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)
- usually marks an abrupt change or break in the continuity of a sentence
- is sometimes used in place of other punctuation (as the comma) when special emphasis is required
- introduces a summary statement that follows a series of words or phrases
- often precedes the attribution of a quotation
- may be used with the exclamation point or the question mark
- 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.)
- indicates the omission of one or more words within a quoted passage
- 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
- 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.
- terminates an emphatic phrase or sentence
- 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.