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!
Hey everyone! This is Aria, one of the resident fandom olds here to bring you a guest blog post this week. The topic is near and dear to my heart, so let’s dive straight into talking about that ever-ominous thundercloud – Writing Advice!
Writing advice is a tricky subject for many authors – what works for one clearly doesn’t work for another, and what’s essential for one genre might not even apply to another genre . (Certain authors can pry adverbs from my cold, dead hands.) It doesn’t matter who is offering it, where, or when: it is an industry truism that writing advice is as varied as writers themselves.
With that in mind, I asked ten different authors for writing advice, in the hope to highlight just how different we all are, even when approaching the same question.
The question I posed to everyone individually (so no one would get worried if they gave the same answer), was as follows: What is one piece of writing/writerly advice you hold as a Universal Constant? That no matter what you are writing or what you are working on still holds true?
As I hoped, the advice is as varied as the authors are!
Hmm I think for me, the Universal Constant is that [my writing has] got to make me feel good. Not necessarily happy, because I’ve definitely written through tears before, but it’s got to make me feel…satisfied, or give me catharsis, or lead me towards a goal I’m passionate about (looking at you, med school essays!).
Even if [my writing is] for school, getting things done feels good, and for creative writing, I want to feel like I’ve stretched my writing brain or accomplished something cool — if I’m not getting that feeling, it’s time for a break and maybe a new plan of attack.
“You can’t think your way out of a writer’s block. Most of the time you need to write yourself out of a thinking block.” – John Rogers
When a story is fighting me this is often the solution. Either the scene is going against the characterization, the characters are lacking agency/being too passive, or I went wrong three sentences back; the answer to getting the story flowing is to write it differently and see how that feels. Rather than try to force an existing scene by coming up with better justification for an OOC (Out of Character) passage or diving into a new research rabbit hole.
I don’t know where this advice first came from (it’s one of those things that just gets passed around until it’s from the general writer mindscape, especially in fandom spaces), but this is the advice I tend to ground myself in: “Write what you want to read.” What that means can vary depending on context, of course, but it gives a guiding point to return to when I’m stuck.
The thing I want to read could be a specific character dynamic, or leaning into descriptions of the environment, or a plot beat I really want to hit, or even (in a nonfiction context) just the clearest explanation of an event/rule I know how to give. Writing what I want to read means that I’m going to enjoy myself more, and that means that I’m going to be able to write much more easily, and that makes it more likely I’ll finish stories and be able to share them with other people – and then I can find people who like the same things in stories I do, and we all win!
The most constant advice that I really try to keep in mind is that sure, someone else may have written it, but not you. Everyone has unique experiences, and that makes your writing unique. No one can write something the exact way you would. It’s my favorite advice I’ve ever gotten, and I feel that it’s always relevant.
Writing by habit is often easier than waiting for the muse. When I feel out of practice in my writing, I find that starting again is an uphill climb, but setting a daily goal helps me get back into the flow. That goal could be just writing at all or a certain (achievable) number of words. That way, I know I’ve reached the goal not when I’ve hit a certain quality of writing, but when I sat down at the keys. Exercising my writing muscles (even when I’m afraid to) makes the creativity flow so much better than avoiding the ominous blank page!
[My writing advice is] that you have to finish. And I don’t mean that you have to finish everything that you write; I’ve got easily a dozen stories or more that are either unfinished or never made it past the first draft. But if you’re writing with the goal of sharing your stories with an audience, be that via fanfic or original fiction or what have you, I really think one of the best things you can do is learn to finish them. This quote about it in particular is one that I’ve held close to my heart for years:
“Finish. The difference between being a writer and being a person of talent is the discipline it takes to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish. Don’t talk about doing it. Do it. Finish.” — E. L. Konigsburg
I think my universal constant is that I write because I want to write, and I create for myself. That means not caring what other people think of the topics I write [about], as long as I’m behind whatever it is I’m writing. (It also means that I know when I’m forcing it and that I need to stop when writing becomes a chore rather than something for fun or a hobby.)
I think the one [piece of writing advice] that has been truest for me, regardless of what I’m working on, is that if something isn’t working [I should] step away from it for a bit and go work on something else. Usually if there’s a problem, I need to let it percolate in the back of my head instead of banging my head against a wall.
Focus on the feeling. If you can write the feeling so that it’s filling you from the tips of your toes to the hair on your head, then you’re on the right track. People don’t care half as much about the setting and wording as they do about the feeling.
When people say “step inside your character”, I think what they mean is “let your character feel and feel along with them until feelings come out on your page and stab your reader’s eyeballs until they’re feeling right along with you.” Everything else can be edited later, as long as you capture and express the emotions.
Fall in love with your characters. If you don’t love them, no one else will. And yes, this includes the antagonists and every single side character. And while you’re doing that, remember that every single character thinks they are the star of their own narrative, so let them tell you what it is, even if it’s not the main storyline. Let them come alive.
Wonderfully said, everyone! I’m going to add my answer to the question as well, because sometimes, I’ve needed this reminder far more than I’ll admit!
Don’t be afraid to write badly. Or poorly, or lazily. (Take that, Mr. Adverb-Hater.) There is a freedom I never realized before in allowing myself to write “badly:” to overuse certain words, phrases, and even styles as I write my rough draft. When I remember not to focus on the minutiae of a story, I can focus on the bigger problems, and fix the small ones later. Once the words are on the page, they can be fixed, but they have to be put on the page first. Write badly, edit, learn, get better, and write again.
Writing advice as a topic is a mix of controversial and contradictory; all advice should be applied in moderation rather than treated as an endless stream of syrup being poured over a stack of pancakes. (And now I want pancakes…) It’s always all right if advice doesn’t apply to you – but understanding why the advice is given is important. There are other authors out there who might need the advice that isn’t right for you.
When I set out to write this blog post, I had two goals. The first was I wanted to highlight how varied writing advice and tips can be. The second one was for everyone reading it to walk away with one piece of advice that they could hold to heart because it fit them. I accomplished the first, but the second is entirely up to every author reading this.
The one consistent theme through all of this advice comes down to two words: Keep Writing. Whether that’s daydreaming about your story or putting the words down on the page, write.
Last, but not least, I’ll leave you all with the same question, because I know there are more answers out there that we all would love to hear:
What is one piece of writing/writerly advice you hold as a Universal Constant? That no matter what you are writing, what you are working on, still holds true.
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.
