Editing Tip #70

Manuscript Formatting Secrets, Pt. 4 ~

Semicolon-smileyIt’s important to keep in mind that when an agent or small publishing house (even an imprint from a large(r) publishing house) asks for standard manuscript formatting there are a few things you need to double-check regarding your end punctuation.

Rule of Thumb #1

Middle-grade writers and up should never have more than one set of end punctuations (except when quotes are involved). If you tend to use mixed punctuation (!?) pick the strongest emotion and trust that your writing conveys the other. If you tend to use more than one exclamation mark (!!!) it’s over-kill. One is plenty and for adult fiction many representatives prefer few to none within the body of your work (but you’ll need to check with that agency or publishing house if you’re not sure). Having more than three dots in your ellipsis (…) is a huge red flag – only use three, no more. It’s unprofessional.

Rule of Thumb #2

Make sure you know how to properly use the colon (:) and semi-colon (;) before including them in your work. Children’s writing focuses on the use of the colon for listing only and never uses the semi-colon. YA/NA fiction rarely uses the semi-colon. When in doubt either look up proper usage or end one sentence and begin another. There’s a rather literary use for the colon that often gets confused with the use of the semi-colon and you really don’t want to be botching that kind of stuff on your final edit manuscript.

Rule of Thumb #3

There are three standard ways to end dialogue:

1) finite (.!?)              “Oh my god!” he screamed.

2) anticipatory (,)      “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Jane said.

3) broken (… -)         “I would help if I could…” she whispered.

Notice that no matter what kind of end punctuation I’m using, the end quotes go after the punctuation that falls at the end of the dialogue. No exceptions.

The only time you’ll see a variation is in situations like this:

The night manager’s favourite good-bye was ‘shake a leg’. I shook my head every time.

Depending on what country you live in, an internal shortened quote that is indirect dialogue might either have the period/punctuation before or after the end quote. Make sure you know what is your standard.


1) Also note that there is a small ‘h’ for he screamed and not a capital ‘H’ – why? The small ‘h’ denotes that the tag directly belongs to the afore mentioned dialogue. Using a capital ‘H’ would indicate that he simply screamed after yelling the previous dialogue. Two completely different messages. Make sure you know which one you intend.

2) If you need to directly attribute who is speaking to what is being said then traditionally you use a comma to indicate that the following tag is connected to what was said. Sometimes you’ll see this: “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” She said savagely and then turned to leave. This is a new development in writing that can often be tightened into following traditional end punctuation usage. It would have been better written as: “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” She turned to leave with a snarl. Getting rid of the adverb and the extra words allows your writing to be more succinct.

3) As I mentioned when I spoke of hyphens, en-dashes & em-dashes last week, it’s easy to get the formatting for the dash you want mixed up. The problem that I see happening more and more when dealing with dialogue is that after using an en-dash to show that someone is being cut-off mid-sentence, the wrong quotation mark appears the first time you press -shift/quote- on your keyboard. Depending on what font you’re using you might not even notice that this is the case. However, if you’re using Time’s New Roman you should see clearly that the little indicator-balls on the double apostrophes are going the wrong way. You need to input two sets of quotes and then delete the one that’s facing the wrong way.

It’s a chore having to go back through your manuscript to find these things and unless you have an editor who really knows their stuff, you will need to do this on your own. A lot of Indie releases I’ve read in the past few years tend to overlook how grammar and punctuation affect the understanding of their work. Their thought tends to be that people don’t have to read their book if they don’t want to OR that they’ve been doing it that way ever since they learned how to write and it doesn’t seem to bother most of their readers.

The problem here is that we’re perpetuating poor writing skills. As an English teacher, when a student comes to me and says her favourite author writes that way so she shouldn’t lose marks on her assignment for poor grammar and punctuation it makes these problems more difficult to fix.

Standard Manuscript Format is called standard because it is the way our language is supposed to be written.

Happy Editing!

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