Monday, October 23, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: P is for PUNCTUATION . . .

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. . . a few POINTERS.

Most writers know what to do with the period, question mark, and exclamation point—the punctuation that typically signals sentence endings. The most prevalent internal sentence punctuation, the comma, is not as well understood. In my work as an editor, I notice widespread misuse or absence of commas, as well as uncertainty about how and when to deploy less familiar punctuation marks such as the semicolon and em dash.

Increasing their punctuation know-how is an effective, but often overlooked, way for writers to enhance the ease and impact of their writing. What follows is not an exhaustive course in punctuation, but a few quick pointers about the uses and versatility of common punctuation marks in English-language writing.

End-of-sentence punctuation: period, exclamation point, question mark


—a period to conclude a statement:

Nothing could be more simple.

—a question mark to end with an inquiry or, occasionally, a note of irony or disbelief:

What time did you arrive? What did you do next?

You did what?

—an exclamation point to end with an emphatic flourish:

I could not believe my eyes!

Note: Be sparing with exclamation points. Using too many of them depletes their emphatic power: It's true! I mean it! Really!

Other end-of-sentence punctuation


—an em dash for speech or thought interrupted:

"But you said you would—"
"I changed my mind," she snapped, disliking his accusatory tone.

ellipsis points to indicate ongoing action or voice trailing off in dialogue:

The ships sailed in and out of the harbor. . . .

"But I was so sure it would all work out. . . ." He had to lean in close to hear the last part of what she said.

Internal sentence punctuation: the comma

Insert a comma

—to signal a pause:

When he was a boy, his family home did not have electricity.
Possibly, the whole plan was a mistake.
At certain times, there is no need to apologize.

Note: In examples like the three above, the comma is often optional, according to the writer's ear and need for emphasis. If in doubt, retain the comma to ensure clarity. In many instances, using an optional comma will add a subtle note of emphasis to the statement. Compare the second and third examples above to these:

Possibly the whole plan was a mistake.
At certain times there is no need to apologize.

Also use a comma

—to offset added descriptive or explanatory content:

The salesman, whose smile looked pasted onto his face, approached with a determined step.

—to list items in a series:

She was warmly dressed in a coat, hat, scarf, and pair of fleece-lined boots.

Note: The final comma in the series is optional, but most stylists recommend its inclusion.

—to separate the main parts of compound and/or complex sentences:

Simple sentence, no comma: Mary walked away.
Compound: Mary turned her back on him, and then she walked away.
Complex: Because she had nothing more to say to him, Mary walked away.
Complex/compound: Because she had nothing more to say, Mary turned her back on him, and then she walked away.

Other internal sentence punctuation


—a semicolon when ideas are closely connected, and making two sentences would create choppiness:

One cat was white; the other was orange. (Instead of: One cat was white. The other was orange.)

Note: As a rule, in this kind of construction, avoid inserting a comma and creating a run-on sentence (a.k.a. comma fault or comma splice)—as in: One cat was white, the other was orange. For further discussion of the run-on sentence and its fixes, see "E is for EMAIL".

In other kinds of sentences, insert—

—a colon to introduce a list, or to augment or complete preceding information:

The clock ticked . . .
Example of ellipsis points used for deliberate effect.
The room contained four items of furniture: a bed, nightstand, floor lamp, and rocking chair.

Jane looked at her watch and saw that she had two choices: she could grab a bite now or go hungry until dinnertime.

ellipsis points to indicate omissions from quoted material, or to suggest ongoing action and/or time passing:

"When a species . . . increases inordinately . . . , epidemics . . . often ensue."

The clock ticked . . . ticked . . .
ticked . . . and finally struck midnight.

—two em dashes to offset parenthetical information, or to emphasize added content:

French impressionists—for example, Monet and Degas—brought a new vision to painting.

My best option—or so I thought at the time—was to keep my mouth shut.

Note: The first sentence in the above pair might also use parentheses: French impressionists (for example, Monet and Degas) brought a new vision to painting. Many contemporary stylists favor em dashes over parentheses because the former are more elegant or emphatic in many sentence constructions.

In the second sentence, replacing the em dashes with commas would be acceptable, but the use of em dashes creates greater emphasis and/or drama.

