Do you love the nuts and bolts of writing? Have you always been confused by the difference between a hyphen, an en dash, and an em dash? Do you want an easy-to-use, free resource to help you improve your technical skills related to spelling and grammar?
We are here to help!
After months of work, we’ve polished the Duck Prints Press style guide until it shone and shared it publicly on our website!
This valuable resource includes a ton of information, and we’re expanding it regularly. While it’s especially relevant to people working with us (especially our growing editor staff!), it can also be of general use to the authorly public. That said, though, always make sure that when you submit to a publisher you focus on their style guide, because no two publishers are going to resolve these issues in exactly the same way. And when we say “issues,” we mean “all those areas where the major style guides (we use the Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition) don’t offer unambiguous answers,” such as:
Oxford commas (we use them)
How to handle capitalization around certain punctuation choices, especially in dialogue (…it depends on the circumstance)
Which interrobang to use (?! or !?)
When to spell out numbers versus when to use numerals (…it’s complicated)
Incorporating words that use accents and/or special characters (we always use special characters unless the author suggests we not)
Spacing around ellipses and em dashes (…again, it’s complicated)
…and many other incredibly tiny, fiddly editor things that 9 out of 10 readers won’t notice but that that tenth reader has very strong opinions about.
Ultimately, putting a clean, professional-looking manuscript out to the reading public requires that an editorial staff make decisions on all these kinds of issues and many others. It doesn’t so much matter which direction the staff goes (there’s not a huge difference between putting regular spaces versus thin spaces versus hair spaces around em dashes); what matters is that whatever choices are made, they’re implemented consistently. To ensure that consistency, we’ve written and now use this internal, Press-specific style guide.
And now, if you want, you can use that style guide too!
Happy writing, and feel free to let us know if you’ve got questions we haven’t addressed in the guide. Fiddly editory spelling and grammar is our jam!
Congratulations! If you’re reading this, I’m willing to bet you already have a lot of the skills you need to be an editor. Even among full-time professionals, a lot of editing skill comes from reading a ton—you get an “eye” for when a sentence just doesn’t look right. The more you read professionally edited work, the better you get at it. (Fanfiction is incredible, obviously. But fanfiction has its own quirks, and the grammar and punctuation can vary, so I’m not confident recommending it as a way to brush up your instinctive grasp of when a sentence “looks right.”)
The specifics of what you do as an editor can vary a lot depending on what you’re editing and who you’re editing for, so in this post, I’ll be covering some of the basic principles that I think will be helpful no matter what type of editing you do. Broadly, I’ll be going over language-related tips and profession-related tips.
I won’t be going over the nuts and bolts of grammar here, as a zillion good guides to it already exist online. Grammar Girl is my go-to free resource, and a lot of grammar and punctuation questions can be easily answered online or in a style guide from your library. I looked up the rules for commas a LOT in my first years of editing, and I still have to double-check them sometimes. A lot of the fiddly details differ between guides (how to write a.m. and p.m.; serial comma), but the nuts and bolts of grammar and punctuation stay the same across guides.
Professionally, those fiddly details are a big chunk of editing. Do you write out numbers less than 20? Less than 10? Do you capitalize titles like “President” all the time or only in certain situations? There’s no one right answer, which is one of the many reasons there’s no “right guide” to editing. A style guide will decide many of these questions for you. If you pick up editing as a profession, your employer will most likely have a style guide in mind. You may want to pick one for yourself if you do freelance editing. That way, you won’t have to re-decide on every job, and if you get repeat clients, you’ll be sure their text is consistent across all their documents. A “series bible” for fiction works on similar principles.
Whether you’re looking at those fiddly details or at the big picture, one principle of editing is to never take anything for granted. Someone says there’s five ancient orbs needed to defeat the dragon? You’d better count the orbs. Make sure every proper noun in the story (names of people, places, things) is spelled the same every single time. This is the kind of thing you’ll get quizzed on if you ever apply for a professional editing gig. Every editing job I’ve ever applied to has an “editing test” of at least a page, and it usually has at least one of those errors (if not both).
Another major thing to watch out for is colloquialisms, especially ones that mean multiple things. A short list of common errors I see:
“Since” should only relate to the passage of time; it does not mean “because.”
“While,” again, should only refer to time—two things happening simultaneously. “But,” “although,” “whereas,” and others are good substitutes for the other sense.
“Due to” does not mean “because of,” it means “caused by” (and I’ve seen some editors argue to not even use it for “caused by” and to only use it for when something is owed to someone).
“If” will often need to be replaced with “whether.”
Obviously with dialogue, that’s a whole nother story, but be careful about these in narration, even with a colloquial narrative. They can introduce unintentional double meanings.
When you’re moving from basic accuracy to style, you’ll often need to “tighten up” the language. This might be something you’re used to doing in your own writing. This doesn’t mean all prose should be sparse! But as an editor, part of your job is making sure that every word is contributing something, no matter whether the sentence is flowery or stark. One exercise is to go through and see if you can cut one word from every sentence. Depending on what type of editing you do, you’ll have different “filler words” to look out for. My personal demon is “just,” so I always do a search for that when I’m revising my own work. In my day job, the word “provide” often signals a clunky phrase that could be condensed into a single, better verb (e.g., “provides assistance” vs. “helps”).
You’ll look for a lot as you edit, so don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. A simple search can make sure you’ve caught issues like “while” and “since.” Other issues are best solved in their own read-through. For me, I try to do a read-through specifically for passive voice. I often skip over passive voice on my all-purpose read because, well, the sentence makes sense, doesn’t it? So my eye simply doesn’t catch it if I’m not on the lookout. As you edit, you’ll figure out what process works best for you.
And to wrap up the language section—checklists are your friend! I used to have a post-it of all the things I knew I struggled with, and I’d systematically search the document for those trip-ups after I did my first read. You can customize your own checklist with whatever snags give you trouble.
A huge part of editing as a professional is in how you interact with other people. Your whole job is telling people they’re wrong, after all, and you often have no control over whether they’ll listen to you. Everything you can do to make the criticism easier for them helps!
My favorite “one weird trick” that my first boss taught me is to turn every criticism into a question. If you’re suggesting a significant revision, “How about…?” is one of my favorite leads. If you have no idea what’s going on, do your best to figure out what might be causing the issue, then form a question around that. “Are there missing words here?” is kinder and more useful than “Huh?”
Essentially, your role as an editor is to advocate for the reader. This “reader stand-in” role can help frame critique as well. Will the reader understand this? If you’re in one of the more-technical editing jobs, that question may be completely necessary. As an editor for scientific research, I’m often editing documents meant for people who know way more about the subject matter than I do. The framing of “the reader” is also a useful tool in your toolbox for fiction. You may be editing something that you are not the target audience for. Or, on the other end of the scale, you may know without question that you’re reading something incomprehensible. The polite device of “the reader” helps add a level of depersonalization to the critique.
Unsurprisingly, for editing, communication is key before you even start work. “Editing” covers a huge range of possibilities. Make sure you and the author are on the same page. Do they want a proofread—only correcting glaring errors? Do they want you to improve the phrasing of sentences? It can go all the way up to practically rewriting the thing, if you’re working at a corporation and the authors aren’t professionals. This conversation beforehand will let you know whether you should make “artistic” suggestions as you read, whether you need to stick with nuts and bolts, or something in between.
If the author says they only need a proofread and you discover the whole thing is terrible, that’s when some tactful emails come into play. Never start doing a higher-level edit unless you’ve talked about it with the author first. You have much better odds of an affirmative if they feel like they’re collaborating with you–that you’re both in it together to make the best document possible. As far as the tactful emails go, be kind and be specific. If you have examples of what you’d like to correct, throw those in. It helps the author know what to expect and make an informed decision.
And sometimes the author says no, and that’s okay! You must wash your hands of it. It’s not your name on the thing, and if you don’t put it in your resume, it never will be (fresh out of college, I worked on a couple truly awful novels that nobody will ever know I worked on). Perfectionism is HARD to overcome, I know, but accepting the errors gets easier with practice.