As we do our final copyedit to catch any tiny errors that may have slipped through into the final version of Add Magic to Taste, I (@unforth, the Press’s lead editor) have been reinforcing and formalizing my knowledge of how to use punctuation when dealing with the following sentence structure:
adjective1 adjective2 noun
Whether commas and/or hyphens are needed depends primarily on two factors:
Is adjective1 modifying adjective2, or are they both modifying the noun?
Are adjective1 and adjective2 coordinate or cumulative adjectives?
I’m not going to get in-depth on this post about what coordinate and cumulative adjectives are – there’s already some great resources for that, such as this Writing Fundamentals Guide post and this article by Grammar Girl. Covering that as well as the below is too much for one post. Instead, this post will focus on strategies for telling the difference between three cases:
adjective1-adjective2 noun (Case 1)
adjective1, adjective2 noun (Case 2)
adjective1 adjective2 noun (Case 3)
For starters, carefully consider what the meaning of adjective1, adjective2, and noun is when they’re used together. As in, what, specifically, is being described, and what is being established about it? You (as editor or writer!) need to know what you’re actually trying to say before you can make sure it’s written in a grammatically correct way. You also need to keep in mind the context of your story, because that might change your aimed-for meaning (for example, in one story, a box being wooden might be an incidental description, and in another, a box being wooden might be absolutely essential and noteworthy, and that could potentially influence the punctuation).
Once you know what you’re trying to say (“I’m trying to say that the box is wooden and beautiful;” “I’m trying to say that the wooden box is beautiful;” “I’m trying to say that the beautiful box is made of wood;” etc.) analyze your options by taking your three words (adjective1, adjective2, and noun – though note that adjective2 may not look like an adjective – it’s often a noun or verb that’s functioning as an adjective, because it’s modifying the noun) and consider iterations of them as sentences.
Does adjective1 + noun make sense and, if it does, does it also preserve the essential meaning of adjective1 + adjective2 + noun? Which is to say – is the only difference that, if adjective2 is removed, noun is described a little less, but the meaning is still clear and is what the writer intended? (If yes, see Cases 2 and 3 below; if no, see Case 1 below)
Are adjective1 and adjective2 in the same or different adjective “categories”? In English, adjectives make the most sense if they’re used in an order determined by the category they fall into – you can read more about that in this Grammarly post. Different sources use different lists of “categories,” and what “order” they go in can vary contextually, but they are essentially: opinion (beautiful, ugly), size (big, thin), age (three-years-old, ancient), condition (worn, new-made), shape (square, cylindrical), color (blue, whitish), origin/nationality/religion (Muslim, London-based), material (wooden, painted), purpose (archival, athletic). If adjective1 and adjective2 are in the same category (large, wide house; slippery, slick spill) then you should most likely refer to Case 2 below; if they’re in different categories (slow rectangular train; beautiful archival paper) you should most likely refer to Case 3 below.)
Similarly, does adjective2 + noun make sense and, if it does, does it also preserve the essential meaning? (If yes, see Cases 2 and 3 below; if no, see Case 1 below)
If the sentence is reworded as “adjective1 and adjective2 noun” does it make sense and preserve the intended meaning? (If yes, see Case 2 below; if no, see Cases 1 and 3 below)
If the sentence is reworded as adjective2 adjective1 noun, does it make sense and preserve the intended meaning? (If yes, see Case 2 below; if no, see Cases 1 and 3 below)
Visualize your sentence as units – does each word function more-or-less “alone” or do they make most sense when imagined as couples, as in (adjective1 + adjective2) + noun makes the most sense (if yes, see Case 1 below), or adjective1 + (adjective2 + noun) makes the most sense (if yes, see Case 3 below)? (if neither makes more or less sense, see Case 2 below)
Try plugging your words into following examples – the one that makes sense and preserves meaning is almost certainly the one you want. Option 1: “the noun is adjective1 adjective2” (and doesn’t make sense if a word is put between adjective1 and adjective2, in which case go to Case 1 below). Option 2: “the noun is adjective1 and adjective2” (in which case, go to Case 2 below). Option 3: “the adjective2 noun is adjective1” (in which case, go to Case 3 below). This can be especially helpful for figuring out if you’re dealing with a case where context makes a difference the adjectives cumulative (because, as I said, sometimes “the box is wooden and beautiful,” and “wooden” and “beautiful are equally meaningful – though they’re in different adjective categories – and sometimes, “the wooden box is beautiful” (especially as compared to a different box made of another material) is more what you’re aiming for – and that will affect the punctuation.)
All right – so far, so confusing, right? On to the specifics and examples!
Case 1: adjective1 is modifying adjective2, and combined, they make an adjectival phrase which modifies the noun – in which case, a hyphen is needed between adjective1 and adjective2.
Case 1 Example 1: his blue-green eyes. Explanation: the color of the eyes is a combination of blue and green; if you say “blue eyes” or “green eyes,” neither conveys the same meaning/communicates the same color. Instead, blue and green are combining to BOTH, together, give significant information about the color of his eyes.
Case 1 Example 2: the load-bearing wall. Explanation: “the load wall” and “the bearing wall” and “the load and bearing wall” are all gibberish that in no way preserve the intended meaning. “Load” and “bearing” need to be coupled together and interpreted as a single adjective “unit.”
Case 1 Example 3: the half-eaten muffin. Explanation: once again, consider our bullet list above – “the half muffin” could make sense but doesn’t preserve the intended meaning (for example, it could have been cut in half instead of eaten). “The eaten muffin” sort of makes sense, but again doesn’t preserve the meaning – the muffin is only partially eaten. The “half eaten muffin” is nothing – an “eaten muffin” isn’t a thing – and “the half and eaten muffin” is obviously nothing – and “the eaten half muffin” changes the meaning, implying someone ate all of half a muffin – and there’d need to be a hyphen between half and muffin. Only with a hyphen does the sentence make sense AND convey this specific meaning.
Case 2: adjective1 and adjective2 are both equally modifying the noun, and all of the following sentence re-structuring examples lead to new phrases that make sense and preserve the intended meaning (if…with slightly less descriptive power): “adjective1 noun,” “adjective2 noun,” and “adjective1 and adjective2 noun.” adjective1 and adjective2 are most likely to fit these pattern examples if they’re in the same category, as described above. In this case, adjective1 and adjective2 are functioning as coordinate adjectives, and the correct phrasing will be: adjective1, adjective2 noun -> a comma is needed between adjective1 and adjective2.
