produced, I load it onto one of my Kindles, run it through its paces (make sure all the links work, and that it responds properly to all the user-interface commands, and that the navigation guide is properly displayed), then I go through the text. I pull up the actual file on my computer and make corrections as I find them. No biggie.

Where the process gets sticky is when someone else proofreads. I prefer the author proof the text. Not just because it’s time-consuming and not much fun, but because the author is the most deeply invested in their work and the final proof is their opportunity to tweak and polish. Plus, they can actually see how graphical elements look in “real time” and see if text effects look good on the screen.

You can’t mark up an ebook. Oh, you can use bookmarks and notes, but it’s ridiculously difficult transferring those to another device, especially when working with “document” as opposed to “book” files. And because such things as “percentage of book read” and “location” depend on the device and the user font and spacing preferences, those are not reliable markers either. What I’ve been doing is asking writers to type out their notes with enough text for me to search and to note which chapter or section the goof/change is in. There are inherent problems with this method. One is typos (the writer’s and mine). Another is fatigue. If you’re tired, the temptation is there to think, Ah, a backward quote mark doesn’t really matter, or What difference does this not-quite right word make?

I stumbled onto a method with a book that required two proofreaders. The key is Square Brackets.

[ ]

In the books I produce, there is usually no reason to use square brackets. That makes them, for search purposes, unique characters. What I did was copy the ebook file(s) and turn them into text files. Windows and Mac users have a basic text editor included (under Accessories in Windows–mine is called Notepad). It will open a text file. So the writer opens the text file and while they are proofreading the ebook on their device or in Calibre, if they find a goof or want a change, they can mark up the file. All they have to do is enclose any changes in square brackets. It looks like this:

aProof1When the author is done, they send the entire file back to me. I open it side by side with the ebook file, search for square brackets and voila! I can see the author’s notes in “real time.” If there are text changes, I can copy the author’s exact text and paste it into the ebook file. No typos. (watch those quote marks and apostrophes–make sure you don’t accidentally use straight quotes instead of curly) Last night I keyed in the corrections from the above example. What would have been a two to three hour job using the old method, took me instead about 30 minutes. That included going back through and double-checking my work. The writer reports that after she got over her shock over how weird the text file looks, the job was much, much easier on her end, too.

What about the rest of you? Has anyone else found simpler or more effective ways for proofreading ebooks when two or more people are involved in the process?

 

 

One More Time (Nooooo!) The Final Proofread

I don’t know if I’m alone in this (doubt it) but I always reach a point in the process where if I have to look at a piece of writing ONE MORE TIME I will either a) take a blowtorch to my eyeballs; or b) curl up in a fetal ball and whimper. If I’m forced, if I have no choice, I tackle the job with all the enthusiasm of a sleep-deprived 4-year-old on an airplane. There is much whining involved.

I am, of course, talking about the final proofread. The “galley” proof stage. The book is written, edited, formatted and converted into an ebook. And it must be read one more time before it released into the wild.

I make a distinction between “pre-production” and “post-production” proofreading. Pre-production proofing is more akin to line editing. Purists, indeed, will call it line-editing, but whatever you call it, it’s the step after copy-editing and right before production. It involves style sheets, questions, research and a whole lot of nit-picking. I wrote about that process here.

Post-production proofreading is much simpler. The assumption is that the writing has been edited, fact-checked, and the style is consistent throughout. What you’re looking for is mistakes. Goofs. Gremlins. You’re also looking at the actual format and deciding if it needs tweaked. Trust me, folks, there will be mistakes, goofs and gremlins to find—some (horrors!) will have been introduced during formatting. If you don’t find them at this stage, readers will.

I was pondering the other day—how many goofs are acceptable in a book? This after reading a book that was so chock-full of errors I wondered if the editor/proofreader was even familiar with the English language or had ever opened a dictionary. A mass-market paperback put out by a Big 6 publisher. Appalling. Definitely a crime against literacy. I came to the conclusion that five errors per 100,000 words meets my standard of a properly produced book. Print or digital. That’s a damned high standard, but I have bookcases full of books that have met that standard, so it’s achievable.