And finally, if you’re still wondering, “Am I cut out to be an editor?” I would recommend the words of Neil Gaiman. In his excellent “Make Good Art” speech, he says that as a freelance artist, you need to do good work, do it on time, and be pleasant to work with. And then, he adds, “You don’t even need all three! Two out of three is fine.”I recommend the whole thing if you ever want to battle imposter syndrome, because the same tenets apply to editing. At least I think they do. You don’t need to be the perfect editor—nobody is. But I guarantee that you have most of what you need already, and I hope this has helped.
Adrian Harley, one of Duck Prints Press’s editors, has been a full-time professional editor of scientific research for 10 years. Their freelance and ad-hoc editing has run the gamut from books to blog posts to family members’ cover letters. They’ve been published in Duck Prints Press’ And Seek (Not) to Alter Me and the forthcoming She Wears the Midnight Crown, as well as OFIC Magazine.
It can be daunting to ask for feedback on our work. Past negative experiences, horror stories from friends, fear of people disliking something we’ve worked so hard on, uncertainty about what to input to ask for, and many other factors can make it seem easier to write our stories alone rather than show them to another person.
Once you understand how to ask for feedback, however, sharing your works-in-progress can become a valuable tool for gathering information and honing your craft. So if you’re struggling with your work in progress, hoping to publish or publicize your story in some way, or are looking to develop your writerly skills, read on to learn how to ask for the right feedback for your needs!
How to ask for feedback
First, and most importantly: You don’t need to ask for feedback. Whether you ask for input depends on your individual writing, editing, and publishing goals. This post starts at the point of assuming you’ve already decided that you’d like feedback, but are hesitant or struggling for whatever reason. Here are some tips on getting the type of feedback you’d like – feedback that helps you move forward armed with useful information.
1. Be specific
Do not let people guess what you want. They will guess wrong.
Even experienced editors need to be given some directions so they can focus on the aspect(s) of the story that you’re concerned about. For example, if they give suggestions on a story element you’d thought was fine, but offer no comments about dialog which you’re afraid sounds stilted, you may end up feeling more anxious than before. So when soliciting feedback on your work, tell your reader exactly what type of feedback/information you’re looking for, and ask them not to color outside those lines unless you allow it. Your questions will help your readers focus their energy and give you feedback you can actually use. (More on what types of feedback or aspects of the story you may want to consider is later in this post!)
If your work is being edited for publication, this rule changes slightly since your editor will also be applying their own suggestions to help get your story ready for their particular outlet, but you’re still welcome to ask any additional questions and request feedback on the things you’re worried about!
2. Think about what stage your story is at
Different stages of writing need different types of feedback. Too nitpicky early on, and you might waste effort polishing passages that don’t make it to the final story—and it’s easier to fix big-picture issues earlier in the writing process. A good rule of thumb is to start broad at first, and get progressively more specific as the story takes shape.
Early-stage: When you’re still brainstorming ideas and working on your first draft. Early-stage readers (often called alpha readers) are there to help you understand how your story is coming across but not to give value judgments.
Some example questions to ask early-stage readers:
Characterization: What are your impressions of the main character(s)? Who do you think they are, what are their motivations? What do you find interesting or cliche about them?
Worldbuilding/Setting: What is most interesting/surprising/confusing to you about this world? What is important to the people in this society? How is this world similar to or different from yours?
Mood/Tone: Does it feel funny, dark, matter-of-fact, poignant, exciting? What parts make it feel that way? Is the narrator’s tone matter-of-fact, dramatic, funny, and does it feel jarring to read?
Plot: What do you think this story is about? What do you expect to happen next based on what you’ve read so far?
Sensitivity: If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
In General: What confused you? What excited you? What wasn’t as interesting? What made you want to read more?
Early-stage feedback is for collecting impressions, finding out what people are interested in, confused by, what they think the story is about, etc. This is important information for you as a writer as you aim to assess whether your writing is faithfully conveying your ideas. If people generally have the wrong impression about something that you thought was obvious, that could be an indication that you need to rework that part of the story to make the important details more clear.
If solicited before you’ve completed your manuscript first draft, early-stage feedback can also give you ideas for how to move forward. If people are excited by a certain theme, you might decide to emphasize that theme. If they all expect the same thing to happen next, you might do something to subvert those expectations—or play into them—or, if it’s not at all what you had in mind, tone down the hints leading to that conclusion.
If you want reliable feedback, it’s often better to keep your questions general and avoid spoilers. For example, if you’re trying to figure out “does the reveal about Character A work?” and you directly ask that, your early-stage reader will already be clued in and on the look out specifically for that, so you won’t get a clear idea of what a reader who isn’t “primed” would read.
However, if you want to ask your reader for more specific or technical advice at this stage, be ready to share more so they can better help you (e.g. the story concept, where you’re at in the writing process, what unanswered questions you still have about the world, the characters, and the plot). You can always wait and share this information after they’ve read the passage if you don’t want to spoil their reading.
Middle-stage: Once you’re sure that your story’s most basic aspects are sound, try asking more technical questions about story structure, pacing, tone, and characterization. You don’t need to give much context; instead, see what the readers understood from the story itself. This helps ensure that your writing is clear and accurate to your intentions.
Some example questions to ask middle-stage readers:
Characterization: How does the main character come across to you at the beginning of the story? Have your impressions changed by the end, and why? What moments made you empathize with them? Do their actions feel justified? If not, what parts felt contradictory or confusing? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of them?
Worldbuilding/Setting: How does the setting affect the way you understand or think about this story? What details made you feel like you were really immersed in the world? What details or descriptions pulled you out of the world? What felt confusing or contradictory? What felt especially meaningful or cool? Did anything feel random, inconsistent, pointless, irrelevant or unnecessary?
Mood/Tone: Is the narrator’s tone flowery or lyrical? Matter-of-fact? Is the mood (the feeling you get from the story) dark, funny, tense? Where does it shift, and do any of the shifts feel jarring?
Plot: Does the story feel ‘finished’ at the end? If not, what do you feel is missing? What unanswered questions are you left with? Are there any storylines that you wished you could have read more of? What parts did you want to skip or skim?
Sensitivity: Same as for early-stage readers If you’re familiar with the disability/job/experience described in this story, how well did it reflect your experience? Where did it fall short? What sorts of details would be more appropriate or accurate to include?
In General: Same questions as early-stage, but also: what themes or motifs did you notice in the story?
The goal of these questions is to get more technical feedback; looking at the whole story, what works well, what is missing, and what takes away from the story’s success? These more specific questions can help you in your revisions as you decide what to elaborate on, rewrite, or cut.
Late-stage: After a few rounds of edits, you might be ready for a beta reader. In fanfiction circles, a beta reader is an all-rounder who helps with everything from brainstorming to proofreading, but here I’m referring to the person who reads your story before publication to give you one last chance for edits before sharing with the general public.
If you’re at this stage, you can ask many of the same questions as for early and mid-stage feedback, but also let your reader get more into the weeds about thematic elements, contradictions in characterization, plot holes, and details about the world that still seem inconsistent or confusing. Ask them to be picky; the story is all there, this is your chance to make sure it hangs together.
Spelling and Grammar Feedback: Once you’re sure your project tells the story you want to tell, you may solicit an editor to give you feedback on Spelling and Grammar (SPAG). It’s equally important to make sure this person is clear on what aspects of the story they’re supposed to focus on, and you should specify if you want their input at all on conceptual aspects of the story or if you’d prefer them to focus on clarity, proper grammar, spelling, and the other technical components of the story.
3. Choose your readers carefully
As important as the questions you ask is who you’re asking them of. Will this person respect your boundaries and only give the feedback you request? Will they be honest with you and non-judgmental toward your writing? Close friends and family can often seem like convenient, ready-made readers. However, unless you’ve worked with them before and know how they’ll behave, proceed with caution. People who are too close to you might be too gentle because they want to make you happy, or they might ignore your boundaries because they think they know what you need better than you do or that those boundaries apply only to strangers. If someone, because of their relationship to you, is going to give responses you can’t trust, don’t ask them.
Great readers are often other writers. Join writing groups (Eventbrite, Meetup, NaNoWriMo regional groups, and local writing cooperatives are good places to start), writing courses (my personal favorite is the International Writers’ Collective, and Clarion is also widely popular and well respected, but also look for courses near you!), and reach out to people whose fanfiction or original writing you admire. It can seem scary to contact people out of the blue, but these are all people with the same hobby as you, and even if they’re too busy to work with you they’ll be happy to know you appreciate their writing!
