Cutting a Dash - Dash it All - or what you will

I apologize for the tabloid headlines. Given the content of this post these titles would have been as obvious in the avoidance. Indeed, if you can think of any more, please keep them to yourself.

I am indebted to a correspondent on KB who pointed out to me that I had not noticed, when reading for pleasure, that the British publishing industry was, with a few exceptions, using single quotes for direct speech, leading to some unpleasant excesses where speakers quote other speakers who were themselves citing the names of people and their possessions resulting a positive orgy of punctuation:

'But,' Mrs Green continued, ''twas if you remember that paragon Dr Blue (speaking of the politician Frank Simons) who declared: 'it is better to possess all our own meagre possessions than any one of Simons'!''.

This sort of silliness is scarcely resolved by the more sensible American convention, but is at least more readable:

"But," Mrs Green continued, "'twas if you remember that paragon Dr Blue (speaking of the politician Frank Simons) who declared: 'it is better to possess all our own meagre possessions than any one of Simons'!'"

Removing the trailing period might seem petty, for myself, I would add a space before ' 'twas' and another after the end of the quotation.

All this is by the bye, however. I came here not to praise double quotes, but to bury dashes.

Colloquially, I use as many dashes as the next man. In formal writing I use few, and I would advise any writer to use none. Dashes have come and gone with fashion. When I was at school I was taught to suppose that there was really no such thing; dashes were seen as a sort of quaint or eccentric excuse to avoid chusing between a comma and a semicolon. I was further taught that I might occasionally discover dashes used in place of brackets to indicate a parenthesis, but that this was unnecessary.

Once I became aware of just how much of my critical sense was switched off when reading for pleasure, I began to notice punctuation all the more. And I noticed a curious thing. Dashes have been with us a long time, and no meaningful consensus exists as to how to use them and how not to. Here's a little status report:

In printing, the following marks appear frequently:

-           The "hyphen-minus" of our modern computer keyboards
­           The "soft" or "breaking" hyphen
           The "hard" or "non-breaking" hyphen

          The "short" or "En" Dash
        The "long" or "Em" Dash

More rarely we encounter:

          The "Figure Dash"
        The "Horizontal Bar"
          The formal "minus sign"

───    The double em dash
──── The triple em dash (these last two are, in traditional printing, single blocks with no gaps; there is no such symbol in Unicode, though if you were really mad enough to want them you could construct them from three or more light horizontal boxes (Unicode 2500).)

In most computer type faces, the first three hyphens are indistinguishable (in Linotype the same character is used for all three). In some metal typefaces, the minus sign is longer and placed slightly higher than the hyphens (at half-t rather than half-o). I don't know if there is a difference between hard and soft hyphens prior to desktop publishing (DTP).

The en dash and em dash were originally the same length as the letters that they are named for. Today the convention is that the en dash is half the width of the em dash, but no further rule is applied.

In the most common typefaces, there is no difference in length or form between the figure and en dashes and the long minus sign.

IN our daily communication we make common and polyvalent use of the hyphen-minus, and no use of em and en dashes. In publishing and journalism, sub-editors frequently still replace hyphens used for parentheses with em dashes, and also replace the ubiquitous space-hyphen-space that I call the "light colon" with either space-em dash-space or an unspaced em dash. The en dash is seldom used, though when it is it is to great effect, in interrupted words.

Simon began: "but surely you must consid– "

"I consider nothing!" The Inspector declared, and then continued slowly, with gathering menace, "yet, I consider everything."

This dash indicates to the sub or the typesetter that the writer has not made an error. That is an important purpose of punctuation that since DTP is often forgotten.

I HAVE encountered in different editions of the same book, and even within the same edition, every conceivable variation in the use of these maligned and abused marks. I have looked in British and American editions, I have looked in style guides and arbitri elegantiae. CMS is exhaustive, dry and sensible, and neither describes nor explains common usage. Stick to it and you won't be wrong, and when consistent you'll be with the majority whenever they are consistent, which is not often. Indeed  in its own explanations, CMS frequently uses em dashes the way that Winston Churchill uses handwritten dashes (sometimes en dashes in British editions) but there is no clear indication as to why it chuses to use dashes instead of colons, semicolons or brackets in these cases.

