Dot, dot, dot!

On the most common punctuation faux pas I see in manuscripts.

I’ve been taking notes recently on the most common feedback I give in my editorial assessments and developmental edits, and I thought that for today’s edition I’d talk about the most common piece of punctuation feedback!

Commas, ellipses, and em-dashes, oh my!

Even setting aside the raging debate about the relative efficacy of the Oxford Comma, I see a lot of comma mis-use in manuscripts. (You can find a good usage guide here via Grammarly.) But what’s this about ellipses and em-dashes? Ellipses just mean a pause, right?

Well, yes! Yes they do! And that’s the problem. An ellipsis, otherwise known as those three little dots that were so fraught with meaning in Mamma Mia!, “can indicate an unfinished thought, a leading statement, a slight pause, an echoing voice, or a nervous or awkward silence” depending on their context and placement in a sentence. So what’s so wrong with a pause?

Nothing, technically! But because the ellipsis so often indicates a pause or a trailing off of thought, it causes the eye to slow down, which causes the reader to slow down reading, which causes the reader to think that the book is slow, which causes…

You get what I mean. (See what I did there?) Often when I’m editing and find a lot of ellipses in dialogue, what the author is going for with their use is to indicate halting conversation, or uncertainty, or something about the dialogue that describes pace or tone in some way. Don’t be afraid to describe these things with words instead of punctuation:

“I… would prefer… to have this conversation… outside,” Bert said. “Who knows… who might be listening…”

becomes

Bert said, haltingly: “I would prefer to have this conversation outside.” He looked around. “Who knows who might be listening…”

Or, if you want to use punctuation marks in the dialogue, try em-dashes instead.

“I—uh, I would prefer to have—this conversation outside,” Bert said, nervously. “Who knows who might be listening…”

(Obviously this is Bert talking to Ernie in a gritty reboot of Sesame Street. Maybe their apartment is bugged?)

You might think that the ellipses use in that first example I made up is exaggerated, but it’s not—it’s common and pretty understandable for authors to turn to the ellipsis as a way of attempting to build tension, trying to allude to something, etc. And that’s OK! That’s why I’m pointing it out here. It’s not necessarily natural for a writer’s first thought to consider how that changes the pacing of the sentence or the paragraph. That’s what edits are for!

To avoid this pitfall, think about what you’re trying to convey with the ellipses, and see if there’s a better way to construct the scene so that you don’t depend on them as much.

HOUSEKEEPING

Thursday, May 20 saw the release of a new episode of Shipping & Handling, the podcast I do with agent Bridget Smith that has been on hiatus for the better part of a year. It’s free to listen to, and available wherever fine podcasts can be heard!

On Saturday, May 22, I’ll be running a Twitter event to help people prep for #PitMad! PitMad, or PitchMadness, is a two-day Twitter pitchstravaganza where authors tweet pitches for their books (sometimes called loglines or elevator pitches) and agents and editors have the chance to request pages. There have been some high-profile deals that come out of this and similar events. Beyond this specific event, however, being able to talk about your book succinctly and with a fun hook is a good skill to have. So on Saturday from 2-3 ET, tweet your pitch at me and I’ll critique it! Keep in mind I am but one woman so I might not get to everyone.

  • The general rule of thumb on Twitter is 280 characters or less, so try to fit it into one tweet

  • If you are planning on participating in PitMad and will be using hashtags to indicate genre (i.e. #F for fantasy, #SF for science fiction, #MG #YA for middle-grade and young adult respectively) make sure you take those characters into account.

This newsletter has 280 subscribers now, and I’m so grateful to all of you. If you like this thing, please feel free to share or forward on to someone else that you think might enjoy it. And as always, if there’s something you’d like to see covered, or you have a question about something book and writing related, please chime in in the comments or as a reply!

THIS WEEK IN HOCKEY

As of this writing, the Washington Capitals are down 2-1 in their series against the Bruins thanks to an embarrassing gaffe from goalie Lil’ Ilya Samsonov, who probably doesn’t have a long future in front of him with the Caps after this. I’m really hoping they pull it out of the hat because I just. I’m tired. Please, not the Bruins. Anyone but the Bruins. Elsewhere, the Canucks have finally finished playing their completely unnecessary extra games (their entire team had COVID at one point, so a lot got rescheduled) despite the fact that the playoffs started last Saturday.

LINKS

Reply Guys, Sliding into the DMs, and the Intensification of Parasocial Relationships by s.e. smith (bitchmedia)
A successful photographer on Instagram notices a follower who “likes” every single one of his posts but doesn’t interact in any other way—until a DM arrives: “I see you’re going to be in Los Angeles. We should hang out!” The photographer ignores this message—one of many like it—but when he travels to L.A., he hesitates to post photos of his trip because he knows how this pattern always plays out: There’s serial liking, followed by a friendly message, an escalating series of attempts to establish personal connection—despite the setting of clear boundaries—and then sometimes, a creepy souring in the form of threats, sexually explicit messages, or stalking. 

As a Female Recluse, I Took My Reclusiveness Very Seriously’ : An Interview with Helen Oyeyemi by Ilana Masad (Hazlitt)
”I think because I’m quite an alienated person, I never have any sense of belonging to a group or a sort of tribal mentality. It’s always very much about an individual connection. So it’s almost like building—building one’s own family or one’s own crew of friends, but it’s person by person. If you meet someone who on paper has the same characteristics as your best friend, that really doesn’t mean you’re going to like them. You just don’t know until you’re actually together.”
Bonus: Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel Peaces came out in April!

We will rebuild: Gaza’s bookshop destroyed by Israeli air strikes by Nagham Mohanna (thenationalnews.com)
The shop was established in 2008 and held thousands of books from all genres for sale. Despite having "library" in its name, it does not lend books. But it was part of a publishing house that gave voice to Palestinian poets, children’s writers, novelists and academics, some of whom decried its destruction on social media and at the scene of the air strike. “We are condemning the destruction of our library,” Shereen Al A’ka, public relations officer at Samir Mansour publishing house, told The National. "We are so sad because the library is not only walls, it is memories and friends for all ages.“This library is an old dream for its owner. He worked hard to build it for years."

LINKS, REDUX


Congrats to the teen whose Hannibal fanart is now displayed in Congress. All Hail King Pokemon! Burnout: Modern affliction or Human Condition? “Kissing Can Ruin Lives”: How Laini Taylor Weaves Real Magic into Fantasy Romance. The Life and Death of the Dream Job. How Lois Lew mastered IBMs 1940s Chinese typewriter. The 60 year old scientific screwup that helped COVID kill.

READING: 天官賜福 Heaven Official’s Blessing by 墨香銅臭 Mo Xiang Tong Xu (MXTX)
LISTENING:
this 24-second preview of BTS’ new single Butter
WATCHING:
Midsomer Murders
WEARING:
Bike Shorts

This has been A Faster No, a dispatch on publishing, writing, books, and beyond. Is there something you’d like me to talk about? Leave it in the comments or reply to the email! You can support the newsletter here. If you purchase a book from any of the links to Bookshop.org I get a small commission at no cost to you. I am available for developmental editing and editorial assessment services via Reedsy.