You can offer to trade feedback, too. Trading feedback is a great way to build your skills twice as fast – as you learn to give critique, you can also better learn how to apply critical reading skills to your own writing.
4. Ask for help from multiple people
Spreading out the job of giving feedback can make the job easier on your readers. It can also mitigate the sometimes intense emotions that come with getting feedback. If no single person is commenting on everything, then you won’t feel as burdened by any one person’s opinions.
Some areas you could ask different people for help with include:
Brainstorming: If you have a friend whose ideas complement yours, ask them if they have time to talk stories with you! All ideas are good ideas when you’re brainstorming.
Developmental edits: Developmental editors can listen to where you want your story to go, see where it’s at now, and help you cross that sometimes-frightening gap between the two. Some editors are trained in this, but a trusted writing friend who has editing experience can also be a huge help with developmental edits.
General Story Comprehension: Check that your story makes sense (and if not, where/why/how it went wrong). The example questions under the early-stage and middle-stage feedback stages are great for your general-comprehension readers.
Characterization: Although you have an idea of who your characters are, does that come across to your readers? Ask someone who loves characterization to help!
Sensitivity readers and/or subject matter experts: When writing about an experience, location, or type of character that you’re not familiar with, try finding people who’ve lived that experience to check whether your descriptions resonate with them.
Beta reading: Ask someone who reads voraciously to go through the whole story and make note of all their unanswered questions, plot holes they spot, things they loved, things that were confusing, etc.
Proofreaders: Your beautiful grammar nerds. If you’re working with a publisher, your editor will likely do a proofread. If you’re self-publishing, don’t skip this step! Editing software can help but won’t capture all of those stray en-dashes where an em-dash should be.
5. Remember feedback is a tool, not a prescription
When you get your feedback, don’t panic! It’s for you to use as you wish, and most writers only act on a small part of the feedback they receive.
You can use your reader feedback in unexpected ways. For example, if someone says that they really wanted to see more of a side plot, that may convince you to develop it more. However, if you didn’t want them to care so much and think it’s detracting from the main story, you could cut it and save it for its own story.
Additionally, there is no rule that says you have to ask for feedback for every story or stage of your writing process. If you’re writing a short story that you feel confident about, you might only want a quick round of feedback at the end. If you’re doing a long, multi-chapter piece, you might do a mix of early and middle-stage feedback for different sections of the story. One story might come so easily that it feels like it’s writing itself while the next needs lots of extra help.
This is all normal. You’re not losing your touch if you need more input on certain stories; every story is unique.
6. It’s Okay to Ask for Only Praise
Normalize the writing cheerleader! As someone who has both given and received writer cheerleading, I truly don’t know how I wrote before discovering this. It’s less structured and has more emotional investment than other types of feedback, so is a bigger commitment for your reader. If you want a writing cheerleader, explain to your reader what you’re hoping for and ask them if this is help they’d be comfortable with providing.
A writing cheerleader will shower you with praise, poke you for updates, and generally be your emotional-support reader. If you’re struggling to get words on the page or have been feeling down about your writing, they can make the difference between finishing your story and never touching it again. But even if your writing life is mostly smooth sailing, it’s still valid to want to find a reader who’s excited to read what you send them and who gives you unmitigated love in return. Let them boost your ego; you can be critical once the draft is written. No matter how cringey it may seem at first, the joy is infectious, and it works.
The Feedback You Never Knew You Needed
Before you start asking for feedback, you may wonder why anyone bothers exposing themselves to potential criticism. And even after this becomes a normal part of your practice, you will sometimes get feedback that doesn’t help or reflects the reader more than the writer.
So why ask for feedback?
Beyond developing your critical reading skills and learning more about your own writing, feedback can teach you about people: how they think, what they notice, what makes them care. It helps you understand how other people experience the things you write so you can start writing in those ways more deliberately. It can also help you learn to manage your “preciousness” about your own writing—when you let other people dissect your work, even if they’re not making value judgments, there’s going to be some discomfort. Learning to push through that for the sake of growth is like developing a superpower. You’ll start seeing your writing as the medium through which you communicate with your readers and developing ways to do that even more effectively.
Do you need to ask for feedback? Absolutely not. But if you’ve decided you want feedback and you learn to ask, accurately and clearly, for the kind of feedback you want, it can be incredibly useful, and—dare I say it?—fun.
This post was written in reply to an ask received on Tumblr. The ask:
Thank you for the quotation marks + punctuation post! That’s one of the top trouble areas I see when I beta read. (Understandable—there are tons of possibilities/rules.) I noticed in the em dashes section, example 2, there are no spaces between the dialogue and em dashes. Is that a hard-and-fast rule, or does it depend on preference/style guide? This is something I utilize in my writing so I would love to know if I’m getting it right, or if it’s simply a matter of being consistent. Thanks again!
Ah! Yeah, whether to put spaces is a choice. Some places use hair spaces, some thin spaces, some non-breaking spaces, some full spaces. Duck Prints Press opts for no spaces around em dashes in most cases.* Out of curiosity, I just checked CMoS—while I couldn’t find a place that explicitly said “do it this way”…well, in all their examples of em dash use, they do NOT put spaces around the em dashes, so I’d say that at least in CMoS the most grammatically correct usage would be to not put spaces on either side of the em dash.
*In most cases = virtually always in narrative, one major exception in dialog. When we use an em dash to denote interruption, sometimes there will be a full space after.
Ex. 1: “No matter where you go—no matter what you do—I’ll always be here for you.”
Explanation: this is a usage of an em dash that mirrors em dash usage in regular narrative text—essentially a form of parenthetical/aside—so it gets em dashes with no spaces.
Ex. 2: “I just said don’t—”
Explanation: this is the end of the quoted dialog. It would be heckin’ weird to put a space between the em dash and the closing quotation mark.
Ex. 3: “Why don’t—why don’t we just not?”
Explanation: this is self-interruption but the sentence that continues is the same as/part of the same sentence that was interrupted, so we don’t use a space. Our intention is to denote that the part before and after the em dash are still part of the same, like, context/concept. It’s the continuation of the same idea.
Ex. 4: “Look, I just— Don’t start with me, okay!”
Explanation: here’s the case where we use a space (our space case? lmao). It’s self-interruption, but when the the speaker resumes, it’s neither a parenthetical aside nor a continuation of the same sentence. It’s a brand new sentence. To help make that clear, we use a space there (and a capital letter.
Bonus—Ex. 5: Just as he was about to speak, I cut in— “Don’t say it!”
Explanation: this is about the only case I can think of where I’d use a space after an em dash in narrative/descriptive text, and it’s also to make interruption clear. Stylistically, a lot of writers will never even use this kind of phrasing, but it’s a permissible stylistic choice to write narrative interruption this way, and when people opt to do it, we do put a space between the end of the description and the start of the dialog, for the same reason as in Ex. 4—it’s a new sentence and it’s clearer with the space.
Contrast with: Just as he started to speak—”I already know,” I expected he’d say—I interrupted him and said, “Don’t say it.”
In this one, though there is a dialog piece/quoted material within the em dashes, it IS a parenthetical aside, so there’s no space.
Bonus—Ex. 6: “Whatever you do”—he waggled a finger in my face—”don’t go in the forest.”
Explanation: when an action is inserted in the middle of dialog, it’s essentially a parenthetical aside, just it’s a non-dialog parenthetical shoved into a dialog chunk, so it follows the same rules as an em dash aside would in other cases—so no spaces.
Again, this is one of those areas where there’s no hard-and-fast rule, and I’d expect different Press’ internal style guides to handle this em dash + space usage in different ways, but this is how I’ve opted to handle it, as lead editor at Duck Prints Press.
(the key, in the end, is consistency—if you pick one way and always do it that way, I doubt anyone is gonna give you shit, though you should expect that if you then submit that to a Press, the Press will edit it to match their preferred style to ensure uniformity within and across their publications).
Thank you so much for sending an ask! It’s always exciting when we actually get editing/writing asks. As a reminder, y’all, anyone reading this, always feel free to send us questions like this! We are grammar pedants and we are only to happy to be pedantic on whatever SPAG topic you’d like to know more about!