The strongest wisdom on the subject (also found elsewhere) I here quote from paragraph 6.81 of CMS;

The en dash is sometimes used as a minus sign, but minus signs and en dashes are distinct characters … substituting any character for another may hinder searches in electronic publications.

Wise, though not strictly true. The world's most commonly used text search, Google, makes no distinction between any dashes by ignoring them entirely (except under some special conditions).

Dashes, along with ellipsis and "suspension points"—with which their usage overlaps—are a feature whose usage rules I generally try to derive from a combination of author preference and current convention. In fiction, I apply (weakly or strongly) the following general guidelines:

  • brackets are better than pairs of em dashes unless the author uses the latter frequently and consistently
  • colons and semicolons are better than single em or en dashes unless the author uses the latter frequently and consistently
  • where dashes are used in the above cases, for US or international publication, unspaced em dashes are strictly used. For UK publication, spaced en dashes can be preferred by some authors, and are better than spaced hyphens in this usage.
  • en dashes or hyphens can be used for cut-off words in the case of sudden interruptions. The en dash generally looks more elegant and has the additional advantage that it will convince the editor that the author has not made a mistake.
  • faltering or broken speech should be indicated either by ellipsis for inarticulate mumbling or missing words or by suspension points (a row of spaced dots) for longer pauses, however texts containing a great deal of dialogue may require more nuance, in which case a careful and consistent hierarchy may be needed. Playwrights often explain their punctuation quite careful as an aid to actors (or an annoyance to directors).

In editing non-fiction, I establish a formal protocol that distinguishes marks that convey a meaning (such as the minus sign) and marks whose purpose is to act as aids to clarity  (punctuation).

As for direct speech, I am a firm believer in double quotes, and I have a more than passing admiration for the American rule of putting them after all other punctuation at the end of a line—this usually results in a cleaner looking text.

:: edit 2012-05-15 ::

DWT put up a nice clear explanation of the proper usage of ellipsis here. Go take a look.


I also apologize if it seems like a while since I have posted. I have had what I used to think of as a RLI  - real life intrusion. Actually just a couple of bouts of illness. The reason I don't think of this as real life intruding any more is that my blog is part of my real life. It looms, indeed, large, since I use it as a medium of professional communication and (like all indies I fervently hope), as a marketing tool for the very real activity of literary editing which pays the mortgage.


Guide to Style

I have spoken at (probably tedious) length about my attitude to grammar rules, and I even linked in my last post to a discussion on Kindle Boards that has both elevated and degenerated - if cordially - into a kind of challenge as to who can justify not applying the Chicago Manual of Style.

I'm not going to give you, though it would be my style to do so, a potted history of the CMS. You can find that out readily on Wikipedia and at the CMS website.

I will point out that the CMS self-identifies as 'recommendations on editorial style and publishing practices' - and does not identify itself as a Grammar Book or a style rulebook. In numerous places the CMS, in the long tradition style guides, humbly suggests that the writer make up his own mind and apply style in a way that judiciously favours good comprehension.

Style guides offer a comfort to the uncertain writer, and I often refer to them for suggestions, confirmation, support or arbitration. Occasionally I am surprised to discover that what I thought was common practice is not, or vice versa (I famously hadn't noticed that UK publishers had taken to using single quotes for direct speech. They don't all do it, but most do.).

All too easily, the comfort becomes a crutch, and eventually, a father figure, dispensing infallible wisdom from on high. I have seen many people quote Henry Fowler as the last word in an argument over British English usage. I think he would have been embarrassed.