And speaking of enhanced effect, instead of a comma try using—

—a single em dash to add drama to a sentence:

He suddenly got an idea—a brilliant idea that would solve all his problems.

Note: An em dash can be typed as two hyphens (--), but do not use single hyphens in place of em dashes or any other sentence punctuation. Hyphens are for use in compound words and to attach some prefixes and suffixes: kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, co-op, anti-inflammatory, university-wide—to cite just a few well-chosen, high-quality examples of hyphenated words.

Learning more about punctuation

The pointers and examples given above are introductory and do not include all forms of punctuation or every usage for the punctuation discussed. For more information about punctuation marks and specialized usages, consult chapter 6 of The Chicago Manual of Style, available in the reference sections of most public libraries. For online information, start at

It can take years of writing, editing, and consulting style manuals to become a punctuation expert. But mastering the basics and following punctuation best practice, even at an elementary level, will help ensure clarity and empower your writing.

Up next . . . "Q is for QUERY"

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: O is for OW . . .

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. . . OVERWRITING, that is.

When I edit a book manuscript, I use sidebar comments to explain the reason for many of the changes that I make. Some of these comments include abbreviations to designate frequently recurring issues. My favorite abbreviation of this sort is OW. Not only does it stand for overwriting, but it also expresses a common reader reaction to bloated language. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White parody the painful effect of "overblown" writing: "Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating."

What is overwriting?

Generally speaking, to overwrite is to write in a contrived, elaborate, and wordy style. Overwritten prose may include any or all of the following lapses, occurring separately or in combination:

—unnecessary adverbs

—excessive and/or redundant adjectives

—obscure and/or overly elevated language

—indiscriminate use of qualifiers (little, very, rather, pretty)

—unnecessarily long sentences

—mixed metaphors and similes: comparisons using dubious logic and contradictory or incompatible imagery

Examples of how to reduce overwriting 

In each example below, the reduced version is a representative way to correct the overwritten passage. Other possibilities for reduction are numerous, and rewrites will vary according to the individual writer's style and objectives.


Overwritten: "I hate studying," she said angrily and shut the textbook loudly.

Reduced: "I hate studying," she said and slammed the textbook shut.


Overwritten: A great, huge, overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Reduced: An overgrown red setter lumbered toward us.

Overwritten: Weary, and with slow, leaden steps, he plodded onward, dragging himself along the long, endless path.

Reduced: Weary, he plodded along the endless path.


Overwritten: She was in no small way gratified that both her visual acuity and auditory capability were of a functionality vastly superior to that of the pedestrian throng that constituted virtually all the rest of humanity.

Reduced: She was proud that her eyesight and hearing were far above average.


"The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then." (From Strunk and White; boldface added.) 

Reduced: "The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do . . . better, we should all be . . . watchful of this rule, for it is an . . . important one, and we are . . . sure to violate it now and then."

Long sentences


Overwritten: While she couldn't help feeling uneasy, she made an effort to ignore the prickling at the back of her neck, because it could just be heat rash, she told herself in an attempt to stay calm, but she really didn't believe this, as her heart rate was accelerating.

Reduced:  She made an effort to ignore the uneasiness prickling at the back of her neck. It could just be heat rash, she told herself, but her accelerating heart rate said otherwise.

Mixed metaphors and similes

Overwritten: Bracing himself like a boxer about to enter the ring, he took a deep breath and then plunged into the poisonously freezing river, which flowed with the ferocity of molten lava from a newly erupted volcano.

Reduced: He took a deep breath and plunged into the freezing river.

Note: The comparisons in the first sentence are dysfunctional, mixing logically unrelated, and thus incompatible, imagery of sport (boxing), toxicity (poisonously), and a natural phenomenon (freezing); the sentence then contradicts the image of freezing cold water by introducing an image of heat (molten lava).

Example of overwriting & editorial reduction

Keep it simple

Avoid overwriting by practicing the necessary restraint to streamline your prose. Without entirely compromising your personal style and vision, lean toward a minimalist approach to writing:

—Reduce or eliminate adverbs; use strong verbs instead.

—Resist introducing extraneous adjectives.

—Use language judiciously, with an eye to transparency.

—Avoid qualifiers; use only those that add to meaning or effect.

—Vary sentence lengths; divide overly long sentences into digestible portions.

