MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers: Part III: Punctuation and Special Characters

The best evidence that MS Word is not the best tool for fiction writers is in the way it handles punctuation and special characters. The program was created for office writing, and the documents it creates are meant to be printed on site in order to find homes in filing cabinets. Many features that make it terrific for an office can cause major problems for indie writer/publishers.

My Number One Recommendation: Turn It Off

Auto Correct is a boon for office drones, but it’s an annoyance (at best) and dangerous (at worse) for fiction writers. Find it under File>Options>Proofing.

Word_Styles_12Enable or Disable features as you see fit.

Click on the Auto Correct Options button and this comes up:

Word_Styles_13When I’m composing, the only auto-formatting I allow in Word is curly/smart quotes instead of straight quotes. Anything else means I’m going to end up fighting with Word and that pisses off the muse and sends her sulking into the corner. Every once in a while I need to format a Word doc for Smashwords. Then some of those auto features come in handy. See that box in the right hand image that says “Replace text as you type”? You can enable that and make it so Word inserts special characters for you. The copyright symbol, for instance, or the Euro symbol rather than a dollar sign. Be careful with this option and make sure you are using an ebook friendly font (Times New Roman, Garamond), otherwise Word could insert special characters from a subset that is not supported in ereading devices.


When I’m prepping a document for production one of the things I do is make sure the punctuation is print standard. If you want your ebook or print on demand edition to look professional, you will do the same.

Curly/Smart Quotes versus Straight Quotes

Straight quotes/apostrophes look bad and amateurish. Period. Use curly/smart quotes. If you have straight quotes in your document, you can change them to curly quotes with Find/Replace. Enable auto correct for smart quotes, then type a double quote mark in the Find field and a double quote mark in the Replace field, click Replace All and Word will change straight to curly. Do the same for apostrophes/single quotes.

Now you will run into a major headache caused by Word: Curly quotes turned in the wrong direction. To find and correct the most common offenders, here are two searches I suggest you run using the Find feature:

  • Dash/hyphen or em dash with a double quote. In the Find field search for -” or ^+”
  • Space apostrophe (insert a blank space before the apostrophe). This will find open contractions with wrong way apostrophes.


If you take only one thing away from this post, it is to NEVER use Word’s auto-hyphenation feature.

Word_Styles_14When producing an ebook, do NOT hyphenate your text. Ereading devices will render the hyphens as characters placed randomly throughout. It looks awful.

When producing a print on demand book, use Manual hyphenation. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it is tedious. Yes, it seems ridiculous to manually do something the program can do in seconds. But, Word is a slob when it comes to hyphenation and it uses weird rules. Don’t trust it.

Em and En Dashes

This isn’t a grammar guide, so you’ll have to open a style manual and study up. Em and en dashes have specific uses and are NOT interchangeable. If you want your book to look professional, use these punctuation marks correctly.

Hot keys for quick insertion:
Em dash: CTRL+ALT+ Minus (the dash/minus on the Number pad)
En dash: CTRL + Minus (the dash/minus on the Number pad)

Auto-format as you type:
Enable auto format so that a double dash — becomes an em dash
Enable auto format so a space – space becomes an en dash

Compose using a double dash (for em dash) and space – space (for en dash). When you are done and ready to format your book, do a Find/Replace All to take care of them in one shot.
Em dash: double dash in the Find field, and replace with ^+ (caret plus sign)
En dash: space – space in the Find field, and replace with ^- (caret single dash)


Ah, the ellipsis, much beloved by writers everywhere and so widely, horrendously misused. Get a style manual and bone up on proper usage. An ellipsis is a special character consisting of three dots. Not two, not four, not twelve–three. While you are composing in Word, three periods in a row will suffice. When it comes to production, three periods in a row will screw up your book (digital and print) by orphaning periods.

Now is the time..
. (oops, little orphan)

For a professional looking ebook or print on demand book you want to use either the ellipsis character or a spaced ellipsis.

Word_Styles_15I showed the characters with the Show feature both off and on so you can see the (invisible) non-breaking space characters.

To make an ellipsis character:

Hot key: CTRL+ALT+. (period)
Auto format: Refer to the above image showing auto format options. Enable the “Replace text as you type” option to replace three periods in a row with an ellipsis.

To make a spaced ellipsis:

Hot key: .(period) CTRL+Shift+space .(period) CTRL+Shift+space .(period)
Find/Replace: (During composition use three periods) In the Find field type three periods … and in the Replace field type .(period)^s.(period)^s.(period)


If you are creating a document for your personal use, to print on your printer, this isn’t a concern. Just about everything you see on the screen will show up on the printed page. When you’re producing a book, either in print or digital, however, special characters can create big problems.