So, getting back to setting out my stall: my primary guide for style when I am editing is The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers (who also edited the second edition of Modern English Usage which is also a core text of mine). The reason why I use CPW is largely because of this:

Professional writers realise that they cannot hope to affect their readers precisely as they wish without care and practice in the proper use of words. The need for the official to take pains is even greater, for if what the professional writer has written is wearisome and obscure the reader can toss the book aside and read no more, but only at his peril can he so treat what the official has tried to tell him. By proper use I do not mean grammatically proper. It is true that there are rules of grammar and syntax, just as in music there are rules of harmony and counterpoint. But one can no more write good English than one can compose good music merely by keeping the rules. On the whole they are aids to writing intelligibly, for they are in the main no more than the distillation of successful experiments made by writers of English through the centuries in how best to handle words so as to make a writer's meaning plain. Some, it is true, are arbitrary. One or two actually increase the difficulty of clear expression, but these too should nevertheless be respected, because lapses from what for the time being is regarded as correct irritate the educated reader, and distract his attention, and so make him the less likely to be affected precisely as you wish. But I shall not have much to say about text-book rules because they are mostly well known and well observed in official writing.

The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them. "After all," said Lord Macaulay, "the first law of writing, that law to which all other laws are subordinate, is this: that the words employed should be such as to convey to the reader the meaning of the writer." The golden rule is to pick those words and to use them and them only. Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves. Matthew Arnold once said: "People think that I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style." That was no doubt said partly for effect, but there is much truth in it, especially in relation to the sort of writing we are now concerned with, in which emotional appeal plays no part.

This golden rule applies to all prose, whatever its purpose, and indeed to poetry too. Illustrations could be found throughout the gamut of purposes for which the written word is used. At the one end of it we can turn to Shakespeare, and from the innumerable examples that offer themselves choose the lines

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy

which, as a description of what the rising sun does to meadows and rivers on a "glorious morning", must be as effective a use of thirteen words as could be found in all English literature. At the other end we can turn (for the golden rule can be illustrated from official writing in its observance as well as in its breach) to the unknown member of the staff of the General Post Office who by composing the notice that used to be displayed in every post office

Postmasters are neither bound to give change nor authorised to demand it

used twelve words hardly less efficiently to warn customers of what must have been a singularly intractable dilemma. At first sight there seems little in common between the two. Their purposes are different; one is descriptive and emotional, the other instructional and objective. But each serves its purpose perfectly, and it is the same quality in both that makes them do so. Every word is exactly right; no other word would do as well; each is pulling its weight; none could be dispensed with. As was said of Milton's prose in the quotation that heads Chapter VI, "Fewer would not have served the turn, and more would have been superfluous".

Gowers goes on to provide valuable guidance and necessary arbitration in detail in many areas where poor usage causes confusion, which includes points of grammar and of punctuation. Although CPW is ostensibly a manual for official document writing, Gowers uses examples from Shakespeare, Milton, Cervantes, Kipling, Gibbon … this amply demonstrates his contention that the primary art and the primary skill of the writer are one and the same, as illustrated in the extract above: that writer achieve his intended aim (Gowers is disapproving if that aim is to obscure or conceal, however).

To me, language is political, and my peculiar pragmatic liberalism is particularly sensitive to the insidious vicissitudes of prescribed and proscribed language.

I really ought to delete that last sentence but it such a fine example of how horribly badly wrong my own writing can go that I'm going to leave it there. I wonder how many readers will switch off as soon as they reach it, and go read something less pretentious.

What I wanted to say is that Gowers is much more pragmatic, more honest, more reasonable, more fair, more just than I, and not at all anarchistic. It does me untold good to sit somewhere with a cup of tea and read him. It restores my faith in human nature to see how he weighs the gramaclasts against the grammacrats and finds both wanting, but both necessary.

Gowers' strength, his value, is not the guidelines he infers, but the attitude he imparts: all means of understanding and applying language are valid provided the reader is 'affected precisely as you wish'.

To me this has the same enlightening elegance as the Doctrine of Love or the Doppler Effect.


What to Expect from an Editor #4

Who is the best editor?

Not every book needs a literary edit. I think that every book should go to a professional editor for style and format (copy-edit), but a literary edit isn't needed for everything. But how do you know if your work needs one or not?