—Scrutinize your metaphors for logic, consistency, and appropriateness; when in doubt, opt for a straightforward action statement.

In all matters of style, aim for brevity, directness, and clarity. As Strunk and White advise, "guard against wordiness," self-edit early drafts, and "delete the excess." Less is usually more.

Up next . . . "P is for PUNCTUATION"

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: N is for NEW . . .

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. . . and, er, NOTHING NEW.

Back in the day when I was a full-time book author, my New York agent enjoyed regaling me with her book-trade "street smarts." Among her favorite and most often repeated aphorisms was this one: There's nothing new under the sun. At the time I regarded this notion with a good deal of skepticism. Personally, I was full of bright ideas that I was pretty sure were brand-new. Certainly I had thought them up on my own without knowingly copying anyone else. But as my years in the book trade mounted, and came to include editing and consulting as well as writing, I began to see what my agent had meant.

What's "new" in nonfiction

In expository nonfiction, a bright idea newly conceived might shed fresh light on related ideas that came before. This can certainly be original and creative but not necessarily brand-new. Forms of creative nonfiction—memoir, biography, popular history, and other kinds of true narrative—have a long history and relative uniformity of structure. Such works are typically organized chronologically, thematically, or by a combination of chronology and theme. Any newness comes from the author's distinctive style and possibly subject matter that is little known or explored from a fresh perspective.

What's "new" in fiction

In fiction, three main kinds of conflict—separately or in combination—drive all stories:

1. Character vs. self (as in, for example, identity confusion, obsession, self-deception, and destructive goals or behaviors)

2. Character vs. character(s) (as evidenced in, for example, jealousy, betrayals, and rivalries of all kinds from office politics to threats of bodily harm to fights to the death)

3. Character vs. major force(s) (for example nature, technology, or apocalypse)

Given that conflict must be present in any functional story, and that there are only three basic kinds of conflict in fiction, it stands to reason that entirely original plots are accordingly limited. Writers, critics, and scholars of literature have long argued about exactly how many distinct plots constitute the entire history of fiction. Widely defended numbers are three, six, seven, twenty, and thirty-six. For more information see, among many other such discussions, the Guardian article ". . . how many basic plots are there in all stories ever written?"

A plausible case can be made for any of the commonly proposed numbers of plots. What this boils down to is that the much-hailed "stunningly original" blockbuster and "creative tour de force" are not completely new but, rather, offer new twists on old plots.

The creative challenge of nothing new

Way back in history, when the literary world was young, entirely new ideas must have been more readily conceivable than they are in our time. If indeed my agent was right, and there is now little or nothing that is truly, totally new, then writers must contend with a notable irony: in this age of sound bites, short attention spans, and constant information flow, a taste for the new is arguably more widely prevalent and insatiable than ever before.

Daisy, the Helping You Get Published mascot

Today's creative challenge is constantly to reinvent what was once brand new, and which must appear to be new all over again. Strategies for recreating the new include the following:

—developing fresh perspectives
—cultivating stylistic distinctiveness
—discovering underexplored subject matter
—concocting new plot twists
—devising compelling hooks

As literary history continues to unfold, new rarely, if at all, means brand-new. The imperative now is ongoing reinvention in writing, and innovation in the marketing of books.

Up next . . . "O is for OW . . . OVERWRITING, that is"

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: INTERMISSION

Blog series intermission till July
The series "The ABCs of Book Writing" is half done, with A to M completed last week. The series will resume in July as "Book Writing ABCs, with "N is for NEW." During this intermission period, go to for announcements and other posts on book writing and publishing.

For an overview of infographics and other visuals illustrating book writing from A to M, go to:

Pinterest Overview of A to M

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: M is for MOMENTUM . . .

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. . . and MOVING the story forward.

Every book needs sustained forward momentum. Like a radio or TV show that suddenly has dead air, a book in which momentum halts sends a clear signal: something is wrong.

Momentum in fiction and creative nonfiction

To hold the reader’s interest, all novels must create and maintain a sense of the plot going forward. In a thriller, this momentum is typically very fast. In other kinds of novels the pace may be slower, more like real life. But the forward momentum must be there nonetheless, or the reader feels no need to read on. Creative nonfiction must similarly establish and maintain momentum in order to attract and keep the reader's attention.