Case 2 Example 1: the wide, open field. Explanation: “the wide field” – okay, we know a little less about the field, but it still makes sense. “The open field” – same. “The wide and open field” – it’s a little clunky, but it also makes sense. “The open and wide field” – sounds slightly odd, because in English we like our adjectives in a certain order and if we change that order it makes (especially native speaker’s) eyebrows twitch, but it does function as a sentence. “The field is wide and open” – also makes sense. They’re also arguably in the same category (size). So, these are coordinate adjectives, and a comma is needed between them.
Case 2 Example 2: my pretty, erudite friend. Explanation: “my pretty friend,” “my erudite friend,” “my pretty and erudite friend,” “my erudite and pretty friend,” “my friend is pretty and erudite,” all of these make perfect sense, so – comma! (also – same category – opinion)
Case 2 Example 3: the soft, fuzzy toy. Explanation: I could go over it a million times – why not try it your self? Break it down into adjective1 + noun, adjective2 + noun, adjective1 and adjective2 noun, adjective2 and adjective1 noun, the noun is adjective1 and adjective2…all good, right? Some may niggle at the ear because of English adjective order, but they all essentially work. (and again – category is descriptive opinion – so, same)
Note: As I keep saying, whether something is Case 2 or Case 3 can be contextually dependent. There is no hard-and-fast rule – even the examples above, which I tried to make clear and straightforward (the clear, straightforward examples?) could arguably have no comma, depending on context. This is “indefinite” enough, often, that no one is gonna come down on you if you don’t do it right; if you’re really not sure, it’s probably better to err on the side of “no comma,” Case 3. But, you can also keep in mind that the “weirder,” “clunkier,” “awkwarder,” “more stilted” a sentence sounds when you put “and” between the adjectives, the more likely we are to need Case 3. And also, even with context, it’s usually best to use Case 3 if the adjectives are in different categories.
Case 3: adjective2 is directly modifying noun, and adjective1 makes most sense considered as describing the “unit” made of “adjective2 noun.” “adjective2 noun” still makes clear sense, but “adjective1 noun” is missing essential meaning that contextualizes the information being presented. “adjective1 and adjective2 noun” reads like gibberish, and “adjective2 adjective1 noun” similarly makes no sense. In this case, the adjectives are cumulative, and they should not get a comma between them.
Case 3 Example 1: the elderly American tourist. Explanation: “the elderly and American tourist” does vaguely make sense, but it loses essential meaning – we’re not describing the tourist, we’re describing the American tourist. Whether “American” is critical information will depend, somewhat, on context, but try changing the order – “the American elderly tourist” reads as wrong almost always – unless we’re dealing with a case where there’s a whole hoard of elderly tourists and we specifically mean the American one. From a category standpoint, they’re also clearly in different categories – elderly is about age/description, American nationality. Thus, no comma should be used.
Case 3 Example 2: the wide road shoulder. Explanation: this one is more clear-cut than the previous, because essential meaning is lost when the order is changed or the middle word (which, yes, is a noun, but it’s modifying/altering the meaning of shoulder) – without “road” there, “shoulder” means something completely different. “Road shoulder” makes sense alone, but “the road wide shoulder” is nonsense, as is “the wide and road shoulder.” And, different categories – wide is size, whereas road describes purpose.
Case 3 Example 3: your orange knit sweater. Explanation: again, this is about establishing a category (the “knit sweater”) that is then being described as orange. While, yes, “orange sweater” makes sense and could arguably cause this to fall into Case 2, “the knit orange sweater” reads oddly (again, unless we’re differentiating one orange sweater from the others), as does “the orange and knit sweater.” Further, for categories – color and material/means of making are again, clearly different, and so this is an instance where adjectives in different categories pile, and the entire unit of “knit sweater” is what is being described by “orange.”
I know it’s hard. Especially for non-native speakers, who may not have the exposure to the language to know “by ear” what “sounds weird,” it can be hard to recognize the subtle differences. Sadly, this is an instance of grammar where “it just sounds right that way” is often a good way (especially for a native speaker) to gauge which Case is right. But, in general, if adjective2 + noun make a unit that would clearly distinguish noun from other forms of noun (the American tourist, the knit sweater, the peaked roof, etc.) then you probably want Case 3 and shouldn’t use a comma.
In the end, there’s no simple rules for this. It’s complex, and there are tons of exceptions to the “rules,” and even if you’re super careful, some of these kinds of cases will likely slip through. Further, even if you do your best, and go with the most “technically correct” approach, you’ll end up with things that look weird (“the bright-blue bird” is the most technically correct way to write it – bright is definitely modifying the color blue – but no one would actually write it this way because it reads “weird.” Like, yes, the bird is not bright, which means the hyphen is “necessary” but…it’s not actually.) So – consider what you mean, and what reads smoothly, and what you see other people doing, and do your best.
On the plus side – if you’re an experienced writer/editor/reader, and you’ve read all this and you’re still confused, your readers are in the same boat as you – hardly anyone who reads your edited work will know these rules well enough to even notice that you might have gotten one or two wrong.
So, don’t stress about it much – this is definitely on the most pedantic end of technical copyediting grammar shenanigans – but hey, now you know!
Hi everyone, and welcome to our second guest post! We approached a trans man, and fellow writer, to put together a list of suggestions for cis people who want to write trans male characters! He has chosen to remain anonymous. Always remember, there is no one trans experience, and no one trans person’s knowledge will reflect the range of ways that trans people live. Our post author writes from his perspective, based on his knowledge and research, and much of this is relatively specific to the modern United States. Always use multiple sources when writing a character with an identity or identities that you don’t share!
So you want to write a trans male character but you’re not a trans man yourself. Good! We need more trans male characters out there in the world. There are a few things to consider, however. This is not a perfect list (I would never claim to be perfect), but here are some thoughts from a trans man about writing people like me.
Trans men are men. They talk like men, think like men, and walk like men, except where socialization as women has forced otherwise. By this I mean that descriptions should not include things like “he walked delicately, like a woman”. However he walks, it’s like a man, because he’s a man. Other characters should not note that he “thinks like a woman” or that he “acts like a woman.” If you talk about a trans man transitioning and you mention that he is working on ways to masculinize his speech patterns or walking, that’s fine, but make sure it’s done from his perspective, e.g. “Michael tried to lower his voice, attempting to sound more like his father.” Do not use “Michael tried to lower his voice, not wanting to sound like a woman.” It’s his voice and he sounds like a man. Also, many woman have deeper registers and many men have higher registers, and there’s honestly not that much difference between a woman who speaks in a low alto and a man who speaks in a high tenor. Avoid gendering voices, mannerisms, and other things. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s a concept, idea, or an inanimate or non-sentient thing, it is physically and/or emotionally incapable of having a gender and you should not assign one to it.
