Category Archives: Mechanics

Dashes vs. Elipses

How Are Dashes and Elipses Related?

The second-worst offenders in the wonderful wide world of punctuation is dashes and ellipses.* I count these two together because the single biggest problem I see with them is that most people don’t know the difference between the two. Oh, we can all tell one from the other as printed. This is a dash:

And this is an elipsis:

. . .

The problem is that their usage looks similar unless you’ve actually studied them. Writers use them in a lot of the same locations in sentences, but for very different reasons.

If, like most people, you’re not entirely clear on those reasons, you will consistently be ever-so-slightly in error. If you are an as-yet unpublished author trying to sell a book or story, you’ll find it’s much easier to sell your manuscript if you appear to have a grasp on some of these fundamentals.

If you’re a published author or one currently contracted to be published, learning the difference will probably make your relationship with your editor smoother, because your editor won’t be left to clean it up. Speaking on behalf of editors everywhere (or at least the ones in the vent-session I was exposed to yesterday) . . . we are not the maid. Our job is to help you produce a stronger story that will sell more copies–not simply to clean up after you.

So let me try to break it down and make it understandable. Let’s start with dashes. There are two types of dashes, the en-dash (–) and the em-dash (—). The en-dash is short and most of us already know how to use it. When someone stutters in dialogue, this is the symbol we use to indicate that stutter at the beginning of the word (e.g. “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”).



When I talk about dashes going forward, I’ll be talking talking about em-dashes. These are longer, which is easier to see in some fonts than others. To avoid confusion, I’m going to represent an em-dash as two hyphens (–) throughout the remainder of this post. This is old-style manuscript formatting, from before we all had word processors that were smart enough to put a real dash in for us.

And on that note, let me mention that most word processors will automatically do that dash wrong. You never want spaces around your dash. You may see that in blog articles or news articles and think it’s the right thing to do. Don’t give in to that temptation–journalism frequently has an entirely different standards for formatting than fiction does.

Right: No one would be listening–not the tourists, not the locals–because no one cared.

Wrong: No one would be listening — not the tourists, not the locals — because no one cared.

Even More Wrong: No one would be listening – not the tourists, not the locals – because no one cared.

A dash has two primary uses, depending on where it is in a sentence. In the middle of the sentence, it sets off additional information more strongly than a comma would.

No one would be listening–not the tourists, not the locals–because no one cared.

He’d taken her out to buy clothes–that was his angle.

At the end of a sentence, a dash indicates an interruption. You should almost never use this in narration, only in dialogue. Your character may interrupt her own train of thought, or she may be interrupted by someone else. It makes no difference to the punctuation.

“But I thought–“
“I don’t care what you thought!”



Elipses are another thing your word processor will try to “help” you with and almost always do wrong. If you type […] into your word processor, it will probably change it into […], a single-character symbol which makes editors want to tear their hair out because it’s hard to read and turns into garbage when you try to convert a manuscript into an e-book.

Elipses are tricky, because different publishing houses want them represented in different ways. I’m not even going to go into them here. Read the house’s style guide ahead of time if it’s available. Never use more than three dots within a sentence or four dots at the end of a sentence. And most importantly, however you choose to write your elipses, do it consistently–global search-and-replace is an editor’s friend.

More important than any of that, be sure you understand how an elipsis is used. Within a sentence, an elipsis indicates a pause far more strongly than a comma, but does not typically set off additional information.

Sorry, Charlie, that’s . . . pushing it.

At the end of a sentence, an elipsis indicates that the sentence trails off. This usually occurs in either dialogue or character thoughts, rather than in narration.

But I can’t just . . .

How long . . . ?

As with all rules, there will always be exceptions. In particular, artistic license allows authors to justify doing non-standard things in their text. When you consider invoking artistic license, please remember that writing is about knowing the rules . . . and then deciding how to break them. You can absolutely choose non-standard usage: to make a point, for emphasis, or for clarity. But you have to know the rules before you make that decision. If you don’t take the trouble to know the rules first, your chosen violations won’t look like artistic license. They’ll just look like you don’t know what you’re doing.