Sustaining momentum in fiction and creative nonfiction

For novels, novellas, and stories:

—Cultivate conflict and problems. Stories are propelled by the conflicts and problems that characters encounter and resolve. Remove all conflict and you have no plot; fail to sustain conflict and you get a plot that stops and starts. Instead, constantly thrust the character into scenes where the character must confront conflicts, take action, and solve problems—thus changing, growing, furthering the plot, and always moving the story forward.

—Keep explanatory description of settings, people's physical appearance, and emotions to a necessary minimum. Never lecture. Show, don't tell.

—Avoid long flashbacks. Integrate flashback information bit by bit into the main action of the story.

—Avoid detailed backstory. As with flashbacks, integrate the necessary background information into the main action.

For memoirs, biographies, popular histories, and true crime:

Use any or all of the strategies noted above to ensure that your readers stay engaged. Creative nonfiction typically employs many, if not all, of the narrative techniques of fiction. What I have said with respect to fiction writing therefore applies to your work of creative nonfiction. While you may be able to take greater liberties with description, flashbacks, and backstory than you would with fiction writing, the need to sustain forward momentum always remains.

Momentum in expository nonfiction

Expository nonfiction does not have a story in the same way as fiction or creative nonfiction. But books specifically designed to explain and instruct must still convey to the reader a sense of forward thrust, of constantly moving toward any or all of the following:

-conclusion of an argument
-solution to a problem
-benefit for the reader
-specific action the reader can take
-fresh insight
-new skill or knowledge

If the nonfiction book appears to lack such momentum and direction, readers will disengage in the same way that they would from a novel that grinds to a halt.

Sustaining momentum in expository nonfiction

For how-to, self-help, and motivational books; textbooks; and academic and technical works:

Remember the reader
Making a habit of putting reader understanding before a
display of your own knowledge will automatically help
sustain forward momentum.
—Stay focused on the book's ultimate objective. Avoid digressing.

—Be concise. Avoid lecturing.

—Be clear. Don't obfuscate by writing in circles around the subject.

—Remember the reader. Always prioritize reader understanding over showing off your own expertise or erudition.

Keep moving, keep readers

Forward momentum equals reader engagement
Daisy, the Helping You Get Published mascot, demonstrates
forward momentum and reader engagement.
All readers know the power of those books that compel us to keep turning the pages to find out what comes next. Momentum is the source of this power. Without sustained momentum, you not only lose writing power but you lose readers. Forward momentum is at the heart of reader engagement. Successful writing is that simple—and that challenging.

INTERMISSION: The ABCs of Book Writing will resume in October
with “N is for NEW.” Announcements at:

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: L is for LECTURING . . .

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. . . and avoiding it—a LITTLE goes a LONG way.

What do you mean by lecturing when writing a book?

By lecturing, I mean dumping large quantities of dry facts or long-winded background information into your fiction or nonfiction with little regard for engaging the reader. The adverse effects of lecturing include:

- detracting from the interest of the main points or argument in nonfiction;
- halting the forward action of fiction; and, in all cases,
- boring or confusing the reader.

Is lecturing in a book ever OK?

Certainly—if you're a professor writing a guide called something like 25 Winning Lectures, then lecturing is not only OK, but a positive must. For most other kinds of books, instead of lapsing into lecture mode, try to find briefer and more readable ways to convey information.

Avoiding lecturing in nonfiction writing

In the writing of both creative and expository nonfiction, there are times when explanations or background information are necessary in order for the reader to understand what is going on. It is up to you as the author to ensure that your readers are suitably oriented and informed. But lecturing is by no means the only or most engaging way to do your job.

Tips for conveying information in nonfiction

—Be concise.

—Moderate your tone; don't harangue.

—Focus on the main points; don't digress.

—Don't quote at length from other books. This is boring and may violate fair use guidelines.

—Convey information through anecdotes, colorful examples, vignettes, or even recalled or imagined conversation.

—Keep paragraphs short: five or six sentences on average, interspersed with one- or two-sentence paragraphs for variety and emphasis.

—Where appropriate, introduce numbered or bulleted points.

—Use subheadings to break up lengthy topics into readable sections.

