Craft Chat CRAFT CHAT: Writing Mechanics - Part One

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Carol Rose

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WRITING MECHANICS – PART ONE

I know. I get it. Really. This isn’t a subject most writers want to think about. They simply want to WRITE.

But nothing – and I mean nothing – will get you rejected faster on general principles than submitting a story littered with basic grammar or punctuation mistakes. It really is in your best interests to go through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and fix this.

Not all of us went through school absorbing these concepts and being able to apply them without really thinking about it as we go along. The lucky ones did. The rest of us need to concentrate on it, and here is what I suggest if you’re in that latter camp.

Do a pass for each of the points that you know give you trouble. Time and a boatload of effort? You bet. But it might mean the difference between a “Thanks, but not for us” and a “Yes, please send more” email.

I’ve split this topic into three posts, and they’re going to be long ones, so stick with me. Part One will cover basic punctuation. Parts Two and Three will delve into grammar.

These are also posts where I’m going to give you links so you can read more about each of the points on your own. And please understand, not all of the rules in the links are set in stone. There are slightly different versions of some of these points, so right up front, the important thing to keep in mind is CONSISTENCY. Pick a reference, study it, and then use that same reference all the way through your manuscript.

Publishers employ editors, and those editors use a consistent house style on all books accepted for publication. So those Oxford commas you love, or those semi-colons you painstakingly put in, might get changed or eliminated if that particular publisher does not use them. That’s how it works, so there’s no point in getting crazy over minute issues. As long as YOU show consistency, it demonstrates you understand there are rules, and you are able to apply them to your own work. It demonstrates you know how to use a reference, and are aware they exist. It demonstrates you’re a professional.

If you self-publish and use a freelance editor, he or she has a style they use as well. It’s easier to negotiate certain issues if you’re paying an editor on your own, but again, the key is CONSISTENCY. Any editor you pay should understand that point, and be willing to discuss personal preferences with you. If they’re not, move on and find one who is willing to.

All right. Enough with the chit-chat. Let’s get started.

Commas

I’ve started here because this is the one that trips people up more than any other. Don’t let it. Choose a reference and stick with it throughout your story. Seriously. That is the only advice I’m going to give on commas. The publisher will have a house style regardless of your favorite, so it’s not worth getting hung up about one way or the other. Just be consistent in your own work and you won’t go wrong.

Below are a few links. Again… please do not get hung up on the minutia of one or more of these links. The important point here is to choose a style and stick with it throughout your own manuscript.

https://guidetogrammar.org/grammar/commas.htm

https://www.businessinsider.com/a-guide-to-proper-comma-use-2013-9

https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/commas.asp

Periods

They belong at the end of a sentence. Also, ONE SPACE between them and the first word of the next sentence, not two. I was taught two as well, but break that habit. It makes your work look outdated, and says to the potential agent or publisher that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Question marks

They belong at the end of a question. Enough said.

Punctuating dialogue

See DIALOGUE – PART ONE and DIALOGUE – PART TWO. I’m not going rehash any of that here, but if you’re uncomfortable punctuating dialogue, please see those prior two Craft Chat posts. There are links to references in them as well.

Semi-colons

They are hardly used anymore, but if you love them, use them. Just bear in mind they might get eliminated if your publisher no longer uses them. What are they? They join two independent clauses without using a conjunction such as and. See below for a good reference on how/where to use them.

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/semicolon/

Colons

Again, they are hardly used anymore. If you love them, use them, but the same caveat above applies. A colon instead of a semicolon may be used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence. The links below give more information on their usage.

https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/colons.asp

https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-colons-and-semicolons-in-sentences.html

Exclamation points

Don’t. If you must, limit them to one or two for the entire book. Not kidding here. They completely lose their effectiveness if used too often, and they become jarring to read. Also, resist the urge to let them do the showing of emotion for you.

