Resources for Authors

Read time: < 1 min

Help yourself to anything handy.

Style sheet

Here is a style sheet to give you an idea of style decisions which it is useful to record in a collaboration. This is especially useful where there are multiple manuscripts which need to have a consistent style. Using this as a basis you can adapt it to suit your writing.

Anonymising a Word document

How to anonymise a Word document. This would be useful if you want to remove your author identification marks from a document and could be used to maintain privacy or to present a particular professional or corporate style.

Reviewing with Track Changes

How to use track changes could help get up to speed with using Word’s feature for tracking editing comments and revisions.

Pop back in a while for more resources (if you would like me to email when I add new items drop me your email address).

How to write speech in fiction

Read time: 8 mins

Being confident about a few style choices and applying them consistently can make all the difference to writing speech clearly. Even though it should not be a main priority for the first draft, it is good to try to standardise these decisions and aim for consistency in the second and subsequent versions of a manuscript.

Done right, speech will add to your writing and make for a better reader experience. Here I set out detailed advice with examples for:

  • Reported and direct speech
  • Quote mark styles
  • Choosing speech tags
  • Punctuating speech tags
  • Broken speech
  • Action beats
  • Refining dialogue.

Reported and direct speech

Reported speech within narrative is not set out with speech marks (also called quote marks):

  • He said that they were under arrest.
  • She told Dad to climb the wall.
  • He asked where I went.

Conventionally, direct speech will include a vocative word or phrase (which indicates, or evokes, the speaker) and is set apart from narrative using quote marks and dialogue tags (also called speech tags).

Style of quote marks

The usual style for quote marks in UK fiction is single, as in this from Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019) by Rónán Hession, p19:

‘Indeed. And sometimes it’s difficult to know whether you want to scream or block out a scream,’ said Leonard.

Whereas in the US double quote marks are the convention, as in this from Room (2010) by Emma Donoghue, p127:

“Look,” she says, “a flamingo flying by.”

“Look, a zombie all drooling.”

“Jack!” That makes her smile for half a second.

Nested quotes

In both UK and US styles nested quotes (quotes within quotes) take the opposite form of quote mark to that used for the outer quote mark. Thus, the UK convention would be to use double quotes within single; an example would be this from Hot Milk by Deborah Levy, p48:

‘I was very agitated at the conference … and to look out at the South China Sea in the afternoon. Are those not beautiful words … “South China Sea”?’

Whereas, the US convention would be to use single quotes within double, as in this from The Lives of Animals (1999) by J.M. Coetzee and in my 2016 edition, p86:

“Didn’t you write a book the first chapter of which was called ‘All Animals are Equal?’”

Smart quotes versus straight quotes

With UK and US styles the quote marks, and any apostrophes, are smart ones (sometimes called intelligent or curly). They are favoured over straight ones (which typically came from typewriter use, where they were adopted due to space and mechanical constraints).

To make a single smart quote in MS Word for PC use ALT +0145 for left and ALT +0146 for right, and for MS Word on a MAC use Option+] for left and Shift+Option +] for right.

If you do want to enforce the use of straight quotes in a document within MS Word on a PC select the file tab and click options.

Select Proofing and the AutoCorrect Options button.

Click the AutoFormat tab and in the Replace section untick the box next to “Straight quotes” with “smart quotes”, click OK, OK.

 Conversely to enforce smart quotes leave this box ticked.

Speech tags

In these examples I have added bold to indicate the words that indicate speech (which is the tag). They come from What You Wish For (2014) by Mark Edwards:

  • ‘Who do you mean by “this lot”?’ I asked softly. (p130)
  • ‘I take it you’ve had no word from Cherry?’ I said. (p138)
  • ‘A friend,’ I said. ‘Someone else who loves visitors.’ (p168)

These clarify that the section is different to narrative, clue the reader as to who is talking and help create pace and rhythm. To guide your use and selection of dialogue tags think of them as supportive of speech so:

  • only there if necessary
  • secondary to the dialogue
  • speech based.

Only tag where needed

Think of dialogue tags as traffic lights at a minor road junction, the sort which only operate at peak times. When there are lots of vehicles they are needed but when the there is little traffic, they would hold things up unnecessarily so stay off.

In sections of direct speech when many people are talking together the tags save confusion but if there are as few as two people in a scene tags can often be dispensed with. This avoids slowing the pace as the conversation is already easy to follow.