 Avoiding lecturing in fiction writing

Effective fiction is all about story and character. A novel or shorter fiction should never be a platform for the author to show off his or her erudition, voice opinions, or dish out copious amounts of explanations and background—however relevant such information might seem. Similarly, do not let your characters lecture either—whether they're expressing your views or their own.

Tips for writing fiction without lecturing the reader

—Do not overuse the omniscient author point of view—in other words, do not intrude yourself into the story. Develop strong character viewpoints and stay with them.

—Write character dialogue, not monologue.

—Keep all dialogue speech brief; do not let characters ramble on for two or more paragraphs.

—If conveying a lot of information through dialogue is necessary, then break up each speech into short, digestible chunks. Use "beats"—gestures, facial expressions, or short passages of action—to make the dialogue seem natural and to keep the story going forward.

—Resist the urge to explain. Let necessary information come out bit by bit as the story moves forward; reveal what the reader needs to know through the characters' actions and understanding.

The need to explain in fiction and nonfiction

Shakespeare on conciseness in writing
Shakespeare was to the point on brevity: watch
the video below . . .

There is a difference between the need to explain and the urge. More often than not, you may feel the latter, because explaining is less creatively taxing than devising more engaging ways to get your point across. In certain instances, however, a no-frills explanation may be the only option. This is the need to explain.

In both fiction and nonfiction, the need to explain something does not call for a full-blown lecture. Use your own feelings as a barometer. If you're boring yourself as you write, then the odds are that you're lecturing—and boring the reader too. Explain what and when you must, but never fail to practice lecture avoidance:

Be clear about the point you need to make. Get straight to it. Be brief.

Coming next week . . . "M is for MOMENTUM"

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: K is for KNOWING what you don't know . . .

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. . . and KNOWING to look it up.

Writers of expository nonfiction such as how-to and advice books generally do their research and get their facts straight. It is every bit as important for authors of creative nonfiction and fiction to look up what they cannot remember or imagine. Whatever you write, even if you are 99.9 percent certain that you know something, leave no room for doubt or error.

Look it up.

The importance of factual accuracy in expository writing, creative nonfiction, and fiction

It stands to reason that authors of textbooks, how-to guides, and advice books must aim for absolute factual accuracy, or their books would be worthless. A similar commitment to accuracy is also essential for writers of creative nonfiction and fiction. While most fiction readers appreciate an imaginative plot, many are also sticklers for correctness when it comes to the portrayal of real-life events, dates, geographic locations, professions, and specialized knowledge. If these readers find errors, they might be put off your writing for good.

For example, memoir writers need to verify the dates of their personal memories as well as events occurring in the world around them. Your memories are your own but they exist against a backdrop of personal chronology and historical events that must be accurately represented in order for your memoir to be engaging and convincing. Similarly, when writing fiction, you will disengage your readers if you don't ground your leaps of imagination in factual reality. If you are writing a police procedural mystery, for instance, you need to accurately represent how law enforcement really works. Even if you are writing an out-there futuristic techno-thriller, your story will have greatest impact if it takes off from a foundation of actual science and technology.

Why authors should research and fact-check

There are four strong reasons for authors of all kinds to do their utmost to write with factual accuracy:

—Meticulous research and concern for accuracy enhances your credibility.

—Avoidable errors can be off-putting to many readers; on the other hand, a reputation for accuracy can contribute to your reader retention. You want to attract readers, keep them, and avoid doing anything that might be a potential turnoff.

—Writing can be hard enough without your having to wrestle with a niggling feeling that you are not going the distance. Doing your research and fact-checking is a matter of professional pride.

—Research and fact-checking can be a source of new ideas or directions for either your current or future projects. Creativity and imagination may originate from within you, but both can be measurably enriched by research.

Doing your research: Sources of information for book authors


Today the first go-to source of information for most people is the Internet. Most users are aware that the reliability of sites and their information varies. For complex subjects, I therefore tend to use books by established authors rather than websites or blogs. But for basic information and fact-checking, nothing can beat the speed and convenience of the Internet.

To ensure that I am getting correct information or fact verification, I pick reliable sites such as Wikipedia and, where they exist, online versions of standard encyclopedias or dictionaries. When dealing with sites of lesser authority, I check at least three sources for the facts I am verifying. If they all agree, then I generally feel confident that the information is accurate. In case of discrepancies, I keep looking until a consensus emerges and I can eliminate the information that seems doubtful.

