I know I’ve covered this before, but it never gets old because there are still many authors (and independent editors – oh my!) who commit these blunders. It’s not enough to make me take up binge drinking, though there is some appeal to that. But it is enough to make me grind my teeth.
Punctuation: I blame the cavemen
It’s no secret that punctuation has been given the limelight for far too long. The story goes that ‘way back in caveman days, there was a tribe called The Protruding Forehead Society. They dodged dinosaurs in order to travel to distant caves and tell their stories by drawing on the walls, using their wives’ eyeshadow. Problem was, no one knew where to put a full stop. After all, it gets confusing to draw “Gargon forage through the bushes I ate his twigs and berries.” Makes no sense.
And thusly, punctuation was born. To give that punctuation more importance, The Protruding Forehead Society spaced out two hand widths before starting a new drawing. Cool for cave dwellers and my Sophomore typing class. Not so cool for publishing. Those two spaces add up in a manuscript, so publishing dropped it down to one space.
Got that? ONE SPACE.
Anything that goes at the end of a sentence – periods, question marks, exclamation points – get ONE SPACE. And that goes for you outerspace aliens, how insist on two spaces after Zorbots. No more trying to pull a fast one. Aliens…so cheeky.
Now, will I melt into a puddle of soulless goo if I get a manuscript with two spaces after punctuation? No, but I’ll be sure to up my gin intake and order the beagle to belt out a few old Three Dog Night songs.
Dialog, one line below is a no-go (when using a lead-in sentence)
Yah, schlocky header, but I hope to make it dumb enough that it’ll stick. Many authors have no idea where to put dialog, meaning what line to put it on. They write the lead-in sentence, then put the actual dialog below. Like this:
Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the beagle sitting on her desk, sleeping in a swatch of sunlight, and made an unsuccessful attempt at holding her temper.
“I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts.”
What this does is confuse the reader as to who is talking. The reason for formatting and punctuation is to make things easier for the reader. This is why I see great balls of fire that many editors are dropping commas for the sake of…well, I don’t know. It’s stupid and forces me to re-read sentences a couple of times to make sure I understood the sentence. But that’s a rant for another day.
The proper way to format your dialog is to keep your dialog on the same line as your lead-in sentence.
Overworked and Underpaid Editor looked at the beagle sitting on her desk, sleeping in a swatch of sunlight, and made an unsuccessful attempt at holding her temper. “I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts.”
And speaking of lead-in sentences, they can be much more effective than using dialog tags because you can squeeze in all kinds of cool stuff that sets up the tone of the person speaking and the action taking place. I could have just as easily written, “I thought I told you to quit lazing around and file those contracts,” said Overworked and Underpaid Editor,” but it doesn’t begin to have the same zing.
Consider lead-in sentences your ally against boring writing.
Quotation marks (and commas)
Many writers don’t know how to play nicely with quotation marks and comma placement. I know it’s different in the UK, but in the US, the comma is placed INSIDE the closing quote – not outside. Here’s what I mean:
The Wrong Way:
“Let’s have a pitcher of margaritas to celebrate a good day of editing”, Overworked and Underpaid Editor said.
The Right Way:
“Let’s have a pitcher of margaritas to celebrate a good day of editing,” Overworked and Underpaid Editor said.
Sure, I can easily do the universal Search and Kill, but as writers you should know how to properly format your manuscript. After all, you’re professionals, right? So it makes sense to know the tools of your trade.
Possessive Apostrophes on names ending in ‘s’
In publishing, it’s common to add an extra ‘s’ when showing possession to someone whose name ends with an ‘s’.
I knew that gorgeous Mercedes was Mr. Jones’s, but I was feeling a bit klepto that day and bagged it for a joy ride.
Excluding the ‘s’ won’t put you behind bars – unlike the unfortunate soul in the sentence above – but it forces your editor to fix it. Remember, the idea is to turn in a clean manuscript so your editor will love you forever and shower you with lots of royalty checks.
Beginning your sentences with But, So, And
I see this a lot…sentences that begin with these seemingly-innocent words. If it’s in the right context, bravo, I say. However, they don’t wear big enough pants to deserve a comma.
So, I decided the beagle had drunk quite enough, and put her to bed with aspirin and Gatorade.
So I decided the beagle had drunk quite enough, and put her to bed with aspirin and Gatorade.
See? No comma. And sure, I can use my universal Search and Kill to wipe the beggars out, but we’re learning how to keep editors from binging on too many Twinkies and margaritas.
It was the ’80s, man…
Contractions in dialog – keepin’ it real
Okay this isn’t a formatting thing, but this really bugs me, so I’m including it.
Dialog is meant to be conversational, right? So unless your dialog is from aliens (from this planet our outside our solar system), then it’s standard that we speak using contractions. You don’t say to your best friend, “I will not be going to your party tonight.” Of course not. You’d say, “Dude, I’m not going to your party tonight.”
See how the dialog comes out feeling stilted and formal? It’ll drive an editor nutsy because she’s going to fling the manuscript back to you with a bloody red mark that says “USE CONTRACTIONS, OR DIE.” Ok, maybe she won’t say that, but she’ll think it.
Formatting your manuscript – use tabs, and a kitten gets it
Standard manuscript formatting is half inch indents, double space, Times New Roman, 12 point, 1″ margins. Easy peasy, right? Well…I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts where the author used tabs to indent a new paragraph instead of formatting it. This makes it a PITA for the editor because she has to reformat your manuscript. Sometimes there are some kinks in the works due to the tabs, and it can add arbitrary spacing, which means the only way to make sure I got them all is to check each paragraph. My teeth have been ground down to a stub doing this because it takes a lot of time to seek and destroy.
So I give you my last warning – If you use tabs instead of formatting the indents in the paragraph settings, a kitten gets it. For those who don’t know what I mean by formatting in the Paragraph tab, here is a screen capture:
I’ve overheard any number of wine-induced conversations at writer’s conferences that go something like this: “I’m the writer, so it’s not my job to worry about the nitpicky stuff like formatting. The editor will take care of it in editing.”
Given that logic, should a surgeon not worry about how to close a surgical wound? You either embrace the responsibilities of the profession, or you go home and raise albino caterpillars. Proper formatting isn’t hard. I’ve heard people complain they can’t adhere to the one-space rule for punctuation because two spaces is second nature to them. My advice? Get over it. The publishing industry is filled with writers aching to be published, so excuses are feeble.
Now, go forth and be brilliant.