Dialogue is superior to its tag

Conventionally when there is a new speaker one would open a new paragraph. There are times when this is not followed, such as when those speaking only say a few words to one another.

This works as a rule of thumb, and is what most readers expect. Avoid over flamboyant speech tags as these take the limelight from where it needs to be for the storytelling.

Sadly, I can remember being set a class exercise in school which was to create chunks of writing with as many different tags in as we could dream up. We were encouraged to flip through a thesaurus in an effort to add obscure and flowery terms.  I shudder to think of it now and want my school-child self to march to the front of the class and say, ‘I have an urgent message from my editor-to-be self, “No! please don’t.”’

Mostly ‘said’ works, as does ‘asked’ with a question. These are transparent to the reader and have the subtlety of a gentle nod from a parent, leaving the dialogue front and centre.

Keep it about speech

Occasionally you will decide it is appropriate to use other tags and, properly considered, this can be a good choice. However, if you do, remember to keep the tag relevant to the speech.

These examples from Smith (1967) by Leon Garfield all work well and do not dominate:

  • ‘And who, miss, would you ask?’ queried Miss Bridget irritably. (p17)
  • ‘And so say all of us,’ murmured Miss Fanny, as she might have said, Amen! (p35)
  • ‘Oh, Smith!’ she whispered, and turned away. (p105)

Used less well, tags can be distracting and annoying and can put readers off. I have created the following examples of how not to do it:

  • ‘Climb the wall,’ fantasised the prince.
  • ‘This one is for me,’ gobbled the child greedily.
  • ‘I can’t speak through this mask,’ muffled Sarah.

And:

  • ‘I did not know that,’ laughed Tony.
  • ‘Here take an ice cream,’ she smiled generously.
  • ‘Catch the bus home,’ he pointed.

Speech tags must present the possible otherwise they pose a puzzle.

These are not so much firm rules as guidelines to consider when seeking to engage readers in your story. Ignore them, however, and you risk spinning readers out of the story, wondering how they would have written that sentence differently had they been the writer.  

As with so much about writing, once you are aware of the conventions you may decide to go against them but with knowledge, foresight and intention.

Punctuating the speech tag

A speech tag can be placed before, in the middle of or after a piece of speech and, in most cases, is set out with a comma (although a question mark or exclamation mark might be used instead where appropriate).

These examples all come from Me Before You (2012) by Jojo Moyes.

  • Granddad called out something that may well have been, ‘Hear, hear.’ (p229)
  • ‘Let’s get some lunch,’ I said to Nathan. (p187)
  • ‘Yiss,’ he said, and broke out a smile. ‘Yes, it is let’s head for the gee-gees.’ (p181)

Where there is a long passage of speech which crosses into a new paragraph the convention is to place an opening quote mark at the start of the new paragraph within the speech but not to close the preceding paragraph with a quote mark.

An example of this can be seen in The Lives of Animals (1999) by J.M. Coetzee, which in the 2016 edition is on p56:

“Let me now turn to Gulliver’s Travels.

“On the one hand you have the Yahoos, who are associated …”

Broken speech

Not all speech will be neatly complete sentences, especially when a speaker is interrupted or distracted. To present this an ellipsis is used.

Trailing off speech

Where a character’s speech either dries up or is interrupted is indicated by an ellipsis. In a part sentence an ellipsis is placed after the last word uttered and is followed by the closing speech mark.

This example is from The Comfort of Strangers (1981) by Ian McEwan – 2006 edition p35:

‘Yes, two of those,’ Colin said eagerly, ‘and …’

Faltering speech

Hesitant, uncertain or tentative speech is indicated by a spaced ellipsis. There is no need to indicate this further – inspead respect the reader’s ability to understand the pauses, stumbles or breaks.

This example is from Cold Sunflowers (2018) by Mark Sippings p160:

‘It’s a book about the First World War. I got it from the club – It was only two bob, well, ten pence. You wouldn’t believe what those soldiers went through; they were only youngsters. Some were even shot for desertion. It was terrible … terrible, the conditions … goodness me.’

Action beats

An action beat is a short section of writing which is attached to dialogue and indicates who is speaking. The use of an action beat can add to the pace of writing and can help show a character’s voice or give insight into their emotions and perhaps their movement in a scene.

These examples from The Snow Child (2012) Eowyn Ivey:

‘It’s her.’ She turned her hand at her throat. (In the 2016 edition p86.)

