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.


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.


  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.


15 thoughts on “Be Your Own Copy Editor: Punctuation

  1. Oh god, I think I inspired this post! Hope it wasn’t in a baaaaaad way! Whoa! Another exclamation point!
    Thanks for explaining em-dashes for me. I always wondered what the hell people were talking about. I’ve spent my life calling them ‘dashes’.

  2. Actually, it wasn’t you, even though I’ve been wearing my editor hat all week. I’ve been reading a lot of self-published short stories by traditionally published authors lately, and a lot of them use bizarre punctuation. It finally hit me, they’re used to copy editors cleaning up their quirks.

    Maybe I’m the only person who geeks out over copy editing. I hope not.

  3. Oh my God…….You are so mean!!!!!! I mean, so critical—in a bad way—about punctuation. What’s the big deal???????

    What’s your feeling about smiley faces?

  4. Ahem, smiley faces and other emoticons should only be used in pretentious literary novels, written by authors who use three names (like serial killers), and feature global warming alarmists and librarians and long-deceased house pets, and then only three times per sixteen pages. That is the rule.

  5. “Without a copy editor, their quirks are showing. Need to put a stop to that nonsense.”- Agreed.

    I just watched the Seinfeld episode last night when Elaine felt that her boyfriend should’ve used a punctuation in the phone message announcing that a friend had a baby. An awesome episode.

    For my students, it’s usually the exclamation point. I tell them to use exclamation points sparingly and pretty much never more than one. I count myself fortunate as a high school teacher that I know most of the grammar and punctuation rules that would at least convince a high school student that I know what I’m doing. And that makes me pretty safe for most of my readers, I figure 🙂

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • My writing buddy is a former English teacher. She doesn’t let me get away with anything.

      I’ve had go ’rounds with editors about everything from style to structure, but I’ve never argued with a copy editor. They have saved me from my own quirks and foolishness too many times to count.

  6. Jaye,

    I’m planning on writing a blog this week about editing and self-publishing. It’s driving me bonkers reading books that have multiple typos, serial caps (writers most always use caps when they shouldn’t) etc. I used an editor/proofreader who was a very good story editor and a crap proofreader. She told me she had done very little line editing (proofreading) because I have an “excellent grasp of grammar, punctuation” etc. I thought this was odd because I knew I had a few doubts about things here and there. Then I put on my proofreading hat, meaning I started checking everything I wasn’t 100% sure of. Cripes, what a lot of small errors! I think, ideally, indies should hire a story editor who hopefully proofreads better than mine did, then do any fixes, then self-edit (twice or three times?) then get beta readers or if they can afford it, hire an editor/proofreader. I know that sounds horribly anal but I think people who pay for a book deserve for that book not to be riddled with errors.


    • Sherri,
      Actually what you talk about is absolutely necessary. The real problems aren’t laziness, sloppiness and cluelessness (at least, not mostly) it’s that writers SEE their own work differently than how others read it. The writer of the piece has the soundtrack, all the imagery, the emotions, scents and sounds right there in his head. So what he sees on the page makes perfect sense, in context. All readers have are words on the page. It might not make sense.

      Whenever WB and I have a session, one of us is going to exclaim, “You know what I mean!” To which the other must point out, “But that’s not what is on the page.”

      Trad pubbed writers often ignore what the copy editors are doing behind the scenes. I think it’s silly. The fastest way to rid yourself of bad habits, grammatical errors and quirks (many of which come about because we THINK we know a rule, but don’t QUITE know it) is to study what the copy editor has done.

      Indie pubbers have no choice except to develop an obsession about editing. If not for pride, then for economic reality. The novelty of e-pubbing and ereaders is wearing off. Readers are demanding higher quality. They will stop forgiving the less than polished works. That means indies not only have to find good copy editors, they have to learn to work with them, too. It’s no fun having somebody point out that your literary tricks aren’t working or that you have misconceptions about grammar, but it’s even less fun when readers complain your books are poorly edited.

  7. Yes, exactly! I don’t know how many times I’ve read a passage and then, about the tenth time, “actually” read it and realized it wasn’t right for some reason. Drives me MENTAL but there you go.

  8. Am I weird because I like it when I get a distracting, cute waiter?? One who is dashing and exclamatory and leaves me lots of … to fill in the blanks with my own version of who I think he is? Yeah – I guess I am strange!

    Seriously, thanks for the punctuation reminders!!

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