Punctuation: Road Signs for Readers

The title says it all, really. All punctuation (periods, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and so on) functions like road signs, but for readers instead of drivers. The cleanest metaphor is a period; it’s a stop sign. It signals the end of a thought. Commas signal a pause (not necessarily a breath!). Semicolons signal a connection of some kind. Parentheses signal additional information that isn’t required but is helpful. And so on.

In the same way that traffic signs keep cars from running off the road, punctuation marks keep the reader from ending up in the word weeds. At the same time, they help keep your thoughts in line, which you’ll see in action as you’re writing, I’ll wager. You type, then back up and add or remove a mark, then type more. You’re placing, adding, and removing road signs for your readers. A colon might mean “A list of items is coming up.” An em dash can signal “There’s a sharp change in direction here.” Quotation marks mean “Someone is speaking” or “This material is taken directly from a source.”

Is someone pausing to think in the middle of speaking? An ellipsis (three spaced periods with a space before and after, in Chicago style) lets the reader know it’s happening.

“I’m hungry for Japanese tonight. Let’s go to . . . How does Shiroi Hana sound to you?”

Are they changing thoughts midsentence? An em dash shows readers that.

“Sounds great! We can take my—Where are my keys?”

[There are other ways to indicate this by using beats. However, this post isn’t about that. It’s good to know more than one way to lead your readers in the right direction.]

And, as always, remember: I write about American English. If you’re using a different English, the rules and guidelines may well be different.

Semicolons Make Connections

I was recently told by a workshop attendee that my explanation of how semicolons work was the first one that made any sense to them. I stuck that feather in my cap immediately. Now to see if I can recreate it in blog-post form.

When you use a semicolon, you’re making a connection. It’s not just the visible one on the page or screen; it’s also a connection of concepts, of ideas, of sense. That punctuation mark tells the reader, “Pay attention to what comes next, because it’s closely related to what you just read.”

Using a semicolon entirely incorrectly is pretty difficult to do. Most writers I know have an understanding of what’s connected and what’s not. They would not, for example, do this: “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; a little girl was wearing an orange romper.” Those two ideas have no connection. The semicolon indicates that one exists, though, so we readers are left trying to “make connection happen.” And it won’t. That orange romper has nothing to do with the ice cream truck’s existence, arrival, or position. And the ice cream truck has nothing to do with the little girl’s clothing. That semicolon is simply incorrect.

Even if we rewrite the second independent clause (the part following the semicolon), it’s still a stretch to call it “connected” in the correct way. “The ice cream truck stopped at the end of the cul-de-sac; the first little girl to run out to meet it was wearing an orange romper.” Those are still two discrete ideas. The truck is still not connected to the little girl’s clothing, nor can it be. A semicolon just won’t work there.

Look back at the second paragraph, where I used a semicolon to connect two related thoughts. (Start with the second sentence in that paragraph.) We could use a period there, but it’s stronger to place a semicolon after the first independent clause. That tells the readers that what follows is directly related. In this case, it’s a further explanation of the connection. There’s the visible one, and there’s the ideological, syntactical, grammatical one.

Nothing says you must use semicolons. Some writers prefer not to, ever. That’s certainly a safe choice. Some people believe semicolons should never appear in fiction. I disagree. I suggest to my clients that they use them where it makes sense, even in dialogue. Remember, punctuation marks are to the reader as road signs are to the driver; they guide. They assist. They are meant to be used, not shunned or ignored.

Things Editors Might Not Know About: Regionalisms

We know a lot, but we can’t know everything, right?

A little while ago Dave Nelsen (@The_GrammarGeek) tweeted that at his daughter’s medical appointment today, the nurse used “zipper” as a verb. As in, “Can you unzipper your jacket for me?” It’s a Wisconsin thing*, and I have heard it myself many times. I didn’t even blink.

But.

How would someone not from here know this? If an editor from, say, Nevada encountered it in a manuscript, I think they’d be likely to a) “fix” it by changing it to “unzip” or b) at the least, leave a comment asking if it’s what the author meant to write.

I’ve written before about style sheets (created by editors) and world bibles/story bibles (created by writers). This is precisely the kind of thing that writers should include in their story bibles, along with proper names spelled the way they intend (is it “Aaron” or “Aron” or something else entirely?). It’s the same with phrases their characters use. If there’s something that’s normal for the character but not in common usage, it’s a great idea to include that in the world bible.

