National Novel Writing Month is not the time to become a grammar expert. The entire idea of this challenge is to stop worrying and write, that is, to churn out 1600+ words of prose each day, prose whose main glory is that it exists, not that it is perfect. Stopping to study capitalizing, punctuation, and sentence structure can only be a distraction, and probably a dispiriting one.
That said, NaNoWriMo is also not a great time to be slowed down by worrying whether you’ve punctuated this sentence correctly, or indeed any sentence correctly. Picking up the Chicago Manual of Style will slow you down, but so will thinking that perhaps this entire novel will have to be trunked because you’ve used participles so abysmally throughout that it’s not worth the time it would take to fix each page, paragraph, and sentence.
I’m running on the assumption that I’m not the only author who’s been slowed down by such worries. From clients I’ve worked with and friends I’ve consulted, I don’t think I’m the only author to have been slowed down by such worries. And the thing is, these concerns can be addressed pretty simply–all you need to do is learn a handful of general rules. They won’t make your first drafts perfect, but they will spare you the time it takes to second-guess yourself or correct common errors after the fact.
Here are seven grammar tips that are easy to learn, that will make your manuscript look that much cleaner, and–once you’ve memorized them–will be seven fewer challenges to trip you up, slow you down, or worry you as you continue your adventures as a high-speed novelist.
1. The Serial/Oxford comma
What it is: the comma after down in the line “trip you up, slow you down, or worry you.” The punctuation makes it clear that slowing you down and worrying you are two separate things. This can be especially useful if you’re trying to distinguish among, say, your parents, Ayn Rand, and God. Or worse.
Some style guides–the one that comes most readily to mind is the Associated Press style guide, the “journalist’s bible“–prefer not to use a comma before the last item in a series except when required for clarity (and even then, you might get headlines like the one linked above). To anyone who has had that one darn comma add an entire line to their paragraph, this makes a certain sense. From the newspapers’ point of view, they save on space, not to mention paper and ink, by removing that one character. In fiction, ink and space are not such pressing concerns, and the added clarity of the comma usually makes it worth including.
Whether you use the serial comma or not, some people may complain and many others will not mind; just try to be consistent for duration of the manuscript. It may be useful to make a note to yourself or even to create a ‘style sheet’ to keep open in another tab (or on a notepad next to your computer) so you don’t need to pause and hem and haw each time you list three or more things. And while you’re at it, list your stylistic choices on the following matters, too.
2. The Em Dash
You can make an em-dash in MS Word by hitting the hyphen key twice: –. Although Blogger doesn’t autoformat them the way MS Word does, you can see I’ve kept the habit.
If you hit the hyphen key once, you get a hyphen, which is a perfectly useful mark but not the same thing as an em-dash. In all styles except AP, the em dash touches the words on either side of it–like so.
Em-dashes convey a casual, lively tone. They can be used in place of parentheses, commas, or even colons, making they wonderfully versatile. In fact, they’re virtually impossible to use wrong, which is why I’m surprised more authors don’t use them–and why I overuse them myself.
They shouldn’t be used for more than one purpose in the same sentence. You can’t set off a parenthetical with an interruption inside it all using em-dashes. Break out those commas, parentheses, and (semi?)colons. Still, don’t sweat overuse of em-dashes on your first draft, because it’s easy enough to fix them the second time around. In practice, em-dashes can indicate parts of the first draft that need more organizational attention anyway. Not all parentheticals are relevant enough to keep, for instance, and sometimes you shouldn’t change the topic quite so quickly (or you should change it much sooner).
It’s also simple, but time-consuming, to add a second hyphen and remove the space around the half-formed dashes you typed before you knew how to create an em-dash. You can do that in December. For now, go and enter spaces no more.
3. Dangling Modifiers and the Sentence Boundary Errors
A picky editor or agent might reject you for punctuating dialogue incorrectly. A terribly picky editor might reject you for being inconsistent with your italics. Still, neither of those errors are deadly to the reader. Even I–hardly an easy-to-please judge of prose–have gone merrily along with a story full of badly punctuated dialogue because the words themselves, and the characters saying them, and the plot they moved through were all so convincing and gripping.
The truly fatal error, one that will turn off most readers and virtually all editors, is failing to construct complete and functional sentences. Sentence boundary errors don’t only make you look illiterate, they make the reader feel illiterate for trying and failing to follow what you’re saying.
After penning a sentence, many writers hurry on without checking to ensure it actually says what they mean it to. This is fine on occasion, if you keep your sentences simple and your topics consistent. But a manuscript full of dangling modifiers and run-on sentences could require extensive revision just to make your meaning clear, never mind reaching the heights of eloquence. And that’s assuming you don’t get lost just writing it.
After penning a sentence, many manuscripts require extensive revision.
Wait, what? NaNoWriMo would be a lot easier if my manuscript would just pen its own sentences.
This is the dreaded (though not enough dreaded, alas) dangling modifier. “After penning a sentence,” the modifier, does not apply to the manuscripts but rather to something or someone who is not present in the actual sentence. Specifically, the writer.
