By Joshua Essoe
When November (National Novel Writing Month) is over, a writer’s “first draft done” mind often turns to editing. The is the 3rd in a series of 4 articles focusing on editing by a full-time freelance editor, continuing advice, insight and that editorial perspective. (Read the first article. Read the 2nd article.)
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
— George Orwell
Hello, I’m Joshua Essoe, and I’ll be your demon today.
Last week I took down double spaces, “which,” “that,” and passive voice. This week, a few more topics near and dear to my red pen’s heart–if it had a heart. HA HA HA!
- How do I know when to break a paragraph?
These are important, so give them to us. New paragraphs are important for your readers. They tell when you’re switching time, place, topic or speaker, and they break the page up so it is not a solid block of words.
Don’t downplay the psychological impact of how the writing actually looks. It is intimidating and discouraging to see huge blocks of uninterrupted text, and you don’t want your reader to be discouraged before they even start to read, right?
Paragraphs create white space on a page and that white space provides a visual and mental break for readers — like coming up for air. New thought, new paragraph. It is often a good idea to separate lines of dialogue into new paragraphs; and the same goes for thoughts.
There are a few standard times to make a new paragraph:
- when you start in on a new topic,
- when a new person begins to speak,
- when you skip to a new place,
- when you skip to a new time, &
- when you want to produce a dramatic effect.
Some of these breaks may require a new scene, or even a new chapter, but at the least, give us a new paragraph.
- How do I use single quotation marks?
I sometimes wish writers weren’t taught they existed. In fiction writing, the most common use you’ll have for single quotation marks is to indicate a quote within dialogue. Enclose the speaker’s dialogue in double quotation marks, then enclose the phrase they are quoting in single quotation marks. You nest them, with the double quotation marks on the outside.
“So this guy, he actually growls at me, his eyes turn red, and he tells me, ‘Give me a keg of beer.'”
Is that the only time you can use single quotation marks? No, outside fiction, it’s the convention in studies like linguistics, philosophy and theology to infer special meaning by enclosing some words in single quotation marks. They’re also used by the Associated Press for headlines.
Use double quotation marks for dialogue (obviously), around titles of short stories, magazine articles, and TV episode titles; they can be used as a style choice when you are writing a sentence and you want to refer to a word rather than use its meaning–as I did in the opening of this article for “which” and “that.” Double quotation marks can also sometimes be used as scare quotes. I’m sure you’ve heard the term. All scare quotes do is indicate that a word is special in some way, usually a sarcastic or ironic author showing that he doesn’t believe or buy into the meaning.
And I see . . . hell, everybody sees double quotation marks used incorrectly in this way all the time. Check this out.
- How do I properly punctuate dialogue?
In dialogue, the only time you use a comma is when you are continuing a sentence after or before a tag. Note that when a comma is used, it indicates that the sentence is not over, so use lowercase when inserting a tag. Always put the comma inside the quotation marks if a tag follows the dialogue, and at the end of the tag if a tag precedes the dialogue. Use a period for everything that is not a tag.
For those whose eyes glazed over, some examples:
I guided her to my chair. “Sit here.”
NOT: I guided her to my chair, “Sit here.”
“We need to get out of here.” His whisper sounded like a hiss of air.
NOT: “We need to get out of here,” his whisper sounded like a hiss of air.
“We need to get out of here,” he whispered.
NOT: “We need to get out of here.” He whispered.
She squealed, “Like, ohmygod!”
NOT: She squealed. “Like, ohmygod!” (Not that unless the squeal was a separate utterance.)
- What are backward descriptions?
Descriptions can sometimes be complicated beasties. I frequently see them get all snarled in themselves and become unclear, unfocused, and confusing; they’re backward.
Let’s say you spot a mugging, for example. The first thing that your eye would go to would be either the mugger or the muggee. After that, you might notice surrounding details: the knife in his hand, the puddle of blood he’s dragging his victim through, the smell of the open trash bins, the scurrying rats along the walls, the hissing steam rising from the holes in the manhole cover, etc.
In describing this scene in writing you should do the same thing. The first thing you see is the mugging, not the alley. If I wrote a nice description of an alley first, you’d have a picture in your head and an idea that the subject of this description or scene is that alley. If I then add that there are two people in the alley, you have to shift your focus and change your image to include two people. Then I say that they are struggling, so you revamp the people in your imagination so they’re fighting. Then I say that it’s a mugging, which changes your mental picture once again. The focus and subject shifts each time I add in another detail. The aim in a description is to give the focal point and then add the supporting details around it, to build it up with enhancements rather than force the reader to shift from what he/she believes is the focal point over and over. Causing them to erase and redraw over and over will pull them out of the story and screws up your flow.
So first, the mugging, then the alley.
Is there time for one more quote? I think there’s time for one more quote from Kerouac. “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.”
Next week we’ll take a look at writing numbers, times, ellipses, and the dreaded dream sequence.
Joshua Essoe is a full-time, freelance editor. He’s done work for best-seller David Farland, including the multi-award winning novel, Nightingale, Dean Lorey, lead writer of Arrested Development, best-seller, James Artimus Owen, and numerous Writers of the Future authors and winners, as well as many top-notch independents. He is currently the finishing editor at Urban Fantasy Magazine.
Together with tie-in writer Jordan Ellinger, indie success-story, Michael J. Sullivan, and traditionally published author and NY Times best-seller, Debbie Viguie, he records the weekly writing podcast Hide and Create. You can find his interview episode here.
When not editing . . . ha ha, a joke. He was a 2014 finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and lives with his wife, and three horrible cats near UCLA.