‘So you do have some fight in you, my girl.’ Esther hugged her waist. ‘You’ll need every bit of that to survive around here.’ (In the 2016 edition p140.)

And from The Crow Trap (1999) Ann Cleeves, p323:

‘This is all I could find.’ She grinned so they would know she was lying.

‘That’s very kind.’ Anne took the letter and added, ‘Do you know where Edmund Fulwell is?’

Refining dialogue

Good advice to an aspiring writer would be to read their dialogue out loud as this helps to bring authenticity. It is also a good idea to look at a selection of titles and see how speech is presented, as some authors make unconventional approaches work well.

Some prefer not to use speech marks at all, seeing them as an interruption, distraction or perhaps slowing the pace too much. Not using speech marks seems especially popular for writing in the present tense or over a restricted timespan.

Some genres and target readerships may lend themselves to less conventional approaches; some recent books which present speech unconventionally include Normal People (2019) by Sally Rooney and Summer (2020) by Ali Smith.

There is a great deal to writing well and, as the communication medium, writing needs to convey the writer’s message to the reader. The writer decides on what the message is, and the extent to which conventional approaches are used is their choice.

Where editorial assistance is sought the author needs to consider their style decisions and present these within their project brief to enable an efficient collaboration.

These points should help you to consider what is involved in writing engaging dialogue and presenting it clearly.  Get it right and it will give your story variety, interest and pace.

Resources

Bailey, M. (2020). Editing Fiction, UK: August Publishing

New Hart’s Rules: New Oxford Style Manual (2012). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Quoted books (in quoted order)

Hession, R. (2019). Leonard and Hungry Paul. Hebden Bridge: Bluemoose Books Ltd

Donaghue, E. (2010). Room. London: Picador

Levy, D. (2016) Hot Milk. UK: Penguin Random House

Coetzee, JM. (1999) The Lives of Animals. Princetown: Princetown University Press

McEwan, I. (1981) The Comfort of Strangers. 2006 edition. London: Vintage

Sippings, M. (2018) Cold Sunflowers. Amazon

Ivey, E. (2016) The Snow Child. Second edition. London: Tinder Press

Edwards, M. (2014) What You Wish For. Seattle: Thomas & Mercer

Garfield, L. (1967) Smith. 2004 Edition. London: Puffin Modern Classics

Moyes, J. (2012) Me Before You. London: Penguin Books

Honesty About Perfect Writing

Read time: 2 mins

I think honesty from the outset about the quality of writing is important. Clients sometimes ask for their manuscript to be edited to be perfect, but quality in writing has a subjective component. There will be improvement but perfection is an elusive aim.

Every writer decides at some point that a piece of writing is finished and ready. However, they know that if they leave their document for a while, then go back to it and read it again, they are likely to tweak and improve what they have written – to improve the clarity or the pace of the story or the words are used.  Redrafting and editing are all iterative processes; many writers produce multiple versions before they feel that their work is complete. What writers aim for, and what readers seek, is good writing but it is difficult to pin down exactly what that is.

Perfection v. improvement

Editorial professionals, be they developmental editors, copy-editors or proofreaders, work to improve the content they are presented with. Ask a dozen copyeditors to work on the same manuscript and give them all the same reference books (such as Butcher’s Copy-editing, The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, New Hart’s Rules or Merriam-Webster and The Chicago Manual of Style), then read the twelve edited versions. You will find that no two versions will be exactly the same. Why is this?

They will have spotted a great many of the same changes needed in spelling, grammar, capitalization, consistency and the use of language. But their individual suggestions will differ, if only slightly, and across the manuscript there will be a number of variations. Each edited version will be an improvement but no two versions will be exactly the same improvement.

As an editorial professional I aim at perfection, but writing is subjective and each revision of a text will find further improvements to make. There are constraints on everything and deadlines need to be met so, at a point, the work must stop and the improvement be deemed sufficient.

I work to lift your text and voice to the next level. Realistically, perfection is the aim and improvement is the reality.

When to Find an Editorial Professional?

Read time: 2 mins

There isn’t an easy answer to when an author should find an editorial professional, be that for developmental editing, copyediting, line-editing or proofreading. However, it is best to give a collaboration of this sort some time for consideration. It is good to be clear what the different services provide and to approach suitable candidates with enough time to find a good match to achieve the best outcomes for yourself and your manuscript.

