Basics of writingEditingFormattingPunctuation

Formatting guidelines–PART 3 (Miscellaneous topics)

From Rick:

This post will finish the topic of formatting (for now) and attempt to cover those varied points not previously discussed.

(1) Smart quote redux

This past week I discovered a problem with smart quotes. Remember that I said MS Word generally gets them right as long as you following the rules of punctuation? Well, I found a couple of exceptions.

As humans we instinctively know which type of quote we need, but how do you tell a machine which one to use? Word seems to define a left quote as being one that follows a space and a right quote is what follows any other character. Another problem is that we have to account for the use of a single quote as an apostrophe as well. And the definition works except in two cases. When the quote follows a dash or hyphen or when it follows a quote, Word uses a right quote. This results in the following problems,

“I don’t know what you–“

John said, “’I don’t know what you mean,’ were Mike’s exact words when I confronted him yesterday.”

when we really want these sentences,

“I don’t know what–”
John said, “‘I don’t know what you mean,’ were Mike’s exact words when I confronted him yesterday.”

So, how did I fix these problems? In the first case, I left out the dashes, typed the quote (which came out as a right quote, then went back and added the dashes. In the second case, I added a space after the left quote, typed the single quote, then deleted the space. By the way, it doesn’t matter whether you use the two hyphens or the true em-dash. Either leads to the same issue.

I don’t know if there are any other smart quote issues, but I did mention that I had no special place in my heart for smart quotes, which is why I leave them off and only turn them on when I absolutely want them.

Microsoft’s programmers may have assumed that a dash is akin to a space and that anything following it in quotes would be considered as dialog or a quotation, either of which should have a left quote before them.

For what it’s worth, I tested out WordPerfect on the same issues. WP gets the second case right (single quote after double quote), but has the same issue after the dash. I’m assuming, then, that this was a deliberate design choice and simply failed to take into account that the em-dash could be used at the end of a sentence as a break in dialog.

(2) Prologue, Preface, Introduction, Foreword

Not really a formatting topic, but do you know the difference? I’ve seen a number of new authors get them wrong. Make sure you don’t.

The PROLOGUE is a part of the story that generally takes place before the main story in a novel.

The PREFACE is an introduction to the story or content of the book.

The INTRODUCTION will deal with such topics as why the author wrote the book. It’s about the book, but not about the contents of the book.

The FOREWARD (note the spelling–you’ll look like an idiot if you call it a “FORWARD.” The word refers to ) is generally written by someone other than the author, often someone with academic credentials, and can vary in content from being promotional material to comments on the text or informational content about the book itself.

A couple of useful links:



(3) Emphasizing text (and when to use italics vs. quotes)

There are several ways to emphasize text: italics, bold, underlining, all caps. Each has its uses, but in published books, underlines are almost never used, being replaced by italics. As with any device in writing, emphasis should not be overused.

Use italics for: direct thoughts, stressed words, certain titles of works (detailed below).

Use all caps rarely and only for specific purposes. As with all others emphases, use them with discretion. They should be used for shouted words ONLY WHEN NECESSARY and not as a general crutch. As an example of valid use, John Irving in “A Prayer for Owen Meany” uses all caps for Owen’s dialog to indicate Owen’s peculiar way of speaking. At the same time, Owen is not the primary character, so his dialog is only sprinkled through the text and does not occur in large blocks. (Remember to use exclamation marks in moderation as well).

A few basic rules for italics vs. quotes:

Italicize: titles of books, movies, plays, and magazines

Put in quotes: titles of songs, short stories, and articles

For other things, consult a style book or, our favorite, The Chicago Manual of Style.

Article: Italics or Quotes?

NOTE: When you have a section of text already in italics and you want to italicize something within that passage, such as a title or emphasizing a word, you unitalicize the part you would italicize if the section were in normal type. For example:

I wish he’d quit blathering and talking like Yoda in Star Wars, as if he were trying to make me feel stupid.

(4) How to punctuate several paragraphs of dialog from one speaker.

When a piece of dialog is continued over more than one paragraph and no tags or action intervene (such as a long speech), you do not use a closed quote (right smart quote) at the end of the paragraph. However, you open the next and succeeding paragraphs with an open quote (left smart quote). You only close the quote when the dialog is done.

(5) Proper paragraphing of dialog among several speakers.

As a general rule, new speaker equals new paragraph. If the narrator is someone other than the speaker and he/she adds comments during the dialog, you can put those in the same paragraph, but as soon as someone new speaks, use a new paragraph.

At the same time, it’s not a good idea to put the speakers actions in a separate paragraph. Most readers will assume that a new paragraph means a new speaker, and will be confused otherwise. Here’s an example of how not to write dialog. I’ve numbered the lines for reference.

(LINE 1) “I don’t understand what Mike wants,” John said.

(LINE 2) He shook his head.

(LINE 3) “I thought he explained it pretty well, but I have to admit I got lost once or twice,” Mary said.

(LINE 4) She frowned.

(LINE 5) “I took notes.”

(LINE 6) “Maybe if we went over them together…” Mary sat down and pulled out her notebook.

The first 4 lines are clear, but in lines 5 and 6 it’s unclear who’s speaking. While dialog tags would solve it, you risk overdoing the tags, and they’re unnecessary if you format it properly.

(LINE 1) John shook his head. “I don’t understand what Mike wants.”

(LINE 2) “I thought he explained it pretty well, but I have to admit I got lost once or twice,” Mary said. She frowned. “I took notes.”

(LINE 3) “Maybe if we went over them together…”

(LINE 4) Mary sat down and pulled out her notebook.

The dialog alternates between John (1 & 3) and Mary (2 & 4) and it’s clear who said what. We also eliminated the need for a couple of tags.

(6) Don’t use MS Word’s bullet points in your manuscript. You’re asking for trouble if you do, especially when you try to edit them.

(7) Should you indent the first paragraph of a chapter?

There’s some controversy surrounding this. Most (but not all) traditionally published books do NOT indent the first paragraph of a chapter. I’ve posted two links below for you to read up and make your own choice. Yes, it’s a choice, not a hard rule.

Wikibooks Basic Book Design: Indentation

First Line Indentation Controversy

My take is that if a reader is going to base his decision on whether to buy my novel by the indentation, or lack thereof, of the first paragraph, then I probably don’t want that person as one of my readers.

Happy formatting, my friends.


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