Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

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How Many Characters?

In a recent post to an online editors’ group, one editor noted that she was only halfway through a mystery novel she was critiquing, there were already 30 named characters, and the author had just added 4 more. How many is too many? she asked.

Another editor recalled working on a novel that introduced 30 named characters in the first chapter.

dog coming down hill

Travvy, on whom Wolfie is based

Hmm, I thought, and went off to count the number of named characters in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Maybe I had too many?

Since midway through the first draft I’ve been keeping a list of characters, mainly so I can keep track of names, siblings, ages, birthdays, anniversary dates, and what they drive. So it wasn’t hard to  come up with a tally of 56 humans and 3 dogs. (One of the latter is currently the title character. He’s safe.)

Is 56 (or 59) too many characters for a novel that in this almost-complete third draft is about 101K words long? Probably 10 or 12 of those named characters are the relatives or friends of more important characters. They’re mentioned in passing or show up in one scene. I would not expect readers to remember their names on a pop quiz.

So how many significant named characters were there? I counted again: 14 or 15. These characters all play important roles in moving the plot and subplots forward. Their choices make a difference. They’re the ones I’ve been getting to know better and better with each draft. When the plot comes to a fork in the road, they’re the ones I turn to to find out what happens next.

Ask me what Wolfie is about and I’ll respond with something like “the rescue of a dog, the rescue of a girl, and how they rescue each other.” From the very beginning I’ve had three characters: the dog (Wolfie), the girl (Glory, who’s in sixth grade), and, since both of them need another rescuer, Shannon (a 50-something woman who lives up the road from Glory).

Shannon is a protagonist in my first novel, The Mud of the Place, so she came with a supporting cast, four of whom play significant roles in Wolfie. My next question was “What do Wolfie and Glory need to be rescued from?”

For Wolfie, this was easy. He’s a malamute. Malamutes generally have a strong prey drive. In this area quite a few people keep livestock and/or free-range fowl. Wolfie needed to be rescued from a home he could escape from with impunity. The scenario I came up with involves nine or ten named characters who disappear off the radar once Shannon reluctantly adopts Wolfie.

Glory’s situation is much more challenging. Shannon senses that something’s not right at Glory’s house, but she doesn’t know what, and Glory (who, along with Shannon, is a point-of-view character) doesn’t have access to some of her own memories. Glory started out with a family: mother, stepfather, and younger half-brother. Who and where was her birth father? I wondered. The answer to this turned out to be very interesting. It also added four named characters to the cast, only one of whom plays a major role.

How to convey Glory’s dilemma when she can’t articulate it and Shannon and others outside the family can’t see it? This has wound up driving the plot and introducing another major character: Amira, the therapist who counsels Glory when she starts seriously acting out in second grade.

It also prompts Shannon to revisit her own past, which was hinted at but never elaborated on in Mud of the Place. As a teenager she fled her alcoholic, often violent family and has had little to do with any of her blood relatives in the decades since. Enter her younger sister, Jackie, now sober and wanting to re-establish contact. Their relatives have names, as do Jackie’s two adult children and ex-husband, but Jackie’s the important one.

Amira and Jackie, both added to serve the plot, have become fully developed characters in their own right. So has Hayden, Glory’s best friend and classmate, with whom she talks frequently at recess, both sitting on the playground swings. Other named characters — town officials, neighborhood farmers, partiers at a retirement celebration — do their bit and then exit into their own (as far as I know) yet unwritten stories.

The big surprise has been Glory’s mother, Felicia. As the story unfolds, Shannon can’t get over how badly she underestimated Felicia. I did too. A bit of advice: Some of your minor or walk-on characters may have more to say than you realize at first. Listen.

P.S. Here’s a good post on managing the character count by editor Marta Tanrikulu, a participant in the discussion I mentioned at the beginning of this post. It specifically addresses fantasy and science fiction, but much of it applies to any kind of fiction, and maybe memoir and other creative nonfiction as well.

It’s An Illusion

Having a story to tell is a great first step. Getting it across to readers who aren’t privy to your intentions? That’s where the craft comes in. Here’s some excellent guidance on how to keep readers engaged without giving everything away or withholding too much till the very end.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Entertainment at the annual Brevity office party

A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.

They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?

I said, “But there’s this countdown…”

“Countdown to what?”

And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.

I’d spent seven years with…

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Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.

Dear Characters: Now What?

It’s been two and a half months since I last posted here. Eek. It’s not because I’ve had nothing to say about “writing, editing, and how to keep going” — it’s more that I’ve had too much. At some point “too much” became overwhelming because I didn’t know where to start.

Sound familiar? You’ve been there before and so have I, so I’m doing the only thing that’s worked in the past: Start somewhere.

Travvy, on whom the title character of Wolfie is based

So I’m closing in on the end of draft #3 of Wolfie, my novel in progress, The writing of draft #3 has deepened the characters, enriched the story, and surprised me quite a few times. I just arrived at the key scene where draft #2 stopped. It’s not the end of the novel, but by the time I got here last time around, I knew I had to let both the characters and the plot develop further before I could see my way forward.

