Monday, 8 December 2014

Punctuation Matters

The writer who neglects
punctuation, or mispunctuates,
is liable to be misunderstood.
~ Edgar Allen Poe

pronounced: pəNG(k)(t)SHəˈwāSH(ə)n

the marks, such as period, comma, and parentheses, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning.

Reflecting over this past year, one of the biggest things that stood out for me was manuscript submissions. Submissions stood out because, as a writer myself, I was trained to always submit as perfect a manuscript as possible.

Unfortunately, a majority of submissions that came in this year were disappointing from a presentation standpoint. I'm not talking about author voice or story quality. I'm talking about what the manuscript looked like when I opened the file. What I see on the screen instantly tells me a lot about the author and his/her work. Examples:

The author is lazy and/or careless

The author is sloppy with his/her work

The author is unprofessional

As a publisher, how do we invest in a project if the author is going to be lazy, careless, sloppy, and unprofessional with their first presentation? This only tells us the author will also be lazy, careless, sloppy, and unprofessional with their edits, marketing, and promotions. Publishers can't afford to invest in this type of behavior.

This is an investment. Every book, regardless of length, undergoes the same exact process: first reads, multiple edits, proofreading, cover design, formatting, submission to selling vendors, promotion, marketing, etc. This is not just an investment in time, but also a financial investment. Publishers cannot afford to invest in an author who's lazy, careless, sloppy, and unprofessional. We simply cannot afford to throw away good money on an author who doesn't care enough about their own work to present it in a professional and polished condition.

Back in August, we talked about the Top Three Things to Get A Publisher’s or Agent's Attention. Part of that piece focused on punctuation. Let's expand on that topic today.

If I were to ask you, what are the 15 basic punctuation marks, would you know them? And more importantly, would you know how to use them? Even the most basic of them: period (aka full stop), comma, apostrophe, and hyphen. This is Punctuation 101:
My teacher, Mrs. Smith-Jones, said it's sloppy not to punctuate.

Do you know the difference between a hyphen, en dash, and em dash? Do you know how to use them?
Hyphen: This is the shortest of the dashes. When you hear that someone has hyphenated their last name (smith-jones); this is the most common use of a hyphen. But it's also used to create compound adjectives, such as best-selling, man-eater, and fire-breathing
En dash: This is a medium length dash. This is used in place of the words 'through' and 'to'. It's most commonly used with dates and times: 1014–2014 and 1–2pm
Em dash: This is the longest of the dashes. This is mainly used as an interruption in thought, or change of direction in the text: "The reason I'm late is—" he started saying, but she cut him off.

Do you know what an ellipse is, or when it's appropriate to use it? Or when it's appropriate to use an em dash?
Ellipse: This is made up of three periods/full stops, and is often presented as '...' or '. . .' (notice the additional space between the periods). It's mainly used as a hesitation in speech or thought: "The reason I'm late is . . . well, I really don't have a reason." And, If I tell her why I'm late . . . Forget it. She won't believe me, he thought. 
Em dash: As above, is most used as an interruption in the text: "The reason I'm late—not that you'll believe me—is because I stopped to get coffee." Quite often, commas will work just as well, but the em dash has gained in popularity. "The reason I'm late, not that you'll believe me, is because I stopped to get coffee."

Do you know what a semicolon is, and when it's appropriate to use one?
Semicolon: A semicolon not only joins two independent sentences, but it's also used where items are listed that also include commas: Some of my favorite writers include John Steinbeck, who wrote Cannery Row; Dean Koontz, who wrote Intensity; and Wilson Rawls, who wrote Where the Red Fern Grows.

So, how do we ensure our work is properly punctuated before submission?
1) Learn what punctuation marks are and how to use them. 
2) Check punctuation within your work. 
3) Ensure the punctuation you are using is correct or in the correct context . . . and are you consistent with your usage? 
4) Don't overuse special punctuation (that which is beyond the basic period, comma, hyphen, and apostrophe).
Bonus: If you're working with a beta reader and you're using Track Changes, accept or reject all of the corrections, turn off Track Changes, and present the work clean and without those highlighted corrections.

Click image to enlarge for full descriptions of each punctuation mark.

Important to know: There are some variations with punctuation between some countries. While North America prefers a period before the end quote, parts of Europe put the period outside the quote: "We think punctuation matters." vs "We think punctuation matters".

Commas are often treated the same way. As well, some countries prefer "double quotation marks" and others prefer 'single quotation marks' around speech.

And finally, some countries prefer you abbreviate with a period, while others don't bother: abbr., Mr., and etc. vs abbr, Mr, and etc. OK there's a period after the last etc., but that's because I ended the sentence. :-)

Whatever your method of punctuation:
Use it in the correct context
Be consistent
Present a clean and professional looking submissions

First impressions really are the most memorable, so give the editor (or agent) the best first impression of your work possible. A manuscript is a reflection of the author, so it makes sense to make a good first impression. This means presenting a manuscript as flawless as it can be.

Tell the editor through your submission that you're not sloppy, you're not lazy, and most importantly, you are a professional they can count on.