One exception to this is if you're writing children’s books or possibly middle grade work. Their use is better accepted, and often expected, in those genres/age groups. The best way to get a feel for this - how often they are used and in what circumstances - is to read in your intended genre. A lot.

Parentheses aka Brackets

For reasons I cannot fathom, they are coming back. Personally, I find them very distracting when reading, but that might be because it’s been roughly one hundred years since we’ve seen them regularly used in fiction. If you must use them, here’s a reference I found.

https://theeditorsblog.net/2015/09/02/dealing-with-interruptions/

Apostrophes

This is a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It drives me batshit crazy when I see apostrophes used for plural nouns instead of possession, and I see it a lot unfortunately.

The basic question you need to ask before you insert that apostrophe is simple: am I trying to show POSSESSION, or am I trying to show PLURALITY? If it’s the latter, you’re using that apostrophe in the wrong place.

Here is an example of INCORRECTLY using an apostrophe:

There were several cat’s on the window sill.

WRONG. The plural of CAT is CATS, not CAT’S. NO apostrophe is needed.

Is it tricky to correctly use apostrophes, even when you know you’re showing possession, not plurality? It can be, especially with nouns that are already plural – children, teeth, etc. So this is one of those instances where I’m going to give you the basics, but strongly advise you to find a reference and apply it consistently.

HOWEVER… generally speaking, apostrophes are used to show POSSESSION, not PLURALITY. If you take nothing else away from this section of the post, take away that point.

They are also used in contractions to indicate there are missing letters.

Let’s deal with each of those uses separately…

Examples of using apostrophes to show possession:

The cat’s litter box was full.

The subject of this sentence is the litter box. The apostrophe shows that the litter box belongs to the cat.

The woman’s hat was purple.

The subject of this sentence is the hat. The apostrophe shows that the hat belongs to the woman.

The cats’ litter box was full.

Again, the subject of this sentence is the litter box. The litter box here belongs to more than one cat. We could have shown multiple litter boxes were full by changing the noun to a plural one, but regardless, the rule of apostrophe use is the same. The apostrophe shows that the litter box belongs to the cats.

The cats’ litter boxes were full.

The subject is still the litter boxes. But even though the subject is now plural, the apostrophe use rule remains the same. The apostrophe shows that the litter boxes belong to the cats.

The women’s hats were purple.

Another plural noun, but again the rule remains the same. The subject of the sentence is the hats. The apostrophe in this sentence shows that the hats belong to the women.

Examples showing apostrophe use in contractions:

Can’t = can not
The apostrophe substitutes for the missing letters N and O

Won’t = will not
This is one of those bizarre irregular contractions, but the premise is the same. The apostrophe isn't showing possession or plurality. It's acting as a substitute for missing letters.

They’re = They are
The apostrophe substitutes for the missing letter A

There are dozens more, of course. Using contractions is a matter of personal taste and local speech patterns. This is one of those areas that are very gray, so again, use them with consistency in your own work. We generally see contractions used more often in dialogue than narrative, but there’s no rule that says you can’t use them in narrative. See what I did there? :rolling-on-the-floor-laughing:

https://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/apostro.asp

https://www.grammarly.com/blog/apostrophe/

https://www.wikihow.com/Use-Apostrophes

That concludes Part One. In Part Two we’ll move into grammar, covering filter words, dangling modifiers, and passive voice. In Part Three we’ll talk about adverbs, adjectives, glue words, unnecessary or redundant words, and repeated words.
 
Thanks for the helpful tips. I look forward to Parts 2 and 3.

I took note of your comments on brackets. I use them quite often, probably because I have a background in technical writing. Perhaps for fiction I should use an em dash instead. The link below discusses this issue.


I'd be interested in further comments on this subject.
 
As this is one of my nightmare scenarios (or should that be scenario's?), I have to ask a silly-serious question (it's silly for the ones (or should that be one's?) who know; it's serious for me, and those like me who had teachers (or should that be teachers') who didn't understand either!):

If this is correct: there were several cats on the windowsill
and this is correct: the cats' litter boxes were full
- why isn't the first line - cats' - and how do I work out when to use that thing (this one ') for the noun?