Personal library

Once upon a time, not so long ago actually, there was no Internet, and authors were largely dependent on libraries for research and fact-checking. In my case, I would make notes about facts that needed checking and bibliographic citations that I was missing. Then, every once in a while, I would take a break from writing and spend a day running up and down stairs in the university library stacks, filling in all the gaps in my information. This would generally take a whole day and was often exhausting.

To avoid these time-consuming and tiring excursions, like many authors, I found it useful to amass a personal library of reference works relating to the subjects I was writing about. Even today, despite the convenience of the Internet, I still value my personal library. Often, rather than going online, I find it is just as quick to pull a book off my own shelf and look up something in a source of proven reliability. My personal collection includes assorted dictionaries and style manuals, Oxford and Cambridge reference works on literature, book trade directories, and books on writing.

If you have the space and budget, you might explore the possibility of starting your own personalized at-home library. This can be a practical and satisfying complement to your writing activities.

The importance of books and digital research resources for book writers
Even in today's digital world, public libraries and
librarians remain among the best sources of information
and tips on effective research.
Public library

Most people have ready access to some sort of public library, whether municipal or university. These days many library holdings can be accessed online. Online library resources are a tremendous aid to research, as they provide the reliability of traditional information plus the convenience of the Internet.

Even if you have extensive access to online library holdings, don't entirely neglect paying the occasional in-person visit to a physical library. Librarians know how to find information with maximum efficiency and, often in minutes, can unearth facts and resources that you might take days to discover or altogether overlook.

The imperative of the authoritative author

Whether you rely on the Internet, compile your own book collection, or use public libraries and consult librarians, you owe it to your readers and yourself to be an author whose accuracy can be trusted. Know what you don't know. Get it right. Look it up.

Coming next week . . . "L is for LECTURING"

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: J is for JUST write . . .

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. . . and JUST why you should.

In the real world of professional authorship, the bottom line is: writers write. Over the course of a career some authors will produce dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of books, articles, and reviews. Others may produce only a handful and build a career by combining writing with speaking, teaching, or consulting. How prolific you are depends on a number of personal and professional factors—for example: whether or not you have a day job, your health and energy, your family and domestic obligations, and the type of writing you do. Regardless of your individual situation, what you don't want to be is a one-book author.

Why writers must keep writing

There are four basic reasons why there is no downside to your being as prolific a writer as you can manage to be:

1. Writers must keep writing for the obvious reason that this is the only way to produce a sufficient amount of work to reach others. The more you produce, the more likely you are to find markets and draw readers.

2. Writing continuously is the only way to significantly grow as a writer. In the course of producing one book, you may gather momentum and hone some skills. But without continuing to write, it is hard to imagine maintaining your craft, let alone improving on it.

3. The more you write, the more likely you are to be successfully published. It is difficult to break into the market as a first-time book author with absolutely no credentials. Agents, publishers, and readers will be swayed in your favor if you have some writing credentials, such as book reviews, journal or magazine articles, or anthology contributions. Now that publishing credentials can be obtained through both print and digital sources, it's hard to justify wanting to be a book author while remaining totally unpublished.

4. To keep on writing is to be a professional. Even if you have just finished a magnum opus, you have no excuse to hang up the quill pen or power down your computer. If you work hard at your manuscript and persevere with querying agents and publishers, or with marketing your self-published book, your work will eventually attract someone who can take you to the next level. But odds are, that someone will not only value prior writing credentials but will also want you at least to have a second book in progress.

Strategies to keep you writing

Ideally, while you are working on one book—presumably your main project—you should be writing something else as while. If this is absolutely not possible for you, then once the main project is completed, immediately begin the next book or some other writing project, preferably one related to your newly completed book.

Strategies that will keep you writing can be as many and as varied as writers themselves. Here are a few for you to try and to adapt to suit yourself and your situation:

Strategies to keep writing
—While writing one book, research, plan, make notes on, and write snippets of the next book.

—Seek out book reviewing opportunities. Start but don't stop with Amazon, Smashwords, and Goodreads.

