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 4th 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. Read the 3rd article)
My answer is always the same. No, Mr. McWriterpants–an editor is not necessary, an editor is essential.
No matter how full of amazeballs you are, even if you have known every point on these hit lists, it is impossible for one to see their work objectively, to spot every time there is a clash between what one knows they’re saying and what is actually on the page. That doesn’t make anyone a bad writer. It doesn’t mean one is inexpert at the English language or at storytelling, and there is not a single client who’ve I’ve told “you’re work is great” whose work I did not also fill with red ink.
Last week we targeted paragraphs, single quotation marks, dialogue punctuation and passive voice. This week we tackle, drag down, and beat on a few more common points of confusion.
- Do I write out numbers, or just use numerals? What about percentages and times?
This is one of those questions where if you ask a dozen different people, you’ll get a couple dozen answers. Here is what I tell my clients.
For fiction, write out any number under 101, and numbers easily expressed in words like “one thousand.” This is the easiest rule of thumb to go by, and then let your publisher or editor make any in-house style changes they need.
As long as the number can be spelled out and still be easily understood without looking ridiculous, then spell it out.
If you’re writing dialogue, spell out all the numbers. People don’t speak in numerals, it’s impossible. Of course, even here The Chicago Manual of Style notes that you should use numerals “if words begin to look silly.” But the idea is that you should lean toward using words in dialogue.
All percentages and decimal fractions should be written in numerals. The only exception is for the beginning of a sentence, where the numeral would be spelled out. Use the word “percent” for humanistic copy and the “%” symbol for scientific and statistical copy.
Normally, spell out the time of day, even with half and quarter hours. With “o’clock,” the number is always spelled out. Use numerals, however, when exact times are being emphasized, or when using a.m. or p.m., but use “noon” and “midnight” rather than 12:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.
- Does an ellipsis have three or four dots? Which is used for a stutter?
There are three ellipsis points in an ellipsis. The question is when to include a period before the ellipsis. Use a period after a complete thought and leave it off after an incomplete thought. Make sure that there is a space between the ellipsis and the word it follows and/or precedes, and between each ellipsis point.
As for the second question, there is a difference between stammering and stuttering. For stammering, use an ellipsis, for stuttering use an em dash. Em dashes represent interruptions or breaks in thought, whereas ellipses are for trailing off.
So, for example:
“Where is your sword–wait, you didn’t give it to them, did you?”
That shows a clean, abrupt break in the thought. If you replace with an ellipsis:
“Where is your sword . . . ? You didn’t give it to them, did you?
This shows trailing off in thought before the beginning of a new thought.
If you combine you may get:
“Where is your sword . . . wait, you didn’t give it to them, did you?”
That’s incorrect because you should finish and punctuate your first thought before going on to the next.
So, “I . . . I don’t know.” is the way to go for a stammer. “I” is a whole word, and thus should be treated as any other whole word. The fact that it is a whole word takes precedence over the fact that it is also a single sound like the d in “don’t.”
For a stutter, you would write, “I d-don’t know.”
The hyphen shows that the character stutters the same sound multiple times while trying to get out a single word.
- Why shouldn’t I start my book with a dream sequence, m’kay?
This is a cliché for a reason. It is almost always a bad idea The start of a story is the chance an author has to grab his or her readers and show them why this story is one they should be reading. A dream can’t do that. A dream isn’t even reality in the fictional story being told. There is nothing to take away from it, nothing to connect with, no real things about the story or the characters or the conflicts that we can latch onto and understand. The tension isn’t real because there are no stakes.
Even prophetic dreams don’t work well in this sense–though those have at least the advantage of telling something important about the plot. But the thing is, why does the reader care yet about that plot point? They can’t. They have no emotional investment yet.
And, also, no matter how active the dream is, ultimately (unless we’re talking about Matrix, or Nightmare on Elm Street, or Inception type of things) it is always telling, not showing. It is exposition, not real action.
Dreams can work mildly better in the body of a story, but even then, it is hard to get involved unless there is something about your story that provides real stakes or real tension in that dream. In general, many readers are going to feel bored and perhaps skip forward.
If you have to use dreams and the like for flavor, for mood, or to reveal, keep them focused, brief, and powerful. Ask yourself with each new paragraph, “Might this start to cause my reader’s attention to wander?”
And that brings us to the end of this series for now. Keep writing, keep revising, keep getting better, and I’ll be around if you need me. I leave you with a quote from a good friend, artist, and author.
“Things happen; stuff goes awry; and it’s often how one responds to those situations that makes the difference. But it may take patience, and the understanding of a great secret: there is no such thing as failure. It doesn’t exist. There is striving to achieve, and choosing whether to stop. That’s it.”
— James Artimus Owen
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.