Hey there! Thanks Deanna for inviting me to drop in, and thank you Coffee Time for hosting us.
I’m Leanne Salter, Managing Editor at Cobblestone Press. I’m also known as Anna Leigh Keaton, Sensual/Erotic romance author. I’ve been a professional editor for about seven years, and I’ve been writing most of my life—considerably longer than seven years!
I have to come out and admit that I was not an English major in college. In fact, I remember breaking out in a cold sweat in 8th grade when we had to go to the chalkboard and diagram a sentence. So, I’m here to tell you that proper punctuation is not rocket science! I swear it. If I can do it, anyone can.
First thing I suggest to every writer: Buy a writing manual.
Uh, yeah, you actually have to open it once you purchase it, but the good thing is that you’re not in college—at least not when you’re doing this—you don’t have to read it from cover to cover, unless you are one of those obsessive types, and can skip to the parts where you need help.
I taught myself writing by reading a lot. Since about middle school, I’ve read veraciously. I always had a book in hand and often put off homework to read. And now that I’m an adult and married with children, I often put off home work to read. This is the first step in the learning process. You’ve probably read properly punctuated books for years, right? Should be a snap to write that way, right?
Yeah, well, easier said than done, but it’s a start.
My first novel was about 400 pages of run-on sentences. I didn’t know when to use a period or a comma. Oh, and don’t get me started on dialogue punctuation! (Because we’ll get to that in a moment.)
The manual I use is the Gregg Reference Manual 7th edition. The only reason I use this particular one is because I had to buy it for a college course—I think it was Business Writing—and have held onto it since then. Personally, I don’t think there’s much difference in the manuals if you’re just learning punctuation and the basic rights and wrongs of writing. There are many “styles” out there, but chances are, if your book is properly done in one way or another, it won’t get dropped in the trash by the editor you’ve sent it to. What will get you overlooked is egregious errors in the simple things like when to use a period, and how to punctuate dialogue that frustrate the editor when they try to read your work.
Opening to the Table of Contents in the Gregg Manual, number 1 is Punctuation: Major Marks. I’m going to assume we all know what periods, question marks, commas, etc. are. The scary part is knowing when to use them, right?
I’m so not going to go through all the places to use commas and periods—You need to get one of those manuals for that—but I’ll give a little overview on run-on sentences, which should be avoided, because they’re annoying to read.
Run-on sentences are not just really long sentences that go on and on and on. They don’t even have to be long at all. They are sentences that lack punctuation.
For example: Bobby Joe is a woman she is a racquetball player.
See the problem, don’t you? That’s actually two sentences with no punctuation between them. Here are some correct ways to write these sentences:
• Bobby Joe is a woman. She is a racquetball player. (two complete sentences)
• Bobby Joe is a woman and racquetball player. (written properly as one sentence)
• Bobby Joe is a woman, and she is a racquetball player. (written properly as a compound sentence by adding the conjunction “and” – Don’t forget to use a comma before the conjunction.)
• Bobby Joe is a woman; She is a racquetball player. (written properly with a semicolon)
All of these examples are correct. Your decision must be made based on how you want the tone of thought and rhythm of speech to come across. With the period, the statements are distinct—a little harder sounding, making your point very definitive. The others examples demonstrate softer methods.
Note about semicolons: I personally hate them. I find them, for the most part, overused and close to useless. I’d much rather see a period than semicolons, and in fiction writing, it can often snag the reader, because they’re not used to seeing them. The last thing you want to do is slow down your reader with out-of-the-ordinary punctuation. In my opinion, use semicolons only when absolutely nothing else will work.
So, now that you won’t write any more run-on sentences because now you know what they are, let’s get on to the fun—or most likely frustrating—part of this: Dialogue punctuation.
I can honestly say, as an editor for the last 7 years, that I’ve seen some very, very interesting punctuation where dialogue is concerned. There truly is a right and wrong way, and it would help me—and every other editor out there—if authors would please, please, please learn how to do it correctly.
So, let’s rip off the bandage and reveal the big dark secret.
There isn’t one! It’s so simple!
Simple dialogue with no tags. Sentence-ending punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
• “Go to the zoo.”
• “Are you going to the zoo today?”
• “I don’t want to go to the zoo!”
That’s easy, right? Now the tougher part…dialogue with tags.
There are two types of tags: dialogue tag and action tag.
First, dialogue tags.
• “Go to the zoo,” Bobby Joe said.
• “Go to the zoo,” she said.
• “Go to the zoo,” the woman said.
• “Go to the zoo,” the woman said with a smile.
• “Go to the zoo,” the woman said, grinning at the man.
When using a dialogue tag for a statement, you use a comma instead of a period inside the quotation marks, because the tag is part of the same sentence. Also note: When you have the dialogue tag that doesn’t have a proper name in it, the wording is lowercased, because it’s part of the same sentence. Always put a period at the very end.
It gets a little trickier when you have a question or exclamation mark only because you still don’t use a capital letter to start the tag unless it’s a proper name.
• “Are you going to the zoo today?” Bobby Joe asked.
• “Are you going to the zoo today?” she asked.
• “Are you going to the zoo today?” she asked with a smile.
The question mark goes inside the quotation mark, but there is still a period at the end of the sentence. Do not put a question mark at the very end after the tag, ever.
The exact same rules apply for exclamation marks.
• “I don’t want to go to the zoo!” Bobby Joe said.
• “I don’t want to go to the zoo!” she said with a scowl.
• “I don’t want to go to the zoo!” she said, stamping her foot in anger.
By the way, dialogue tags can go on either side of the dialogue. In fact, if you mix it up, sometimes it’s more fun to read.
Bobby Joe said, “Go to the zoo.”
She asked, “Are you going to the zoo?”
Stamping her foot, she shouted, “I don’t want to go to the zoo!”
Please notice the comma before the quotation mark. Like the previous examples, the tag and the dialogue make up one single sentence, but in this case the sentence is reversed.
Another note: When using exclamation marks, try not to use the tag “exclaimed” because it’s redundant.
Now we move on to action tags.
Action tags are great in fiction, because it keeps the reader in deep point of view, and I suggest using them whenever possible without creating confusion. A nice mix of dialogue and action tags are preferred. The same as with dialogue tags, action tags can go before or after the dialogue. However, unlike dialogue tags which are joined with dialogue to form a single sentence, action tags should always be treated as separate sentences from the dialogue itself.
• “Go to the zoo.” Bobby Joe pointed toward the door.
• Her eyebrow rose in question. “Are you going to the zoo?”
• “I don’t want to go to the zoo.” She stamped he foot in anger.
When using action tags, you are stating two complete thoughts, so you need to actually write them as two complete sentences. The dialogue is one. The tag is another. In the dialogue, all punctuation goes within the quotation marks. The first word of an action tag is always initial-capped and the sentence properly punctuated.
So, there are the basics. If you master these so that they come naturally when writing, you will have taken a big step in the right direction. I still suggest getting a manual of style of some kind for reference—well, okay, I’ll admit, you can probably find it all online. I guess I show my age when I still like to pick up the hard-copy print book and find the right page instead of searching online.
One place I do refer to now and then is: Grammar Girl at: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/
And you can subscribe (though I still prefer the book) to the Chicago Manual of Style online.
I hope this clarifies, simplifies, and makes punctuation a little less daunting.
I’ll be around to answer some questions.
Leanne Salter – Managing Editor Cobblestone Press, LLC
Anna Leigh Keaton – Sensual/Erotic Romance Author