Help! How can I be sure? Every time?
 
Thanks, @Carol Rose for the obvious time and care you've taken, much appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed. I look forward to the next instalment.

@CageSage, eek, I think I know what you're asking. I don't think I absorbed apostrophes at school (although I do you remember afternoons spent at my English teacher's house with the top English student discussing poetry, so they were fun times), but I had a lovely lawyer in his 60s explain apostrophes to me when I was 21 (I needed to understand for work). I'll explain my thinking (and correct me, especially if I'm not clear):

The "litter box" immediately follows the cats, so it belongs to them, therefore we tell readers that by saying, 'cat's litter box'.

The windowsill does not belong to the cats. The 'on the' tells me the cats are doing something to the windowsill, so they can't own it.


That's my attempted explanation, but this link better explains possessive nouns What Are Possessive Nouns?.
 
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Thanks for the helpful tips. I look forward to Parts 2 and 3.

I took note of your comments on brackets. I use them quite often, probably because I have a background in technical writing. Perhaps for fiction I should use an em dash instead. The link below discusses this issue.


I'd be interested in further comments on this subject.

Nice post! Thanks for including it. :)

Em dashes are used in fiction regularly. As with all punctuation marks other than periods or question marks, it's always best to use them judiciously, otherwise you run the risk of having them become too obvious to the reader. We're used to ignoring periods and question marks because there are so many of them in any given story or novel. But the other marks aren't used as often and our brains "see" them as we read. You don't want anything - especially punctuation - to pull your readers out of the story. :)
 
As this is one of my nightmare scenarios (or should that be scenario's?), I have to ask a silly-serious question (it's silly for the ones (or should that be one's?) who know; it's serious for me, and those like me who had teachers (or should that be teachers') who didn't understand either!):

If this is correct: there were several cats on the windowsill
and this is correct: the cats' litter boxes were full
- why isn't the first line - cats' - and how do I work out when to use that thing (this one ') for the noun?

Because an apostrophe isn't used for plural nouns. It's used to show possession.

If the sentence would read as you asked about - There were several cats' on the windowsill - what is the subject of that sentence? It's the cats, correct? But now there's an apostrophe there. What are they possessing in this sentence? The apostrophe there would indicate you're referring to something the cats own or possess. But that's not what the sentence says. It says the cats are sitting (or perhaps lying) on the windowsill, not that the windowsill belongs to them. The apostrophe in this sentence makes no sense.

In the second sentence you reference - The cats' litter boxes were full - the subject of the sentence isn't the cats, correct? It's the litter boxes. We're merely indicating that the litter boxes belong to the cats. Hence, the use of the apostrophe. Without the apostrophe, the sentence wouldn't make any sense.

Help! How can I be sure? Every time?

I encourage you to start with the links I posted in order to familiarize yourself with apostrophe use.

Hope this helps. :)
 
Thanks, @Carol Rose for the obvious time and care you've taken, much appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed. I look forward to the next instalment.

@CageSage, eek, I think I know what you're asking. I don't think I absorbed apostrophes at school (although I do you remember afternoons spent at my English teacher's house with the top English student discussing poetry, so they were fun times), but I had a lovely lawyer in his 60s explain apostrophes to me when I was 21 (I needed to understand for work). I'll explain my thinking (and correct me, especially if I'm not clear):

The "litter box" immediately follows the cats, so it belongs to them, therefore we tell readers that by saying, 'cat's litter box'.

The windowsill does not belong to the cats. The 'on the' tells me the cats are doing something to the windowsill, so they can't own it.


That's my attempted explanation, but this link better explains possessive nouns What Are Possessive Nouns?.

You're very welcome. :)

And thank YOU for the additional link, and for answering @CageSage's question. :) Very helpful Litopian spirit-minded of you!! :)
 
I'm guilty of wanting to also test my knowledge because I moved schools a lot (even went to school in Boston and New Zealand, plus 4 primary schools and 2 high schools in Australia). There are gaps.
 