It would be an understatement to say that how writers write varies. The amount of planning which different writers undertake ranges from the highly detailed plotters like John Grisham who feels that the longer he spends preparing a detailed outline the easier the book is to write. Through to writers like Steven King who plans very little, preferring to work things out as he writes. To him very outlined books have a somewhat stale quality.

Some writers use a Pomodoro approach, with disciplined daily word count goals and others will take a cabin in the woods with the aim of not resurfacing without a completing manuscript. Bashing out a first draft and not looking back is the advice of many how to write books and some writers edit as they go along.

As a writer you will know how writing a book is a major accomplishment and the culmination of a great deal of time, discipline, perseverance and not a little emotion. Many will be unable to say the number of hours it took to reach that stage and will frequently answer with the number of years since the first idea came to them.

Redrafting and editing choices

However, it is arrived at the completed manuscript it is a good idea for the writer to distance themselves from the manuscript, at least for a while before embarking on the next stage. Self-publishing writers will not have the same set up as a publishing house with the team focused to ensure all the necessary stages of the production process are carried out in a coordinated way so that deadlines are met and all the preparations are carried out smoothly.

If you are thinking of using the services of an editorial professional you may want to involve them at any stage. Once the manuscript is written you may request a developmental edit or ask for a manuscript critique. This would be to help you identify where there may be difficulties of plot or with the structure of the writing. Perhaps you do not want to change any of the big picture features of your manuscript and you have time to rework the manuscript through some rounds of redrafting. After this you may decide to collaborate with a professional copyeditor. It could be that you feel you have reached the point where your latest draft would benefit from being looked at with fresh pair of eyes. Even if you set aside time and decide that you are going to rely on your self-editing skills you may seek the reassurance of a proofreader for a last check before it goes in front of a reader, be that publisher, agent or beta readers. 

Some authors feel their time is best spent creating the next title and may already be preoccupied with that. From an editor’s standpoint schedules get filled up and earlier approaches are easier to accommodate.

If a publisher is already interested in the manuscript planning for editorial services will help get the manuscript to be as good it can be for the publisher. Experienced authors appreciate the value of booking their editorial collaborations to meet their deadlines and aspirations.

Being an Ambassador: a Different Dimension

Read time: 4 mins

What is an ambassador?

You can have ambassadors who are envoys for their country and you can have brand ambassadors who promote a brand. But the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders (CIEP) have voluntary ambassadors who represent the profession and help introduce others to editing and proofreading as well as encouraging engagement with the CIEP.

What are important skills for ambassadors?

Any ambassador would be expected to know a great deal about the thing they represent and it is not a role for a newbie or novice. Alongside this subject knowledge they should have a high level of professionalism and be interested in spreading awareness of what that professionalism means to stakeholders. This, as far as the CIEP is concerned, means that they are members and thereby follow the Code of Practice.

This set of standards, entitled Ensuring Editorial Excellence, covers both in-house and freelance professionals as well as their clients. It sets out relevant definitions to help with clear communication. Professional standards are detailed in relation to issues including working agreements, working relationships, confidentiality, legal issues, levels of work and loyalty. Different forms of editorial work are defined and materials and practices are covered which include online content, page mark-up, multimedia and project management. The Code of Practice goes on to set out advice and a wealth of information on training, finances, health and safety, contracts, copyright, data protection and British Standard Institution marks.

Furthermore, an ambassador is likely to be keen to meet with others, to raise the profile of the profession and to set clear and accurate expectations of the profession within a wider context. They will be passionate about their chosen specialisms and happy to discuss them.

An ideal skillset for the role includes ability at networking, strong interpersonal skills and some confidence with public speaking.

What do CIEP ambassadors do?

Ambassadors might be asked to attend local CIEP groups, perhaps get involved in discussions or give presentations. Each ambassador will have particular subject expertise depending on their experience and background. The groups they address are often not CIEP members but may have a particular interest in publishing, writing or collaboration.

During 2018, as an ambassador for the CIEP, at that time known as the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), I attended a two-day conference of the Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) at Oxford Brookes University. This group is a specialist section of the International Association of Teachers of English (IATEFL). As a group which includes many professional writers and professionals who write, they were interested to hear about editing and proofreading professionals and their organization. Several of the delegates were also SfEP members but others had not heard of the group before. Many of the delegates were considering how materials they had created for their own lessons might be shaped either for sharing with their work colleagues or as publishable resources to be shared more widely.