There are numerous quirky quotation mark placement + punctuation rules. For the common cases, such as basic dialog, most people know what to do, but we often see people get the less common cases incorrect, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help out!
Note that this post is written according to standard US English usage. The rules are different for other English dialects!
Basic—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Dialog:
When writing dialog, the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks in the vast majority of cases. (Almost always, but I know if I say “always” someone will find an exception, ‘cause there’s always an exception, because English, why?)
Ex. 1: “Thank you,” she said.
Ex. 2: “Thank you.” She reached out and shook my hand.
Ex. 3: “Thank you!” she said.
Ex. 4: “Thank you?” she said uncertainly.
Ex. 5: “Thank you…” she muttered.
Ex. 6: “Thank y—” A loud pop interrupted her.
Essentially: If the punctuation is part of what’s being said (is demonstrating some aspect of how the dialog has been said) then it goes inside the quotation marks. (The most common exception relates to em dashes—more on that below!)
Intermediate—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Narrative Text:
In narrative/descriptive text, the placement of punctuation depends on two factors:
a. Which punctuation is in question
b. The nature of the text within the quotation marks.
The basic rules are (this is paraphrased from CMoS 17th Ed.):
Periods: always inside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi.”
Commas: always inside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi,” and the practice originated in Japan.
Semi-colon: always outside the quotation marks
Ex.: The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi”; it is also called “kintsukuroi.”
Colon: always outside the quotation marks
Ex.: Other materials can be used for the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold, usually called “kintsugi”: silver and platinum are also sometimes utilized.
Question Marks: depends on what is in quotes. If the quoted material includes the question mark, then it goes inside of the quotes; otherwise, it goes outside the quotation marks.
Ex. 1: Is the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold called “kintsugi”?
Explanation: “kintsugi” isn’t a question, the entire phrase is the question, so the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.
Ex. 2: The article is entitled “Do you have questions about repairing cracked pottery with gold?”
Explanation: the title of the article is itself a question—the question mark is part of the quoted material, and therefore goes inside the quotation marks.
Exclamation Points: work the same way as Question Marks.
Ex. 1: I just learned that the art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called “kintsugi”!
Ex. 2: The article is entitled “Everything you ever wanted to know about ‘kintsugi’ but hadn’t thought to ask!”
Em Dash: depends on what is in the quotes. If the purpose of the em dash is to denote that the words themselves are being interrupted, the em dash goes inside the quotation marks. If the purpose of the em dash is to mark that a specific action (sans dialog tag!) is interrupting the dialog, then the em dashes go outside. (Sorry this is a little challenging to describe, hopefully the examples help make it clear.)
Ex. 1: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold is called—” She broke off when she saw I was holding up a sign that said “kintsugi,” indicating that I already knew.
Explanation: the dialog itself is what is breaking off—in this case because the speaker is being interrupted—so the em dash goes inside the quotation marks.
Ex. 2: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold”—she held up a beautiful bowl that appeared to have once been broken, a tracery of gleaming gilding showing where the fault lines once were—“is called ‘kintsugi.’”
Explanation: when an action is interjected into the middle of a line of dialog, the em dashes go on the outside of the quotes.
Ex. 3: “The art of repairing cracked pottery with gold,” she explained as she held up a beautiful bowl, “is called ‘kintsugi.’”
Explanation: this instance has a dialog tag, so commas are used instead of em dashes. The first comma goes within the quotation marks, the second outside.
Advanced—Punctuation + Nested Quotation Marks in Dialog:
Sometimes, a character quotes something they’ve heard. In cases like this, the writer needs to use nested quotation marks (in standard US English, that’s double quotes “” for the first “layer” of dialog and single quotes ‘’ for the second “layer”). The relationship of the punctuation to the nested quote depends on what’s being said. When the dialog is nested, where the punctuation goes follows the same rules as in the “Intermediate—Punctuation + Quotation Marks in Narrative Text” section just above.
Ex. 1: “Did she say ‘Thank you’?” she asked.
Ex. 2: “Did he say ‘Thank you’ to you?” she asked
Ex. 3: “Did he say ‘Thank you,’ or did he say ‘tanks for you’?” she asked
Ex. 4: “How dare he say ‘Thank you’!” she exclaimed.
Ex. 5: “He said ‘Thank you,’” she replied.
Ex. 6: “He said ‘Thank you,’ I think?” she replied.
Ex. 7: “He said ‘Thanks’ and also ‘good luck.’” She nodded as she explained.
Ex. 8: “Actually, he said ‘Thanks!’” she replied.
Ex. 9: “Actually, he asked ‘Should I thank them?’” she replied.
Other Uses of Quotation Marks
Quotation marks can also be used when identifying the titles of works, scare quotes, defining words in foreign languages, etc. Regardless of the uses, the above rules about punctuation placement apply.
Two weeks ago when we posted our “Formatting Tweaks to Help Your Typesetter Have a Great Day” post we mentioned that the “Capitalization Quirks” section became so long that we decided to break it out into a separate post. That didn’t get put up last week cause of debuting May Trope Mayhem, but the time is NOW!
Capitalization Quirks, or: How to Get More Capitals and Lowercase Letters Right So Your Editor Has One Fewer Thing To Do!
At the most technical, literal, simplistic level, all sentences in English should start with a capital letter. If you google “should I always start a sentence with a capital letter,” all the top results say yes. But! That’s overly simplistic. For example:
“I was just saying—”
“—That you’re tired.”
That’s wrong, because it’s not a new sentence. The “—t” needs to be lowercase. Thus, this should read:
“I was just saying—”
“—that you’re tired.”
Then, there’s sentences that “trail in” with an ellipse. For example:
“…when did you say that?”
This one, on a technical level, could go either way. Duck Prints Press goes with lowercase on this, using the same reasoning as the em dash case: it’s not a complete sentence, more of a fragment.
Some other examples where there shouldn’t be a capital (I’ll bold the letters that shouldn’t be capitalized).
Case 1: “In any event”—taking a deep breath, she flopped into her chair—“it is what it is.”
Case 2: After I got to the event (which took way longer than it should have, but that’s a different story!), we went to our seats together.
Case 3: Every time he thought he was finished—every time!!—he realized he’d made a mistake and had to start over.
Those cases are relatively simple and clear cut. Not all sentences will be. Often, when writing dialog, people use many permutations of sentences, not-sentences, ellipses, em dashes, and more. Keeping track of what needs to be capitalized and what doesn’t requires knowing a lot of quirky rules. People especially often end up confused about when text following quotes should have a capital letter and when it shouldn’t. The rule of thumb is, if the text in question is a dialog tag, it should be lowercase, even if the dialog before it ends in a question mark or exclamation mark.
(Again, bolding the lowercase/uppercase letter in spots where people most often get mixed up.)
“This example needs a lower case letter after it,” she explained.
“Does this—?” he started to ask.
“Yes!” she interrupted.
“What about this one?” he said.
“Yes, that one too…” she replied, sighing.
If, on the other hand, the narrative text after the dialog is an action (as in, not a direct dialog tag indicating how the thing was said), then it should be uppercase.
“I’m still confused how this works.” Rubbing his brow, he took a deep breath.
“I promise it’s not that hard.” She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and started writing down examples.
To help keep clear when to do this: if what you write can be replaced with say/said and still make sense, then it’s a dialog tag. If it can’t be, then it’s not a dialog tag and it should be capitalized.
“I don’t know when what follows counts as a sentence and when it doesn’t,” he pointed out with a frown.
“It depends how you’re describing what the person said.” Her voice took on a frustrated tinge.
But! That’s not all!
“What about if I, I dunno…” He looked at the examples she’d written down. “What if there’s more dialog after the first thing said and the first batch of narrative description?”
“Then”—she grabbed the pen and started writing more sample sentences—“it depends. For example, if I’m interrupting my own dialog with an action and no dialog tag, then it should probably be between em dashes, and only the first letter of the first sentence is capitalized. But if instead I interrupt myself with a dialog tag,” she continued, “then that uses commas, and again, only the first sentence is capitalized.” She paused, took a deep breath, then added, “But because that’s not confusing enough, if I stop, then use a narrative line that ends with dialog tag and a comma, then keeps going as dialog, then both the narrative sentence and the start of the dialog sentence needs a capital.”