—While writing one book, work on another in a different but related genre, to keep you fresh in both. Examples of possible pairings: science fiction/popular science; contemporary romance/romantic suspense; detective fiction/true crime; popular history/historical fiction; cozy mystery/period mystery.

—Write articles or short stories related to your current book in progress; write and send out queries for these.

—Start, and work hard at, a blog related to your book.

—Look for related blogs to contribute to as a guest.

—If your book is part of a series, make notes on, or write drafts of, later books in the series.

—Just for fun, write fan fiction. It could grow your author platform.

—If all else fails, write journal or diary entries. These will not likely be publication ready anytime soon, but maybe someday . . .

Just keep writing

However you choose to do it, stay continuously involved in the writing process. Some of us must devote time and energy to day jobs, and we all need downtime. But succeeding as a book author means never entirely walking away from writing, whether it's a book you're working on or something—anything—else that qualifies as potentially publishable written work.

Writers write.

Coming next week . . . "K is for KNOWING what you don't know"

Friday, May 12, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: I is for INTERTEXTUALITY . . .

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. . . and enhancing your own IDEAS.

What is intertextuality? And why should I know about it?

Intertextuality is a term used in literary theory to designate the diverse ways that any literary text inevitably refers to other texts, both past and contemporary. These other texts may include novels, nonfiction books, and other written works. The text in intertextuality also encompasses other forms of artistic and cultural expression:

—ideas and beliefs
—sayings, conventions, and oral traditions

Intertextuality reflects the reality that culture is a way of life. It is therefore inevitable that a writer's cultural experience and community will find direct or indirect expression in his or her own writing. Intertextuality is important because recognizing and using it effectively can add to your personal stock of ideas, and enrich your writing.

For an overview of intertextuality, watch the video at the bottom of this post.

Intertextuality in fiction and nonfiction books

There are many ways that one text may refer to another. Such references may be direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious on the part of the author. In written works, they may be found anywhere from commercial nonfiction to literary and genre fiction, and might include the following:

—structural parallelism

Examples of intertextuality in literature and popular culture

Examples of intertextuality from the literary canon include Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which refers to Dante's Inferno, and his later novel Victory, drawn from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Among the best-known literary examples of intertextuality is James Joyce's Ulysses, a modern retelling of Homer's Odyssey.

Examples of intertextuality in TV & movies
Today's popular culture is also rich in intertextuality. The long-running comedy series The Big Bang Theory combines fresh, clever writing with extensive intertextual references to earlier sitcoms, Star Trek, Star Wars, various action-hero movies, comic books, and popular science—to name just some examples. In film, notable intertextual variations on earlier plots include Sleepless in Seattle (1993), which uses quotes, clips, and music from An Affair to Remember (1957), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), a millennial adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813).

The power and pitfalls of intertextuality in writing

Examples from literature and popular culture show that, used with awareness and innovativeness, intertextuality can be a powerful creative tool. Just the introduction of a short but apt quote can add an extra level of artistry and meaning to your writing. Beware, however, of overdoing your intertextual references and adaptations, or you might run the risk of having your work dismissed as too derivative. Falling back on hackneyed writing, discussed previously, is another kind of intertextual faux pas. Worst of all, for ethical as well as artistic reasons, is plagiarism, an extreme and always unacceptable form of intertextuality.

If you are unsure of what constitutes intertextual innovation, freshness of expression, and fair use, err on the side of minimalism: a pithy quote, passing allusion, or new twist on an old idea. When handled with deftness and discretion, intertextuality adds dimension and interest to your writing. 

Sources for this post: M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 5th ed. (1988); Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (1990); and David Lodge, The Art of Fiction (1992).

Coming next week . . . "J is for JUST write"

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: H is for HACKNEYED writing . . .

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. . . and HOW to break its HABITS.

Hackneyed writing can afflict most writers from time to time. The challenge of effective writing is to become aware of the habits associated with hackneyed writing, and to do what is necessary to break them. The more you succumb to the lure of hackneyed writing, the more likely you are to create a tedious and unsaleable manuscript.

What is hackneyed writing?

