The Magnificent Seven: Seven Punctuations New Writers Get Wrong

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.

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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. 

New paragraphs

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.

Ellipses

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

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

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 frombetween, 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  19962003 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.

Quotation marks

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”.

Exclamation marks

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”

Nope.

“And as I’ve told you before,” he angrily defended, “this is a pet store and not a butcher shop!”

Scene changes

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!

 

 

Make Your Readers Give a Damn: 7 Steps to Winning Over Your Readers

I’ve recently found myself in talks to do so affiliate editing, which means I don’t get any money upfront, but I do get 8% on the back end when the book sells. Kind of sucks in the short term because bills don’t wait for book sales, but I actually love the idea. And as you know I’m frothing at the mouth to do more editing lately.

It’s not a sure thing, but they seem pretty pleased with my style. They sent me the first two chapters of a story just to see if I was interested and I was so thrilled I just tore into it. I was excited at the premise of a story; a gritty female ex-cop-turned-bounty hunter taking on the corrupt police force she used to work for. However, it was less Gerard Butler blockbuster and more Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

I’ve recently found myself in talks to do some affiliate editing, which means I don’t get any money upfront, but I do get 8% on the back end when the book sells. Kind of sucks in the short term because bills don’t wait for book sales, but I actually love the idea. And as you know I’m frothing at the mouth to do more editing lately.

It’s not a sure thing, but they seem pretty pleased with my style. They sent me the first two chapters of a story just to see if I was interested and I was so thrilled I just tore into it. I was excited at the premise of a story; a gritty female ex-cop-turned-bounty hunter taking on the corrupt police force she used to work for. However, it was less Gerard Butler blockbuster and more Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Do I mean that 1) it revolved around the officer’s bodily fluids? or 2) that Judy Blume’s classic coming-of-age book is way more action packed than you originally thought? No to both. Here’s what I mean.

All new authors are going to struggle with the basics. Lord knows I still do. New authors also flounder around on the page trying to find their footing. Fine. Yes, this is part of the process. But what shattered my very soul was the way in which the story was presented. There was no conflict, and the whole thing read like a journal entry.

The main protagonist was revealed to be female, but like ten pages later. Note: I have zero problems with female protagonists. In fact, I’m currently working on a story with two female protagonists. My issue here is it took forever to know who I was reading about. My second problem was the sheer amount of details given about everyone’s past. And finally third, after diving through the first two chapters NOTHING HAPPENED.

I tore it to shreds. Absolutely took a metaphorical machete to it and then sent it through a metaphorical wood chipper. I wanted a literal one but I want to keep my laptop. After finishing up I sat back and thought how many more of these are out there? Is my stuff like this? I thought hard about what was the one core problem with the story and it finally hit me: I just didn’t care about any aspect of it.

Maybe that’s the problem with your writing. You may have completely finished the story and it’s done to what you believe to be the best of your ability, but the reader just shrugs off all 80,000 words. Your audience needs to care. You have to light a fire under your reader. They need to stay glued to the page and that isn’t going to happen if you fill them with apathy. Here’s seven tips to make them care about your story.

 

The Narrator’s Burden

Whether your narrator is an omniscient third party or the main character themselves, the narrator has the misfortune of knowing more or less everything. Because of this the temptation becomes the narrator sharing this god-like wisdom with everyone. Don’t. I don’t need to know what the character did ten years ago. I need to know what is happening now. I don’t need names for the gas station clerk who is never going to make another appearance. I don’t need to know what brand of the shirt a background character that was only barely mentioned is wearing. Flesh out the world, but make sure to do it the same way you see the real world. Do you try to remember the names of cashiers when you know you’ll be back at that store? Do you ask strangers about their past? Do you try to figure out who the old woman feeding ducks is wearing? No. You don’t, and neither should your readers.

The Devil’s in the Details

I didn’t even know who I was reading about until much later in the first chapter. This was disorienting to me. It was like being shoved into a dark room where a lit flashlight was lying on the ground at the back wall. I knew I would eventually be able to see what was going on, but I felt lost for a while. And then when I did finally find out who my protagonist was I was hit with ALL the details. Reveal them slowly. I don’t need a full list of a character’s stats when I meet them. Peel the onion layers back one at a time, don’t just cram it all into my face. Otherwise it comes off like a trading card.

Encyclopedias Aren’t Chapters

This was not the first time I’ve seen a piece of writing where I had paragraphs upon paragraphs and pages upon pages of information that I neither wanted nor needed nor cared about. Yes, information is necessary. You are painting a picture without paints. You have to get inside the reader’s head and show them an entire universe with only text. I get it. But there is such a thing as too much.

One thing I’ve recommended to someone struggling with not cutting enough detail was this: create a set of notes about background information for you characters. Make those notes just for you. The reader never sees them; they never know that the main character’s best friend’s cat died in 3rd grade. But as long as they see how protective she is over her current pet they’ll know something’s up. Hint at the details. Show why the characters are what they are. But don’t cram 10,000 words into a backstory about a character we aren’t even going to see again.

Build the Tension

I have a feeling that later on in the story there was some tension/conflict. But there was none in what I was handed. Books can pretty much be split up into two different types of chapters: dialogue/exposition heavy chapters and action heavy chapters. Both are necessary. If you have a book of all dialogue or all exposition it’s going to read like a Jane Austen novel. Which was entertaining like 300 years ago but not to our smartphone-addicted audiences of today. Likewise, if you have only action you have a book adaptation of a Michael Bay film. You need to find the right balance, or else your book is going to be boring. And boring books don’t have readers.

Where’s the Action?

This story I read was about a bounty hunter fighting corrupted police. In two entire chapters not a single bounty was hunted. If you hand me a book as a friend and say “Oh hey this is a real cool book about a bounty hunter” I’m expecting COPS-level action. I’m expecting Boba Fett-level antics. I want scumbags busted. And I was left pleading for action. Which is the story of my life, but that’s a whole other ordeal.

Barbie is a Toy, Not a Character

Yes, I am aware that after all these years she does have her own films, cartoons, games, etc. What I mean here is that Barbie has represented the “perfect”/”ideal” woman, for better or for worse. Do I necessarily agree with them? No. But that’s what she is. And this is what I mean but not having a Barbie character: your character cannot be perfect. None of your characters can be perfect. If you insist on making one perfect then they need to be imperfectly perfect.

In order for characters to be realistic they have to be like real people. They need to have flaws, even your protagonist. They need to have flawed morals or philosophies. They need to royally screw up. They can’t be anywhere near close to perfect. When characters are perfect no one cares because nothing bad can happen, thus all conflict and tension gets sucked out the window.

Split Personalities are a No Go

Unless your character is supposed to have multiple personalities, this needs to be avoided. In this particular story the protagonist was this gritty hardened female who had tired of corruption and who felt a strong sense of justice. And other times, usually with dialogue, she was a preteen. Not literally, of course, but the way she spoke and carried herself. You can’t have a character not commit to one character. It doesn’t work having them try to straddle the line like this. Can you have an immature character? Sure. But they have to be believable. A woman in her mid-to-late 20s, especially a law enforcement officer, is not going to speak like a 6th grader.

Writing is difficult; it’s an art that you have to perfect. And this is tough, especially when you’re just starting out. That’s why I offer my writing and editing services. I can assist in the creation process, edit your finished story, and more. For more information or to book your project with me visit Write Now today!