Right! Links bookmarked for ready reference, and once again, I think I understand ... but when it comes time to think on it (while writing), I'm sure it will all need to be shoved back into the little grey cells for further stewing.

Thanks. Looking forward to the next stage of this craft chat.
 
If this is correct: there were several cats on the windowsill
and this is correct: the cats' litter boxes were full
- why isn't the first line - cats' - and how do I work out when to use that thing (this one ') for the noun?

Help! How can I be sure? Every time?
One way is to look for the following substitution:

Cage's question = the question of Cage

Both those structures indicate possession. In this case, that it's your question we're talking about. And in your examples –

the cats' litter boxes were full = the litter boxes of the cats were full

– that substitution works fine, but with the other one it doesn't –

there were several cats on the windowsill

– how are you going to make a substitution there?

there were several on the windowsill of cats

Doesn't work, does it?


Be one with grammar's logic. Embrace the logic of grammar. ;)
 
One way is to look for the following substitution:

Cage's question = the question of Cage

Both those structures indicate possession. In this case, that it's your question we're talking about. And in your examples –

the cats' litter boxes were full = the litter boxes of the cats were full

– that substitution works fine, but with the other one it doesn't –

there were several cats on the windowsill

– how are you going to make a substitution there?

there were several on the windowsill of cats

Doesn't work, does it?


Be one with grammar's logic. Embrace the logic of grammar. ;)

Thanks, @Rich. :)
 
These subs:
Cage's question = the question of Cage
the cats' litter boxes were full = the litter boxes of the cats were full
is there a difference? Would you use one over the other, or is it a case of style? I often break my brain trying to figure out which one of these versions to use.
I have to say, the subtleties of the English language never cease to baffle as well as scare (foreign chick) me :front-facing-baby-chick:.

As for commas ... ARGH.
 
It's a question of style, or (at least in spoken English) a question of common use. The apostrophe construction – Rich's message – to show possession is much more common than the of construction – the message of Rich.

The of construction is weightier, more dramatic, some might say archaic.

"Look, Barbara's book."
"Behold! The book of Barbara!"

Having said that, you might use the of construction to stress a point.

"It's a lovely smell isn't it?"
"What is?"
"Mary's smell."
"Mary smells?"
"No, you idiot. The smell of Mary. Mary's perfume. Jeez, you're a knucklehead sometimes."

That kind of thing.

I have to say, the subtleties of the English language never cease to baffle as well as scare (foreign chick) me :front-facing-baby-chick:.
I so feel for you! I live my days in Spanish, but couldn't imagine writing fiction in it. But... I've read your stuff... your English is brilliant. You have nothing to worry about. :)
 
It's a question of style, or (at least in spoken English) a question of common use. The apostrophe construction – Rich's message – to show possession is much more common than the of construction – the message of Rich.

The of construction is weightier, more dramatic, some might say archaic.

"Look, Barbara's book."
"Behold! The book of Barbara!"

Having said that, you might use the of construction to stress a point.

"It's a lovely smell isn't it?"
"What is?"
"Mary's smell."
"Mary smells?"
"No, you idiot. The smell of Mary. Mary's perfume. Jeez, you're a knucklehead sometimes."

That kind of thing.


I so feel for you! I live my days in Spanish, but couldn't imagine writing fiction in it. But... I've read your stuff... your English is brilliant. You have nothing to worry about. :)
Oooh, that's really useful. Thank you!

I've read your stuff... you have nothing to worry about. :)
Thank you so much. That means a ton!

(That's my 2 explanation marks used up for this thread. He he he, hear Barbara's cheeky grin.)
 
What about the rules for these:

.... (ellipses, are these dots ellipses?)

