Thursday 24 December 2015

Adverbs - the truth

There is a war raging against the adverb. You see it everywhere if you dip your toe into the writing world online: memes, writing tips, all of them telling you not to use them ever! Not if you want to call yourself a writer! 

Even prolific writers add to this hate campaign. Here is, my favourite author Stephen King, talking about them: 

“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they're like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day . . . fifty the day after that . . . and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it's - GASP!! - too late.” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)  

‘Oh no, I hear you cry, ‘what are these words, how do I spot them and take them all out?!’

But I am here to counter this harsh campaign and explain to you why they exist.

An adverb is a word that describes a verb, an adjective or another adverb. They explain the action of those words by answering questions like: how, how often, when and where. 

How: easily, happily, loudly, quickly, quietly, sadly, silently, slowly; 

How often: always, every day, frequently, never, often, once, seldom, sometimes; 

When: after, before, early, now, since, soon, today, yesterday; 

Where: away, everywhere, here, inside, near, outside, there; 

See? There are lots of them, and just to be difficult, they don’t all end in ‘ly’!

Despite all the hate speech about them, they are a necessary part of language. Read any children’s books and you will find them everywhere.

And regardless of the above quote, Mr King uses them too – pick up any of his novels and you will find them (as I did to share these):

Just after Sunset: “There were Seven Stones again.” 

Under the Dome: He started away, and then looked back.” 

Under the Dome: “It would probably fix his headaches a lot better …” 

Sleep: “He ate it all. Slowly.” 

The trick with adverbs isn’t to simply remove all of them, but to become aware of them and how you use them in your writing, and ask yourself if they are necessary.

You can Google lists of adverbs to familiarise yourself with them, but here are a few that are used to provide emphasis. These are considered ‘empty’ adverbs and could (some say ‘should’) be taken out: 

Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally. 

But as with everything else in life, the key to using adverbs is moderation.

One of the best ways to practice economy of words it through writing flash fiction, where you have to cut a piece down to its bare essentials, taking out anything superfluous, and questioning any description you use.

But ease up on the old adverb; it’s not all bad – really. 😉

What are your thoughts and feelings on adverbs? Let me know in the comments.

Find more editing tip posts HERE.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Dialogue Punctuation

Purple coloured wording, The Purple Pen

Dialogue Punctuation is not easily found in reference books, of which I have many. I frequently use ‘The Elements of Style’, by William Strunk, Jr., and ‘Write Right!’ by Jan Venolia, but neither of them contains information about how to punctuate dialogue. Therefore, I have spent a lot of time online tracking down answers to my queries, and this post is a compilation of my discoveries.

Dialogue refers to the lines of narrative when the character is speaking, and either before, during, or after you find ‘dialogue tags’. A dialogue tag denotes who is speaking at that moment, and how we punctuate these around the sentences of dialogue is what this post is about.

1) Dialogue tag with act of speaking 

Lines of dialogue that are followed by a dialogue tag that denotes the character has actually spoken, such as: said, continued, muttered, replied, answered, spoke, interrupted, snapped, spat, snarled, wailed, whispered, should ALL end in a comma. 

(Examples taken from Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery) 

For example: 

‘Terrible business, this,’ said the young man chattily. ‘Not been such a thing in Exhampton for years.’

Incorrect would be: ‘Terrible business, this.’ Said the young man chattily. ‘Not been such a thing in Exhampton for years.’

When there is a question mark, or exclamation mark, it should be treated like a comma. For example: 

‘Who do you think did it?’ demanded Enderby.

‘Inspector Narracott!’ she said suddenly. 

Note that the first letter of the word in the dialogue tag is lower case, not capitalised, because it is after a comma, not a full stop.

Incorrect would be: ‘Who do you think did it?’ Demanded Enderby. 

Also incorrect: ‘Inspector Narracott!’ She said suddenly. 

The only exception would be when a name is given, like this: 

‘What does it mean?’ Emily asked the Inspector. 

2) Breaking a sentence with a dialogue tag 

When a sentence is broken by a dialogue tag and continues after it, a comma is used after both the first part of the sentence AND the dialogue tag.

For example: 

‘Major Burnaby' said Emily, who do you think did it?' 

‘Oh I say,' protested Charles, ‘that's awfully far-fetched.’

Incorrect would be:Major Burnaby' said Emily. Who do you think did it?' 

Also incorrect would be: ‘Oh I say,' protested Charles. ‘that's awfully far-fetched.’

3) Using character actions or expressions instead of a dialogue tag 

Sometimes the speaker of a piece of dialogue is denoted by an action or facial expression before, after, or during a line of dialogue. If that is the case then it should have a full-stop at the end of it, NOT a comma. 