1. A trans man who has decided that all he needs to do is come out to be a man is still a man, with a man’s body and male genitals, because he says he’s a man. Even if he is not out, he is a man. He can be uncomfortable with his body, or with how others perceive his body, but it should not be described in terms of “womanly” aspects.
EX: David’s breasts made him uncomfortable, reminding him that others looked at him differently than how he would have liked.
2. 72% of trans men do not ever want full gender reassignment surgery, and this doesn’t make them “less of a man.” The surgeries are expensive, invasive, and don’t always result in a fully functional genital apparatus. Also, there are a lot of them. A trans man, to have a full semi-working penis (one that will not be useful for sex but will at least be useful for urination), is looking at at least three surgeries: to remove the labia, to ‘bulk up’ the clitoris, and to move the urethra. There are also surgeries to remove the cervix and/or the uterus, to create a scrotum, and to add a pump inside the scrotum attached to a surgical implant in the penis to assist with arousal. Even if a man has all these surgeries, the penis he gets loses most of its sensitivity and won’t become physically aroused (as in, achieve erection) without medical intervention. He may also need electrolysis to remove pubic hair. Ultimately, many trans men opt not to deal with it. Many still want top surgery, or a hysterectomy, or both, and often testosterone is used to help deepen their voice and change their body shape (but, again, gendering a trans man’s voice by suggesting it’s “feminine” because he’s not on testosterone or because his voice hasn’t dropped yet is not a great idea). It depends on the type and amount of dysphoria a person experiences, versus their financial and mental ability to deal with the different choices. Some trans men are happy with no hormones and only top surgery. Others want or need everything. There is no “correct” way to be trans.
3. Unless your story revolves around their transition (which, as a cis person, maybe it’s best you don’t do, honestly), there’s no reason to go into detail about your trans male character’s surgeries. If it’s not plot relevant, it’s probably not necessary.
4. If you’re writing porn, make sure to always use male pronouns for him, even if he has chosen not to go through surgery. If he has gone through surgery, what he has will be indistinguishable from a cis male penis except that he may need viagra or a surgical pump.
5. Reactions to testosterone are different for every trans man. Some men never have their voices drop, never grow a beard, and/or never bulk up and get all muscle-y. Some men are on testosterone for two weeks and have a Gandalf beard with a voice low enough to sing bass. It just depends, mostly on genetics. If your character’s father is a super hairy mountain man who sings bass in his lumberjack quartet, then your character is more likely to end up similar. If your character’s father is basically an elf, then he’s likely to be similar to that. Also, for a number of reasons, a trans man may choose not to or may be incapable of taking testosterone. Most doctors won’t prescribe it if the man wants to carry his own children in the future, for example.
6. Keep in mind that the order in which testosterone produces effects on a man’s body isn’t predictable, so don’t worry too hard about ‘getting it right.’ Even trans men can’t predict what they’ll look like after being on testosterone for a while.
7. Also, a note: If your character is transmasculine and nonbinary, and taking testosterone, it’s likely they will be on a lower dose than a trans man. That’s not always true, but testosterone can be given at a few different doses, depending on how drastic a change a person wants and how quickly they want that change to occur. There’s still no guarantee: a trans man may never be able to grow a beard on a full dose, while a transmasculine nonbinary person might be on a very low dose and have a beard within the first month. But, generally, lower doses are meant to bring out smaller changes over a longer period of time, while higher doses are meant to bring out larger changes over a shorter period of time.
8. A non-fluid trans man is going to consider himself a man at all times, and always use he/him pronouns for himself, whether or not everyone else does. If you’re writing a trans man point-of-view piece where he’s not out or where he’s not fully accepted, make sure he or the narrator always uses the right pronouns when others don’t. That helps remind your audience that he’s not the person other people think he is.
EX: Daniel was frustrated. His grandmother insisted on calling him “Sarah” no matter how many times he corrected her.
9. Menstruation is a difficult topic for a lot of trans men. Some men lose their ability to menstruate when they take testosterone, while others continue to menstruate. If they retain their uterus, however, the possibility of a menstrual cycle is always there. If/when menstruation happens for a trans man, it’s often a time of major dysphoria. A trans man may have a lot of issues surrounding menstruation. Having a cervix also means yearly Pap smears, which can also be uncomfortable or dysphoria-inducing. Dysphoria can also happen during ovulation, when a person is most fertile. The body during this time is “getting ready for a baby” and the changes can be very triggering.
10. Testosterone may stop menstruation, but it doesn’t necessarily stop pregnancy. Also, some trans men will go off their testosterone in order to carry their own child. During their pregnancy, it is important that they are still referred to as men. A trans man will generally prefer to be called “father” even if he carried the child, but some may prefer the term “mother.” If a cis person wishes to write a pregnant trans character, it would be better to err on the side of caution and use “father.” A trans man who has gone through top surgery will not likely be able to nurse his own children, but a man who has chosen to use a binder instead will be able to (probably – some people don’t/can’t lactate for other reasons). Whether or not he chooses to will be up to him.
11. Gender Dysphoria is the medical diagnosis given to trans people who want to do any form of medical transitioning. Being transgender is not in and of itself a diagnosis. A person can be transgender and choose never to transition medically. Dysphoria is generally most clearly understood as a form of discomfort in the body you possess. Sometimes a person experiencing dysphoria is uncomfortable with their body no matter what. He doesn’t like his breasts, for example, unless they are bound, no matter what his setting is, who is looking at him, etc. His dysphoria takes the form of nausea at the mere sight of them. Alternatively, some people only experience dysphoria relating to how others see them. For example, a man may not mind his breasts when he’s alone, and he doesn’t usually bind, but on a specific day while he wasn’t binding someone glance at his breasts before calling him ‘ma’am’ and now he can’t uncross his arms in case someone else looks his way. For some people dysphoria comes and goes, and they have good days and bad days. Also, images can be dysphoria-inducing. For example, seeing a pregnant person might remind a man that he has a uterus, and make him extremely uncomfortable all day. Other people may go several days, or weeks or months, without experiencing dysphoria, but when it hits it affects them for a long time or very severely. Or a person might experience dysphoria every day, as kind of a low-level mental fog they can’t shake.
