A Trio of Assorted Links

A guide to semicolon usage, with illustrations.  Some people find semicolons intimidating; this is the post for them.  Other people love semicolons not necessarily wisely, but too well; I’m not sure if there is any help for us.

An article on Slate, ranting about the overuse of unnecessary synonyms for “said.”  I’ll be over here on the sidelines, waving my pompoms in enthusiastic agreement.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, “said” is all you need, assuming you need a dialogue attribution tag at all.

And Great Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council has released a digitized collection of Jane Austen’s manuscripts, including drafts and juvenilia.  I love living in the internet age, I really do . . . time was, to see something like this, you’d have had to make a trip (in the case of Jane Austen’s MSS, a number of different trips) to visit the material in person.

Three Nifty Links and a Brief Reminder

Commas are important tools in the ongoing struggle for (and sometimes between) clarity and euphony – so important that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that, even more than most punctuation marks, commas are pretty much a local-option kind of deal.  The conventions for comma usage vary from one language to another, as I learned to my sorrow back in the days when I was learning Old English and working with a lot of OE texts that had been edited by German scholars and therefore punctuated with German punctuation.  (It’s a mark of where I learned a particular language and how I mostly used it that my rudiments of German are mostly stuff like “The following forms appear only in the dative plural,” while my fragmentary Spanish runs mostly along the lines of “Do you have Tylenol in drops for infants?”)  Comma use also varies from one century to another, and from one writer to another – some writers prefer to deploy their commas strictly according to grammatical rule, whereas others prefer to use them according to the rhythm and the phrasing of the sentence.

Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that some people take their commas very seriously indeed.

Over in another corner of the internet (the internet has many corners), Slate columnist Derrick Johnson strikes a blow against e-mail address snobbery when he explains why he still uses his AOL e-mail account.  (Hint: because it still works just fine.)

Meanwhile, for the folklore and folk music enthusiasts among us, here’s the Vaughn Williams Memorial Library.

And finally, the reminder:  the Dr. Doyle’s Editorial Services Springtime Seasonal Special closes at midnight this coming Saturday, April 11.

Summer Daze

‘Tis the season for muggy, oppressive weather, the kind that saps the energy and destroys the initiative . . . not the best kind of weather in which to be doing revisions, but still, revisions must be done.

A few of the things that get taken care of in revision, at least by me:

Turning a suitable number of semicolons into either periods or commas, as appropriate.  I am, as I’ve admitted here before, one of those writers with a tendency to love semicolons not wisely, but too well, and getting rid of at least one in three isn’t going to hurt the story and will probably improve it.

Double-checking the continuity, in order to make sure that characters don’t refer to things other characters have told them before they’ve actually been told, and similar stuff.  When you’re the bead-stringing, rather than the linear, sort of writer, this is a matter of particular concern.

Getting rid of any zero-draft filler material and placeholders that may have lingered in the text even through subsequent iterations.  A tertiary character may have been referred to as [NameOfCharacter] while the plotline was still being spun out, for example, and now that he’s been promoted to Bob the Delivery Guy it’s a good idea to make certain that all the instances of square brackets have been cleaned up.

Generally smoothing out any sentences that are still too bumpy for my liking, and fixing up anything else that doesn’t feel quite right.

All I can say is, it’s a good thing that I like doing revisions.  I’d hate to be doing something that I didn’t like, here in the hazy humid days of summer.


Stringing Ideas Together

Or, actually, not.

When you’re building up a sequence of ideas (which generally results in a paragraph, and a whole bunch of paragraphs together generally results in a completed story, or an essay, or a letter thanking your Great-Aunt Euphemia for the half-dozen silver fish forks in a pattern that isn’t yours), you don’t want to just string the ideas together as they occur to you.  You’re constructing something that has to stand up when you’re done with it, not just lie there on the carpet like a string of Christmas lights after the tree has come down.

This means that you need to think about the relationship of your ideas to each other, and put them together in ways that indicate those relationships – while at the same time making sentences that have good sound and good rhythm and good grammar.

Take a simple example.   Here’s a little paragraph where the sentences are all (mostly) grammatical, but it’s still a bad paragraph:

As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This is, as I said, (mostly) grammatical, in that a native speaker of English can read it and understand what’s going on at the softball game.  But it isn’t good.  It’s clunky, the ideas are in the wrong order, and there’s a dangling participle lurking in there as well.

(Also, entirely too many present participles, period.  Writers get told at some point in high school or thereabouts that they need to vary their sentence structures, and for some reason, the method that a lot of them latch on to is the introductory participial phrase.  People, I’m here to tell you – too many sentences starting with participial phrases is just as monotonous as a bunch of simple subject-verb-direct object sentences lined up in a row.)

But I digress.  Let’s fix that little paragraph, a bit at a time.

Sentence one:  As she hit the ball, Jill ran for first base.  This is bad because one, it takes two ideas of roughly the same weight and makes one of them subordinate to the other; and two, it puts the actions into the wrong order.  First Jill hits the ball; then she runs for first base.  So we can fix this sentence by changing it to:  Jill hit the ball and ran for first base.

