Editing Workshop, 5: Lead Paragraphs

Every work, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, has to start somewhere, but lead paragraphs are a major cause of writerly angst and even writer’s block. No surprise there: every how-to-get-published book out there is telling you that if your lead paragraph doesn’t hook the agent or publisher of your dreams, your manuscript will wind up in the slush pile.

Perfectionista — the inner editor who insists that only perfection is good enough — thrives on situations like this: Your entire future is riding on your lead paragraph and you can’t even get the first sentence right.

Take a deep breath and keep going. It’s often not till you’re well into a second or third draft that you know where the story starts and what that lead paragraph has to do. Perfectionista isn’t doing you any favors by insisting you get the first paragraph right before you go on to the second.

Sooner or later you’ll have a lead paragraph that does want you want it to do: lead the reader into the story. That’s the time to refine it and then run it by your writers’ group, writer/reader friends, or other guinea pigs.

This is where Arvilla of the Alphabet Story blog is with her novel in progress. “Below is the first paragraph of my WIP,” she writes. “While I know not to start with the weather, it sets up the scene in which she has problems driving, including a stalled car. She does get rescued.”

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club. What a night, forced to drive her dad’s car. His cherished Nash, temperamental even in good weather, gave her problems. Taught to drive behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to change a tire and replace spark plugs. Bought used in 1944, it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s constant tinkering. That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

A lead paragraph’s #1 job is to whet the reader’s appetite for more, and this one whetted mine. I’ve just met Maggie, but already she’s got an immediate goal — getting to Bertie’s book and supper club on time — and two adversaries blocking her way: the weather and a cranky car. I’ve got a strong hunch that Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with the old Nash mirrors her relationship with her dad, and that this will be an important theme in the novel.

This lead also fixes the story in time: 1944 + 10 years = 1954. This sets me to speculating: Maggie’s dad taught his daughter basic car maintenance, but she didn’t inherit his passion for tinkering. Does she live alone? Who’s Bertie, and what role does the book and supper club play in Maggie’s life?

And yes, conventional wisdom warns against leading with descriptions of weather, or landscape for that matter, but when weather or landscape is an active participant in the scene, I say “Go for it!” I would suggest tweaking the lead sentence, however:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.

It’s not April’s total accumulated rainfall that’s blocking Maggie’s way: it’s the weather that particular evening. Show it to me, what it looks like, how it sounds, then keep it front and center as the scene unfolds. How would she get to Bertie’s if it weren’t raining? How far does she have to go? Give me some hints about the location.

Try distilling the rest of the paragraph to its essence. What does the reader need to know right now? That the old Nash is cranky, that Maggie’s father was devoted to it, and that Maggie, though competent behind the wheel, drives it only when she has to. I’d like to see her in the car and turning the key by end of the paragraph, maybe watching rain pour down the windows and windshield. Work the rest in once she’s en route.

Here’s a suggestion:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. What a night, forced to drive Her dad’s car. His cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather., gave her problems. Taught She had learned to drive in it, evenbehind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to changed its a tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, andit was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?] That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

With the mess cleaned up, it looks like this:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. Her dad’s cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. She had learned to drive in it, even changed its tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?]

Now you can have at it — tinker away! Often a reader’s suggestions will shake something loose and you’ll come up with a better alternative. Thanks so much for sharing your lead paragraph. Good luck with the novel. 🙂

Dear Write Through It readers: Do you have a question, a comment, a sentence that needs unsnarling? Send it along and we’ll see what we can come up with.



Q Is for Question, Y Is for Yours

Write Through It has had a noticeable increase in both views and subscribers in the last week or so. This may be because my A–Z Challenge was just featured on WordPress’s Discover page. I’m honored.

However you heard about Write Through It, welcome aboard!

We writers and editors learn a lot from our colleagues, in one-on-one conversations, on e-lists, and in online forums and real-time conferences. I want Write Through It to be a place where this can happen. So if you’ve got a question or a suggestion for a future blog post, please use this form to send it along. I like answering questions, and I like finding colleagues who can answer the questions I can’t.