* The worst offender I see go by in manuscripts I edit is the comma, but that’s such a minefield, it will take more than one post to cover it. *g*

Most examples shamelessly borrowed from the text of “Crash,” by April L’Orange, because I am rubbish at making up examples (and if I can’t steal for myself, who can I steal from?).

Previously posted at The Editor’s Pen


Editorial Etiquette by JB: Track Changes Etiquette

We are here to help, but editors are also on a deadline to get a manuscript as yummy as possible in the time allotted. The Microsoft Word program known as Track Changes is a dream come true for getting the work done in a timely manner on both sides of the writer/editor coin. Your publisher has probably helped introduce you to this built-in program and your editor should be helping you learn the ins and outs of using this feature to keep the progress of editing (by the editor) and revising (by the writer) running smoothly. It really is an ingenious tool for this business and using it is the best way to learn it. Here are a couple of tips for working with someone else on the same document which is all Track Changes amounts to. You may want to check with your publisher and ask if they have any particular guidelines you should follow when working with your editor and the Track Changes feature.


Begin with your own personal Track Changes playground. Create a new file in Word and type a paragraph into it. This is your testing area for learning the many advantages of the program. This shouldn’t be anything you intend to send to someone, it’s just the place you play around with settings, making changes, and generally trying out all the features of the program. Knowing what’s going on with Track Changes makes the work of revisions make more sense. Playing around with Track Changes in your manuscript is not advised. Things get lost forever that way.


1. Settings: The first basic step is to click on the Review tab at the top of the screen. About the center of the new tool bar at the top will be boxes Track Changes and Balloons with arrows pointing down that indicate drop-down menus available. Clicking Track Changes will bring up a drop-down menu of Track Changes, Change Tracking Options, and Change User Name. Play around with these options on your document. You may want to leave the default (automatic settings) or you may need to discuss option choices between you. Note, if you use a pen name for your fiction, you may want to address this and change the user name to your pen name instead of your real name which the program automatically sets.


2. Balloons: It’s clever that Microsoft called this option a balloon. It is where a new comment is created and stored so the other user can see what you thought. They start out small and skinny like a balloon without air in it and grow as words are added to the comment. There are three options in the Balloons drop-down menu and the default setting is usually “Show only comments and formatting in balloons”. Click on an option to activate it and then work in your test document to see what the balloons look like. To get a balloon, you have to first click New Comment and one will appear on the right hand side of the screen. Start typing your comments and they will appear in the balloon. Change your mind? Leave the cursor in the balloon and click Delete in the tool bar.


3. Brevity: This post is not specifically about the particulars of using Track Changes, but it had to start out that way to get us to the talking point about what should and should not go into a balloon. Both editor and author have the ability to click New Comment and write a new balloon. This is a fine place to leave small notes, ask brief questions, make a reminder, or give brief explanations. Balloons are not the place for lengthy dissertations on the difference between the use of commas in lists in MLA and Chicago style guides. Keep comments in balloons brief.


Play around with the feature, agree to settings with your document partner, and be brief when it comes to filling comment balloons. Long discussions can and should take place in the email that accompanies the document or in another style guide document.


Do you have any personal experiences you can share about comment balloons that would help us make better and better use of them?



JB George


The narrator said what?

We’re exposed to it during every televised sports event: the omnipresent sportscaster relating the every moment of the action we can see plainly onscreen, plus, at times, a little more—exactly what he or she thinks about a player, team, coach or just some random thought going through his or her mind. While this works out just fine for television, in writing it can cause the reader some headaches depending on the chosen POV.