I suspect the only way to know is to go through the literary edit process at least once. It also helps a great deal to talk to other writers who use, or have used, a literary editor. Those who can tell you why they decided they didn't need to will be the ones who help you to discover if you need to. So why not?

For one thing, it is expensive. A book of 120k words will take me anything from 30 to 50 hours to edit, more if you include communication with the author. Your first two or three full length novels will take longer to edit than later ones, which means that those who charge a fixed rate per word may have to do a lighter edit than your work really needs, and those who, like me, quote based on an estimate of the time required, will charge more to edit your early, weaker work than for your later, stronger work. This is one of the ironies of our profession - but it applies to everything that authors do:

The more you write, the faster you write, and the fewer errors you make. So even if you don't use an editor, the effort it will cost you to write your better work (the books you haven't written yet) will always be less than the effort you are investing now.

Many writers see using a literary editor as an investment. They hope that it will lead to their becoming a better writer faster. I hope this is so, too, since this is my main professional intent: to help you become a better writer. It is both a privilege and a pleasure to watch this happen, when I am the right editor for you.

There's the crux of the issue. Not every editor is the right editor for every writer.

It is far more important, in my opinion, that a writer find an editor who is a good match to his immediate needs, than the writer find an editor who is a good match to his purse, or who he perceives as being the best editor*.

This is a major reason for my posting the kind of things that I do here in my blog. I want you to have a chance to discover what sort of edit you will get, and to discover a little about my personality and my approach. I think that if the kind of things that I say appeal to you, then we can probably work together.

But you can't know if you have the right editor until you try him or her. There are plenty of us out here. It makes sense to try more than one. More than two.

And if you have a bad experience with an editor, it is likely that the editor was a poor match to your needs. Probably more likely than your impression that he or she was a "bad editor". If you found your editor on Kindle Boards, they're probably good. If they were recommended by another author, they're probably good.

Even for copy editing, a good match is necessary. Some editors will, unless otherwise instructed, edit spelling, punctuation, grammar and vocabulary in strict accordance with an approved Style Guide. They are absolutely right to do so. Some authors find this sanitizes or anonymizes their work. Others are glad they don't have to think about those details. Some editors will copy-edit with a very light touch indeed; correcting obvious errors, but not standardizing anything. The are absolutely right to do so. But some authors find that certain (ahem, fussy) readers make comments that suggest that editing has been sloppy or nonexistant. You can't please all the readers all of the time; having an editor on board if only for a light copy edit can help you to go into this with your eyes open.

If you have an editor, and you think they are the best, then you have found a good match. Please gush about them on your blog in and in KB - but try to say why they suit you so well, and this will help other authors to find the right editor for them**.



A discussion started on Kindle Boards a couple of days ago about editors and editing. The tone of the discussion is rather forceful in places, but as a crash course in what you should expect, what attitude and approach to take, and how to protect yourself from a bad experience, this is REQUIRED READING:

Editing Rant (via Kindle Boards)



*You will notice that my style in my blog, occasional caveats notwithstanding, is very authoritative. That just happens to be how I talk and how I write. It doesn't mean that the opinions or statements in these posts are necessarily the most correct or the best - indeed I disclaim any such conclusion, and I strongly encourage disagreement. If you are impressed by what you read here, proceed with caution; get a second opinion; better still, prove me wrong. Comments that show either by argument or reliable cross reference that I have been talking bollocks are guaranteed to be published.

** So far I haven't had a customer who's been unhappy or even disappointed. But I do have customers who only come to me for certain specific types of edit, and who go elsewhere for other services. I don't take this amiss – on the contrary, it is a very sensible way to proceed. Once you have used a few editors, you will know what you need, and who you need it from.