“What about if everything is a sentence?” He grabbed the pen from her hand and scrawled down a few notes. “Then is everything capitalized?”
She threw him a thumbs up, an unspoken “you’re getting it now!” implied by the gesture.
Aghast, he blinked at what she’d just demonstrated. Finally, after working his mouth in silence for at least a minute, he managed:
“Does this ever make sense?”
“No,” she allowed, “but when you do it enough you start to get used to it.”
Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s the worst. I probably forgot at least two permutations, too, but I tried. Fixing capitalization on all of the above is a constant effort. Good luck?
All of these more-or-less follow the established rules of dialog capitalization, but there are some cases that simply don’t have a standard. For these, it will often depend on which style guide is being used, what editor is doing the work, what each individual publisher has decided, etc. Here’s some examples, with explanation of what they show.
“I don’t— Like, what am I supposed to do if there’s no standard?” Frustration was clearly starting to get the better of him. (This is: self-interruption to start a new sentence—we use: em dash + space + capital letter.)
“Hmm…probably your best bet is to just pick a way to handle each case and make sure you’re consistent.” (This is: self ellipse-marked pause/trail off that continues as the same thought—we use: ellipse + hair space + lowercase.)
“So if I…I don’t even know… What if I can’t remember what I did before?” (this is: trailing off, then continuing with a new sentence—we use: ellipse + space + capital.)
“Just—just—just figure it out! How am I—just a person trying to give a tutorial!—supposed to predict every kind of dialog you’re going to want to write?” she spluttered. (First part is: stutter/self-interruption, incomplete/continuing thoughts—we use: em dash + lowercase (no space). Second part is: em dash interjection in dialog, which uses the same rules as em dash interjections in narrative—we use: em dash + lowercase (no spaces).)
“Wh-wh-wh-what, that’s all you have to offer?” (This is: stuttering incomplete words—we use hyphen + lowercase (no spaces).)
Damn it… Do you really expect me to make all the decisions for you? she thought…but then she realized she should be kinder—this was hard stuff! “I guess I’d just suggest…make yourself a ‘personal formatting’ doc and write down how you did…whatever you did…when it came up?—that way, when it happens again, you’ll at least have a paper trail so you don’t have to scroll back to check what you did.” (This is: the same approaches as described above before, applied to thoughts and narrative text.)
And, that’s basically that! Did I miss any? Questions? Comments? Thoughts?
“I hate English,” he grumbled, taking up a lighter and burning the paper on which she’d written her examples.
The last few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of editing, which also means I’ve been doing a lot of small changes to ensure that the documents are print and e-book ready. Preparing manuscripts involves doing a lot of tiny, fiddly tweaks to make sure that spelling, grammar, and formatting are uniform across all the stories in an anthology, are accurate to the authors’ intentions, and look nice in all the formats we’ll be offering (print, PDF, ePub, and Mobi). None of the changes are complicated, but making them all is surprisingly time consuming—I usually spend about 30 minutes “cleaning up” each story with modifications that are largely invisible to a writer and reader, but still essential to produce a polished finished book.
Each Press and Publisher will handle these formatting things in slightly different ways—while some of these (such as “when do I use a hyphen vs. an en dash vs. an em dash?”) others are publisher-discretion. If you are submitting a manuscript and want to look like you’ve really, really paid attention, consider making some of these changes yourself—but make sure you check if the place you’re submitting to has a public style guide first, and if they do, anything they say in their style guide takes precedence! (Duck Prints Press doesn’t have a guide yet—we’ve been working on one, but it keeps getting back-burnered in favor completing more timely tasks).
This post is written from our point of view—which is to say, I wrote it specifically for how we at DPP handle these formatting matters—but it can provide some general guidelines, especially if you are submitting to a publication that hasn’t provided a style guide. Even if what you do based on this guide doesn’t match what they do, at least by being consistent in your own submission, you demonstrate that you were paying attention! (But: NEVER do any of the below if it contradicts the submission information and/or style guide provided by a different publisher!!)
Note that to really do most of these tweaks, you’ll want to use an actual word processor. Google docs doesn’t have the functionality for the most fiddly bits. Despite its downsides, DPP currently uses Microsoft Office 365, and this guide is primarily written with Word in mind. If you also use Microsoft, here’s a couple quick tutorials—you’ll need to know how to do these two things in order to do…all the rest.
Tutorial 1: Inserting Special Characters
1. Go to the “Insert” Menu
2. Go to “Insert Symbol”
3. If, like me, you use the same 4 special characters over and over, the symbol you’re looking for will most likely be in the “recently used” list that pops up. But, if it’s not there, pick “More Symbols.” That opens a screen that looks like this:
4. While you could scroll through this list until you find what you want, it’s much easier to go to the bottom boxes I circled in red, where it says “Character Code.” Enter the 4-digit-and-letter code for the character you want. This way, you can be sure you actually get the character you want. Make sure that the “from” field matches the code type you’re using—I pretty much entirely use unicode, and that’s what I reference/include numbers for in this post. (Usually, googling “(name of the character you want) unicode” will get you the number.)
5. Note that not every character is available in every font; if you want to be sure you can access the maximum number of characters, I recommend using Arial or Calibri.
Tutorial 2: Turning on Mark-up
1. Go to the “Home” menu
2. In the “Paragraph” section, find the ¶ option; if your menu is drop-down it might be called “Show/Hide ¶” (in Word, it can also be turned on with ctrl + * )
3. Show ¶.
4. Profit. (okay, no, not really.)
Tutorial 2a: Using Mark-Up to Find Weird Formatting
Are there tab indents where there shouldn’t be? Extra spaces? Superfluous paragraph breaks? Turn on “Show ¶” and tada, you can see all the usually “invisible” formatting! This is essential for spotting a lot of problems, so it’s worth taking a peek at for your own work. Here’s an example of what it looks like when you do this (using an early draft/outline of this post!)
Dots are regular spaces. Circles are non-breaking spaces. Forward facing arrows are tabs. ¶ is a standard paragraph break. There’s a bunch of other symbols, too, but those are the ones that come up most often. I’ve labeled a couple others on the above image, to help you have an idea what you’re looking for. You’ll need this information to help you trouble-shoot some of the things below. If there’s a symbol on yours and you’re not sure what it is, I recommend Google.
So, you’ve got a handle on the above…on to all the formatting tweaks your editor and/or typesetter does that you may have never even considered as an essential part of publishing!
Getting Rid of Bad/Published-Book-Inappropriate Formatting
Tabs: published manuscripts doesn’t use tabs to make space. They make a huge formatting/spacing mess. Instead, we use paragraph formatting -> first line indentation -> (whatever indent amount the publisher has chosen as standard —we use 0.25”). If I get a manuscript that’s used tabbing—if you’ve used tab indents and want them gone—I get rid of it with a find-and-replace.
Replace with: (blank)
Tada, all tabs gone!
Paragraphs: people who add lines between their paragraphs by making extra paragraphs used to be the bain of my editorial existence…until I figured out how to remove the extra paragraph breaks with a single button click. There should only be one paragraph break after every paragraph; if there are multiple, then…
Replace with: ^p
Tada, all paragraph-paragraph breaks now only have one paragraph break!
Set Up Base Formatting
At least for editing/manuscript preparation, I start by getting the whole document into one, consistent format. I personally use:
Paragraph Indentation: 0.25”
Line Spacing: 1.15
Space Before Paragraphs: 0
Space After Paragraphs: 0
Justification: none (note: when formatting for print, right justification will ultimately be re-added in most cases, though there’s been a bit of a move away from that because justification can make it for people with certain forms of neuro-divergence to read; when formatting for e-book, never use right justification!!)
(If you know you always use the same base, you can also set it up as a “style” so you can do all the above with one click!)