Imagine being enthralled in a great scene and suddenly it’s interrupted by what the narrator actually thinks of it. An omnipotent narrator is the last entity a reader wants to hear from, after all this individual is not supposed to have an opinion; its sole purpose is to describe the scene and the character’s feelings about it. A lively narrator is one thing, one that begins to speak like one of the characters can breed confusion because the reader can mistake it as part of the actual narration. Such commentary can take a reader out of the story and enough of it can make a reader give up on the entire book if they are subjected to an invisible, opinionated voice. One major exception to this is first person.

If you’re the kind of writer that really likes to put yourself in the story, comments and all, then first person is the POV for you. Here you can air your thoughts without them being mistaken as some disembodied being with a bone to pick. There are still general limits to this use, however. First, it has to be kept in context; if the main character is supposed to be a kind, benevolent person his or her inner voice cannot take a turn down crazy lane if he or she is not having a mental breakdown or some other change for the worst (or better). And in line with the first limitation, commentary can be kept in check by writing in a voice you can stand—this means not writing in that benevolent voice is you’d prefer your character have a violent streak. Also, if this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde play is part of your character then make sure your readers know it.

Finally, consistency is important to any narrator POV you decide to go with. The easiest way to cut down on unnecessary commentary is to know the voice you want your narrator to speak in. It sounds simple, yes, but you have to admit there have been situations when you’ve wished you had written in one POV and not another. When it all boils down, if you’ve gone through so much work putting a story together and praying for it to sell, why give someone a reason to wish they hadn’t bought it?

This post courtesy of Keisa Burrell – Secret Cravings Publishing Editor and Proofreader


What’s in a name?

Please name your characters.

Maybe that sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how easy it is to go into “movie mode” around minor characters, so that you have “Man in the Street 1,” “Man in the Street 2,” and “Woman with Shopping Cart.” Naming characters is dual-purpose: it breathes more life into your characters, and it makes it easier to write about them.

When you’re writing, the setting is an important part of what makes the story live and breathe for your readers. Minor characters are part of that setting. Sometimes, all we need to know is that there are people on the street–and that’s fine, you don’t need to name each and every one. But if your character is going to stop and talk to someone she knows, we should learn that person’s name. If your character is going to stop and talk to someone she doesn’t know for any length of time, it’s not unlikely that there would be introductions. Every little detail about minor characters gives them greater dimensionality; you don’t need to give them the same status major characters have, but you don’t want your setting populated by cardboard cutouts pretending to be people, either. A name is a really easy detail to give.

By naming your minor characters, you also make your own life easier. There are only so many times you can say “the man,” “the man in the blue jacket,” “the old man,” etc. before it becomes very awkward in narration. It’s far better to give the character a name as soon as is realistic within the parameters of the story, because all of a sudden you’re not fumbling for a description for that person. You can just call her by name.

As an added tip, if you think we might see the character again later in the book, put the character’s name into a list or a spreadsheet so you don’t accidentally change it halfway through the book. For bonus “make your editor happy” points, consider adding her distinguishing characteristics to the list–especially if you’re one of those writers who has written so many books you start to lose track of who has blue eyes and who has brown. *g*

originally posted at The Editor’s Pen


First impressions

 How important are first impressions to publishers/agents?

Granted the form rejections letters from many publishers and agents send out don’t tell you a thing to help you understand why you were rejected. Some, however, mean exactly what they say—they can’t use what you sent them. Does that always mean your story? Or did they refuse it because of your presentation without reading more than a page? A poor presentation will get you automatically rejected without anyone going to page two. Why? Think about this: if you don’t care enough about your talent to present it in a clean, neat manner, the first message you send is negative. If you aren’t proud enough of your work to make it look good and give it polish, why should they read it?

Here’s a very simple example, you go into a store and on the rack there are two blouses. One has been dropped on the floor and walked on. It’s dirty and wrinkled. Right next to it is one that hasn’t. Which one are you going to try on? You’re the publisher; would you take one you know is going to take extra work when there’s one right beside it he could put on and be ready to go? Provided, of course, that it’s the right color, which takes us to issue number two.