Editing Workshop, 4

We interrupt the alphabet — in the A–Z Challenge you can take Sundays off — to bring you “Editing Workshop, 4” It’s been almost exactly two years since “Editing Workshop, 3,” and I’d love to do more of them.  This A–Z thing has reminded me that I’ve got a lot of free-floating stuff in my head but I need a hook to get hold of it and pull it out. Like a letter of the alphabet — or a query from a writer, editor, or reader. That’s what sparked this one. If you’ve got a question or an observation, use the contact form to send it along. I will get back to you.

This query about “post” came from someone who works in medical publishing:

I have been annoyed for the past few years by the increasingly trendy use of “post” instead of “since” or “after “: “Post the election, people have been wondering . . .” It is especially prevalent in my field, medical publishing — “The patient’s symptoms improved post surgery” — and I never allow it. Nor have I been able to discover whether it is considered even marginally correct by anyone anywhere. In any case, I think it is in dreadfully poor taste. Your thoughts?

This is the sort of usage question that editors discuss among ourselves all the time. What’s considered correct, informal, or acceptable varies from field to field, and my field is not medical publishing. But I’ll take a stab at it as a generalist and hope that some of my medical editor colleagues will weigh in in the comments, drop me an email, or use the contact form at the bottom of the page to respond.

I had an instant negative reaction to “post the election,” which is to say that my fingers itched to make it “after the election” or “since the election,” depending on the rest of the sentence. “Post” isn’t a preposition, thought I, but I’ve been wrong before so I consulted the dictionary — three dictionaries: American Heritage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, and Oxford (UK), all online. None of them listed “post” as a preposition. This usage may catch on and become standard, but it hasn’t yet, and because “after” and “since” serve the same purpose so well, I’d go ahead and change it.

“The patient’s symptoms improved post surgery” is something else again. “Post surgery” isn’t the same as “post the surgery.” Here I think “post” is a preposition. This would be clearer if it were either fused with “surgery” or attached to it with a hyphen: “postsurgery” or “post-surgery.” I’d go with the latter because I like hyphens a lot better than Merriam-Webster’s does. On the Copyediting-L email list, HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal, and I’ve been a HARPy since I knew there was such a thing.

“Post-”prefixed words can certainly be adjectives — “post-election party” and “post-surgery protocol” both sound unexceptional to me — but offhand I couldn’t think of many “post-”prefixed adverbs, which is what I think it is in “The patient’s symptoms improved post-surgery.”

“My mental state deteriorated post-election” strikes me as grammatical enough (it’s also true), but it doesn’t sound idiomatic to my ear: I’d probably say or write “My mental state deteriorated after the election” or “The patient’s symptoms improved after surgery.” However, in a document where brevity is desired and expected by the intended readers, the adverbial “post-election” or “post-surgery” might be fine.

So what do you think, both you generalists and especially you who work in the medical field? Is it OK or not OK or OK under certain conditions?

Two comments:

Linda Kerby: “I agree with your comments. If it is used as an adjectival phrase like ‘post-operative improvement was without incident’, then yes. But the other use is awkward. I do not see much use of that, thank goodness.”

Louise Harnby: “Great post (couldn’t resist it!). In fact, Oxford Dictionaries does support the use of post as a preposition, but you have to scroll waaaay down the page to the fourth definition! https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/post#post_Preposition_800. They even give an example that includes ‘the’. I agree with your enquirer that this sounds a little sticky, so it may well depend on the context (I’m not a medical editor either) and readership, but there is dictionary support for the prepositional form!”

Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.

Editing Workshop, 3

This one’s about sentences.

I just finished copyediting a long nonfiction book on a tight schedule. The author has many years of high-pressure writing experience, but this is his first book. The manuscript felt like it was a couple of drafts short of final — not uncommon when a rush to deadline is involved. A glaring symptom of this was sloppy sentences. If sentences come out sloppy in early drafts, it’s no big deal. You’ll clean them up when you start revising — right? right??

In this particular manuscript, the author probably didn’t have the time to make them clearer or more effective. So yours truly the copyeditor did it, pruning some elements, rearranging others, and querying whatever I couldn’t figure out either from context or from a quick Google search.