(Examples taken from Stephen King’s Dr. Sleep) 

For example: 

Dan raised his eyebrows. “Go ahead.”

“No. I’m sure she hasn’t. But she wants to.” She looked at him, her eyes wide, her mouth trembling again. “When the turntable thing happened, she was thinking mirror.”

Incorrect would be: Dan raised his eyebrows, “Go ahead.” 

Also incorrect would be: “No. I’m sure she hasn’t. But she wants to,” she looked at him, her eyes wide, her mouth trembling again, “When the turntable thing happened, she was thinking mirror.” 

Additional things to note: 

1) When there is a question mark, or exclamation mark there is no comma or full stop after it, just close the speech marks.

2) The end of the dialogue sentence punctuation – full stop, comma, exclamation or question mark – is always INSIDE the speech marks.

3) There is no space between the end of dialogue sentence punctuation mark and the speech marks, but there is a space after the speech marks before the next word. 

Speech Marks 

The examples I have used are a British Author (Agatha Christie) and an American Author (Stephen King).

Note that British speech marks are single with quotation marks being double, whereas American speech marks are double, with quotation marks being single.

In these modern times they are often interchangeable, and many use the American style, but it can be down to the publishing house, so always check. 

Using Dialogue tags 

Dialogue tags like ‘said’, ‘replied’ and ‘asked’ are considered ‘invisible’ when being read, but do be careful about using too many, especially when you have more than two characters; try and break it up by using lines of action and showing what the characters are doing while they are speaking.

There are some people who think you don’t need to describe the tone of voice; that the dialogue should speak for itself. Plus describing the tone risks using an adverb, which is controversial in all writing these days. (There will be an editing blog post on Adverbs soon). But when reading through Agatha Christie's novels, she used a lot of dialogue tags, and many contained adverbs to express the tone or mood of the character. Whereas, by contrast, Stephen King used far fewer, instead describing the characters actions and expressions. There weren’t many dialogue tags at all. This can be down to style, and down to the audience the writing is marketed towards, but it tends to be very individual, and there is not always a right or wrong with it. I find reading a piece out loud helps me hear if my dialogue works or not, or using software like WordTalk (free to download here). 

Don’t use speech marks between paragraphs of a speech

If a character speaks more than a few sentences at a time, to deliver a speech or talk for a length of time, you may need multiple paragraphs. So to denote someone is still speaking, start each subsequent paragraph with an opening speech mark; and

ONLY use a closing speech marks on the final paragraph.

For example:

‘At this juncture Mrs Tanios took a decisive action. She left her husband, throwing herself on the pity of Miss Lawson. She also definitely accused her husband of murder.

Unless I acted, I felt convinced that he would be her next victim. I took steps to isolate them one from the other on the pretext that it was for her safety. She could not very well contradict that. Really it was his safety I had in mind.’

Notice how the first paragraph doesn't end with speech marks. This is to indicate that the same person is speaking in the next paragraph.

There are great examples of this at the end of every Agatha Christie book when Miss Marple or Poirot explain what took place – as this example describes. 

I hope all that makes sense, and helps provide some guidance to using punctuation with dialogue.

If you have any additions, or queries, please leave a comment. 

Find more editing tip posts HERE

If you don't want to miss an editing post and get it sent directly to your email, use the 'Sign up' option in the right hand column.

Friday 18 December 2015

The Semi-Colon - 3 Rules

The words written in purple saying The Purple Pen about editing writing

There is much talk about semi-colons in the writing world. You will find memes on Facebook by, apparently, well-known authors telling you not to ever use them. Some people believe they are no longer in ‘fashion’ and are a big no-no in the writing world.

This is simply not true.

But they are a punctuation mark that can be easily abused if not understood correctly, and like most punctuation marks they should be used with thought and care. Only when no other mark – full stop or comma – will do, should they be considered.

As someone once said to me, they should only be used when you know what you’re doing. And my advice if you are unsure is: ‘if in doubt, leave it out - use a full stop instead’.

Semi-colons are never a ‘have-to’, they are an option. On occasion they ease the flow of the writing. 

To put it technically: 'their use is to separate main clauses that have different subjects and no are not linked by a conjunction.'  This means that they are two complete sentences with slightly different subjects (or view points) and not linked by another small word such as: 'and', 'but', 'or', 'for', 'so', 'nor'.  

Let's take a look at some examples: 

All around them, the courtyard bustled; the pop and fizz of soda bottles opening, the scent of pizza, and the sound of girlish giggles announced the first lunch of the year. 

