So I know I haven’t been editing all that long, but I have already begun to notice some baffling trends among those who throw their hat into the writing ring. Now, I am in no way an expert at writing; my first story THE AUTUMN MAGE is just now with Ashley R. Carlson getting worked by her magic. I do not have a degree in English degree to my credit, nor do I claim to be an expert linguist. That said, you have to have a basic understanding of how punctuation works otherwise you will very quickly lose any sort of credibility in your writing.
When is the perfect time to start a new paragraph? That is contested. If you think back to elementary or middle school, they taught 3-5 sentences. This isn’t a hard law to me, BUT it is rather easy to let a paragraph go for days. You may think that the reader needs a microscopic level of detail regarding an object. Or you’re afraid that adding a new paragraph is going to somehow break the tension. However, you need to break up walls of text, no more than generally eight sentences. If your page is one giant paragraph I can guarantee most readers are going to either A) wind up just skimming it, B) skip the section entirely or C) stop reading altogether.
Also, dialogue. When a new piece of dialogue occurs you need a new paragraph. When a new speaker speaks you need a new paragraph. Not before and not after, but with the new dialogue. This helps the audience know who is saying what, as well as helps the flow of the words. Plus, y’know, it’s the correct way to do it.
It seems to me people use ellipsis (the three dots, …) without really understanding what they are. They are traditionally intended for an omission of text, although they are frequently used to show a loss of thought. I get them in emails all the time and I’m left wondering “why are you trailing off?” Which is what they generally signify in what I’ve proofread thus far; someone trailing off in thought to end a sentence of dialogue. Not because you don’t want to use a comma or a period. Not because artistically you think it makes the sentence look pretty. But to omit a word or show a character not knowing how to finish his sentence.
Also, not every piece of dialogue needs it. Like anything, less is more. Using it for everything your characters say. If they’re being cut off from finishing their sentence, try a dash. Try physically saying that they’re interrupted. I edited a piece where in one paragraph (again, one that was far too long) the character was ending literally every single line with an ellipses. I wanted to throw my laptop out of the window. Use ellipses sparingly and only when it is correct to do so.
Commas signify a brief pause, usually in dialogue. Commas are also used to break up certain mechanics of grammar. However, there seems to be some confusion as to when a writer uses a period and when they should use a comma.
To signify a pause the comma would be used like:
“He was going to put some bread down in the toaster, but first he had to leave the bathtub.”
To use with dialogue:
“Where should we dump the body?” Salvatore asked his partner.
“The big hole in the ground,” Teddy said. “Since, y’know, this is her funeral.”
The comma allows the audience to keep straight who is saying what part. This way you don’t have to physically tell us:
“I just wanted to make sure,” Salvatore defended.
“Yeah, well how ’bout you use your head first next time?”
We know Teddy spoke the second line because in the scene we know there’s only two characters and the order of speakers has not changed.
Dashes are kind of a fun one, and this is one I actually mess up myself quite a bit. There’s two main types of dashes and you probably know them as “the short one” and “the long one”. The “short one” is actually called an en dash, and it’s used to show a span or range. It is not used when you say that the span/range occurred from, between, or similar word.
I know. That sounds confusing, but it actually isn’t:
The assigned reading is chapters 4-7.
My dog usually sleeps from 3 pm to 8 pm and then stays awake all night barking.
BUT you would not say:
The Backstreet Boys were popular between 1996–2003 and still in my friend Veronica’s car.
En dashes also connect (the road that runs north-south), conflicts (the Toilet Paper Up-Down Argument), and compound adjectives (blue ribbon-winning pie).
Em Dashes, on the other hand, are used to essentially replace other punctuation marks, as well as omissions of parts of words or whole words that are for one reason or another unknown.
I saw an R-Rated movie on TV and the dialogue of my favorite scene was cut to, “I said I’ll —— the —— and then when I’m done I’ll —— your —— mother!”
I brought an extra pair of pants and socks — just in case the room flooded with mayonnaise again — and a hat.
The snarky answer for when to use quotation marks is for quotes. But I can understand why there are some issues understanding when else. The obvious choice is dialogue (“Get off of me!” Doug said as Steve jostled against him). However, when you’re quoting something within a set of quotations, you use a single quote:
“Hey, what did Rick say he did with that watermelon?”
“Oh, the watermelon? Rick said ‘hey don’t throw it away, I’ll use it later as a helmet’.”
If you have to Inception it and go one set of quotations deeper within the section of quotations, switch back to double.
Quotations are also used to signify doubt or to focus on a word or set of word.
I know he said he would “take care” of my wife, but I’m beginning to think he is using the wrong definition of “take care”.
So I think we’re all on the same page with this one. Exclamation marks exclaim; they show excitement. They are not, however, supposed to have a hundred of them back to back, nor are they to be used for every single sentence just because the character happens to be mad. Nor should it, generally speaking, be used directly after a question mark, even though your character is just so darn flustered.
“Are you kidding me right now?!?!” she demanded. “I have been waiting for 45 minutes just so you can come out here and tell me you don’t have any chicken?!?! This is outrageous!!!!!!111”
“And as I’ve told you before,” he angrily defended, “this is a pet store and not a butcher shop!”
So this one is kind of strange. You’ve probably seen it before in a book and said “What the heck is that? Why is that there?” Scene changes are usually in short stories, although they can appear in full novels when the scene has to rapidly switch from one to the other. It’s kind of like a new chapter, but within the same part of the book. After the last portion of the first scene you would end it with a series of three stars: ***
That’s it. That’s all there is to it. You don’t double down and fill the entire line. You don’t use a different sign instead because you think it’ll look cool. And also, you may never even need it. Please don’t use it just because you read a book and saw it and now you think your book has to have it, too. Like with everything else, please make sure you need it before you use it.
Obviously things like these tips is what makes writing confusing. If you need a proofreader, writer, or editor I am happy to take on your manuscript or project. Visit Write Now today to schedule me for your editing and writing needs!