Ultimately, even after doing the last three steps, there’s going to come a point where—to be absolutely sure that no janky formatting gets into the manuscript—I take the entire document and nuke all the formatting. When that time comes, any italicization, bolding, or other base-text-type modifications will also be lost. To make sure it’s not actually lost, I mark all words for which special formatting is used with a highlighting color. Which color to use is obviously arbitrary; here’s my preference:
Italics: yellow highlighting
Bold: green highlighting
Bold and Italics: purple highlighting
Strikethrough: blue highlighting
Strikethrough and Italics: red highlighting
(Those are all the ones I’ve had to do, and I add new colors as they actually come up in our printing.)
Epistolary or Other Non-Prose Writing Passages
Every Press is going to handle this differently; your best bet as a writer is to just make sure your intentions are super clear and be open to whatever your chosen publisher has as their “standard” for handling stories that include non-prose sections such as letters, text messages, schedules, poems, bulleted lists, charts, etc. From an “editor/formatter” point of view, I mark weird formatting spots (and special characters, which I discuss next) with comments so that I can find them again.
Did you know that, depending on which word processor you use, your quotation marks and apostrophes may not format uniformly? For example, if you write in Word (and haven’t turned off auto-formatting), your quotation marks will auto-switch from just two straight lines side-by-side into a pretty curly thing:
On the other hand, if you write on Google Docs from mobile, it will never auto-format your quotation marks. They’re called straight quotes or, sometimes, “dumb” quotes, and they look like this:
” (some viewers are auto-formatting this to a curly quote! google “straight quotes” and you can see the difference)
This is especially stark and frustrating if you do some of your writing in gdocs from mobile and some from desktop; then, you’ll end up with a document where some of the marks are auto-curved and others aren’t. Leaving them this way makes for a disjointed, inelegant look, and should be changed.
Industry standard is curly quotes.
One of the first things I do when I open a new manuscript to format for print-readiness is a find-and-replace to make sure that all of the apostrophes and quotation marks are formatted the same way. If you put an unformatted (“straight quote”) quotation mark in the “find” field and a formatted/curly one in the “replace” field, tada, every quotation mark fixed at once! And the same for apostrophes.
Speaking of apostrophes—one side effect of the ‘curly’ apostrophes is that they’re directional: an “open quote” curly apostrophe doesn’t look the same as a “close quote” curly apostrophe. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. If you’re writing dialog, the ‘curly’ quotes will auto-format to the correct directions and the beginning and end of your quote. If you’re writing a contraction, same—the apostrophe will auto-format the correct ‘curl’ direction for your contraction. But, did you know? There are cases where using a lead-in apostrophe is necessary, but if it’s formatted in the ‘lead-in’ direction, it’ll be wrong! These are cases where auto-format will think you “need” a forward facing apostrophe, but you actually are supposed to use a backward facing one. The two most common instances of this are:
When using slang formed by dropping the first syllable. For example: ’tis, ’til, and ’cause.
When writing shortened years. For example: ’98, ’12, ’45.
(Can’t figure out how to force the right curve? You’ve got two choices: find one pointing the way you need, ctrl-c copy it, then paste it where needed; or you can get it from the Insert Symbol menu, unicode: 2019)
Hyphens vs. En Dashes vs. Em Dashes
Before I was a professional editor, I had the idea that figuring out when to use a hyphen vs. an en dash vs. an em dash was super complicated and inscrutable, but it’s actually easy to know which is appropriate in the majority of cases.
Case 1: you are writing a compound word. Compound words get hyphens. Now, what words get hyphenated, and when, and which don’t, is a completely separate issue, and not one I’m going to get into here. This post isn’t about grammar, it’s literally about formatting, and for formatting purposes, if you know you need to connect two or more words with little lines, the little lines you want to string those words together with is a hyphen. This is a hyphen: – (unicode: 2010)
Case 2: you are writing a range of numbers, dates, or times. You want an en dash. This is just about the only time when you want an en dash. This is an en dash: – (unicode: 2013)
Case 3: you are writing a sentence interjection—like this one!—or you’re indicating an interruption in dialog. You want an em dash. There are plenty of other cases when you should use an em dash, but those are the most common in fiction writing. This is an em dash: — (unicode: 2014)
Reference a style guide or tailor a google search if you’ve got something quirky going on and you’re not sure which type of dash to use.
Types of Spaces
Believe it or not, not all spaces are created equal. In fact, there are four used often, and some others to boot. The most common ones are:
Hair space: this is teeny tiny. Unicode: 200A
Thin space: this is roughly half the size of a normal space. Unicode: 2009
Normal space: the one we know and love. Unicode: 0020
Non-breaking space: a special kind of space that, when used, indicates to the document software/printer/e-reader, “even if this is at the end of a line of text, do not break the text here to start the next line: this ‘space’ should be treated as a fixed character for line-breaking purposes.” Also called an nbsp. Unicode: 00A0
Usually, you should be using, normal spaces, but depending on how your printer/publisher chooses to format things, others may be used. For example, some places put thin spaces on either side of em dashes. Here at Duck Prints Press, we put hair spaces after ellipses (…in some cases…) and we use nbsps in cases such as “When we’re quoting something ‘and there’s a sub quote that ends the sentence.’ “ (as in, there’d be an nbsp between the ‘ and “.)
Spaces and Formatting
As the existence of the nbsp implies, spaces can play funny with formatting, which is part of why in the age of digital the double space after periods has largely gone away—two space were important when typing on a type-writer, but when working in digital text it’s superfluous and can cause formatting issues. So, for example, I always do a find “ ” (two spaces) and replace it with “ ” (one space) for the entire document.
It’s also necessary to remove extra spaces at the end of paragraphs. Yes, every single one. Why? Because, especially if it’s an nbsp, it can actually make the manuscript longer. Picture it: you’ve got the end of a sentence, then a period, then an nbsp, then a paragraph break. This tells the e-reader that space HAS to be kept with that period and the last word. To do that, e-readers will bump the word onto a new line…solely because the space was there! And, while you might think this doesn’t come up much…if a trailing space is left at the end of a paragraph in gdocs, and that paragraph is copied and pasted in Word, every one of those spaces will be converted into nbsps. I once reduced a twenty-page document by half a page by removing all the trailing nbsps. Cutting them is important! Even if the space inserted isn’t an nbsp, it’s still important to get rid of it, because if that end space is what causes a line on an e-reader to be too long, bumping that extra single space to a new line will result in a blank line between paragraphs. Considering that e-book text size can be increased or decreased depending on device and reader, the only way to prevent extra spaces at the ends of paragraphs from dotting your document with blank lines is to delete every single one. By hand. I have done this t.h.o.u.s.a.n.d.s. of times seriously, you want to make your text formatters day? Please don’t leave spaces at the ends of paragraphs, I’m begging you. (and if you know ANY faster way to get rid of these TELL ME PLEASE!)
Here’s a simple and obvious one. Find all the … and replace them with …
Whoever is doing typesetting is probably going to use something pretty and/or fancy for marking scene breaks. The way you can make this easiest for them is to format all scene breaks in the same way, and simpler is better. For example, our default way to mark a scene break is:
…the end of the previous scene, with a paragraph break after it.
The start of the next scene.
No extra paragraph breaks, only one symbol that’s unlikely to have been used elsewhere in the document, easy to read and follow. Just using extra paragraph breaks can be confusing, using lots of characters is annoying (and a nightmare for screen readers)—you don’t want your editor to be guessing, so do something straightforward and stick to it.
Honestly? The section of this post about “times you don’t realize you need a capital letter but actually do” and “times you think you need a capital letter but actually don’t” got so long that I’ve decided to break it out into a separate post; that one will come out next week, so stay tuned.
Remove All Formatting
Once I’ve done all that…changed all the little stuff, marked anything unusual/stylistic (special characters, non-prose, italics, etc.), and gotten everything cleaned up…I go to the “home” menu -> “styles” -> “clear formatting.” This gets read of all formatting, including anything wonky/weird/broken/undesired that I may have missed. The notes and other changes I’ve done make sure that I don’t lose any information I need to format the document correctly, and just to be absolutely positive, there’s a reason I do this now in the process, instead of after the last step, which is…
Actually Finishing Editing
…because if I HAVE made a mistake, when I do my final editing pass and send the document to the author for final approval, they will hopefully notice anything that got lost in the process!
Long story short? Check your own documents for weird formatting stuff before submitting your stories, and save an editor and/or make a typesetter’s day!