And the dashes we use to show cut off speech. Are there rules, i.e. spaces in between? Are they frowned upon? I tend to use them (a lot / too much)
 
Three dots are ellipses. And in case I want to search ellipses, I put a space either side. Again, it's a consistency thing, like @Carol Rose says.

The dashes to show an interruption to speech should be an em-dash. I don't know how to get an em-dash in Word (it's not the dash on your keyboard, that's an en-dash). But, in Scrivener, you hit the en-dash twice and space, and they turn into an em-dash.
 
A lot of it comes down to house style, but in fiction in general:

Three dots (an ellipsis) shows a trailing off in speech... or... well... a broken train of thought... yes, that's what I was going to say. Got distracted there for a moment.

"In speech it can show that a character has run out of things to say. Do you know what I mean? Yes? Well, then. That's good. Umm..."


As @RK Capps said above, em-dashes show interrupted speech:
"Em-dashes show interrupted spee—"
"Interrupted speech. Yes, we've established that now."
"Yes, yes, you're right. We have. But some people might not know that in Windows you can—"
"You can press and hold the ALT key and then type 0151 to make an em-dash."
"Yes, exactly. That's exactly what I was going to—"
"Say. Yes, we know. And ALT>0150 will give you an en-dash."
"Happy d—"
"Happy days."
 
A lot of it comes down to house style, but in fiction in general:

Three dots (an ellipsis) shows a trailing off in speech... or... well... a broken train of thought... yes, that's what I was going to say. Got distracted there for a moment.

"In speech it can show that a character has run out of things to say. Do you know what I mean? Yes? Well, then. That's good. Umm..."


As @RK Capps said above, em-dashes show interrupted speech:
"Em-dashes show interrupted spee—"
"Interrupted speech. Yes, we've established that now."
"Yes, yes, you're right. We have. But some people might not know that in Windows you can—"
"You can press and hold the ALT key and then type 0151 to make an em-dash."
"Yes, exactly. That's exactly what I was going to—"
"Say. Yes, we know. And ALT>0150 will give you an en-dash."
"Happy d—"
"Happy days."
Ah, that's good to know. It means I've been ... well, using them correctly. Aha. Well done. I use them a lot, and probably shouldn't ... and up until now, I've simply been using them, hoping for the best that it's correct with no clue what I'm d - . (a bit like how I stumble through life really ...)

"Em-dashes show interrupted spee—""Interrupted speech. Yes, we've established that now.""Yes, yes, you're right. We have. But some people might not know that in Windows you can—""You can press and hold the ALT key and then type 0151 to make an em-dash.""Yes, exactly. That's exactly what I was going to—""Say. Yes, we know. And ALT>0150 will give you an en-dash.""Happy d—""Happy days."
I just tried that ALT 0151 thing and it doesn't work for some reason. Maybe it's me ... no, it's the comp ... no, it's me ... no, it's the -

I seemed to be doomed to use the dash on the keyboard.
 
Three dots are ellipses. And in case I want to search ellipses, I put a space either side. Again, it's a consistency thing, like @Carol Rose says.

The dashes to show an interruption to speech should be an em-dash. I don't know how to get an em-dash in Word (it's not the dash on your keyboard, that's an en-dash). But, in Scrivener, you hit the en-dash twice and space, and they turn into an em-dash.

Yes. Exactly. There are "rules" but publishers have a house style for these types of punctuation as well.
 
Ah, that's good to know. It means I've been ... well, using them correctly. Aha. Well done. I use them a lot, and probably shouldn't ... and up until now, I've simply been using them, hoping for the best that it's correct with no clue what I'm d - . (a bit like how I stumble through life really ...)


I just tried that and it doesn't work for some reason. Maybe it's me ... no, it's the comp ... no, it's me ... no, it's the -

I seemed to be doomed to use the dash on the keyboard.

No, you're not doing it WRONG as long as you're consistent. Trust me. It's house style. Siren-BookStrand and Evernight each do these marks differently. Once I learned what they wanted, I simply adjusted according to who I was writing for. :)
 
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