So, whether you have formatted your ebook yourself or you’ve hired someone, it’s essential that you proof the copy in its final form. That means converting the file into an ebook and proofing the ebook on an ereading device. If you do not have an ereading device, you can do this process on your computer with a program like MobiPocket Reader or Calibre.

The most difficult part of this kind of proofreading is actually reading. When you read, your mind has a tendency to fill in the blanks and skim over goofs. Proofreading involves going through the text word by word, comma by period, quote mark by quote mark.

Some tips:

  • Mix it up. Go through the text backward. Or proof the chapters out of order.
  • Change the screen. Enlarging or shrinking the font, adjusting the line spacing, or even changing the screen color (if your device allows it) can serve as a reminder NOT to read the story and focus instead on the minutia.
  • Use a marker. When I proof printed manuscript I use a metal ruler. That is not a good idea on an ereader. I do have a six inch plastic ring sizer though, which is perfect. You probably don’t have a plastic ring sizer, but you can use a plastic bookmark or a strip of cardboard. Anything that forces you to look at just one line of text.
  • Read aloud, including punctuation. It sounds ridiculous—Open quote How dare you tell me what to do question mark closed quote—but it works.
  • Take your time. The temptation might be to rush the job and get it over with, but this final proofread is important. It is necessary. You owe to your writing and to your readers to do the best job you can.

What about you, dear readers? Any tips or tricks for doing a good job on the final proofread?

Writer’s Bane: Those Horrid Homonyns

It happens to the best of us. Writing along, fingers flying, prose printing on the screen, then from out of nowhere, it’s ATTACK OF THE HOMONYNS!

Your sexy hero is caught walking “bear assed” down to the fishing hole.

Your sweet heroine awaits him with “baited breath.”

Your pockets are filled with “lose” change and you can’t quit striking “cords” when your “sell phone” rings and it’s someone who desperately needs your “ade” and “who’s” fault is it anyway that there are so many pitfalls in the English language?

(By the way, I am perfectly aware that lose/loose are NOT true homonyms, but writers mix them up so frequently they might as well be)

Your spell checker won’t help you. The homonyms are spelled correctly. A dictionary will help you, but only if you catch the goof and say, “Wait a minute. Is that the right word?”

How to combat the horrors of homonyms?

  • Step number one is acceptance. Everybody gets tripped up by homonyms. Even the most careful writer will write “it’s” for “its” or “lets” for “let’s” or “your” for “you’re” (the most common, by far, homonym errors I see when proofreading).
  • Step two is awareness. You know you’re going to goof, so while you are going back over a piece of writing, make sure you double-check any word that is a homonym, especially those that become homonyms when contracted (you’re, who’s, let’s, it’s)
  • Step three is education. Familiarize yourself with homonyms, common and uncommon. I found a site, Alan Cooper’s Homonym List, that is as close to complete as I’ve ever seen (I love word nerds!). Bookmark the list or even print it. Read through the list, see if there are any homonyms you weren’t even aware are homonyms.
  • Step four is consider the source. Your spell checker will tell you not to worry when you write, “John put the jeweler’s loop to his eye.” The dictionary will tell you the proper word is “loupe.” (And no, I don’t care that dictionaries are unwieldy, old fashioned and out of touch. Until I catch my dictionary in a lie, I will continue to use it.) Ergo, Spell Checker is an unreliable doofus while Dictionary is your loyal friend. Never forget that.

So go forth and write, dear Writers, and keep an eye out for those horrid homonyms.

It’s All About Style: Proofreading

I’ve been doing quite a few proofreading jobs here lately (I tell everyone I dislike proofing because, you know, it’s not cool and only the nerdy kids get stuck with the job, but I actually enjoy it–it makes my inner nitpicker happy. So fine, I’m a word nerd, shaddup already). I’ve asked a few writers if they have style sheets for me to use. I’ve been getting blank stares in response. I finally realize “style sheet” sounds high falutin’ and fancy pantsy.

Let’s call it a “Cheat Sheet” instead.