Determining whether to use “that” or “which” in a sentence can be a challenge. Sometimes, it’s obvious…
If you’re discussing what option to pick from among multiple options, “which” is correct.
Ex: “Which hat should I buy?”
If you’re indicating/identifying a specific, finite object, “that” is correct.
Ex: “I will buy that hat.”
However, it can appear more confusing if the sentence is more complex, or phrased unusually. But, it’s not actually more confusing – there’s a quick, easy rule to help determine when to use which option (use “which” there because we’re talking about multiple options!). In complex sentences, that/which usually are used with clauses. If you can remove the clause without altering the meaning or reducing the clarity of the sentence, then “which” is probably correct; otherwise, “that” is probably correct.
Ex. 1: “I will buy the hat that is green.”
Explanation: this sentence specifies, with a clause, that I am specifically buying the green hat. If that aspect of the sentence is removed, then necessary information is lacking (the person I’m speaking to will no longer know which hat I mean!). Grammatically, this is called a defining (or restrictive) clause – it’s a clause that defines the thing being described, and marks it as “this specific thing (as opposed to any other thing).”
Ex. 2: “I bought the hat, which is green, to wear to school.”
Explanation: the clause is an interjection which is not necessary to convey meaning, it simply add flavor. If it’s removed, the essential point of the sentence (that the hat was purchased to wear at school) remains. Grammatically, this is called a non-defining (or nonrestrictive) clause – a clause that isn’t necessary to define the thing, and when removed won’t have a major impact on the reader’s ability to know which thing is being described – “I’m interacting with this thing (and, coincidentally, this thing has this trait).”
So, just remember: if the clause is essential to conveying the full meaning of the sentence, use “that.” If the clause can be removed without impacting the sentence’s meaning, use “which.”
Have a writing or grammar question? Feel free to drop us an ask any time!
We received the following ask anonymously on Tumblr:
I loved your “what is a story” post! Aside from structuring stories, are there any other things you think writers shifting from fanfic to original works tend to struggle with, or would do well to keep in mind?
Hey anon! I’m sorry this has taken me so long to reply, but it’s such a big question, it required a big answer. Especially, it’s a challenge to address because, as a creation medium, “fanfic” is far from a monolith. From a “how hard might a transition to writing original content be” standpoint, there’s a huge range – from people who write canon-compliant short stories coda stories that feel like they’re a living, breathing part of the source world, all the way through people who write epic million word AU stories about their own OCs who maybe at most tangentially interact with canon. Some people see writing fanfiction as “canon, the whole canon, and nothing but the canon,” while others see the original media as a jumping off point to play with other settings, tropes, archetypes, and story elements (“canon? I love canon! It makes a lovely whooshing sound as I fly on by…”). What a fanfiction author prefers to write, to some extent, influences what challenges they’ll face when they try to transition.
For those who specialize in “all canon,” their strengths will often lie in research, analysis, understanding metatextual themes, and finding holes or gaps to fill with new content. They’ll likely be weaker in world building and character creation.
For those who specialize in “what canon?”, their strengths will often lie in world building, character development, and recognizing tropes and archetypes and reapplying them to new settings. They’ll likely be weaker in analysis and recognizing plot holes.
These are obviously generalizations; an “all canon” author who does, for example, post-canon or uses OCs, might have lots of experience with world building or character creation. A “what canon?” author who, for example, writes historical works or field-specific ones (eg, a super detailed hospital AU) might be fantastic at research. And, further, hardly any author will be 100% one or the other; most writers will fall somewhere in between those extremes, writing some pieces that are canon, some that are AUs, some where they try to write the character IC-to-a-tee, some where they go “OOC is the new IC!”
Regardless of where a given writer falls on this scale (from “all canon, all the time” through “canon? what canon?”), the best two things any writer can do are: write more and read more. Especially, focus on reading (note this doesn’t have to mean literally “read a book,” it can be, “watch a show,” or “read a comic,” or “listen to a podfic”) original stories you enjoy, and engage with them “like a writer” (how to do that could stand to have a full post written about it, and doing so is on my list…). Look at how the author(s)/creator(s) use language, what the features of their world and characters are, how their plot is structured and paced, all the elements of the story. If it’s too much to take in at once, read multiple times and focus on one thing each time. You need to learn to recognize tropes and character traits, to see them and interpret them and understand that any given story is simply an assemblage of these features, and you can take the ones you like, discard the ones you don’t, and recombine them in infinite ways to tell any story you want. Take notes as you read – scrawl down tropes you recognize, character features that engage you, plot elements.
Having trouble? Try to tag the work like you’d tag an AO3 story, if you’re having trouble recognizing tropes and how to subvert them.
Would you tag it “angst with a happy ending?” “Emotional hurt/comfort?” “Mutual pining?” Congratulations, you’ve found tropes.
“Engineer!Character?” or “Character Needs to Learn to Use Their Words” or “Character is a Bad Parent” or “Asexual Character?” Congratulations, you’ve found character features, traits, and archetypes.
“Slow burn,” “getting together,” reunions,” “arranged marriage,” hey look, it’s a whole bunch of plot elements!
Learn to recognize tropes, and see how different creators use them and subvert them, will also help you see that when you write fanfiction you already do all the things necessary to create and write an original story.
It can help to take a step back and consider your own oeuvre. What kinds of works have you already done? Which pieces have you pushed yourself on? What do you feel your strength is? Write more. Read more. Read posts like this one – there are so, so, so many excellent writing resources on the internet. And, when you write your own work, experiment with different approaches – learn about yourself as a writer. What time of day do you work best? Does outlining help you? Do you need an alpha reader to help keep you motivated? Grow your experience by writing – any writing – and get a handle on what works best for you.
Still at a loss where to start? Read on…
Every world, whether it’s high fantasy, hardcore space opera, or modern contemporary, will require worldbuilding. Worldbuilding isn’t just the big, universal questions like: “how does the magic/science work, where are the cities located, how do people live?” Worldbuilding is also: “what does the corporation where they work look like, what is in the characters’ neighborhood, what are the places and things that will need to exist to make the story idea function?” You don’t need to treat this as “all the biggest stuff,” and I guarantee that, as a fanfiction writer, you’ve done worldbuilding – even if all you write is 1k coda fics. You may cut some corners, relying on context, on the “big stuff,” but the small stuff still needs to be in a story or it won’t make sense. What works in fanfiction, by and large, is the same as what works in original fiction. You should never be leading your reader through a lovingly crafted description of the surroundings/magic system/neighborhood/space ship while the plot languishes. You never need to have all the details up front.. If you’re a planner, go for it, plan the minutiae! But if you’re a plantser or panster, don’t feel you need to transform magically into a planner just to write original fic! You don’t. I’m a plantser. It’s fine.
You can often assume a reader will know what’s going on (even if they won’t!), especially if the character would know what’s going on. Weaving information into a story isn’t a “thing you don’t do in fanfic” – improving your writing in fanfiction will teach you how to do this as surely as writing original fic would. The writing itself isn’t different. Drop a reader in, and introduce them to elements as you go.
Introduce elements gradually, avoid info dumps, make sure the characters act like…this is just the world…they’re not going to (for example) explain things in detail if they’re eminently familiar with them. Use all the same tools you’d use when writing fanfic. Indeed, I think one of the biggest challenges a fanfic author will face isn’t “how do I worldbuild?” but rather, learning how to do consciously and intentionally something that they’ve surely been doing all along, because no story can be done without worldbuilding!
Thus, we circle back to “read your own work and the work of others and see what you’ve done and what others have done.” Force yourself to see that you do worldbuilding when you describe their surroundings, when you introduce story elements, when you say what they’re wearing. All the details that make your fanfiction rich and vibrant are worldbuilding. You build the world around the characters – whether they’re canon or OC – and then they interact with it to tell your story!
(Now, all that said, if you’re like, “that’s all well and good but how do I even start when I want to create a whole new world?” There are a lot of good articles on that; I’m personally partial to this list of questions by Patricia C. Wrede.)
