Monday, February 25, 2013

Technical Problems Writers Commonly Make and How to Fix Them

Direct Thoughts
Lots of writers will quote the main character’s direct thoughts. This can get confusing and sound clunky, as quotes are so closely associated with speaking. Instead of using quotes, italics is the more appropriate way to insert direct thoughts. However, some editors have argued—and I agree—that even italics are not needed for a direct thought unless the writer wants to place additional emphasis on the word. My reasoning is that books are filled with direct thoughts, and excessive italics will be distracting and get tiresome to the reader.

Paragraph Breaks
Readers like nice, manageable paragraphs. Visually the size of the paragraph indicates a few things to the reader. First, large paragraphs are usually description and/or thought-heavy. These slow down momentum, and they are daunting to readers who want to be whisked through the story. In addition, there’s something about that indent, indicating a new paragraph, that adds structure and is visually pleasing to the reader.

Long, unending paragraphs indicate the opposite. They are not visually please, and they illustrate a lack of structure. Worse, a reader might call into question a writer’s skill if they come across a few of these.

Make sure to insert more paragraph breaks, and if you can’t, or you find that you have a lot of large paragraphs, then this is a critical indicator that you might have too many thoughts or too much description.

Scene Breaks
Within a chapter, inserting scene breaks is a great way to give readers manageable sections to read, remove needless filler, and insert more cliffhangers. A scene break is literally inserting a space between two separate scenes. Often times these breaks are accompanied by symbols such as three dots.

While most writers know about cliffhangers, most do not leverage these breaks to their advantage. Ending a scene with a cliffhanger gives readers a great stopping point, but many times readers won’t stop if they’re anxious to know what happens next. More cliffhangers and revelations means your book with generate more momentum and reader interest.

Scene breaks also help eliminate the need for filler. After all, if you can end a scene at the revelation that the bad guy was a good friend of the main character’s father, then you will also remove the temptation to continue narrating about any mundane events that follow (like driving or taking a shower, or getting ready for bed) and will instead start the following scene or sequel with the next important series of events.

I’ve seen writers use all caps to emphasize a line or phrase, and I’ve also seen writers fail to use italics at all. For memories, dreams, short scenes from another character’s POV (for books that stick almost wholly to a single narrator), or emphasis, italics are the way to go.

They visually set the text apart from the writing that surrounds it. In addition, italics alert the reader that there is something different about a particular line or scene without the writer ever having to directly address the issue.

Spacing Between Sentences
Until recently, we were taught in school to insert two spaces between sentences. This rule is no longer true. The rule now is that a single space goes between each sentence.

These are hands down one of the most difficult pieces of punctuation I’ve dealt with, especially with the introduction of e-books. The common rule is to treat an ellipses like a word, meaning that a space comes before and after it, except when next to a quotation mark.

Complications arise when you take into account that the common rule is also to insert a space between each period. As many of you know, Microsoft Word auto formats three periods without a space in between these periods as an ellipsis. This auto format is extremely helpful because it combines these three periods into a single unit, so you’ll never have two dots of the ellipsis on one line and the third dot on the following line, which happens when you do insert a space between these periods.

That auto formatting is pretty vital when it comes to e-books, especially if you are self-publishing. It’s much better to have three periods with no spaces in between than it is to have your ellipses run onto the following line.

My recommendation is to insert a space before your ellipses, no spaces between the periods, and a space following the ellipsis, except when there’s a quotation mark. Below are some examples:

“Are you going … wait, what?”
“Are you going …”

“Are you going… wait, what?”
“Are you going…wait, what?”
“Are you going … ”

Punctuating Dialogue

Punctuation Outside Quotes
Some writers make the mistake of placing punctuation outside the dialogue. When writing dialogue, punctuation always goes inside the quotes. Here are some examples:

“Don’t go”, she said.
“Don’t go”.
“Why not”?

“Don’t go,” she said.
“Don’t go.”
“Why not?”

Incorrect Dialogue Punctuation
When it comes to dialogue, a more common punctuation problem is not where the dialogue goes, but what type of punctuation belongs there. Specifically commas versus periods.

So, when does a direct quote end with a comma and when does it end with a period? If a dialogue tag is attached to the end of the quote, then a comma goes inside the quotes, and not a period.

“I can’t wait for tonight.” She said.

“I can’t wait for tonight,” she said.

This can get confusing when you start to add other dialogue tags. For instance, “laughed,” “snorted,” “giggled,” etc., would not follow this rule. Why? The dialogue tag is there to describe how someone said something; it’s there to add a bit more context to the dialogue.

So “said,” “exclaim,” and “ask” are all ways someone can say a sentence, but it’s almost impossible to “giggle” a line—and even if it is possible, do you really want your character to giggle out a sentence, or to say a sentence and then giggle.

The test for this is easy. Just ask yourself if a character can say the line and do the action described in the dialogue tag simultaneously. Here are some examples:

“I can’t wait for tonight,” she said.
“I can’t wait for tonight,” she proclaimed.
“I can’t wait for tonight.” She laughed.
“I can’t wait for tonight,” she retorted.
“I can’t wait for tonight.” She snickered.

These rules also apply to dialogue tags placed in other areas surrounding the dialogue.

Happy writing,

Laura Carlson, Editor
American Editing Services


  1. Wow, this is really helpful! I never actually thought about whether I should have characters snort a line (of dialogue, geez!), or deliver the line and then snort. That's a good distinction to be aware of:)

  2. As always - super-helpful! As far punctuation outside quotes go: I can't speak for all of Europe, but at least in Scandinavia and in Great Britain, this is the norm. Obviously, for publishing to the US market, you've got to do it US-style. :)