12. Gender Euphoria is as valid as Gender Dysphoria. Gender Euphoria is the idea that a person might be content in the body given to them, but will never be truly happy unless they make a change. These people can live their whole lives as the gender assigned to them at birth without severe mental issues or physical problems, but it’s like living a life without color. They can do it, but if there’s a way to get color back, why wouldn’t they?
13. Changing names is complicated and takes time. It also differs in every state/country, and may need to be re-done when a trans man moves. In some states, all they need to change their name legally is a court order. In other areas, a trans man needs to have lived using their new name for a period of time, or have doctor’s notes and authorizations. Once the character has changed their name legally through the courts, they need to change their driver’s license, banking information, insurance, work papers, social security information, passport, birth certificate, and any other documentation bearing their name. It can take anywhere from a month to a year or more, and is expensive, sometimes prohibitively so. It’s okay to have a trans male character who goes by “Mark” but whose parents or grandparents refer to as “Melissa.” The important thing is to make sure narratively you are confirming that those people are wrong.
EX: “Melissa! It’s nice to see you come to visit!” Mark’s mom said. Mark cringed, hating the sound of his deadname, but he hadn’t yet been able to convince his mother to use the right one.
14. Do not portray a character binding for more than eight hours or with unsafe binders in a positive light. Just don’t. Binding, even with professional/high-end binders, is not safe. It’s a stopgap – safer than not binding at all for some people whose dysphoria is really bad. It constricts the lungs and can break ribs if not done properly. It can permanently alter a person’s chest cage if done for an extensive period of time. It’s a necessary evil for people who are waiting to get their surgery done, in order to keep them alive to have that surgery. It’s not a permanent cure-all. Binding also can cause dysphoria. A person who doesn’t have dysphoria surrounding his chest can develop it after wearing a binder. So, have your character bind safely, or discuss the issues surrounding unsafe binding. (And yes, this applies even in a fantasy setting or world where the technology may be different. A story is a story, but the impact it could have on a real trans man is potentially dangerous, so write with consideration, and if you do introduce a magical or technological solution to this, maintain awareness of the reality.)
15. Transitioning without an in-person support group is one of the most common factors in transitioning regret. Give your character someone to go to the doctor with them, someone to hold their hand when they get scared, someone to talk them through moments when they’re unsure. No one who goes under the knife is always completely 100% sure all the time. They need a community. Surgery and hormones are scary, even if a trans man knows he wants them, and trying to go it alone can spell disaster.
16. Given that a trans man will consider himself a man, it can be challenging to make it clear to a reader that he’s trans. If he’s the main/POV character, you can write him dealing with some dysphoria. For example, if you decide your character binds, mention that his breasts are bothering him particularly badly one day. Have him adjust his binder. Describe putting a binder on. That kind of thing. If he’s a minor character, it can be more challenging, but you can still have him do things like adjust a binder. You could also mention surgical scars, if a character takes off their shirt. Another thing you can do is just have the main character remember a time “before Mark went by Mark” (for example). Another way is to have the character mention some way in which they are fighting for trans rights, and acknowledge that the issue is personal to them. Try not to use the deadname unless he’s facing an actual microaggression by another character. The narrative or narrator character should never deadname the character.
17. FTM is not an accepted term anymore, as it implies that a person was one thing and changed. Generally speaking, if a trans man is not genderfluid, then he was never female or a woman. Likewise, the phrase “born in the wrong body” is not acceptable for use by cis people. The only real use it has is to explain dysphoria by transgender characters to cisgender characters who aren’t inclined to listen or try to understand. The accepted term is AFAB, or Assigned Female At Birth. Keep in mind that terms and labels change with time, so do your research. For example, if you’re writing a historical piece, different terms may be more appropriate, and if you’re writing a modern current-day piece, understand that in ten or twenty years the terminology you use will likely have grown outdated.
18. The proper way to write the term is always “trans man” and never “transman”. Trans is an adjective describing a type of man, just like you might say an Asian man or a muscled man or a gay man. This comes back to the idea that a trans man is always a man, first and foremost.
19. An easy pitfall to avoid if your trans male character’s setting is modern or modernesque is: Don’t make the story all about their oppression. We are aware of the many ways in which the modern world is trying to oppress and harm the trans community, but trans men can still be happy and interesting people. They can have dysphoria without being depressed. They aren’t necessarily the “down in the dumps” character. Also, trans men have a long history of being activists, and are often erased in history, so don’t be afraid to make your trans men an out-and-loud activist. Yes, terrible things have happened and continue to happen to trans men, and any trans man who has done any research into trans history will know about individuals like Brandon Teena. Trans men know the dangers they face. Knowing that bad things can and are happening doesn’t mean a trans man can’t find his own joy in life, despite things not being perfect.
20. Keep in mind when writing in historical settings that trans men have existed for as long as people have existed. Many trans men were able to go through life completely “undetected” until they died and those around them conducted culturally-common burial practices. It’s not unreasonable to have a trans man in Regency England, Yuan China, or Roman times. If you’re writing about non-European-centric history, many cultures acknowledged those who didn’t present the way their AGAB (assigned gender at birth) would suggest, and do your research. Also, keep intersectionality in mind, and tread especially carefully when writing a trans man from a culture and period other than your own. This post is mostly applicable to trans men in the modern era, and especially in the United States. The trans male experience will be different in other places in the world, for people of different ages and of different religions and ethnicities and races, so the more traits your trans man has that are outside your own experience as a cis writer, the more you should consider if it’s wise for you write the story you have in mind, or if it might not be better to allow in-group members to tell those stories. And never forget – trans men can and are all things – all races, all religions, abled and disabled, etc. People have nuanced identities and multiple identifiers and trans is always only one of many.
21. In fantastical or science fiction settings, please always ask yourself if oppression of trans people or bigotry against them is even needed. Maybe a society doesn’t assign gender at birth, but waits until a child is old enough to tell the society where they belong. Maybe a society reveres those who are under the transgender umbrella. Maybe children are considered genderless until they reach puberty. You have a million and one options; why limit yourself to what modern predominantly Western white Christian society says? If you do make a society that doesn’t look anything like the modern world, for example they assign gender at age five, think about how that would affect society as a whole. What kind of pronouns would be used for children under five? Are young children genderless, or are they seen as genderfluid? What about people who age past five and are still genderless or genderfluid? What are the naming conventions for children?