There are plenty of books out there on how to construct a sentence. You know the basics: subjects, verbs, and objects, phrases and clauses. The tricky thing is that sentences can be grammatically impeccable and at the same time unclear, ambiguous, or downright misleading.

Here are some hints on how to make sentences more effective, whether you’re writing, revising your own work, or editing someone else’s.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Sentences are like clotheslines: they tend to droop in the middle. In the middle of a long sentence, the reader’s attention starts to wander. So if you’re trying to get across an important point or detail, don’t bury it in the middle. Placed at the beginning and the end, it’s more likely to catch the reader’s attention, and to connect with the sentences before and after.

This is also true of paragraphs, by the way. Paragraphs that take up a whole page of text are daunting. KEEP OUT! they say. Or maybe WELCOME TO THE LABYRINTH.

What poets do with line and stanza breaks, prose writers can do with sentences and paragraphs.

I love long loopy sentences, but when one long loopy sentence follows another and another and another, nothing stands out. It’s also easier for subjects and verbs, or nouns and pronouns, to come adrift from each other. Confusion often results.

The closer together words are in a sentence, the stronger — and clearer — the relationship between them. The opposite is also true: the further apart they are, the more tenuous the connection. Here’s an example adapted from the book I just edited:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

I skidded to a halt at the end of the first sentence: who? what? when?

It took me a few moments to sort it out: It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and what happened in 2005 wasn’t the publishing but the requesting and receiving of permission. (It was made clear elsewhere that the work was published in 2008.) In the second sentence, the parenthetical “in an interview” unnecessarily separates subject from verb.

Here is my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

Be especially careful with pronouns. “Antecedent unclear” and “unclear referent” are among the most common editorial queries, in both fiction and nonfiction. They mean we can’t figure out for sure whom a he, she, it, or they is referring to. In the job I just finished, the vast majority of the players were men — as is often the case in books about politics and international affairs, which this one was.  Often a he, his, or him could have referred to either of the two fellows mentioned in the preceding clause or sentence.

Authors often miss these unclear antecedents because the antecedents aren’t unclear to them. They know exactly who’s being referred to. Readers, however, aren’t in the same loop. We need a little help. Better to repeat a name than leave it ambiguous. This is one reason second readers can be so important: they come to the manuscript without knowing what you mean. They just read what’s there.

Have you got an unruly sentence that could use some untangling, or one that you’ve successfully untangled yourself? Send it along! The best way to develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t is to pay close attention to how sentences work. We can do this in our reading, in our writing, and in our revising.

Editing Workshop, 2

Cherie O’Boyle asked: “When I am using a proper company name in my fiction, for example, when my character buys all her clothes mail order from Lands’ End, or spends Sunday morning reading the New York Times, should those names be italicized?”

Names of companies, like Lands’ End (note the placement of the apostrophe: they goofed when they registered the name, and it’s been their tradename ever since), aren’t italicized. They’re treated like the names of places and people. Names of newspapers are italicized. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends lowercasing the “the” before a newspaper’s name and setting it in roman (not italic), even when it’s part of the name. The Associated Press (AP) style manual wants the title styled exactly the way the newspaper does it. For most fiction and nonfiction, Chicago‘s style is fine: it saves you having to verify each newspaper’s “real” name.

Italics or roman? Quotes or no quotes? These questions come up often, but they don't have to drive you nuts.

Italics or roman? Quotes or no quotes? These questions come up often, but they don’t have to drive you nuts.

How to style these names? Italics or roman type? Quotation marks or no quotation marks? Like other copyeditors, I’ve got a truly terrifying number of such details stuffed into my brain. Ask the right question and out they come, almost as fast as the hits in a Google search.

But you don’t have to memorize a pesky plethora of picky details. (Sorry about that: I’m feeling alliterative this morning.) Learn the general principles for your kind of writing and you’ll get it right at least 95 percent of the time. Here are some common conventions for styling proper nouns and the titles of works in general fiction and nonfiction.