The second sentence relates directly to the first sentence. You could use a full-stop, but with a semi-colon the eye leads on to the second part of the sentence creating a whole picture. I call this a ‘Semi-colon Moment’.

But the second sentence must refer to, or follow on from, the first sentence and be able to stand alone.

More examples: 

The strain started to take a toll on Ashley; her conscience itched.

He’d smiled just for her; the kind of smile she’d seen him give other girls and envied. 

Both sentences can stand alone, but they are enhanced by the semi-colon.

There are two other ways the semi-colon is used, and this time between sentence fragments. This occurs when a comma is not ‘strong’ enough to separate the items.

They can be used in a series of phrases or a list of names.

For example: 

He had called them all in, he needed them all; John Preston, the Union representative; Mark Withers, the Factory Manager; David Lindy, the CFO and his second in command; and Janice Price, the only shareholder that mattered. 

They can be used in a long sentence, which already contains several commas.

For example: 

Alice was on her way home when they caught up to her, and she was pleased they had; she didn’t like walking home alone, and it meant they could enjoy their time together. 

In the above example you could break many of these sentences into short, sharp ones, which is the current fashion, but it would also break the flow.

So let’s recap. 

The 3 main rules are:

1) Use a semi-colon to connect two complete sentences which directly relate to each other;

2) Use a semi-colon to set off a series of phrases which directly relate to each other;

3) Use a semi-colon to break a long sentence which already contains commas.

(And note how in the list above a semi-colon is used. This happens often, but people don’t really ‘see’ it. )

You maybe also ask, why use a semi-colon when you can use a colon? 

How the Semi-Colon differs from the Colon 

A colon states that a list is about to happen, whether a single items, or full sentences. For example: 

There are three levels: low, intermediate, and high. 

And when quoting something someone has said: 

When John spoke to Phillip he told him: “I won’t be made a fool of!” 

They can also be used when an explanation is about to follow - as show above before each example. 

I hope that makes sense, and that you might feel more confident using them.

And if you know of any more ways they can be used, feel free to let me know in the comments. 

Find more editing tip posts HERE.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

The Apostrophe - 3 Basic Tenets

The words written in purple saying The Purple Pen about editing writing

The apostrophe is also a tricky one, and it baffles even the best of us. So let’s take a look at how we can simplify it.  Here are the 3 basic tenets to go by.

1) Use an apostrophe when abbreviating two words:

For example:

Let’s – Let us

We’ve – We have

They’re – They are

Would’ve – Would have

2) Use an apostrophe for possession of an item/object, such as:

John’s hat
Mark’s coat

With the exception of the word ‘it'.

And pronouns such as: his, hers, theirs, whose, ours, yours – but NOT one’s.

Simplifying the whole ‘it’ thing:

The only time ‘it’ has an apostrophe is when you are abbreviating the two words: ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ (Tenet 1)

That right there is really all you need to know, but to explain further, when you write the word ‘it’ and the following word means the ‘it’ owns the item, or the item belongs to ‘it’, then there is NO apostrophe:

Its fur was ruffled

It raised its head

The store had its own coffee shop inside

Got it? 

But then it gets tricky when we pluralise words.

3) Use only an apostrophe with words ending in 's' when showing possession:

The standard tenet is: anything ending in ‘s’ should have only the apostrophe, and not the letter ‘s’ after it as well.

BUT – this can be optional depending on the type of word.

Names like James or Lucas, which end in an ‘s’ but are singular words, can be James’ or Lucas’, OR James’s or Lucus’s.

This is your choice – or your publishing houses’ choice if you are traditionally published.

Did you notice that houses’ there? In this instance the word is plural already (as in more than one publishing house), and needs the possessive added (the choice belongs to them), thus it is a plural word and a possessive word and goes by the standard tenet.

Are you catching my drift on this?

The Tardis’ door was ajar. – can also be Tardis’s door was ajar.

Hogwarts’ main tower – can also be Hogwarts’s main tower.

The shop assistants’ duties – can only be this option
(more than one assistant, and their duties – plural & possessive.)

All the technicians’ tools – can only be this option
(more than one technician, and their tools – plural & possessive)

Tricky ones are these:

Two weeks’ - plural and possessive

This week’s – possessive only

Same with money and time:

Last year’s – possessive only

Ten dollars’ worth (amount is plural and possessive)

Is it Whose or Who’s?

Pluralising the word Who still confuses people, but the tenets apply here too.

Who’s is an abbreviation of two words: who is (or who has).

Whose means it belongs to that person.

Whose is this? – meaning who does this item belong to – possessive.