What’s a cauliflower got to do with it?

At the conference presenter Johanna Stirling proposed that teaching materials were becoming too strongly focused on testing. She stressed the need to move learning forward in interesting ways rather than just assessing current knowledge.

There was a lively talk by Fiona Mauchline about designing material for teens and adults entitled, ‘Not rocket science but brain science’. Speaking spoke enthusiastically, she waved a halved cauliflower to represent the brain and discussed how being aware of how the brain works helps with creating engaging, motivating and memorable materials. Her understanding of memory, and how memories are made, led her to urge teachers to go beyond language, language acquisition and methodology and to incorporate creativity and fun within their materials and within their lessons. She described these as valid and desirable, exhorting teachers to include creativity and fun as it would lead to greater retention. She stated that ‘if you use sensory stimuli to encourage an emotional response, you facilitate learning’.

The final session by Jon Hird, ‘Adapting texts for ELT: intuition, analysis and authenticity’ included a look at the importance of sensitivity. There is a risk or reducing authenticity when texts are altered. This thought-provoking presentation included some amusing adaptations of original texts which had been changed to avoid, in some cases, copyright infringement.

Jennifer Dobson and Michelle Worgan presented a session, ‘Giving up the day job – a double-edged sword’, in which they pointed out the pros and cons of leaving the teaching profession to write materials full time. They discussed some pitfalls of working as a freelancer, both full and part time, and stressed the importance of maintaining close links with the profession.

As a CIEP ambassador I have become a regular visiting speaker at Roehampton University, on the MA in Publishing course, in their School of Humanities. The thriving course is led by the author of A Poetics of Editing, Dr Susan Greenberg. It is a relatively new postgraduate course designed for students seeking a career in the publishing industry. The course can be studies full time for a year or part time for two years.

One of the optional modules presented to students is Dimensions of Editing. This takes a practical look at different editorial services and gives an insight into how the processes vary when carried out on hard copy and digital manuscripts. Although this is usually an in-person event, due to the Coronavirus pandemic it was held online in 2020–2021.

Being a professional body ambassador has led to meeting interesting people involved with words, writing, teaching and publishing. There have been some engaging discussions which have enriched my continued professional development in a dynamic and fascinating business.

Reference:

Fiona Mauchline, 6 June 2018 ‘Fun, Fun, creativity, imagination… What do secondary language learners really need?’ [Accessed 25-01-21] https://yltsig.iatefl.org/2018/06/06/fun-creativity-imagination-what-do-secondary-language-learners-really-need/

Interested in meeting an editor?

Why Editors Need to Know about Genre

Read time: 3 mins

3 min read

The written and unwritten rules of fiction, which readers and authors acknowledge, group stories into recognisable genres which usefully serve as a form of jargon or shorthand to guide readers to find the type of novels they enjoy by knowing which genre they are choosing. On the other hand, genre also helps the authors to deliver fulfilling writing to their readers and to meet reasonable expectations based on the chosen genre.

Publishers also use genre to inform their purchasing decisions and to direct their marketing. Genre is of great importance in fiction writing and there are many tropes and standards which apply within particular genre and do not apply in others, for example a story from the romance genre and a story from the horror genre will attract different readers. For an author to include extremes of the horror genre within a romance is very likely put off a swathe of readers, who will then avoid selecting titles by an author who does not write in a manner which conforms to their expectations. 

The term genre comes from the French word for kind and is helpful for everyone in choosing the right content or type of story. Knowing the genre of a book helps to recognise what can be expected from it without having to read it first.

Text in context

Whatever story an author writes a genre will be fitted to it by the world at large and that labelling will, to some extent, select who chooses to engage with the story. Readers come to a title with certain assumptions depending on its genre. Knowing this, authors wisely craft their stories to fulfil those expectations in the reader. If it is a humorous work the reader will have different expectations to those they would have for a thriller where they are looking for suspense and intrigue.  Umberto Eco states that no text is ever read independently. Authors and editors do well to steep themselves in their preferred genres to help create the emotional effect of stories on the readers while at the same time avoiding the presentation of cliché.

The reader should be offered an entertaining experience where they can be drawn into a story and feel that the author has crafted a believable world, without the distraction of unpleasant surprises. These pull the reader out of the story, leading to dissatisfaction and disengagement. This is especially a problem with long form due to the greater investment of time for both the reader and the writer. Whatever an editor can do to steer a work to better fit a genre will serve both the author and the reader.