22. There are mixed feelings regarding how a science fiction or fantasy setting should treat transitioning. Should it be an easy fix, with magic or advance science doing it instantly or nearly so? Or should it be difficult, reflecting the modern situation where the process often years before a person can feel “finished?” That’s up to you. Trans people themselves are split on this, so there’s no pleasing everyone. Do your best, and whichever way you choose, make sure to tag it accurately or, for original fiction, be clear up front what approaches you’ve chosen, so people can choose not to read something that may make them uncomfortable at best or trigger them and profoundly harm them at worst.
Ultimately, your trans man is your character and you can do with him as you wish. Write responsibly, and do your research, and if you can, get a sensitivity reader or a beta who is a trans man.
So, go, diversify those stories, write the things, and present good representation! Happy writing!
The new writer in your writing group just sent out their latest story and it’s…not exciting. You know it needs work, but you’re not sure why, or where they should focus.
This is the blog post for you!
Before we get started, it’s important to note that this post isn’t aimed at people doing paid editing work. In the professional world, there are developmental editors, line editors, and copy editors, who all have a different focus. That is not what we’re covering here. Today, we want to help you informally give quality, detailed, encouraging feedback to your fellow writers.
The Unwritten Rules
Everyone seems to have a different understanding of what it means to beta, edit, or give feedback on a piece, so it’s best to be on the same page with your writer before you get started.
Think about what type of work you’re willing and able to do, how much time you have, and how much emotional labor you’re willing to take on. Then talk to your writer about their expectations.
Responsibilities as an editor/beta may include:
Know what the author’s expectation is and don’t overstep. Different people in different stages of writing are looking for, and will need, different types of support. It’s important to know what pieces of the story they want feedback on. If they tell you they don’t want feedback on dialogue, don’t give them feedback on dialogue. Since many terms are ambiguous or misunderstood, it may help you to use the list of story components in the next section to come to an agreement with your writer on what you’ll review.
Don’t offer expertise you don’t have. If your friend needs advice on their horse book and you know nothing about horses, be clear that your readthrough will not include any horse fact checking. Don’t offer grammar advice if you’re not good at grammar. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give feedback on things you do notice, but don’t misrepresent yourself, and understand your own limits.
Give positive and constructive feedback. It is important for a writer to know when something is working well. Don’t skimp on specific positive feedback — this is how you keep writers motivated. On the other hand, giving constructive feedback indicates where there are issues. Be specific on what you’re seeing and why it’s an issue. It can be hard for someone to improve if they don’t understand what’s wrong.
Be clear about your timing and availability, and provide updates if either changes. Typically, you’ll be doing this for free, as you’re able to fit it in your schedule. But it can be nerve wracking to hand your writing over for feedback and then hear nothing. For everyone’s sanity, keep the writer up to date on your expected timeline and let them know if you’re delayed for some reason. If you cannot complete the project for them, let them know. This could be for any reason — needing to withdraw, whatever the cause, is valid! It could be because working with the writer is tough, you don’t enjoy the story, life got tough, you got tired, etc. All of that is fine; just let them know that you won’t be able to continue working on the project.
Be honest if there are story aspects you can’t be objective about. Nearly all of your feedback is going to be personal opinion. There are some story elements that will evoke strong personal feelings. They can be tropes, styles, specific characterizations, or squicks. In these cases, ask the writer to get another opinion on that particular aspect, or, if you really want to continue, find similar published content to review and see if you can get a better sense of how other writers have handled it.
Don’t get personal. Your feedback should talk about the characters, the narrator, the plotline, the sentence structure, or other aspects of the story. Avoid making ‘you’ statements or judgements, suggested or explicit, in your feedback. Unless you’re looking at grammar or spelling, most of the feedback you’ll have will be your opinion. Don’t present it as fact.
Your expectations of the writer/friend/group member you are working with may include:
Being gracious in accepting feedback. A writer may provide explanations for an issue you noticed or seek to discuss your suggestions. However, if they constantly argue with you, that may be an indicator to step back.
Being responsible for emotional reactions to getting feedback. While getting feedback can be hard on the ego and self esteem, that is something the writer needs to work on themselves. While you can provide reassurance and do emotional labor if you’re comfortable, it is also very reasonable to step back if the writer isn’t ready to do that work.
Making the final choice regarding changes to the work. The writer should have a degree of confidence in accepting or rejecting your feedback based on their own sense of the story. While they may consult you on this, the onus is on them to make changes that preserve the core of the story they want to tell.
Some people aren’t ready for feedback, even though they’re seeking it. You’re not signing up to be a psychologist, a best friend, or an emotional support editor. You can let people know in advance that these are your expectations, or you can just keep them in mind for your own mental health. As stated above, you can always step back from a project, and if writers aren’t able to follow these few guidelines, it might be a good time to do that. (It’s also worth making sure that, as a writer, you’re able to give these things to your beta/editor.)
Specificity is Key
One of the hardest things in editing is pinning down the ‘whys’ of unexciting work, so let’s split the writing into several components and talk about evaluations you can make for each one.
You can also give this list to your writer ahead of time as a checklist, to see which things they want your feedback on.
Generally, your goal is going to be to help people improve incrementally. Each story they write should be better than the previous one, so you don’t need to go through every component for every story you edit. Generally, I wouldn’t suggest more than 3 editing rounds on any single story that isn’t intended for publication. Think of the ‘many pots’ theory — people who are honing their craft will improve more quickly by writing a lot of stories instead of incessantly polishing one.
With this in mind, try addressing issues in the order below, from general to precise. It doesn’t make sense to critique grammar and sentence structure if the plot isn’t solid, and it can be very hard on a writer to get feedback on all these components at once. If a piece is an early or rough draft, try evaluating no more than four components at a time, and give specific feedback on what does and doesn’t work, and why.
High Level Components
Does each character have a unique voice, or do they all sound the same?
In dialogue, are character voices preserved? Do they make vocabulary and sentence-structure choices that fit with how they’re being portrayed?
Does each character have specific motivations and focuses that are theirs alone?
Does each character move through the plot naturally, or do they seem to be shoehorned/railroaded into situations or decisions for the sake of the plot? Be specific about which character actions work and which don’t. Tell the writer what you see as their motivation/arc and why—and point out specific lines that indicate that motivation to you.
Does each character’s motivation seem to come naturally from your knowledge of them?
Are you invested (either positively or negatively) in the characters? If not, why not? Is it that they have nothing in common with you? Do you not understand where they’re coming from? Are they too perfect or too unsympathetic?