I’m uncertain if dangling modifiers are caused by too much faith that the reader will grasp the writer’s meaning anyway, or not enough faith in the logic of the English language. That’s not to say the English language is ultimately logical or consistent in any meaningful way–we shake down other languages in dark alleys for spare adverbs, for crying out loud–but it is logical enough that modifying clauses don’t need to, and shouldn’t, dangle. There is always room in the sentence for the noun they’re modifying, usually directly after the comma that follows the modifier.
Though complete lack of faith is unjustified, faith may not be wholly out of place. Context will often enough make it clear that it’s not your manuscript penning its own sentences. That doesn’t make it okay, though. If you don’t know any better, it’s only a matter of time before you write a dangling modifier that really does confuse the meaning of your sentence (or at the least prompts a ridiculous mental image to those who read it literally, as many people do. Nobody plans to encounter dangling modifiers). If you know better, penning dangling modifiers is just intellectually lazy.
Participle clauses in general are tricky beasts. Another bothersome sentence structure occurs when “Penning each sentence, she left the manuscript to languish.” This creates a wibbly-wobbly time warp effect where the pen-wielder is both actively writing her manuscript and leaving it to languish at the same time. I’m not sure if there’s a proper term for this bugbear–for my part, I only know it as the Turkey City Lexicon‘s Not Simultaneous, and my editing clients know it as a margin comment reading “Simultaneous issue” or just “Simul.”
And lastly, there’s “After penning a sentence, the manuscript was left to languish in obscurity because, hearing a voice out in the street, she dropped the laptop, running to the door and taking the stairs three at a time.”
Whatever revision this sentence is given, it has to involve more periods. One sentence simply doesn’t have room for that much action, or that many participles. It makes sense that a lot of newer or first-draft novelists write these kinds of sentences, since a certain amount of tunnel vision occurs in the midst of any creative endeavor. And it’s certainly possible to correct these run-ons after the fact, but it may prove easier in the end to simply avoid writing them in the first place. Be conscious of the words flowing from your fingertips. As soon as you type a period, let your eyes scan the preceding sentence. Don’t worry about it being perfect, but it may be a good habit to stop and revise particularly confusing passages. If you don’t want to do this once a sentence, once a paragraph works equally well (I stop every three hundred words or so to correct misspellings and obviously unworkable sentence structure).
Even if it feels like a drag to slow down and ensure your sentences are functional, I think letting mistakes lie will always come back to bite you later. You’ll either languish in editorial purgatory or never get that far in the first place. The good news is that once you learn to spot dangling modifiers, simultaneous issues, and run-on sentences, you’ll commit them more and more rarely.
There are some other deadly errors in a manuscript (pacing and characterization are arguably more important, although they’re harder to spot on just one page), but once you get most of your sentences mostly right, writing becomes much, much easier.
4. Grammar in Dialogue
As I’ve said, I’ll still understand your story even if your dialogue is punctuated abysmally. I may enjoy reading your story a lot. But I guarantee you won’t enjoy going over 50,000 words and correcting every line of dialogue, so it pays to figure out the general rules for it.
“It’s that simple,” she said.
“She” is lowercase–“she said” is not a complete sentence on its own. Indeed, it’s a mere dialogue tag. A comma connects the dialogue tag to the spoken dialogue. The comma goes inside the quotation marks, as most punctuation does (the exceptions are mostly arcane, but can occur when the quotation mark isn’t actually part of the dialogue: Did your brother really tell you, “Go to hell”?).
Later on in this post, you’ll see I’ve written the sentence And then my beloved cousin told her, “Should I say hi to your relatives while I’m down there?”
Put aside for the moment the fact that I started a sentence with “and.” That capitalized A may annoy purists, but the capitalized S in the middle of this sentence might look downright terrifying. Still, it has a rationale: Should I say hi … begins a complete sentence. “He told her” forms the lead-in to the quote: the dialogue tag. They’re connected, as you see, by a comma.
Dialogue tags consist of the speaker and the word “said” and its synonyms, although I suggest you stick with “said” for the most part. If you want, you can add modifying clauses (After penning another sentence, she said, “What do you think of participles?”). You don’t need to be allergic to the occasional “exclaimed,” “remarked,” “observed,” “whispered,” cried out,” and “added,” as these can contribute contextual information such as tone of voice. Do be cautious of tagging all lines of dialogue this way, though, as it gets distracting, and be wary of explaining the dialogue with tags (“You stole my money!” she accused).
Also be careful of tagging dialogue with words that don’t mean “to say”–you cannot smile, laugh, or nod dialogue. These verbs form their own separate sentences. (After penning another sentence, she smiled to herself. “Now what do you think of that?”)
5. Quotation Marks, Italics, Boldface, CAPSLOCK
Font choices best used sparingly but to great effect.
Aside from setting off dialogue, quotation marks may be used as “scare quotes” to imply the word choice isn’t yours (She told my beloved cousin that he would “burn in the deepest subbasement of hell” for breaking curfew). They come in handy, but overusing scare quotes can get annoying fast, as they have a certain salty, sarcastic flavor. Don’t make your readers feel like they’re being clobbered over the head with your cutting wit–trust them to pick up the dissonance between words and meaning even if it’s represented more subtly.