The names of places, pets, brand-name products, businesses, organizations, government agencies, and the like are styled like the names of people: roman type, initial caps on each major word. My name is Susanna J. Sturgis, my dog’s name is Masasyu’s Fellow Traveller (his friends call him Trav or Travvy), I shop at Reliable Market, I buy clothes from Duluth Trading (and other places), etc.

When you’re using the name of a real place, person, or company, spell it right. Look it up even if you’re 100 percent sure you already know how to spell it. Some names of products and companies style their names in unconventional ways. WordPress is one word with a cap in the middle. (That’s popularly called a “camel cap.”) The other day I bought a fountain pen on eBay. I don’t have an iPad or an iPod but some of my friends do. I and most editors avoid putting such names at the beginning of a sentence, because both “EBay is an auction site” and “eBay is an auction site” look weird.

Companies often create distinctive logos from their names. You do not have to style a name in ALL CAPS just because the company’s logo is in ALL CAPS. You don’t need to use a backwards “R” in Toys R Us. You don’t need to use the ™ (trademark) or © (copyright) symbol just because the company does — unless you’re working for the company, in which case you follow company policy.

The names of ships, however, are generally italicized. Go figure.

Titles of Works

Style guides devote lots of space to the styling of names and titles. If you do a lot of your own editing, they'll teach you what styles are common for your kind of writing.

Style guides devote lots of space to the styling of names and titles. If you do a lot of your own editing, they’ll teach you what styles are common for your kind of writing.

As noted above, the names of newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and newsletters are italicized. So are the names of comparable online publications, like blogs. This blog is Write Through It. Writers and editors are still feeling our way toward a consistent way of styling online entities. At present, websites are often treated like places: initial caps, roman type. But blogs are treated like publications: initial caps, italics.

In general, books, full-length plays and musical works, record albums, and the like are italicized. Shorter works, like poems, songs, one-act plays, essays, and short stories, are styled in roman type and enclosed in double quotation marks (if you’re writing American English, that is; British English would use single quotes here). So are particular blog posts, like “Editing Workshop, 2.”

There’s plenty of gray area here. For instance, when a novella (which can be thought of as either a long short story or a short novel) is published by itself, its title is often italicized. Ebooks can be any length, from a few pages to several hundred. Classical music has its own naming conventions. If you write about classical music, they’re worth getting to know — and the chances are good that you’ve already picked them up from your reading.

That’s the key: Get to know the conventions in whatever field or genre or discipline you’re working in. And look stuff up even when you already know it.


Editing Workshop, 1

bedbugged coverAuthor Susan Kroupa has several good questions about her almost-done novel in progress. All of them are about punctuating dialogue, which presents some challenges not generally encountered in straight narrative. (The novel is the fourth in Susan’s Doodlebugged mystery series, about the adventures of Doodle, a bedbug-hunting Labradoodle; Molly, his 10-year-old human cohort; and Josh Hunter, Molly’s father, who needs all the patience he can get. A must for dog-loving mystery readers and mystery-loving dog people!)

Where to put the period?

She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer”. Or a “charmer.”

My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’.”
Or “. . . and a dog.'”

This is a point where American English (AmE) differs from British English (BrE). In AmE, periods and commas nearly always go inside the close quotation marks, both single and double. Even when the element enclosed in quotes is something less than a complete sentence. So:

She’s the type of person Miguel, my old trainer, calls a “charmer.”

Same deal with the “My dad” sentence. Notice, however, that this sentence is missing something. See it?

My dad likes to say that the certification means he’s not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog.'”

Single quote marks are used for quotations within quotations. (BrE does the opposite: the primary quotation is set off with single quote marks, the quotation within with doubles.) The period is followed by both a close single quote and a close double quote. This means that somewhere in the preceding copy there should be both an open double quote and an open single quote. This sentence has an open single quote mark — but no open double. This sentence has been lifted from its context, so the missing open double quote mark is probably in an earlier sentence, but I’m going to ask Susan to check to make sure.

By the way — if I were copyediting, I’d suggest losing the quote marks around “charmer.” They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t necessary either. They do come in handy with distinctive phrases. If Miguel habitually called this type of person a “two-faced charmer,” I’d keep the quotes.