Sentence two:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her, spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  This sentence is also bad for a couple of reasons and not just one.  The biggie, of course, is the dangling participle right at the beginning:  Running for first base, her foot turned under her.  This is wrong because it isn’t the foot that’s running for first base, it’s Jill.  The first thing we do to fix this sentence, then, is to break that part off from the rest of the sentence and rewrite it:  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  (We also ditch the repetition of for first base, because the reader’s seen that already and we don’t need to have another iteration of it cluttering up the page.)

This leave us with spraining her ankle and putting her on the bench for the rest of the season.  There are a couple of different ways to fix this part, depending upon whether you think that the sprained ankle or the benching for the season is the more important idea, or whether you want to give the two ideas approximately equal weight.

You could throw the emphasis onto the sprained ankle:  She sprained her ankle, which put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

You could emphasize the fact that Jill has been put out of action:  Because she sprained her ankle, she was put on the bench for the rest of the season.

Or you could get fancy and use a semicolon to hook up two equivalent clauses, giving them both equal weight and letting the reader determine their relationship:  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

I like that last one – but then, I generally like semicolons.  Let’s use it anyway, for maximum sentence variety.  That gives us a new, finished paragraph:

Jill hit the ball and ran for  first base.  While she was running, her foot turned under her.  She sprained her ankle; the injury put her on the bench for the rest of the season.

This still isn’t one of the world’s blue-ribbon paragraphs – but it’s better than the one we started with.

And the voice from the back of the lecture hall asks, “Do I have to think like that about all my paragraphs?”

Sadly, yes.  But not until the second or third draft.  Finish the story first, then work on making the sentences better.  Because pretty sentences will get you nowhere if you haven’t got a story for them to tell.

From the Department of Interesting Stuff

An amusing mini-essay in defense of the semicolon, here.

I confess; I am, myself, one of those who love the semicolon, sometimes perhaps not wisely but too well.  Much as other writers need to double-check their second and third drafts for run-on sentences, excessive sentence fragments, and comma splices, I have to go through and make certain I don’t have entire paragraphs where every single sentence has a semicolon in the middle.

And a thought-provoking long article here about the connections between the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the Cold War, and the CIA. The whole thing makes me strangely grateful that my writing lineage comes through science fiction, which at least in those days was an inhabitant of the outer darkness and hence spared conscription into the feuds and politics of respectable literature.

I did come briefly into contact-at-a-remove with the academic workshop style, in that I took a couple of undergrad creative writing courses at the University of Arkansas, whose MFA writing program has a certain degree of credibility as these things go.  To which all I can say is, I learned a lot, including just how little respect genre writers got in writing programs back in those days.  My reaction was to go off and get a doctorate in medieval literature and write almost no fiction for the next seven years.

(Things are a bit better these days, or so I’m given to understand.  But if you’re working in fantasy or science fiction or mystery or romance, and have a hankering for the MFA experience, it’s still a good idea to check out your prospects for genre-friendliness first.)

Another Burning Controversy of the Literary Kind

Forget politics.  Forget philosophy.  If you want to start an argument in a room full of wordsmiths, raise the question of whether one space or two should follow a period.

Consider, for instance, this blast of the trumpet against the dreaded two-spacers, published back in 2011:

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.

In part the divide is a cultural one, with typographers (who work with proportional fonts and are concerned with beauty and readability from the consumer’s end) on one side, and writers and editors (who have traditionally worked with monospaced fonts and are concerned with making the text clear and easy to work with on the production end) on the other side.

There’s also a generational component in the spacing war.  Older writers, who learned to type on manual or electric typewriters that produced monospaced output, were trained to space twice after a period, for clarity’s sake.  Writers who came later to the trade, on the other hand, learned keyboarding on personal computers with access to proportional fonts, and were taught the typographer’s one-space principle.

Who’s right?  It doesn’t matter.  The glory of word processing is that you can write your book whichever way you were taught, without having to worry about retraining your spacebar thumb.  Then you can go to your publisher’s guidelines, and see if they have a stated preference.  If they do, then use the mighty power of global search and replace (if your word processing program doesn’t already come with a built-in “convert two spaces to one space/one space to two spaces” option) to make your text conform to the desired standard.

If the publisher doesn’t have a preference, then go with what you’ve got.  Or, if you’re still uncertain:  If you’re working in a monospaced font (which is to say, in Courier New – there are other monospaced fonts out there, but when an editor thinks “monospace” they think “Courier New”), then space twice after the period.  If you’re working in a proportional font (which is to say, Times New Roman, because the last thing an editor wants is to read a manuscript where the author has gotten cute with the fontwork), then space once after the period.

And don’t stress out about it.

To Italicize or Not to Italicize

Internal monologue, that is.

Some writers like to put a character’s internal monologue into italics (represented in MS format by a single underline):

I don’t like the looks of this, he thought. He reached for his radio. Better call for backup.