Dynamic nature of genre

McCaw notes that genre is not static. So, whereas there is a temptation to view what works of a genre have in common, as though there were a fixed set of criteria to be met, genres change over time.  The differences within a genre can be studied and change is ongoing which points to the importance for both authors and editors to be aware of recent works written in the genre they are writing for, or editing within.

At the online Edinburgh International Book Festival 2020, The Midnight Library author Matt Haig, points out how he has witnessed massive change over the past ten years. He says ‘genre snobberies have evaporated remarkably’ and the barriers which used to exist between literary and commercial works have moved, making it much more possible for authors to take creative influence from everywhere. Which he sees as a more natural way of doing things.

Experience shows that editors may come across a manuscript which pushes the boundaries of genre and they must be ready to embrace this in their work otherwise the dynamic nature of genre could be restricted and the new could be stifled. As with much about fiction editing sensitivity and tuning into the author’s voice is paramount. I would argue that this craft element will always present a problem to techniques of artificial intelligence and will ensure human editing retains its elusive, unique quality and value.

Eco, U. (1981). The Theory of Signs and the Role of the Reader. The Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 14(1), 35-45. doi:10.2307/1314865

Edinburgh International Book Festival http://www.edbookfest.co.uk/media-gallery/item/matt-haig-the-library-of-second-chances.

Iglesias. K, (2005) Writing for emotional impact, WingSpan Press.

McCaw, N.  How to Read texts, continuum.

Which Service Do I Need?

Read time: 2 mins

Illustration courtesy of sketchrobin.com

Developmental editing is carried out at an early stage of preparing a manuscript. You may have written a full manuscript but be unsure what aspects need improvement and whether there are issues with the plot which, if improved, would increase your success with the book once it is in the hands of readers. A developmental edit will give a report on the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript and this service provides comments and suggestions within the manuscript, for the author to consider.

Manuscript critiques are similar to development edits and you’ll get a similar report on your manuscript but without the additional comments and suggestions being supplied within the manuscript. Following both a developmental edit and a manuscript critique it is likely that you will want to apply some or all of the suggestions and prepare a redraft.

Copyediting is carried out on a manuscript which may already have been reworked and could have had some developmental editing. Having been redrafted the writing is ready to be thoroughly checked through and carefully made consistent where necessary to help the next reader to have a smooth and enjoyable reading experience without the distraction of inconsistencies and errors. When copyediting I will also advise on whether there are any issues within the manuscript which may need resolving and will check grammar, spelling and other consistencies.

Proofreading is carried out on the later draft of a manuscript and is to catch issues of spelling and grammar which remain and other mistakes that may have slipped through to this stage. You will probably have read the manuscript so often by this stage that it will be harder for you to spot mistakes so a trained and experienced second pair of eyes will help to ensure that the manuscript is as good as it can be before the next reader, be that publisher, agent or the public sees it.

It’s OK if you don’t know exactly which service you want, that’s what I’m here for! Drop me a line with the form below and I’ll get right back to you.

Should Dad Be Lowercase?

Read time: 2 mins

Illustration courtesy of sketchrobin.com

Speech can bring difficulties when it is written and one area of difficulty is that of whether to capitalise some naming words. This is because words Mum, Dad and Grandad have different forms. These words can be used in their proper noun form, and this is when they should be uppercase.

Proper noun form

Sentences where these words are used as proper nouns:

Did you like the flowers, Mum?
Can I borrow your glasses, Dad?
I asked Grandad to pass the map.

To check that a word is being used in this form you can keep the sentence the same but swap out the proper noun form and swap in their proper name, if the sentence still makes sense then the word was being used in its proper noun form.

The same sentences with the names swapped in:

Did you like the flowers, Mary Gilesbie?
Can I borrow you glasses, Ian Telling?
I asked Alfred Potter to pass the map.

Generic noun form

However, these words can also be used generically – as generic nouns or regular nouns and when they are, they are lowercase.

Sentences where these words are used as generic nouns:

If theses sentences are given the same swap test they don’t work because the word was being used as a generic noun.

My mum does not like red flowers.
All dads have children.
My granddad called on us.

Sentences where generic nouns have been swapped for proper names:

My Mary Gilesbie does not like red flowers.
All Ian Tellings have children.
My Alfred Potter called on us.