With the stronger terminal punctuation marks, question marks and exclamation points, placement is a little more complicated. Does the question mark or exclamation point go with the quoted bit? If so, it goes inside the close quote. If not, it goes outside. Here’s a variation on Susan’s first sentence:

Would Miguel call her a “charmer”?

The question mark applies to the whole sentence, not just “charmer,” so it goes outside the quote marks. Here’s an example of the opposite:

As a child she was taught to greet grownups with “How do you do?”

The whole sentence isn’t a question, but the quoted bit — “How do you do?” — is. So here the question mark goes inside the close quote.

Exclamation points work the same way. Imagine that the dad in Susan’s second sentence has been accused of being “just some guy with a business license and a dog.” He might reply, “I am not ‘just some guy with a business license and a dog’!” The exclamation point goes inside the double close quotes because the whole reply is an exclamation. (He’s a little miffed at the suggestion.) But it goes outside the single close quote because that quoted bit isn’t an exclamation.

How to write stuff the way people say it

“Find it on our website, states of affairs slash low down news dot com.”
Or add dashes between the words? This is being heard over the radio.

In writing it’s a no-brainer: the URL is statesofaffairs/lowdownnews.com. Actually that doesn’t look quite right to me — did I say I’ve been learning Dreamweaver in my spare time? lowdownnews.statesofaffairs.com would be more like it, or lowdownnews.com/statesofaffairs, or statesofaffairs.com/lowdownnews. The domain name comes first, and the folders follow the slash.

But I digress. The challenge is to translate something written into something oral, using the written word to do it. Writers and editors have various opinions on this. Some think that numbers should always be spelled out in dialogue because we can’t pronounce numbers. And some numbers, notably those dealing with money and time, can be pronounced in different ways. How does a character pronounce “10:45”? “Ten forty-five” or “quarter to eleven” or “a quarter of eleven”? How does he say he’s got $6.35 in his pocket? “Six thirty-five” or “six dollars thirty-five” or “six bucks and thirty-five cents”? If you hear a character saying it a certain way, by all means spell it out. That way your readers will be more likely to hear it the same way.

But suppose my character says, “My dog was born in twenty-oh-eight.” I don’t know about you, but I have to look twice at that to realize it’s a year. I had the same problem with “states of affairs slash low down news dot com”: It didn’t say “URL” to me till I’d screeched to a halt and gone “Huh?” Verisimilitude is nice, but not if it makes things unnecessarily hard for the reader. So my character would say “My dog was born in 2008” and Susan’s newscaster would say “Find it on our website, statesofaffairs/lowdownnews.com” — after checking to make sure that the bogus URL has the syntax of a real one.

Dashing dialogue

I use dashes a lot and am uncertain whether this structure for quotes and dashes is correct:
“Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”

Dashes are a handy way to work body language, intonation, or thoughts into dialogue. Both dashes can go inside the quotation marks or both dashes can go outside. This sample has one inside and one outside. One of them needs to be moved — but which one? Depends on how Susan hears the dialogue, and how she wants her readers to hear it.

#1: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public—” she meets her son’s eye “—and with you.”

#2: “Absolutely. I have my reputation to think about. With the public”—she meets her son’s eye—“and with you.”

What’s the difference? In #1, the dash inside the quotation marks suggests that there’s a pause in the speaking. In #2, the speech itself isn’t interrupted, so she’s meeting her son’s eye (or “eyes”?) while she’s speaking.

Note that in conventional AmE typography the em dash is usually set solid (i.e., without extra space) to whatever precedes and follows it. Hence there’s no space around “she meets her son’s eye” in #2 but there is in #1.

Also note that if you’re using “smart” or curly quotes, dashes often fool automated typesetting systems into making the quote marks go in the wrong direction: the system thinks that a quote mark following a dash has to be a close quote, but as you can see in #2, this often isn’t true.

Got a question about editing, writing, or how to keep going? Ask away! There’s a contact form on the You! page. See the menu bar at the top of this page.