Tips & advice for writers of fiction and creative non-fiction
Punctuation matters. Punctuation tells the reader how to read the words you have on the page: where to put the pauses, how to make sense of your sentences.
It’s not too much to say that bad punctuation will kill a book. It’ll get rejected by agents and readers alike. Trying to sell a badly punctuated manuscript is like going on a date wearing last week’s jogging pants.
The underlying problem is the same in both cases. The badly punctuated manuscript and the dirty jogging bottoms both say, “I don’t care.” I don’t care about you, my hot date. I don’t care about you, my precious reader.
Any sane date will just make their excuses and leave. A reader will do the same – and quite right too.
So here goes with a quick guide to the major punctuation marks. In each case, we’ll talk about:
The basic rule
The most common punctuation errors that writers make
More advanced ways to use the tool
Most of you reading this will know the basic rules. Even so, it’s likely that you’ll be committing at least some of the errors some of the time. (A few of them are very common indeed.) And pretty much everyone will get at least something from thinking about how to use punctuation marks in a more sophisticated, writerly way.
Oh, and the images that are scattered through this blog post? Those free-flowing floral designs are what beautifully punctuated text looks like. Fluid, but ordered. Mobile, yet tidy. That’s what we’re after.
OK, you know when to use this little beast. You use it at the end of sentences, so long as those sentences aren’t questions or exclamations (in which case you’d use the “?” or “!” instead.)
The most common error
One of the most prevalent errors in manuscripts written by first time writers is the so-called run-on sentence. It looks something like this:
She was a breath of fresh air in our little town, she came into school on her first day with a bunch of garden flowers for the teacher and home-made candy for us, her schoolmates, it should have looked cheesy, but we fell in love with her on the spot.
The error here is simple. The writer is using commas (“,”) where they should be using periods. The result is like someone just gabbling in your face, yadda-yadda-yadda, without giving you a chance to draw breath or reflect.
The solution is simple. You chop the sentence up with periods, to produce this:
She was a breath of fresh air in our little town. She came into school on her first day with a bunch of garden flowers for the teacher and home-made candy for us, her schoolmates. It should have looked cheesy, but we fell in love with her on the spot.
Phew! That’s a mile better already. Notice that there’s still a comma dividing two of the sentences (“It should have looked cheesy” and “we fell in love with her.”)
The grammar-reason why that comma is OK is that you have “but” – a conjunction, a connector word – joining the two sentences. In a way, though, I’d prefer you to forget about the grammar and just listen to the rhythms. Say the first snippet out loud, then the second one. If it feels right, it is right. That’s pretty much all the grammar you are ever going to need.
More advanced ways to use the tool
Back at school, you were probably told to avoid sentence fragments – the name given to sentences that lack a main verb. (Like this one, for example.)
That’s rather old-fashioned advice in some ways, and it’s certainly unhelpful advice to offer when it comes to writing fiction or creative non-fiction.
Take my own work. My narrator is jerky, tough, awkward, abrupt. Her voice is all those things too, and the consequence is that her prose makes a lot of use of sentence fragments. For instance:
There’s a woman at the wheel. Forties, maybe. Blonde. Shoulder-length hair held back in a grip. Blue woollen coat worn over a dark jumper.
I kick the door. Hard. I’m wearing boots and kick hard enough to dent the panel.
Pretty clearly here, the periods are dividing my language up into units of meaning, not into sentences. The words Blonde and Hard are just words, after all. They’re not even attempting to be complete sentences.
Equally clearly, my narrator’s language forces that kind of punctuation on the manuscript. If you wanted to follow the “period = end of sentence” rule, you’d have to rewrite the text so it looked something like this:
There’s a woman at the wheel. She is in her forties, maybe. Her blonde, shoulder-length hair is held back in a grip. She wears a blue woollen coat worn over a dark jumper. [and so on]
That’s not just differently punctuated. It has a different tone, a different mood. It’s perfectly fine writing … but it’s not what I wanted. The “correct” punctuation ends up destroying the voice I worked hard to create.
As a rough, rough guide, literary fiction will tend to have relatively few sentence fragments, while crime thrillers and the like will have many more.
But fiction is much more supple than that general rule suggests. So yes, my character is tough. Yes, she uses lots of sentences fragments in approved noir style. But she also reflects on philosophy, quotes poetry, introspects extensive, and so on. In the end, you build from the character to the voice to the punctuation. It makes no sense to try building the other way.
The exclamation mark (!)
An exclamation mark (or point) marks an exclamation, denotes shouting, or otherwise gives emphasis to a sentence. It’s like a shouty form of a period.
But watch out! You think you know how to use the exclamation mark, but …
The most common error
The most common error is to use the exclamation mark!
It’s fine in emails. It’s OK-ish in blog posts. But in novels? Avoid it. As Scott Fitzgerald remarked, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” It’s like you’re trying to make your punctuation compensate for a failure of your actual writing.