                   

Rules of thumb

  • Whenever these words are preceded by a possessive adjective like (my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their) the noun will be lowercase.
  • Whenever you use these directly as a name, they will be uppercase.
I brought this for your mum.
The coat was from my dad.
These are from Grandad.
  • When there is determiner preceding the word (such as – a, an, the, this, that, these, my, his, their, much, many, some, two, seven, all, every) use lowercase.
Some mums drove the car.
Seven dads ate the pizzas.
His grandad was in the play.

This works for other similar words in the same way, these include: uncle, aunt, father, mother, daughter, cousin etc.

Is it a name?

Changing between upper and lowercase depending on usage happens with other words. This applies to when the word is a title or political entity.

Where a word is used as a name it will be uppercase:

They followed Captain Wilson over the bridge.
We walk up the steps to meet Queen Bess.
Come on let’s go Governor. (instead of name)

Where a word is not when it is not being used to replace a name and is being used as a description it will be lowercase.         

Our old captain turned to fight.
The girl was a princess.
The governor was going to the meeting.

Style guides often have requirements regarding capitalisation and these should be followed where applicable but as with general rules about writing it is important that the rule is applied consistently or the writing can be jarring and the reader can be distracted from the meaning of the content.

How to Use Dashes

Read time: 3 mins

I have checked back to my references for crystal clarity, referring to the New Oxford Style Manual (2012) and to the Chicago Manual of Style, although these do not state every instance and are only conventions adopted, or not adopted, by publishers. There are also instances of exceptions so these are far from being strict rules.

How to create dashes

The en dash can be found on the ribbon on the Insert tab and at the right hand side. Click on Symbol and the then on More symbols.

Select the Special Characters tab and the top two offerings are the Em dash and the En dash, select the one you want and click Insert.

The keyboard shortcuts are:

Alt+Ctrl+Num for Em dash and Alt+Ctrl+Num for the En dash.

Alternatively hold down the Alt key and using the Numbers Pad:

key 0151 for the Em dash or 0152 for the En dash.

When introducing a phrase at the end of a sentence

A phrase at the end of a sentence can be introduced with an em dash (closed up) and the example given in New Hart’s Rules which, in my copy of the New Oxford Style Manual is p81 (4.11.2)

            Everyone understands what is serious—and what is not

So, this is a single parenthetical usage and replaces a colon and is widely accepted in UK English.

When used as a pair of dashes

Where you use em dashes with a space before and after, these would be parenthetical. This is not currently a general UK English publisher’s preference.

New Oxford Style Manual (2012) 4.11 p72 states:

‘The en dash … Many British publishers use an en dash with space either side as a parenthetical dash, but Oxford and most US publishers use an em dash.’ And

(p80) ‘The em dash …Oxford and most US publishers use a closed-up em dash as a parenthetical dash; other British publishers use the en dash with space either side. …

A pair of dashes expresses a more pronounced break in sentence structure than commas, and draws more attention to the enclosed phrase than brackets:

           ‘The party lasted—we knew it would!—far longer than planned’

And

… Use an em dash spaced to indicate the omission of a word, and closed up to indicate the omission of part of a word:

            ‘We were approaching — when the Earl of C— disappeared.’

So, both the em and en dashes can be used to set off an augmenting or explanatory word or phrase in a sentence that could stand alone without the insertion. Examples include:

That small flower – the pink one – is as fresh as can be.
That small flower—the pink one—is as sweet as can be.

He knew the price of that rare vintage – everyone did.
She knew the price of that rare vintage—everyone did.

In the UK, it is conventional to use a SPACED EN DASH. This is not a law but is the conventional style used my many (although not all) UK publishers (an exception being Oxford).

In the US, it is conventional to use a CLOSED-UP EM DASH. Not a law just a convention, but one which many US publishers follow.

It is also true that there are some style guides which ask for spaced em dashes, however this is relatively rare.

So how are authors using the dash conventions?

Beyond the reference material it can be useful to look at how published authors’ work appears.

Publishing in the UK

In Stephen King’s Everything’s Eventual (2002)

There is an example of the single parenthetical en dash:

(p299)  ‘… for what I’ve done – for what I did to Skipper, even.’