It’s a good idea to summarize the story and its moral from your point of view and provide that insight to the writer. This can help them understand if the points they were trying to make come through. The theme should tie in closely with the character arcs. If not, provide detailed feedback on where it does and doesn’t tie in.
For most issues with plot structure, you can narrow them down to pacing, characterization, logical progression, or unsatisfying resolution. Be specific about the issues you see and, when things are working well, point that out, too.
Is there conflict that interests you? Does it feel real?
Is there a climax? Do you feel drawn into it?
Do the plot points feel like logical steps within the story?
Is the resolution tied to the characters and their growth? Typically this will feel more real and relevant and satisfying than something you could never have seen coming.
Is the end satisfying? If not, is it because you felt the end sooner and the story kept going? Is it because too many threads were left unresolved? Is it just a matter of that last sentence or two being lackluster?
Point Of View:
Is the point of view clear and consistent?
Is the writing style and structure consistent with that point of view? For example, if a writer is working in first person or close third person, the style of the writing should reflect the way the character thinks. This extends to grammar, sentence structure, general vocabulary and profanity outside of the dialogue.
If there is head hopping (where the point of view changes from chapter to chapter or section to section), is it clear in the first few sentences whose point of view you’re now in? Chapter headers can be helpful, but it should be clear using structural, emotional, and stylistic changes that you’re with a new character now.
Are all five senses engaged? Does the character in question interact with their environment in realistic, consistent ways that reflect how people actually interact with the world?
Sometimes the point of view can feel odd if it’s too consistent. Humans don’t typically think logically and linearly all the time, so being in someone’s head may sometimes be contradictory or illogical. If it’s too straightforward, it might not ‘feel’ real.
Be specific about the areas that don’t work and break them down based on the questions above.
Does the story jump around, leaving you confused about what took place when?
Do some scenes move quickly where others drag, and does that make sense within the story?
If pacing isn’t working, often it’s about the level of detail or the sentence structure. Provide detailed feedback about what you care about in a given scene to help a writer focus in.
Is the setting clear and specific? Writing with specific place details is typically more rooted, interesting, and unique. If you find the setting vague and/or uninteresting and/or irrelevant, you might suggest replacing vague references — ‘favorite band’, ‘coffee shop on the corner’, ‘the office building’ — with specific names to ground the setting and make it feel more real.
It might also be a lack of specific detail in a scene that provides context beyond the characters themselves. Provide specific suggestions of what you feel like you’re missing. Is it in a specific scene, or throughout the story? Are there scenes that work well within the story, where others feel less grounded? Why?
Low Level Components
Sentence length and paragraph length should vary. The flow should feel natural.
When finding yourself ‘sticking’ on certain sentences, provide specific feedback on why they aren’t working. Examples are rhythm, vocabulary, subject matter (maybe something is off topic), ‘action’ vs ‘explanation’, passive vs. active voice.
Writing style should be consistent with the story — flowery prose works well for mythic or historical pieces and stories that use that type of language are typically slower moving. Quick action and short sentences are a better fit for murder mysteries, suspense, or modern, lighter fiction.
Style should be consistent within the story — it may vary slightly to show how quickly action is happening, but you shouldn’t feel like you’re reading two different stories.
SPAG (Spelling and Grammar):
Consider spelling and grammar in the context of the point of view, style and location of the story (eg, England vs. America vs. Australia).
If a point of view typically uses incorrect grammar, a SPAG check will include making sure that it doesn’t suddenly fall into perfect grammar for a while. In this case, consistency is going to be important to the story feeling authentic.
Word Count Requirements:
If the story has been written for a project, bang, anthology, zine, or other format that involves a required word count minimum or maximum, and the story is significantly over or under the aimed-for word count (30% or more/less), it may not make sense to go through larger edits until the sizing is closer to requirements. But, as a general rule, I’d say word count is one of the last things to worry about.
The best thing we can do for another writer is to keep them writing. Every single person will improve if they keep going. Encouragement is the most important feedback of all.
I hope this has helped you think about how you provide feedback. Let us know if you have other tips or tricks! This works best as a collaborative process where we all can support one another!
One of the most wonderful things about writing as a hobby is that you never have to worry about the length of your story. You can be as self-indulgent as you want, make your prose the royalist of purples, include every single side story and extra thought that strikes your fancy. It’s your story, with no limits, and you can proceed with it as you wish.
When transitioning from casual writing to a more professional writing milieu, this changes. If you want to publish, odds are, you’ll need to write to a word count. If a flash fiction serial says, “1,000 words or less,” your story can’t be 1,025 and still qualify. If a website says, “we accept novellas ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 words,” your story will need to fall into that window. Even when you consider novel-length works, stories are expected to be a certain word count to fit neatly into specific genres – romance is usually around 80,000 words, young adult usually 50,000 to 80,000, debut novels usually have to be 100,000 words or less regardless of genre, etc. If you self-publish or work with a small press, you may be able to get away with breaking these “rules,” but it’s still worthwhile to learn to read your own writing critically with length in mind and learn to recognize what you do and do not need to make your story work – and then, if length isn’t an issue in your publishing setting, you can always decide after figuring out what’s non-essential to just keep everything anyway.
If you’re writing for fun? You literally never have to worry about your word count (well, except for sometimes in specific challenges that have minimum and/or maximum word counts), and as such, this post is probably not for you.
But, if you’re used to writing in the “throw in everything and the kitchen sink” way that’s common in fandom fanfiction circles, and you’re trying to transition only to be suddenly confronted with the reality that you’ve written 6,000 words for a short story project with a maximum word count of 5,000…well, we at Duck Prints Press have been there, we are in fact there right now, as we finish our stories for our upcoming anthology Add Magic to Taste and many of us wrote first drafts that were well over the maximum word count.
So, based on our experiences, here are our suggestions on approaches to help your story shorter…without losing the story you wanted to tell!
When reviewing dialog, keep an eye out for “uh,” “er,” “I mean,” “well,” and other casual extra words. A small amount of that kind of language usage can make dialog more realistic, but a little goes a long way, and often a fair number of words can be removed by cutting these words, without negatively impacting your story at all.
Active voice almost always uses fewer words than passive voice, so try to use active voice more (but don’t forget that passive voice is important for varying up your sentence structures and keeping your story interesting, so don’t only write in active voice!).
Look for places where you can replace phrases with single words that mean the same thing. You can often save a lot of words by switching out phrases like “come back” for “return” and seeking out other places where one word can do the work of many.