I’m not talking about contractions or shortenings/clippings or slang common to AmE in general. I’m talking about regional speech, like using “zipper” as a verb.

In some settings, this will extend to usages like “widow means anyone who has lost a spouse, not only to women.” Or “king refers to any ruler of a country; kings can be (and are) of any gender.” I have my amazing client Garrett Robinson (@GarretAuthor) to thank for those examples. His world bible is an ever-growing organism, with new additions for nearly every new book in his setting. It’s a shared Google Doc we both use, and it’s a life-saver.

If the author hasn’t done this, of course it will fall to the editor to query and add to the style sheet if required. “Oops! No, I didn’t mean to use it like that” is a valid (and not uncommon) response from an author. So is “That’s what I mean to say, yes.”

Writers, you can save yourselves time (and often money!) and endear yourselves to your editors if you tell us up front what oddities we’ll encounter in your work. Like “zipper is used as a verb by Nurse Bren.”

*It might be a thing elsewhere, but I don’t know about elsewhere. Only about Wisconsin and northern Illinois. And this isn’t a thing in northern Illinois to my knowledge (and sometimes faulty memory).

Actions and words: what’s louder?

I have written and tweeted about this particular issue before, but I’ve just encountered it in a trad-pub book so I’m saying it again. (No, I won’t say which publisher or which title. That doesn’t matter one bit.)

Character A says a thing.

In the next paragraph, Character B reacts to it with an action. Character A reacts. Character B takes another action. There there’s a line of dialogue at the end of the paragraph.

Who said it?

Imagine it’s this bit of text.

“Stop it!” Dave said from inside the room.

Harry banged on the door hard enough for Dave to recoil in fear of it shattering inward. More banging and kicking, and one foot broke through at the bottom of the frame. “Why are you like this?”

Who spoke just then? Was it Dave, in reaction to Harry’s violence? Or was it Harry, in reaction to Dave’s locking himself in the room?

It’s not clear. We can take a guess, but what if we’re wrong? We shouldn’t have to read the next line to find out if we were right. If the next line is something like “I’m like this because you locked yourself in,” we know it was Dave who asked the question at the end of that paragraph. If it’s something like “Because you’re scaring the shit out of me,” we know it was Harry.

We shouldn’t have to guess. The uncertainty has intruded on our reading enjoyment, broken our flow. Clarity isn’t difficult. Actions might speak louder than words, and sometimes that’s a problem. 

How to address the issue, then? A little fiddling goes a long way. In the paragraph with the banging and reacting and kicking, we could recast like this: 

Harry banged on the door hard enough for Dave to recoil from fear of it shattering inward. When he saw a foot break through at the bottom of the frame, he dove behind the chair. “Why are you like this?” His breath came in great ragged gasps.

Now, there’s no question about who’s speaking. It’s not always required that dialogue go on a new line; in cases like this, it makes sense for it to flow directly after the narrative and be followed by a bit of description that clearly identifies the speaker (much more useful than “he said”).

Formatting dialogue: when do you need a new line?

Earlier this morning I had reason to look for this post from December, 2016, in which I talked about dialogue and reactions. In it, I said I’d be writing another one “soon(ish)” about when dialogue needs to start on a new line.

It’s soon(ish) now. (Hey, it hasn’t been a year yet. That has to count for something, right?)

I’m still seeing the thing that caused me to say this post was needed. No surprise there; the way teachers address dialogue in standard English classes (from, let’s say, middle school on through college) is sorely lacking in nuance and clarity, from my experience. They drill this information into students’ heads: “Always begin dialogue on a new line.” The missing part is “from a new speaker.” The way dialogue appears on the page is a cue to the readers about who’s talking. Every new line indicates a change of speaker.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.  Continue reading “Formatting dialogue: when do you need a new line?”

Intrusions: ems or parens?

I have an inordinate fondness for–some might say obsession with–intrusions.

Not physical ones. I don’t get into breaking down doors or smashing windows. I’m not talking B&E here. I mean written ones, like the one in the first sentence in this post.  That clause in the parentheses is an intrusion. Why did I choose em dashes over parentheses? Continue reading “Intrusions: ems or parens?”

When beginning matters

“He began to walk across the room.”

“She started to answer.”

Why do I need to know this? Why can’t it just say “He walked” and “She answered”?

This is one of the most common issues I see in my fiction editing work. Characters are forever starting and beginning things they could, quite honestly, just do. So, when does beginning matter? Continue reading “When beginning matters”