And in Val McDermid’s Killing the Shadows, (2001)

(p159) ‘That someone hated Kit – or his word – even enough to pour out such venom…’

Whereas publishing in the US

In Emma Donoghue’s Room, (2010) there is an example of a pair of parenthetical em dashes:

(p133) ‘Old Nick will carry you into the hospital, and the first doctor you see—or nurse, whatever—you shout …’

And in David Baldacci’s The Finisher (2014) there is an example of the single spaced em dash:

(p1) At first light, I was almost always up in my tree — a stonking, straight-to-the-sky poplar with a full towering canopy.

In conclusion: I recommend using spaced en dashes or closed-up em dashes because that is what readers are most familiar with. The choice of which depends on where much of the target audience are (US or UK) however where there is an international audience either style can be chosen, as long as it is applied consistently.

Should I Use a Prologue?

Read time: 4 mins

Illustration courtesy of Tom French

What is a prologue?

A prologue will delay the start of a book for the reader who, having just opened it, is champing at the bit, or at least more interested than they have ever been up till now or will ever be again, to find out what the book is about. A prologue is a piece of writing separate from the start of a book setting out an early thought that the author really needs the reader to know to be fair to them embarking on this reading.

Rather like a host at a party will mention a whispered aside to the only guest who has not been to their home before, ‘We don’t open the red door, that’s where we keep Grumpy the Doberman when we have visitors, everyone else knows not to go in there.’
Good to know, important to know, the newcomer is grateful to have been clued up so they don’t inadvertently upset the social occasion but finding this out was not the main reason they called at the house.


Likewise, the reader will be better prepared having the information set out in a prologue but that detail is not the main thrust of the story they’ll be reading in this book and it is not usually the thing they are reading to discover. The aside is what should, if it is needed, go in the prologue.
On another occasion a newcomer to the house might call when someone has kindly taken Grumpy on a long hike, there would be no need for any concern that the red door might be opened and on that day no need for the aside – no prologue.

If there is no need for a prologue do not have one do not hold the reader up unnecessarily when they are at their most ready to engage with the content of your book. If it is not needed because you have no secret which they will be at a disadvantage not knowing about at this point, leave it out, let them get on with what they have come to do.

Useful background

Placed at the front of a book before the start of the story a prologue should say all it needs to but briefly and should not take up a great deal of time. A good prologue gives a little extra information about the background of the story which will help a reader fully appreciate the context in which the story is being told. So, it will help to create a satisfying rounded story and used well, will help the reader feel engaged and immersed in the world or setting of the story right away. So, include an event or at most two events which help to draw the reader into the best place to be to start reading the story set out in the book. To write a good prologue consider the timeline of the book and if there is information outside that timeline but which you feel should still be included this is likely to be the right sort of material to make into a prologue.

Particularly in sci-fi using a prologue can introduce unexpected features of world-building or alien characters which are in the early scenes of the story without slowing those scenes down with the description. This also makes for an intriguing context being set out in the prologue which will give more to those readers who do take the time to read the prologue without delaying readers who prefer to dive straight in and try to work the contextual detail out for themselves.

A prologue may be a great place to mention an event which gave the characters their motivation so, for example a character who has lost a young child may have that reason to become over-protective of a child they later adopt. To show this actively the past event could be placed in the prologue making the reader aware of that context for how the character goes on to act.

Another use for the prologue is to give a different point of view from the main story and fill in some detail or insight from a different character’s perspective. So, for example how a murderer feels being taken away to prison, may be given in the prologue when the main character in the story would have no way of knowing that information. As perhaps the story is about the first-person experience of the murder victim’s sister.

You can use a prologue to start the story from a different point in time from the main story if that would be useful for some information which you feel the reader will need as context for your main story but which cannot for some reason be delivered within the main story set up.

Why not to include a prologue

Don’t write a prologue if your story makes sense without it. The content you were thinking of putting into a prologue may fit in the main story and if it does no prologue is needed.
Avoid just using a prologue for mood, atmosphere or for world-building alone. These can be uses for a prologue but there should also be a further reason that a prologue is required because all these things could be done within the main body of the book.

What is a good prologue?

If you still decide a prologue is needed

  • Make it interesting imparting crucial information.
  • Make it short in length (considerably less than any of the book chapters). Some recommendations are between one and five pages, others suggest around 1,500 words.
  • Refer to one or at most two events otherwise you risk overloading readers with too much information.
  • Make sure the language is consistent with the rest of the book, otherwise it will appear odd.
  • Make sure any questions posed in the prologue are answered by the end of the book.

In conclusion, when it comes to whether to have a prologue it is good to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin, ‘If in doubt, don’t.’