If you want a rough rule of thumb, you can use one or maximum two exclamation marks per 100,000 words of prose. If you have zero, that’s just fine. And never, ever have a double or treble exclamation mark in your text. What’s fine on Twitter, looks just awful on the printed page.
More advanced ways to (not) use the tool
So if I (like most pro authors) hate the exclamation mark, what do you do instead? After all, there may be occasions where you feel your work actually needs the emphasis.
But consider these alternatives:
#1 “Go get it.”
#2 “Go get it!”
#3 “Go get it,” he ordered her, sharply.
Those options are ranked in approximate order of shoutiness. The first option doesn’t feel especially emphatic. The addition of the exclamation mark adds a little force. The third option adds even more, via a highly coloured verb and adverb combo.
But neither of the last two options is great. And the issue here is simply this: the actual bit of underlying dialogue is fairly colourless, and that’s not going to alter, no matter how many toppings you put on. In other words, if you started out with option #1 and found yourself thinking, “Hmm, this feels a little bland, so let’s get out the heavy-duty punctuation,” that should be a signal that you need to rewrite things.
So a better option than either #1, #2 or #3 above would be:
#4 “Go get it. Get it now. Give it to me. Never take it again.”
You’re not using anything more than a common old period there, and you’re not resorting to ordering sharply, yelling loudly, yodelling wildly or exclaiming defiantly. But because your dialogue is now unmistakeably emphatic, it’s fine on its own.
If the burger tastes great, you don’t need the relish.
The Ellipsis (…)
An ellipsis is a bit of a slippery brute.
What it does is mark the fact that some words are missing. So, in dialogue, for example, people will often trail off, rather than actually complete a sentence.
That much is easy – but how do you actually write it? Three dots is pretty much universal, but do you have spaces between them? Do you have a space before and after the ellipsis? And if you have the ellipsis at the start of a sentence, do you have a period (to denote the end of the previous sentence), then a space, then the ellipsis? That option sounds technically correct, but also rather fussy.
The good news for you is that none of this really matters. Different style authorities advise different things, with some variation between British and American usage.
And in the end, who really cares? Your editor won’t. Your agent won’t. Your reader won’t. It’s just not a big deal. I’d suggest, in general, that you use three dots without spacing in between, but with a space before and after. Like so:
“Oh, Jen, if you really think that, then we should … I mean, maybe this was never meant to be.”
The most common error
As with exclamation marks, the primary error is to overuse these little beasts. What works fine in an email, quickly looks annoying on the printed page.
But whereas I’d advise you to hunt the exclamation mark almost to extinction, you can let the ellipsis breathe, just a little. One ellipsis per chapter is probably too many, but you’d have to be quite a fussy ready to object to half a dozen, or even a dozen, over the course of a full length novel.
More advanced ways to use the tool
As with the exclamation mark, the best way to use the ellipsis is to let it nudge you into querying your own writing. If you feel yourself wanting to use the ellipsis, just check that it’s not your writing that needs to alter. In nine out of ten cases, adjusting your text will be a better option than using the ellipsis.
The semi-colon ( ; )
The semi-colon is a divider, the way commas and periods are dividers. The comma is the lightest of these in weight: it inserts the shortest of pauses. The period inserts the maximum pause. The semi-colon lives somewhere in between. Here’s an example of all three in action:
It never normally rained, but the weather that day was awful. (comma = minimal pause)
It never normally rained; my mother didn’t even own an umbrella (semi-colon = mid-weight pause)
It never normally rained. That day, though, there was a deluge. (period = strongest pause)
And look: you can live without the semi-colon completely. Personally, I quite like semi-colons, but my narrator, Fiona Griffiths, never uses them, so in about 750,000 words of published Fiona Griffiths’ novels, there’s only one semi-colon – and that enters the text via a direct quote from Wikipedia.
Short message: if the semi-colon scares you, it’s fine to leave it well alone.
The most common error
There are no common errors with semi-colons, except maybe overuse by people thinking they’re fancy.
More advanced ways to use the tool
Thinking of semi-colons as a middle-weight pause is technically correct, but it misses something, nevertheless. A better way to conceive of the mark is this: You need a semi-colon when you have two sentences, and the second one corrects or modifies the meaning of the first.
So take those examples above. We used a semi-colon in this context:
It never normally rained; my mother didn’t even own an umbrella.
The first sentence is, in effect, adjusted by the second. The semi-colon tells us to read the second sentence as a kind of comment on the first one: “look, here’s just how much it never rained.”
Or, if you want a slightly more grown-up example, here’s William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury:
Clocks slay time… time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.
But you can get too hung up on these things. Arguably, sentences that speak about each other shouldn’t need any punctuation to get their point across. The text itself should handle the communication just fine. So there’ll be plenty of writers (including my narrator) who’d agree with Kurt Vonnegut’s lesson in creative writing:
First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
And who cares if you’ve been to college, right?
Brackets () | Dashes – – | Commas ,,
There are three types of parenthesis you can use. They are:
Commas: The comma, always a useful creature, can be used to separate one clause from the rest.