*** Edit March 2012 ***

Since posting this I have had one customer come back to me with a complaint that my copy editing had failed to spot mistakes. This was after beta-readers and people who had bought the book responded by email to say that there were editing issues. I am uncomfortable with defending editorial decisions. In the book in question there was a punctuation error in the very first line. The rest of the complaints were either arguable points of style, and therefore editing or authorial decisions, or they were plain wrong. Although I feel very bad about that stray quote mark in the first line, authors and editors alike need to be ready for the response of readers and reviewers who may, due to their education or personal preference, describe as an editorial error a style choice that they don't approve of. An editor has to take responsibility for these choices, and if the main readership of a book has a preference or a distaste for certain styles or constructions or even formats, he ought to be aware of this. This is getting more and more difficult, however, since ebooks can be read by anyone, anywhere. You might not get the predominant demographic you are expecting. This is probably a topic to be treated more fully.

*** end of edit ***


A New Way to Tell Stories?

At the release of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (TES5), I blogged about my initial frustrations with the story arcs in Skyrim. Soon it will be possible to do something about it.

Just as a quiet revolution is taking place in the written word thanks to those Maverick Capitalistas at Amazon, so recent advance both in the technology and the culture of videogames is bringing about a similar revolution, possibly even a revival, of old fashioned storytelling. I am beginning to wonder if games like TES5 aren't part of the development of a new way of telling stories; the first new way to enter our culture since the tabletop RPG (for those of you in the Bible-Belt, this is a euphemism for "satanic cult" – for the rest of you, this is the technical term for Dungeons and Dragons and its myriad progeny).

In traditional storytelling, the teller uses a setting that is instantly familiar to all his listeners. In the 1001 Nights this is mythic Baghdad and it's environs; in Grimm it is the North Europe countryside; in Andersen it is the North Europe town. In Tolkien fanfic it is Middle Earth. In modern fantasy it's a mishmash of all these locations with a bit of romanticised Arthurianism and Gygax stirred into the mix.

In truth it doesn't much matter; what's important to the storyteller is that the setting is shared and familiar to his audience. (When, in a couple of weeks' time (late, I know), I will put my first "live telling" on my blog, the setting will be a very familiar one, though none of the above.) The familiarity of the shared setting liberates the storyteller from lengthy world-building, knowing that most of his audience is there for the tale - and a tale is discussion and action - wherever possible at the same time.

With TES4, Bethesda delivered a ready-made shared setting, which they populated with people (in gaming parlance, 'NPCs' (non-player characters)), and populated with stories (in gaming, as in fairytale parlance, 'quests').

Once they deliver the "creation kit" (announced for next week), it will be possible for the real storytellers to get to work, using their shared setting to tell new or retell old stories. The Creation Kit is a software package (sorry about that), but one much more rounded and fully developed than the one provided with the previous TES4 (Oblivion). It should make it possible for far more people to create not just apparel, weapons  and furniture (the most commonly created items in TES4), but to write stories and then put them into the game.

Commercially, the benefit for Bethesda is that players will continue playing for the next 6 years (as they did with TES4) because they keep adding new stories, new people, new places to discover, new challenges, new ideas. This gives Bethesda time to develop the next game, and ensures that there will be tens of thousands of people eager to buy it even if it takes a long time to come to market. This is exactly what happened between TES4 and TES5.

Culturally, the benefit for storytellers and story readers, is that so many more of us will be able to create new stories and then play those stories. As a medium, the game world is somewhere between a written fairytale, a history play, a heroic fantasy film and a "choose your own adventure" book.

If it sounds like I'm doing my best to talk up a video game until I can argue that it has the same cultural status as a book, a play or a film (or indeed, a roleplaying game), that is because I am. As a storytelling medium, the videogame has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years. Even so, it is still in its infancy. But the time is already long past where it can be dismissed as a time-sink or a distraction. It is fast becoming as much a developed cultural activity as filmmaking, and it is worth trying to see it that way.

As for me, I already have my name on a couple of game content projects. If you have come to this page looking for Skyrim modding help, I am available for free for dialog writing, story editing and voice acting, and I will (once I have learned it) also be available to give free advice and guidance on turning your idea for a quest into fully fledged game content.