In the eternal debate between “planners” and “pantsers” — those who map out their plots before they even start writing, and those who plot “by the seat of their pants” — I’m somewhere in the middle. I have a general idea of where I’m going. Almost from the beginning I’ve had a final, or near-final, scene in mind. The trick is figuring out how to get there.

Characters are key for me. They drive the plot, but sometimes I have to get to know them better and even nudge them along. When I was doing a lot of community theater, one director repeatedly urged his actors to “make interesting choices.” An interesting choice leads to more interesting choices — the way one billiard ball bumps another and makes it move? Less interesting choices lead to dwindling energy or even dead ends.

In real life I’ll usually choose to avoid conflict. Onstage or in fiction, this can be an interesting choice, but not if you have a whole cast of characters choosing to play it safe.

Is it a selfie when one hand takes a picture of the other hand?

So I’ve arrived again at my key scene. It’s the scene that nearly all the characters have been moving toward through the entire novel. It’s as if the logs and kindling have been laid for a bonfire — but who’s going to strike the match?

As usual at such crossroads, I’ve turned to my fountain pens and started writing in longhand. I’m playing with possibilities. It’s almost like conducting an audition: which character is the most interesting choice, and what interesting choice will that character come up with?

Watch this space!

Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.

Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .

Sturgis’s Law #10

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #10:

“Consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

Arbiters of style.

No, that 90 percent figure isn’t based on any survey, much less a scientific study or even systematic observation of my own practice. Good editors and writers are always looking things up. But commas and hyphens seem to provoke an anxiety that needs frequent reassurance even when we really do know our stuff.

Funny thing, I was blogging about commas only last week — and quoting Sturgis’s Law #5. So hyphens seem to be a logical next step.

And yes, it is OK to use “hyphens” and “logical” in the same sentence. If you understand the logic behind hyphenation, you won’t spin yourself into a tizzy whenever dictionaries and style guides disagree.

Which they do. A lot.

Hyphens can do many things, but the two biggies are joining and separating. Hyphens are so clever that they occasionally do both at the same time.

A hyphen can fuse two words capable of standing alone into a compound that incorporates both: I’m a writer-editor. The pond looks blue-green.

It can join a prefix or suffix to a root word: an anti-intellectual movement, a business-like attitude. In the former example, the hyphen is also separating the two vowels. Except in skiing and taxiing and maybe a few other words that I can’t think of at the moment, i‘s rarely occur side by side in English, so it looks pretty weird when they do.

Several common prefixes end in e — re- and pre- come immediately to mind — and when they run up against another vowel, misreadings can happen. I can’t look at reignite without initially seeing reign. Plenty of writers have no problem with reignite, but if an author prefers re-ignite, I have no problem with it.

In some cases the separation is crucial. Consider the difference between coop and co-op.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the style guide I use most often, has a long section on hyphenation. In the 16th edition, which has just been superseded by the 17th, it’s section 7.85. It is very, very useful. Plenty of hyphenation decisions can be, in effect, automated: Always use them in some cases (e.g., second-floor apartment, forty-one); never use them in others (e.g., grandmother, northeast).

In other cases, though, there’s plenty of gray area. CMS’s recommendations rely almost entirely on patterns: adjective + participle, gerund + noun, and so on. It suggests hyphenating most compounds when they occur before a noun — a well-rounded education — but leaving them open after a noun: Her education was well rounded.

What CMS and many copyeditors don’t acknowledge often enough is that the words themselves make a difference, and so does the intended audience. CMS does advise taking “readability” into consideration, but what’s readable and what isn’t depends a lot on context. Some noun + noun compounds are so familiar that inserting a hyphen when they appear before a noun looks like overkill. Yeah, “high school student” could be read to mean a school student on drugs, but when was the last time you saw it used that way?

On the other hand, “running shoe store” could conjure unintentionally hilarious images in enough readers’ minds that “running-shoe store” seems the better option.

CMS recommends that adjectives formed with half- be hyphenated before or after a noun but that nouns so formed be open. OK up to a point, but half sister strikes me as odd because all those half- relationships are words in their own right. Besides, if stepsister is one word, why should half sister be two? This is why “consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

It’s also why I think writers and editors are well within their rights to impose some consistency and logic on hyphenation in a particular work, even if this involves deviating from the recommendations of dictionary or style guide. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) lists policymaker as one word. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) it isn’t listed, which means it’s two words. AHD has both policymaking and policy-makingCMS would probably suggest policymaker for the noun (by analogy with shipbuilder) and policy-making when it precedes a noun. But what if you’ve got people who make policy and people who make decisions in the same paragraph?

With certain prefixes, like pro- and anti-, separating the prefix from the root with a hyphen calls a little more attention to the root. Consider pro-choice and prochoiceanti-choice and antichoice. In this case I’m all for the hyphen, but when an author hyphenates something that I probably wouldn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that s/he’s seeing or hearing a distinction that I don’t.