Cut sentences that add atmosphere but don’t forward the plot or grow your characters. (Obviously, use your judgement. Don’t cut ALL the flavor, but start by going – I’ve got two sentences that are mostly flavor text – which adds more? And then delete the other, or combine them into one shorter sentence.)
Remove superfluous dialog tags. If it’s clear who’s talking, especially if it’s a conversation between only two people, you can cut all the he saids, she saids.
Look for places where you’ve written repetitively – at the most basic level, “ ‘hahaha,’ he laughed,” is an example, but repetition is often more subtle, like instances where you give information in once sentence, and then rephrase part or all of that sentence in the next one – it’s better to poke at the two sentences until you think of an effective, and more concise, way to make them into only one sentence. This also goes for scenes – if you’ve got two scenes that tend towards accomplishing the same plot-related goal, consider combining them into one scene.
Have a reason for every sentence, and even every sentence clause (as in, every comma insertion, every part of the sentence, every em dashed inclusion, that kind of thing). Ask yourself – what function does this serve? Have I met that function somewhere else? If it serves no function, or if it’s duplicative, consider cutting it. Or, the answer may be “none,” and you may choose to save it anyway – because it adds flavor, or is very in character for your PoV person, or any of a number of reasons. But if you’re saving it, make sure you’ve done so intentionally. It’s important to be aware of what you’re trying to do with your words, or else how can you recognize what to cut, and what not to cut?
Likewise, have a reason for every scene. They should all move the story along – whatever the story is, it doesn’t have to be “the end of the world,” your story can be simple and straightforward and sequential…but if you’re working to a word count, your scenes should still forward the story toward that end point. If the scene doesn’t contribute…you may not need them, or you may be able to fold it in with another scene, as suggested in item 6.
Review the worldbuilding you’ve included, and consider what you’re trying to accomplish with your story. A bit of worldbuilding outside of the bare essentials makes a story feel fleshed out, but again, a little can go a long way. If you’ve got lots of “fun” worldbuilding bits that don’t actually forward your plot and aren’t relevant to your characters, cut them. You can always put them as extras in your blog later, but they’ll just make your story clunky if you have a lot of them.
Beware of info-dumps. Often finding a more natural way to integrate that information – showing instead of telling in bits throughout the story – can help reduce word count.
Alternatively – if you over-show, and never tell, this will vastly increase your word count, so consider if there are any places in your story where you can gloss over the details in favor of a shorter more “tell-y” description. You don’t need to go into a minute description of every smile and laugh – sometimes it’s fine to just say, “she was happy” or “she frowned” without going into a long description of their reaction that makes the reader infer that they were happy. (Anyone who unconditionally says “show, don’t tell,” is giving you bad writing advice. It’s much more important to learn to recognize when showing is more appropriate, and when telling is more appropriate, because no story will function as a cohesive whole if it’s all one or all the other.)
If you’ve got long paragraphs, they’re often prime places to look for entire sentences to cut. Read them critically and consider what’s actually helping your story instead of just adding word count chonk.
Try reading some or all of the dialog out loud; if it gets boring, repetitive, or unnecessary, end your scene wherever you start to lose interest, and cut the dialog that came after. If necessary, add a sentence or two of description at the end to make sure the transition is abrupt, but honestly, you often won’t even need to do so – scenes that end at the final punchy point in a discussion often work very well.
Create a specific goal for a scene or chapter. Maybe it’s revealing a specific piece of information, or having a character discover a specific thing, or having a specific unexpected event occur, but, whatever it is, make sure you can say, “this scene/chapter is supposed to accomplish this.” Once you know what you’re trying to do, check if the scene met that goal, make any necessary changes to ensure it does, and cut things that don’t help the scene meet that goal.
Building on the previous one, you can do the same thing, but for your entire story. Starting from the beginning, re-outline the story scene-by-scene and/or chapter-by-chapter, picking out what the main “beats” and most important themes are, and then re-read your draft and make sure you’re hitting those clearly. Consider cutting out the pieces of your story that don’t contribute to those, and definitely cut the pieces that distract from those key moments (unless, of course, the distraction is the point.)
Re-read a section you think could be cut and see if any sentences snag your attention. Poke at that bit until you figure out why – often, it’s because the sentence is unnecessary, poorly worded, unclear, or otherwise superfluous. You can often rewrite the sentence to be clearer, or cut the sentence completely without negatively impacting your work.
Be prepared to cut your darlings; even if you love a sentence or dialog exchange or paragraph, if you are working to a strict word count and it doesn’t add anything, it may have to go, and that’s okay…even though yes, it will hurt, always, no matter how experienced a writer you are. (Tip? Save your original draft, and/or make a new word doc where you safely tuck your darlings in for the future. Second tip? If you really, really love it…find a way to save it, but understand that to do so, you’ll have to cut something else. It’s often wise to pick one or two favorites and sacrifice the rest to save the best ones. We are not saying “always cut your darlings.” That is terrible writing advice. Don’t always cut your darlings. Writing, and reading your own writing, should bring you joy, even when you’re doing it professionally.)
If you’re having trouble recognizing what in your own work CAN be cut, try implementing the above strategies in different places – cut things, and then re-read, and see how it works, and if it works at all. Sometimes, you’ll realize…you didn’t need any of what you cut. Other times, you’ll realize…it no longer feels like the story you were trying to tell. Fiddle with it until you figure out what you need for it to still feel like your story, and practice that kind of cutting until you get better at recognizing what can and can’t go without having to do as much tweaking.
Lastly…along the lines of the previous…understand that sometimes, cutting your story down to a certain word count will just be impossible. Some stories simply can’t be made very short, and others simply can’t be told at length. If you’re really struggling, it’s important to consider that your story just…isn’t going to work at that word count. And that’s okay. Go back to the drawing board, and try again – you’ll also get better at learning what stories you can tell, in your style, using your own writing voice, at different word counts. It’s not something you’ll just know how to do – that kind of estimating is a skill, just like all other writing abilities.
As with all our writing advice – there’s no one way to tackle cutting stories for length, and also, which of these strategies is most appropriate will depend on what kind of story you’re writing, how much over-length it is, what your target market is, your characters, and your personal writing style. Try different ones, and see which work for you – the most important aspect is to learn to read your own writing critically enough that you are able to recognize what you can cut, and then from that standpoint, use your expertise to decide what you should cut, which is definitely not always the same thing. Lots of details can be cut – but a story with all of the flavor and individuality removed should never be your goal.