You create a character every time you write. Yes, if you’re creating fanfiction, that character already exists in some form, but you’re still creating: you’re deciding, in the context of your fanfic, what aspects of that character you want to explore, what behaviors of theirs you want to highlight, what things they do you’d rather ignore. You dictate their actions, decide how they’re established canon behavior applies to the unique and different circumstances you are exposing them to be. This is true even if the story is “all canon;” that said, the more AU a story is, the more likely the characters are to be essentially “original characters in a mask” – yeah, you might be using the names from canon, but when all is said and done what you actually are writing about is a new character, featuring the archetypes you chose from the base character and manipulated into a new environment. AUs change character ages, professions, surroundings, backstory, appearance, species, gender, sexuality, family, birthplace, native language, ethnicity, religion, intelligence, presentation type, I could go on…when you make them from Ancient Greece instead of modern America, when you decide they’re a half-octopus, when you say “oh, they’re ace,” when you go, “what if they were trans,” when you think, “I’m really in the mood for some pwp A/B/O…” you’re creating new character with aspects of the original character. The goal is often to keep them “enough like” the original character to be recognizable, but that doesn’t change that, in many AUs (and sometimes even in canon fics!), if the character names were swapped out with a find-and-replace, a reader coming in would be hard-pressed to recognize the source material. They might even guess the wrong ship (this sounds just like a Stucky story! they say, while you know it actually started as Destiel).
This is because characters are composed of archetypes and personality traits. They’re aggressive, they’re shy, they’re brave, they’re risk-averse, they’re selfish, they’re a martyr, there’s a huge menu of options, and any given character is rarely black or white…and when you decide how to portray a canon character in your fic, you’re automatically, often without thinking about it consciously, saying, “these are the archetypes and personality traits I want to focus on, these are the ones that’ll be paramount for this iteration of this character, the others won’t come up.”
So, much like worldbuilding, the concern you have when you transition to original fic shouldn’t be, “I’ve never had to make a character WHAT DO?” it should be, “I’ve been making and modifying characters all along, how do I bring myself to do intentionally what I’ve been doing anyway?”
I’ll give you one guess what the answer is, ha. Also, yet again, there are a lot of resources to help an author learn to do this “on purpose.” A Google Image Search for “character design writing sheet” turns up zillions of results, for example – look through, try a few, see what works for you, make some characters just for fun!
If you’re really struggling, try using one of those sheets to write up different “versions” of the same character you’ve written in multiple fanfics. Like, pick a canon fic you’ve written, and make a sheet for the main canon character, then pick an AU you’ve written, and make a sheet for that same canon character. You’ll notice pretty quickly that they each write up differently – they’ve got different goals, different motivations, different ways they react, even though they’re the “same” character. Pick the two “most different” versions you’ve written of that character, and compare, and it’ll start to be pretty clear: you’ve been making characters all along, so just…keep at it.
“But what story should I tell?” can be a tough question to answer, especially for fanfiction authors who usually write shorter pieces, inserts, codas, and the like. The first thing to remember is…there’s no reason you should tell different kinds of stories! You can write a 2k fluffy meet cute between OCs. Not every original fic needs to be a 500k epic fantasy world saving adventure. There’s absolutely no reason you can’t write exactly the same kinds of stories. Yes, you’re not going to write a “fix it” or a coda for your OCs, but you can absolutely write “moment between” original pieces. You can write drabbles. You can write shorts, novellas, pwp, anything.
However, if you want something more involved…I think you’re starting to get the gist here but I’ll reiterate one last time…look at your source canon material and at the fanfiction you’ve been writing. What were the story elements you chose to incorporate when you made your transformative piece? What do you love about that source material that you’d like to emulate? Do you enjoy a good mystery? Do you like the agonizing drag of slow burn? Do you crave that “I COULD JUST SMACK THEM BOTH” of idiots to lovers? Do you want historical drama, political machinations, high adventure, space battles? Consider what story elements drew you to that fandom, what about it made you go, “THAT’S the one I want to write for!” Consider which story elements you most enjoy playing with when you write fanfiction. Then…do more of that. If you love a good plot twist, or an air of horror, or BDSM, or, or, or…that’s a good start for figuring out what story to tell.
It doesn’t have to be what you’ve written the most of, to be clear – but absolutely it should be something you love and want to emulate. If you don’t love it, what’s the point in writing it?
Figuring out what story you want to tell with OCs isn’t magically different than figuring out what story you want to tell for fanfiction. Your best bet, truly, is to go about things using exactly the same strategy you use for fanfiction. If it helps, you can even plot it using fic characters – pretend it’s an AU, figure out the story you’d tell with canon characters in that AU. If you’re playing with archetypes as discussed above (spoilers: you are), and you’ve put together a world for them to play in, creating a story to tell in an AU using “established” characters is exactly the same as writing original work, except you give them different names, and you don’t throw in random references to canon or quotes that insiders will get.
The biggest mistake most writers make when they transition from fanfiction writing to original fiction writing is treating original fiction as some ineffably Different And Unique And New form of writing. It’s not. A good original fic and a good fanfic will have many, many elements in common (YES, even if the fanfic is set in the canon verse!).
The best advice I can give, honestly?
Do exactly what you’d do when you sit down to conceptualize a new fanfic, but every time you hit up against “Oh I can’t have them say that, that’d be OOC,” or “Oh, I can’t make that happen, that technology/magic doesn’t exist in that world,” or “Oh, I’m going to have to change that, there’s no canon character that makes sense for a role like that,” you can go “OH WAIT THIS IS ORIGINAL I DO WHAT I WANT!” and you make that thing you want them to say be IC for them, you change the technology/magic/whatever so what you need exists, you create a character that’ll fit that role.
Fanfic or original fic, the story is always your sandbox.
Learning to edit your own writing effectively and thoroughly is a difficult skill to learn. It can be especially hard to spot small errors when you, as the author, know what you meant to say – your eye will often gloss over what your document actually says. To learn to edit your work well requires practice and careful reading of work you admire and want to emulate – we could give advice on how to do that level, certainly, but no amount of advice will negate the need to work at it until you get the hang of it and experiment with different strategies until you find one that works for you. However, spotting small errors that are easy to overlook in your own work is a much more solvable problem. Here’s some suggestions to help you look at familiar words with fresh eyes!
Write a first draft in a font you’re comfortable with (most of us here at DPP use either Times New Roman or Arial), and then when it’s time to edit, switch to a radically different font – like Comic Sans, or, if you struggle with sans serif fonts, Courier.
Change the background color of your document. Do you usually write in day mode? Try editing in night mode! Do you usually write with a colored background to reduce eye strain? Try a different color, or white!
Change the font color in your document. If you default to writing in black, try red, or, if doing this in tandem with a background color change, try switching the font color to one that looks just awful with your chosen background color.
Change the font size in your document. This can be especially helpful because it’ll radically change where in any given line your words fall – it’s often harder to spot issues at the very end of lines, because our brain fills in the end when we move to the next line, so adjusting where things fall on the page can help.
Switch what medium you’re working in – if you typed your first draft, print it out or re-write it by hand. If you hand wrote your first draft, edit it as you type it up!
Read it out loud. Yes, the whole thing. Yes, every single word. This will help spot typos, missing words, weird commas, etc., and can also help identify sentences that are off, repetitive, or otherwise wonky.
Alternatively, find someone else to read it outloud to you! You can take notes and make changes as you listen to them.
If you use an outline, go back and compare your draft to the outline. This can help make sure you didn’t miss anything, and also doing a side-by-side reading can help find small things.
Change the characters names using a simple find-and-replace, it can help it feel like you’re reading something different.
Put it aside for a few weeks and work on other things, then come back and read it through straight, making no changes – read it like you’re a reader, rather than reading it like you’re the author, and try to spot what you may have left out or been unclear about.
Getting a story “clean” from a SPAG (spelling and grammar) point of view is hard, and even for an experienced copyeditor, it usually takes multiple read-throughs. If you’ve found it’s something you struggle with, one of the perks of the above suggestions is that nearly all can be tried with minimal effort – you’ll quickly be able to tell whether, for example, changing the font helps you or not. If it does help – great, you’ve found a new tool to help you edit! If it doesn’t help – there’s plenty more things on the list for you to try!
Do y’all have any different tricks you use to help you edit? Let us know, we’d love to expand our list!
@licieoic and @nottesilhouette(on Tumblr) contributed ideas to this list.