Other writers prefer to leave the internal monologue in straight unitalicized (aka “roman“) type:

I don’t like the looks of this, he thought. He reached for his radio. Better call for backup.

Which is preferable? It’s dealer’s choice, really, unless you’ve been stuck with a publisher whose house style calls for one or the other. (Most publishers let the author decide, but once in a while you’ll run across one that doesn’t.)

Leaving the internal monologue in roman type is more common — in my admittedly biased observation — in writing that occupies, or at least aspires to occupy, a place on the literary end of the literary/genre continuum. I’m not sure why it should be so. When I’m feeling snarky, I suspect that it’s because clearly setting off internal monologue from authorial narrative makes things easier for the reader, and making things easier for the reader is one of those things that a literary writer is not supposed to do. Art is meant to be wrestled with, and meaning is only worthwhile if the reader has to work for it, and is only intended for those who can win the wrestling match and do the work. If this narrows the prospective audience, so be it; quality, not quantity, is the desideratum.

And of course, there’s no denying the force of custom. If plain roman type was good enough for Laurence Sterne and James Joyce and William Faulkner when they got their stream-of-consciousness on, then it should be good enough for their latter-day literary descendants.

Writers in the genres, meanwhile, were more concerned with getting their intended meaning across to as many readers as possible, and saw no point in letting a useful tool go unused. To the extent that they thought about literature as art, they thought that it wasn’t meant to be treated like a mystery cult where the revelation of truth is reserved for the initiated few, or like the exclusive property of an educated elite; it was meant for everybody, and it was the writer’s job to make it as accessible as possible.

Which side has the right of it? Neither, really; literature needs both approaches. But it helps, in a “know thyself” kind of way, to figure out where on the spectrum you, as an individual writer, happen to stand.

Back from the Road

I’m back in town after a long weekend in Montreal (lovely city, and in fact closer to us than Boston); in lieu of anything more substantive, have a couple of amusing links:

Life Beyond Words, a blog post by Judy Tarr about equine perception and communication.  Horses are one of the things aspiring fantasy and historical writers tend to get wrong.   Reading all the posts on the horses tag on this blog would go a long way to remedying the matter.

And then there’s Shady Characters, a blog about the history of punctuation marks.  It’s a book now, too, and most of the more recent posts are concerned with that, but you can dive into the archives for discussions of pilcrows and interrobangs and octothorpes.


Stet is Latin for “let it stand.”  It’s also a word of power for dealing with copyeditors who have — in the author’s opinion — overstepped the limits of their job.

A good copyeditor is the author’s friend.  He or she will do things like keeping track of a whole extended family of fictional characters across a multi-volume series, with accompanying fictional place-names and scraps of invented language, so that even if the author fails to do the math and accidentally keeps the same minor character twenty-five years old for almost a decade, the mistake will be fixed before the book hits print.   Characters who enter a scene wearing a t-shirt and jeans will not leave it wearing khaki cargo pants and a flannel button-down, unless they’ve been witnessed changing clothes in the interim.  The setting sun will not shine in through what can only be an eastward-facing window (if the author has supplied enough detail for a reader to infer the layout of the manor house, a good copyeditor will keep that layout in mind.)

In short, a good copyeditor will make you look smarter than you really are, and will ensure that your book is as good as it deserves to be.  If you get a particularly good or face-saving copyedit, it’s a kindness to tell your editor to pass along your thanks to the copyeditor — rather like sending your compliments to the chef — and to mention that if they’re free the next time you have a book come up on the schedule, you’d love to work with them again.

Bad copyedits . . . let’s just say that it’s almost impossible to be a professional writer and not fall victim to at least one staggeringly awful copyedit.    Authors gather in bars and tell copyeditor horror stories.  (To be fair, the group at the other end of the bar is a gang of copyeditors, telling author horror stories.  If no man is a hero to his valet, no author is a hero to his copyeditor.)  At times like these, it helps to keep in mind that the book is, in the end, your book, and to remember the magic word.


Another Thing it Doesn’t Pay to Worry About

Back in the dark ages, when I was first learning to type, the Word of God as passed down from on high by the instructor (who was more interested in training 80-words-a-minute secretaries than in teaching the rudiments of touch typing to a future English major) was that you double-spaced following a period.

I never became an 80-words-a-minute typist, but those two spaces after the period were hardwired into my brain, not to mention into my spacebar-hitting thumb.

Cue the musical montage representing the passage of time, with the tappity-tappity-tappity-bing! of the typewriter fading into the musical-popcorn boop-boop-boop of the old computer keyboards, and that sound fading in turn into the near-silence of keyboards today . . . followed by the Word of God saying that it is now customary to space only once after a period.

Why is this something it doesn’t pay to worry about?  Because, one, of all the reasons an editor may have for rejecting your manuscript, the question of how many spaces you’ve put after your periods is way low on the list.  And, two, if the whole thing bothers you that much, you don’t have to sweat blood retraining your spacebar thumb — all you have to do is run a search and replace during the final edit, and change every instance of two spaces to a single space instead.