Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tip O'Day #449 - We Don't Want No Stinkin' Colons

Guest blogger and Montana author Karen Wills says “We Don’t Want No Stinkin’ Colons.”

Well, sometimes we want them…maybe. The easy part of writing is the creative, free-flowing draft work. After that comes editing. I’m in the throes of that for my second novel. Thanks to Dixon’s request for a guest blog, I can take a break. But then I find myself perseverating about the infernal editing.

Let’s start with the tricksters of punctuation, hyphens. You think you’ve cornered them. A two-word adjective before the noun it modifies will be hyphenated, right? But then, the rule wriggles out and throws an exception at you. Think of storytelling bards.

My husband found me a book by Mary Louise Gilman, One Word, Two Words, Hyphenate? Gilman’s book is mostly wordlists, but helpful ones. The Chicago Manual of Style is also essential, as are dictionaries. When all else fails, see whether Internet writers hyphenate a word.

Almost as tough as hyphens are members of the colon family. Believe it or not, punctuation has trends. The semicolon, so necessary and popular with long-winded eighteenth and nineteenth century authors, seems to have fallen out of favor, especially in dialogue. I see those lowly drones of punctuation, commas, now separating long phrases that semicolons would have divided in the past. The ground explanation of what semicolons are for, one I still like, is that a semicolon is halfway between the full stop of a period and the California stop of a comma. Colons were once used to introduce lists of cumbersome phrases or clauses. Colons are now in disfavor with many groups: critique groups, editors, teenagers. You see what I mean.

Some punctuation is unpopular, but necessary. Modern philistines don’t care about apostrophes. Don’t the people who put up billboards ever look at what they’re doing? My favorite is the sign with big eyes that says, “If your looking at this, its selling.” The rule is that the apostrophe goes in place of the missing letter in a contraction, and outside plural possessives, but just before the s in singular possessive, except for (here’s the inevitable exception) its.

Besides punctuation, there’s the matter of spelling. It’s been said before, but I’ll repeat it. Use the spell checker with caution. It might not understand which word you meant of two or more spelled correctly, as in rest and wrest.

As for capitalization, we all know about proper nouns, but then there are those pesky points of the compass. I have a block about this, so routinely visit section 8.45-46 of the Chicago Manual of Style to read again, “Compass points and terms derived from them are lowercased if they simply indicate direction or location.” Then come the exceptions, including the North and the South.

There’s plenty more to watch out for when you want perfectly clean copy. I’ve been advised to read from the bottom, read out loud, or give it to somebody else, but a few mistakes might still creep in. I speak from personal experience after editing my thriller, Remarkable Silence, for the second time.

Bibliographies are a whole different headache.

Clean copy sells better, and it makes an author proud. Exhausted, but proud.

Dixon says: Karen Wills is a former critique partner of mine, and just an all-around nice person. You can find her archeological thriller, Remarkable Silence, on Amazon Kindle here.
I will also echo her advice that Spell Check doesn't always help. Especially if you write about cereal killers.

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