Who’s this? – meaning ‘who is this’ – abbreviation of two words.

Simplifying it by considering what you are writing: if it is not ‘who is, or who has’, then it should be ‘whose’.

John told them about Melissa, whose mother had given them all a cookie – possessive

John’s boss Steve, who’s the General Manager of IMB, came in late. – abbreviation of who is

(And yes, I still had to think about that second example too!)

I hope that clears things up for you, rather than muddies the waters!

If you know of any other rules, let me know in the comments below.

Find more editing tip posts HERE 

Monday 14 December 2015

The Comma - 7 Rules

The words written in purple saying The Purple Pen about editing writing

I’m kicking off this editing blog series with one of the trickiest of punctuation marks, the one that plagues us all – the Comma.

As a writer I often ask myself, have I put in too many? Have I put them in the right place?

There are many rules to the comma, and many involve all the technical words relating to sentence structure and breaking it down. But I am going to try and simplify this to make it easier for every day writers to understand – the writer who is initially more concerned with content than technical correctness. 

So here are 7 rules for the comma. Settle in, this could get lengthy:

1) A comma between two complete sentences:

One of the first tips I give when asked about comma placement, is one my English Language teacher used repeatedly:

‘Don’t put a comma where you can put a full-stop.’

If you have two complete sentences there is no reason to use a comma. To this day I say this to myself when writing, especially when unsure about the placement of a comma. 

2) A comma when using a connecting word between two complete sentences:

Use a comma between two complete sentences that are joined by But, Nor or For.

A comma is optional when joined by And or Or. A comma can be omitted when statements are short and closely related. 
But do NOT use a comma before And or Or unless there is a complete sentence on either side. If the second sentence depends on the first there is no reason for a comma – even when using a joining word.

For example:

It seems a small task but it’s not to be taken lightly.      

Close enough to watch her but far enough to avoid the unpleasant sound of her sobs

He turned his back to her and continued down the path.

3) The comma in lists and descriptions:

Use a comma between each item when listing a series of three or more words, phrases or clauses. For example:

Milk, bread, and cheese.

But don’t repeat the comma in a longer sentence:

Milk, bread, and cheese, were found on the table.
(The comma after cheese is wrong.)

In description, if you can insert the word ‘and’ between descriptive words, then a comma is required. For example:

Tall and dark and handsome = Tall, dark, handsome

Cold and shaking hands = Cold, shaking hands

But if the first descriptive word changes the second word, and the word ‘and’ would NOT work between them, then don’t use a comma:

High suspension bridge (can not be ‘high and suspension bridge’)

Long length of rope (can not be ‘long and length of rope’)

4) Use a comma to set off phrases and clauses within a sentence

a) When saying something in the middle of a sentence that is an aside or provides more information connected to the subject of the sentence, but is not the main point of the sentence:

She was, after all, right most of the time.

b) Using commas instead of brackets:

Wilson, who had travelled a long way, joined them at the table.

c) Identification or title:

John Smith, Senior Executive, was present.

d) Introductory words/Phrases/clauses

On the whole, he was glad she came. 
However, they decided that now was not the time.

5) When words demands a comma

Why a comma is needed – otherwise it might not make sense:

From behind her, feet pounded against the linoleum

6) Omitting words

Rather than repeat words in a sentence use a comma. For example:

John went to the pub for the company; Mark, for the darts. 

7) After introductory words or phrases, or abbreviations:

Use a comma after: For example, namely, that is

An abbreviation such as ‘i.e.’ is not followed by a comma, but ‘e.g.’ can be.

But it is optional to use one after: Furthermore, however, therefore, thus, nevertheless, consequently. 

Commas in the case of 'Which' and 'That':

'That' is a connecting word as it continues on the sentence. The information it provides is leading on from the first part of the sentence, so you do NOT require a comma. (rule 2)

He told me that it did matter to him.  

Although often in current writing we use it to start sentences when listing items, so then we would use a comma. (rule 3) For example:

He told me that it did matter, that it meant the world to him, that he couldn't live without it.

Whereas 'Which' leads to an aside or additional information so it would have a comma before it. (rule 4) For Example:

He thought it should be upside down, which looked better anyway. 

Jenny came into the shop and saw all the wool, which was on a huge display.

In this way we can also decide which word is appropriate as well - either 'which' or 'that'. 

(Note my use of 'which' in a different context, such as 'which one' hence no comma needed - told you it was tricky!)


There are more rules for commas, but I feel these ones help clarify the majority of those needed in every day writing. 

Find more editing tip posts HERE

If you find any more, feel free to share them in the comments below.