Despite using computers for writing since the 1980s, I’m still very much a pen and paper kind of gal. Which accounts for much of the mess on my desk (watch for a future post on how Scrivener is finally breaking me of the paper habit). For my cheat sheets, I use a sheet of drawing paper (or two, depending), divvy it up into eight blocks and label the blocks alphabetically–A-B-C; D-E-F… and so on. Then, when I run across a proper name, a place name, preferred spellings, and other details easy to misspell or overlook, I jot them down in the appropriate block. That way, as I go through a manuscript, all I have to do is glance at the cheat sheet to make sure the usage is consistent.

That, my friends, is what it boils down to: consistency.

When I proofread, I’m looking for goofs and typos and missing or misplaced punctuation. I’m also looking for consistency. For instance, preferred spellings. Some words have two or more accepted spellings. The word “gray,” for example, which can also be spelled “grey.” It doesn’t matter which spelling you, the writer, choose to use. What matters is that the spelling remains the same throughout the manuscript. I also note how the writer uses capitalization. While a contemporary story might stick with standard capitalization, a fantasy novel or speculative fiction might use unusual constructs. I jot those down on the cheat sheet. The same thing goes for italics. I can usually get a very good feel for the writer’s style after only a few pages–always uses italics for direct thoughts (for instance), or only uses them in dialogue to emphasize speech, or italicizes foreign words in dialogue, but not in narrative. Once I see the pattern, I make a note of it, so I can check for consistency throughout.

Timelines are also useful. If your story is like the TV show, “24” and depends on split-second timing, or if dates are very important to the plot, a timeline can help the proofreader help you. You meant to write “one week ago,” but a brain fart made you write, “one month ago.” With a timeline, the proofreader can note the inconsistency and ask you about it.

So, indies, you’ll have better results working with a proofreader if you provide a cheat sheet. The process will go faster and be much more efficient. It’s easy to whip up a chart in a spread sheet, or type up an alphabetical list. If you’re using unusual spellings or constructions, make a note.

Your preference in grammatical style is also a good thing for the proofreader to know. My fall back on questions of usage and style is my old Webster’s 9th, which is basic and standard. It is, however, over thirty years old and grammar styles do change. So it’s not so much a matter of correct or incorrect if you use serial commas or not, or which style of possessive you use, or if you spell out numbers or use numerals. The key is always consistency. If you follow a particular style manual or a style guide on the internet, let the proofreader know. That way when they have a grammar question, the proofreader can reference your source.

A little note about unusual styles and grammar usages. As an indie who doesn’t have to conform to a publisher’s in-house style, you are free to experiment. Try to keep the readers in mind while you do so. It’s all well and good to try something nobody has tried before. Who knows? If it works, maybe others will emulate you. If your unusual construction or “creative” use of punctuation confuses or frustrates readers, then the experiment is a failure. A good copy editor or proofreader will point that out and you’d be wise to listen.

Be Your Own Copy Editor: Punctuation

Here’s how it worked in the good ol’, bad ol’ days. A writer sent a manuscript to his editor. The editor made notes of any necessary revisions and sent that back to the writer, who then bitched, moaned, felt horribly insecure and insulted, and stuck a few pins in the editor-voodoo doll, then buckled down and made the revisions and sent them back to the editor. The manuscript might pass through a separate line editor’s hands, but always eventually ended up with a copy editor who, with red pencil sharpened to a dagger point and laser vision set on stun, went after misspellings, inconsistencies, wayward grammar and ineffective punctuation like a ferret after prairie dogs. Depending on the publisher and scheduling, the writer may or may not see the copy-edited manuscript. If the writer did receive galleys, he went through them in search of typos (cautioned by the editor to NOT make any big changes, or else) then sent the proofread galleys back and that was that. Wait for the book, short story or article to appear in print.

Not a bad system. Lots of eyes on the manuscript, fewer opportunities for typos and bloopers to slip through the cracks.

Self-publishers are at a disadvantage in that regard. Funds are tight and editors are expensive. Many indies have to get creative in bartering for services, engaging beta readers, and exchanging proofreading with other writers.

The smart indie learns how to copy edit.

That goes for experienced writers, too, who have left traditional publishing to strike out on their own. Judging from what I’ve seen, many of them aren’t obsessive-compulsives who compare original pages to the copy edited manuscripts to see what the changes were and why they were made. They sent in their quirks and copy editors fixed the quirks and the writers didn’t pay much attention to what the copy editors did. Without a copy editor, their quirks are showing. Need to put a stop to that nonsense.