Dashes: The dash – a more forceful beast – can be used in much the same way.
Brackets: The bracket (perfectly fine in non-fiction) is relatively rare in fiction.
But these three are not equivalent, and not equally common.
I just opened up my Word document that contains the entire Fiona Griffiths series, and checked to see how many of each punctuation mark I used. In about 650,000 words of text, I used:
39,000 commas, of which, admittedly, many thousand wouldn’t be parenthetical.
5,000 dashes, though most of these were actually hyphens, as in “short-tempered”. So I’m going to guess maybe only 1,000 actual dashes.
100 brackets, of which many were things like “in Paragraph 22(c)”, where the use of the bracket isn’t really a parenthesis in the normal way.
The most common error
There are two common errors when it comes to parenthesis. The first error is not to use anything to mark off a clause from the rest of a sentence resulting in (often, but not always) a sentence that is just plain hard to read. For example:
The comma always a useful creature can be used to separate one clause from the rest.
Tucking commas in around the useful-creature clause makes the meaning pop right out.
The second error is kind of the opposite. It’s as though writers get worried that commas aren’t emphatic enough, so they start clamping their text inside brackets, like this:
She couldn’t get enough of him (understandable, given her past), so she tried to find reasons why he couldn’t leave.
And that feels heavy-handed. A simple rewrite releases the sentence and lets it breathe:
Understandably, given her tangled past, she couldn’t get enough of him and she tried to find reasons why he couldn’t leave.
There’s more flow there. Less sense of an author forcing information at you. The no-brackets alternative seems much more natural to fiction. The with-brackets version better suited to the information-delivery task of non-fiction.
More advanced ways to use parenthesis
The real trick with parenthesis – and with commas particularly – is to learn to feel the weight of a sentence.
In most cases, commas will cover your parenthetical needs. If you need to rewrite something to make it work, then rewrite it. If you need the greater weight of dashes, then go for it, but recognise that you are, in a small way, pulling on the handbrake mid-sentence. If that’s what you want, fine. In many cases, there’ll be better options.
Oh, and though I personally never read my text out loud, lots of authors swear by it – and any hiccups or awkwardness as you read is a huge clue that your punctuation or your text (or both) are at fault.
Hyphens and dashes
The hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash
We can’t quite leave a post about punctuation without talking about the various dashes available to you. Specifics in one second, but first, a public annoucement:
The specifics don’t really matter.
Yes, a lot of writers (especially those college-educated brutes that got Vonnegut all riled up) care a lot about their en dashes and their em dashes. But if you’ve never spent a moment caring about them in the past, you don’t have to worry that you’ve been doing something very wrong. You haven’t. Any “errors” on this scale will bother almost nobody – neither readers, nor agents.
So, here’s what hyphens and dashes are and how to use them.
The hyphen is on your keyboard as a minus sign.
You use it to connect words, as for example:
The hot-headed wood-cutter tip-toed past the one-eyed she-wolf.
Apart from a slight anxiety about whether a hyphen is needed in a particular context (is it woodcutter or wood-cutter?), it’s hard to get these little fellows wrong. Oh, and although everyone will have a house-style defining when to use hyphens, everyone’s style guide will be a bit different, so there’s often not a clear right and wrong here anyway.
The en dash
The en dash is so called because it is a dash approximately the same width as the letter N. And it doesn’t live on your keyboard anywhere: you have to give it life and breath all by yourself. You do this by hitting Ctrl and the minus sign at the same time, to give yourself something that looks like this:
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
As that example suggests, it’s used mostly for dates, or for things that feel much the same, for example: Washington–New York (in the context of a flight timetable, for example.)
The em dash
The em dash is so called because … well, you’re going to have to guess which letter-width it’s named after.
You create this little critter in Word by hitting Ctrl-Alt-minus.
And the em dash performs the following functions:
It marks an interruption in dialogue.
“The buried treasure,” he said, as he lay dying, “the treasure can be found just to the right of the old—”
It marks a parenthesis in the middle of a sentence.
The em dash—more forceful than commas—marks out a parenthesis in the middle of a sentence.
But it can also mark out a parenthesis at the end of a sentence.
He was allergic to fruit, sunshine, exercise and soap—or so he always insisted.
(The “so he always insisted” part is the parenthesis here. If you were using brackets, that whole end chunk would be enclosed in brackets.)
It can be used as a slightly informal colon.
The result of that informal colon—often a little hint of comedy, or something of a “ta-daa” quality.
It marks deleted or redacted words.
The accuser, Ms — —, struck a defiant tone in court.
Best practice is generally to use the em dash without a space before or after, but that’s one of those things that doesn’t actually matter. Newspapers tend to use spaces and British usage is much more tolerant of spacing and lots of people just don’t know the rules anyway.
That’s it from me. Beautiful punctuation is often a sign of careful writing and a beautifully readable book.
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About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. More about us.