Did you do your homework? Did you surf their website, read and apply what they wanted both in material and presentation? If you don’t care enough to format it the way they request, why would they expect you to do the necessary work to take it to the release stage? Although there really are those out there who feel ‘my story is so good, all that doesn’t matter—once they read it, they’ll know that.’ They aren’t going to read at all if you didn’t follow their requested format. As well as a gauge as to how well you’ll work through the editing process, the primary reason for font, line spacing, and font size are simply to avoid eyestrain. Respect that. Also pay attention to what genre they’re asking for and the specifics. Don’t send them a 150,000 manuscript when they asked for an 80,000. A science fiction isn’t going to be accepted at a house that specializes in historical romances. That was an extreme example, yes, but do pay attention. They post their guidelines for a reason.

Last, but certainly not the least is grammar and punctuation. Just because you’re writing fiction not a text book, those two items do not get tossed out the window, nor will a publisher overlook sloppy, lazy  writing for ‘the magnificent story’ and leave it up to the editing staff to clean it up. Again, if you don’t care enough to do it, why should they? If you don’t know the basics, learn them. Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style are both available for reading online. Take one rule at a time, learn it and apply it. Nothing will turn off a prospective publisher or agent more than a first page loaded with punctuation and grammar errors. Again, that’s usually as far as they will read. Apply the same care, also, to the query letters and synopsis. Those are the first things they read, and they judge your writing ability—and the depth of your commitment—by those.

Show them you care, you’re proud of your work, and have the necessary commitment to follow through to the finish.

This post is courtesy of Larriane Barnard – Secret Cravings Publishing Editor


Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats

Confusing dialogue tags with action beats is one of the most common errors marking a manuscript as coming from an inexperienced writer or one who has primarily self-published to date. Knowing the difference makes you look really good as a writer, and will make any copy editor you ever work with a much happier person. 😉

Let’s start with definitions, since most people have never even heard of a dialogue tag or an action beat.

A dialogue tag tells you how a person said something and is separated from the dialogue with a comma most of the time. It is never separated from the sentence with a period or other end punctuation, and if it follows the dialogue, it does not need to begin with a capital letter. For example:

  • “This is a fine time for you to think of it,” she said.
  • He said, “I haven’t been back here in five years.”
  • “You couldn’t have thought of that earlier?” he asked.

An action beat tells you what a person did in close proximity to that person’s dialogue. It is always separated from the dialogue with a period or other end punctuation. It must begin with a capital letter, and if it’s surrounded with dialogue on both sides, the dialogue that follows it will also begin with a capital letter. For example:

  • “I really wish you hadn’t done that.” She looked nervous.
  • She glared at him. “It’ll be a cold day in hell.”
  • “I don’t suppose . . . ” He shook his head, as if answering his own question. “Never mind.”

Telling the difference between the two is where a lot of writers get confused. My rule of thumb (which I heard from someone at a writing conference probably twenty years ago, and would credit if I had any idea who first said it) is the rule of “squatted.” Say the word out loud: squatted. It’s a nice, simple word that is very definitely an action. You would never squat your words. So any time you’re in doubt as to whether something should be a dialogue tag or an action beat, substitute the word “squatted.”

“This is harder than it looks,” he squatted.

so this is also wrong:

“This is harder than it looks,” he sighed.

“This is harder than it looks.” He squatted.

so this is also right:

“This is harder than it looks.” He sighed.

You can only ever make a dialogue tag out of a way someone actually speaks. A person can say, ask, murmur, whisper, purr, shout, plead, growl, bark, etc. his or her words.

Watch out for words like laugh, chuckle, wheeze, sigh, gasp, choke, etc. These are all sounds we make with our throats, but they aren’t actually ways of speaking (except perhaps in very unusual circumstances). They need to be separated out into action beats.

If you can follow this rule and correctly punctuate your sentences so that your dialogue tags don’t turn into action beats and vice versa, your editors will thank you.:-)

Originally posted at The Editor’s Pen.