Copy editing is a skill anyone smart enough to write fiction can learn. Today, let’s start with the most basic of basics: Punctuation.

Get a style manual (White & Strunk’s The Elements of Style is short, sweet and easy to understand). Read it, study it, take it to heart. I use a sad-looking and tattered Webster’s Ninth Dictionary I’ve been using for over 30 years. It rarely lets me down.

I’m not going to write a primer on punctuation. A style manual will tell you everything you need to know. Study it and learn the rules of punctuation. Apply those rules to your work.

Instead, I want to discuss something I’m seeing a lot of in self-published works. Writers trying to use punctuation for effect or for pacing in ways that call attention to the punctuation itself. A copy editor would strike such shenanigans with a red pencil, and for good reason. Punctuation that attracts attention distracts the reader and weakens the prose.

Think of punctuation as wait staff in a restaurant. Their job is to seat everybody, maintain order, get the food to the right diner at the right time, and keep everybody happy and content so they can enjoy the dining experience. Wait staff remains in the background, doing their job without drawing attention. Punctuation for effect is akin to the wait staff suddenly breaking into song or line dancing or marching through the restaurant with sparklers singing Happy Birthday. It’s obnoxious. If the food is good enough, diners tolerate it, but unless they’re under ten years old, nobody actually likes it.

The three marks I see most often abused: Dash or em dash; ellipses; exclamation points.

I’m a huge fan of all three. There is a fine line between effective use and ineffective use. They are what I consider “strong marks.” They alert the reader and put them on notice that something must be paid attention to. So, if they are overused they become the literary equivalent of car alarms. If they are misused, they confuse the reader and jerk them out of the story. Do that too often and your book could end up in the DNF pile.

The RULES:

DASH (two hyphens in a manuscript, a long dash in published form–indies, remember to use search-and-replace to convert your double hyphens into em dashes during ebook formatting)

  1. usually marks an abrupt change or break in the continuity of a sentence
  2. is sometimes used in place of other punctuation (as the comma) when special emphasis is required
  3. introduces a summary statement that follows a series of words or phrases
  4. often precedes the attribution of a quotation
  5. may be used with the exclamation point or the question mark
  6. removes the need for a comma if the dash falls where a comma would ordinarily separate two clauses

Rule of thumb: Use the em dash to indicate interrupted dialogue or to set off a parenthetical thought or clause in narrative. If  your pages are crawling with em dashes, ask yourself what exactly is it you are trying to do? If the answer is, you’re going for an effect (rapid pacing, disjointed thoughts, choppy movements) it is time to question each and every em dash. If the usage doesn’t coincide with the above list, strike the em dashes.

ELLIPSES: Three periods (When formatting a file for an ebook in Word, use the search and replace feature to make a proper ellipsis. Enter … in the search box and … in the replace box. Word will create a joined ellipsis for you.)

  1. indicates the omission of one or more words within a quoted passage
  2. indicates the omission of one or more sentences within a quoted passage or the omission of words at the end of a sentence indicated by using a period after the ellipsis
  3. indicates halting speech or an unfinished sentence in dialogue (no period, though a question mark is acceptable)

Rule of thumb: Use sparingly. Ellipses are NOT for authorial throat-clearing or to pace the action. If every line of dialogue contains ellipses, you need to rework the dialogue. Try to avoid using it in narrative. Remember that most readers associate ellipses with omission, so if you overuse them, your readers will be wondering what isn’t there instead of paying attention to  what’s on the page.

EXCLAMATION POINT:

  1. terminates an emphatic phrase or sentence
  2. terminates an emphatic interjection

Rule of thumb: Use your indoor voice, please. Using an exclamation point is the equivalent of shouting. When you use it in dialogue, be aware that your readers are “hearing” your characters shout. If you use it in narrative, the readers will feel as if you, the author, are shouting at them. So every time you come across an exclamation point in your writing, question it. Unless you absolutely have to use it to make your meaning clear (as in, the character is actually shouting) strike it.

Now go sharpen those red pencils and hit the pages. Find your annoying little punctuation quirks and squash them like bugs.