Most non- words can be safely closed up, but with new or unfamiliar coinages, a hyphen can be helpful. A recent author used non-state actors several times. Fine with me. British English tends to hyphenate more non- words than its American counterpart: NGO is spelled out non-governmental organization, not nongovernmental organization. If a U.S. author wants to do likewise, fine with me.

I’m proud to call myself a HARPy — HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal. When I come across a hyphen that doesn’t follow the “rules” of the guiding dictionary or style guide, I ask, Is it useful? Does it get in the way? Is it consistent with the author’s other preferences? Sometimes I’ll consult CMS, MW, AHD, and the UK English section of the online Oxford Dictionaries. If it passes muster, I’ll enter the spelling in my style sheet so I’ll remember it if it comes up again, and so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious choice, not a mistake.

Wield hyphens with confidence. They’re helpful little buggers, and nothing to be afraid of.


On Not Writing

Can anyone out there not relate to this? Here’s a bracing dose of “how to keep going.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

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This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.


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Editing Workshop, 7: Commas

Extra commas.

I just copyedited a very good memoir that was seriously overburdened with commas. According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.” I have written about commas (and hyphens!) before, but thanks to this job I’ve got plenty of examples of unnecessary and even misleading commas in my head, so this seems a good time to write about them again.

Rest assured that it will not be the last time, and if you’ve got any comma questions or comments, please do use the contact form at the end to send them in.

The examples follow the structure of the original, but I’ve changed the words because quoting without permission from an as-yet-unpublished book is ethically dubious. Not to mention — I don’t want anyone to think less of an excellent book because the uncopyedited manuscript had too many commas in it.

When she arrived at the concert hall early, she discovered that the rest of us were early, too.

There’s a zombie “rule” (a rule that no matter how often it’s refuted keeps coming back from the dead) floating around that you must have a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence. Not only is it not required, sometimes it actually gets in the way: your eye pauses briefly before it gets to the end of the sentence. If you want that pause, by all means stet the comma. If you don’t, take it out.

“Too” doesn’t often show up at the beginning of a sentence, but when it does, you will almost certainly want a comma after it. Same goes for “also.” They generally link the sentence to the one preceding. This is often OK in informal writing, but it can come across as rushed or sloppy when you’re trying to make a good impression.

The comma after “early” in the example is a good idea. When an introductory phrase or subordinate clause is short, you can often get away without the comma — “When she arrived I was on my second beer” — but if there’s any chance that the phrase or clause might slide into the main clause, consider using a comma.

Once he’d read the street signs, and consulted the map, he pulled away from the curb.

We’re looking at the comma after “signs.” I could make a case for it if the author wanted a bit of a break between the reading and the consulting. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t. When I’m editing, I note what the writer does habitually. This writer inserted a comma before the conjunction “and” so often that I wondered if maybe he thought it was a rule, like that comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.

A very strong convention — “rule,” if you will — is to use a comma before any conjunction that joins two independent clauses. This convention makes enough sense that the burden is on me or the writer to show that it’s not necessary, for instance when the two clauses are very short: “I got home from work and we sat down to dinner.”

I deleted the comma after “signs” but kept the one after “map,” which ends a rather long introductory subordinate clause.

After she entered the hall, so many people swarmed around her, as she moved toward the podium, that we couldn’t see her at all.

Notice the clause set off with commas in the middle of the main clause? Those commas make the clause almost parenthetical, meaning that you could omit it without losing anything. “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all” does make perfect sense, but we no longer see the subject moving toward a podium. In other words, we’ve lost something. I deleted both commas.

When I’m copyediting, I want to improve the sentence as unobtrusively as possible. If this were my own sentence, I might revise with a heavier hand, perhaps “After she entered the hall and moved toward the podium . . .” Or maybe “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all as she moved toward the podium”? Or maybe not. As is so often the case, there are several options, equally correct but somewhat different in nuance, emphasis, and/or cadence. Unless there’s a compelling reaason to do otherwise, I stick as close to the author’s version as I can.

As much planning as we did, to my way of thinking, we should have done more.

Here’s another thing to watch for when you come across a phrase or clause set off by commas in the middle of a sentence. The question here is about what half of the sentence “to my way of thinking” belongs with: “As much planning as we did to my way of thinking . . .” or “. . . to my way of thinking we should have done more.” Reading along, I skidded to a halt to sort this out. Based on both context and the sentence itself, I was pretty sure that the latter was intended, so I deleted the comma after “thinking” to avoid separating phrase from clause.

Mind you, if the whole sentence were “To my way of thinking, we should have done more,” that comma would have been unexceptional — not required, but not a problem either. In the middle of a complex sentence, however, it creates enough ambiguity to make a reader pause. In some cases, such commas or the lack thereof can even create serious confusion about the meaning of the sentence.

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There’s plenty more to be said about commas, but I think this is enough for one post. Have you got a comma question, or a sentence that needs a second look, or one you successfully sorted out? Use this contact form to send it in, and I’ll work it into a future blog post — or reply privately if you prefer.