What is a special character?
Anything you can’t type directly on your computer keyboard.

In the Insert tool bar, click on Symbols.

Word_Styles_16For those of you who hire out your formatting, using obscure symbols or characters can cause big problems.It’s also a big problem when restoring text from scanned pages converted into a Word doc with OCR (Word can be very creative with interpretation). Ereading devices are selective about the characters they will render. The older the device, the fewer characters it will accept. My suggestion to you is, if you want/need obscure characters or symbols in your ebook, send a note to your formatter.

Dear Formatter: In chapter 7 I have several emoticons (smiley face and frowny face) I would like turned into symbols if possible.

Sometimes it is possible, sometimes substitutes must be made. Doing it this way is better than inserting a character that will not render and the formatter missing it and the ebook ends up displaying an “I do not know what this means” symbol (an X’d rectangle with a question mark in it).

For those of you creating ebooks with Word, stick to only those characters and symbols you find in “normal text”, Latin-A extended and Latin-B extended. Most of those are safe. To test if they will render, use the Kindle Previewer and look at the text in the DX device. If it shows up there, it’s good.

For those of you creating print on demand books with Word, you have a slightly different problem. You must ensure that your fonts (or at least, the font characters) are embedded. Go to File>Options>Save.

Word_Styles_17Word comes loaded with dozens or hundreds of fonts. Not all of them are embeddable. When you save the file as a pdf, the receiving program will try to find substitutes for any characters it cannot reproduce in your desired font. This can be a disaster. It can also make getting your book through the Createspace review process a major pain in the patoot.

For more information from Createspace:

For more information about embeddable fonts:

MS Word, A Primer for Indie Writers
Part I: Styles
Part II: Scene Breaks, Page Breaks, and Sections
Upcoming: Part IV: Find/Replace and SpellCheck

Punctuation Purgatory: The Em Dash and the Ellipsis

There are some people who smugly believe they are the bane of my existence. Sorry. My Cone of Silence is such a powerful force field, no mere human being can annoy me for long. The true bane of my existence is punctuation in ebooks. Especially the two characters most beloved by fiction writers: the em dash and the ellipsis.

On the good news front, the people who program Amazon’s Kindles have solved the em dash problem. It used to be that Kindles treated two words joined by an em dash as a unit. Hence, it could cause big, ugly spaces in sentences when the text flow jumped that “word” to the next line:

You’re innocently typing along and minding
your own business and decide, for good
or maybe not so benign
reasoning–character counts in this business,
you know–and there’s a big ugly space…

It appears now that every em dash is flanked by zero-width non-joiners. What that means is, the em dashes break when they reach the end of a line. No more big, ugly spaces in sentences.

Every silver cloud must have a spot of puce. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t bitch about it. The rule appears to be iron-clad, even for em dashes at the end of a line of dialogue.

“Hey, stupid! Watch out for that–“

No problem–unless your dialogue runs a little long and the text wraps to the next line.

“Hey, stupid! You better watch out for that

This would be an easy fix. Just slip a zero-width joiner between the word and the em dash so it’s not allowed to break at the end of the line. EXCEPT Kindles no longer recognize the zero-width joiner entity. I can put them in, but the device just ignores them.

Le sigh...


Ellipses never seemed to cause much problem on the device end–the problems were caused by writers using three periods instead of an ASCII character. Or worse, trying to go for the “bookish” look and spacing the periods. This caused a whole generation of orphans on the screen.

What are saying, Jaye? My ellipses are.
.. improper?

Or something even sadder can occur. The
poor little orphaned period sitting all alone..

The cure for this is simple. If you are using Word, run a Find/Replace All operation with three periods in the Find box and three periods in the Replace box. Word will automatically change your three periods into ellipses that the ebook will treat as a unit. If you’re using html, do a Find/Replace to turn the three periods into the ASCII character.

What if you want spaced ellipses? Normally I discourage that. Spaced ellipses are just asking for trouble. They look fabulous in print, but they play havoc in ebooks. An ellipsis at the beginning of a line or even sitting by itself on a line looks a bit odd, but it’s acceptable. An orphaned period or two periods looks like a mistake. Plus, justification could warp them out of shape. That is not acceptable.

But. I have a client who really, really, really wanted spaced ellipses and was willing to risk a platoon of orphaned periods to get them.

I came up with a solution that is so simple, so elemental I feel like a dope for not thinking of it before. The no-break space.

In html the entity is & nbsp ; (but all closed up–the spaces are just to fool wordpress). So, a spaced ellipsis would look like this:

nbspThe first line is a regular ellipsis. The second is an ellipsis with punctuation. On the Kindle it will look like this:

. . .

. . . ?

Ta da! Spaced ellipses the Kindle treats as units.



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.