Single quote marks are used to set off quotations within dialogue (“And then my beloved cousin told her, ‘Should I say hi to your relatives while I’m down there?’ I’m so proud of his quick wit!” –And if I wanted to set “hi” off, it would indeed be with another pair of double quotes). Outside the US, these are sometimes used for setting off dialogue, and the double marks get used to set off nesting quotes. The thought of such a topsy-turvey world gives me illicit chills, although pretty much everyone will understand “these quotes,” too. If you’re split, I suggest using the double quotes. Because the single quote mark is also used for apostrophes, if you decide after the fact that you want double quotes you’ll have to change every line of dialogue separately lest a universal Find-Replace will produce gems like you”ll. Changing double quotes to single quotes is a lot simpler. When in doubt, go with the one that’s easiest to undo.
Italics are used for emphasis, to set off foreign words, and to show a character’s internal monologue directly. (She thought of what an idiot she had been. I’m such an idiot). I strongly recommend against using quotation marks to set off your character’s inner monologue, or they will give the appearance of speaking their thoughts out loud. If your character is psychic and communicating telepathically, italics are an intuitive choice to depict this, and context should make it clear that they’re in dialogue with another telepath. (No, you aren’t, he reassured her.)
Unless you are knowingly and deliberately performing an experiment in prose, I recommend leaving the bold tool aside for now. You will just distract readers who are wondering what you mean by the bold text. There are other tools, like italics, to use for emphasis.
WRITING IN CAPSLOCK gives an impression less of emphasis than of volume–an important consideration some authors seem to have overlooked. This makes them look varying degrees of belligerent and/or sugar high. The best use of CAPSLOCK is when a character is shouting louder than a mere exclamation point would suggest. Speaking of which, do not use multiple exclamation points to communicate volume, emphasis, or excitement. Once a reader sees one sentence punctuated like this, a great deal of trust in the writer is lost, as it’s only a matter of time before some other courtesy of language is disregarded in favor of what the writer felt like doing instead!!!
Like exclamation points, scare quotes, and even italics, a little bit of CAPSLOCK goes a long way. If upon reflection you’d like to have less volume in your manuscript, you can remove capslock by highlighting the capitalized text and pressing SHIFT + F3.
These dots can be used to signify either an actual ellipsis–that is, leaving something out–or a suspension, hesitation, or interruption (although you may find the em-dash conveys an interruption more intuitively, as people being interrupted rarely have time for the brief but distinct silence an ellipsis conveys). They’re easy to overuse, and you may find after the fact that they aren’t all necessary, but don’t let that slow you down on the first draft. They’re also very easy to find and fix.
In both Chicago and AP style, a space is used before and after the ellipsis. Chicago style also includes a space between each period of the ellipsis, although MS Word may autoformat and take that out of your hands.
If the ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence, you include a period with it, for a total of 4 dots.
7. Tense and Point of View
As with everything else, you’ll want to be consistent–sticking to a single POV and tense within a single scene or section. If you decide to write with omniscient POV or “head-hop,” it’s your novel–but for the sake of your readers, I strongly advise at least remaining within the same POV for each paragraph. It’s not so much because I want to harsh on your omniscient party as that inner monologue, like dialogue, needs organization so we know who’s speaking, and paragraphs are meant to provide that.
Some authors mix present and past tense artfully in their stories; others find themselves shifting their verb endings because they’re carried away in the excitement of their narrative. It doesn’t make you a bad writer by any means, although it can be annoying to go back and correct afterwards. When you’re not sure what your next line will be, it sometimes helps to review the previous few pages to see where your scene is going–and while you do this, you also have an opportunity to make sure everything’s remained in the same tense and/or POV.
But don’t sweat this too much. If you catch yourself changing POV midscene, and you don’t want to, but you also don’t want to slow down to rewrite it, just make a note to yourself either inline or via a margin comment. Scene started in Martha’s POV, now Jim’s. You can decide to give the scene to Martha or Jim, or to split it between them both, sometime in March.
8. Spelling & Word Choice
Don’t sweat this. You’ll survive fumbling accept/except, or even you’re/your–provided you know to correct it afterwards. MS Word’s spellcheck is helpful, though not 100% accurate.
Yet be reassured: resources are available to check your meaning, if your peace of mind requires confirmation that you’ve picked the right word and have written it with the right letters. Keep Merriam-Webster open in another tab. Highlighting a word and right-clicking will also summon up MS Word’s thesaurus, which can at least suggest if you’re on the right trail of meaning.
Now I lay me down to sleep as I lie down on the bed.
I lay there for some hours, then gave up and reached for the manuscript which I had laid on the nightstand before tucking myself in. I might as well keep editing while I felt up to it.
You lay an object down: yourself, your manuscript, your glasses. You lie down. Your manuscript should not lie down of its own accord.
While you’re keeping Merriam-Webster open in one tab, open another for Grammar Girl, who’s got you covered. I keep her post on lie/lay bookmarked for added reassurance.