Hackneyed writing is the repeated falling back on words, phrases, or narrative techniques that were once fresh but have now suffered from decades, or even centuries, of use, reuse, and overuse. The reason that hackneyed writing persists is because it comes easily to us. When we are writing, and our heads are full of points of argument, plot twists, lines of dialogue, and all the other ideas and images that we feel urgency to express, what often come first to mind are the clichés and familiar narrative techniques of hackneyed writing.

Hackneyed writing habits

The following are common habits associated with hackneyed writing:

1. Making outworn comparisons

busy as a bee, fat as a pig, hot as hell, light as a feathereasy as pie . . .

Break the habit by creating original similes, metaphors, or other images: She launched herself into a flurry of activity. His belt buckle was almost obscured by his stomach.

2. Relying on tired turns of phrase*

-that said/that having been said/having said that (try but, however, or even so)
-sooner rather than later (try immediate/immediately, prompt/promptly, without delay, or plain old soon)
-few and far between (try rare)
-in this day and age (try these days, now, nowadays, today)
-by leaps and bounds (specify the quantity: improved by 20 percent, tripled, grew by eight times the rate of last year)
-a good time was had by all (saying almost anything would be better than this; or just record the events and leave it to the reader to conclude whether it was enjoyable or otherwise)
-risked life and limb (risked his/her life)
-for all intents and purposes (can be deleted in most contexts)
-at the end of the day (ditto)
-it goes without saying/needless to say (delete these phrases; any point they introduced should be deleted or rewritten: If it goes without saying, why say it at all?)

Break the habit by deleting or using substitutes, as in the parenthetical suggestions above.

3. Overusing -ly adverbs, especially in dialogue sentences

 "I hate studying," Joe said angrily.

4. Expressing speakers' feelings with animal noises

"Stop that," he snarled. "I'd like that," she cooed. "Get away from me," she hissed. "I hate studying," Joe growled.

Break these two habits by choosing precise, expressive nouns and verbs to show feelings and create images around the dialogue: "I'd like that," she said, moving so close that he could smell the citrus scent of her shampoo. "I hate studying," Joe said and slammed the textbook shut.

5. Constantly reversing the construction of dialogue sentences 

"I hate studying," said Joe.
"Me too," agreed Mary. "Such a bore," said she.

Break the habit by routinely choosing the subject-verb construction in dialogue sentences:
"I hate studying," Joe said.
"Me too," Mary agreed. "Such a bore," she said.

While the subject-verb construction is the best choice for most dialogue sentences, there are some contexts in which the reverse construction is not only acceptable, but preferable. For example: "Such a bore," said Mary, who drove home the point with an elaborate roll of her eyes. (Rather than: "Such a bore," Mary, who drove home the point with an elaborate roll of her eyes, said.)

Dog sleeping on book
Outworn language and narrative style bore the reader.

6. Using too many substitutes for said

"Mary," he remarked, "I didn't know you were still here."
"I came back to rest for a few minutes," she replied.
"Can I get you anything?" he asked.
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine," she insisted.

Break the habit by using said or nothing at all:

"Mary," he said, "I didn't know you were still here."
"I came back to rest for a few minutes."
"Can I get you anything?"
She shook her head. "No, I'm fine."

7. Being an intrusive author

If you are writing a how-to or self-help book, it is appropriate to address the reader directly and possibly to include illustrative examples based on your own experience, perceptions, or expertise. Fiction, however, is another matter, and readers will not welcome the overbearing, omniscient author who indulges in the following kinds of intrusion:

As Mary enters the dark pathway you might think you know what happens next but, in fact, you are in for a surprise. Little did she know that her life was about to be changed forever. She was so worried that she did not feel the first drops of rain on her head and failed to see the murderer lurking behind a tree. She had no idea that disaster awaited her.

Break the habit by never stopping the story to address the reader directly. And do not tell readers what the character does not know or feel. Stay in the background and unfold the story through one or more strong character viewpoints:

As she entered the dark pathway, Mary's unease took control. Why do I feel like my life is about to change forever? she thought.

Sudden cold drops of rain on her head startled her into awareness of her surroundings. She glimpsed what looked like a shadowy figure trying to hide behind a tree, but dismissed this as a figment of her overactive imagination. Still, she could not deny that her fear was now as real and as cold as the falling rain.

Earning your cliché

Is there ever a time to give in to the habits of hackneyed writing? Some stylists argue that you can earn your clichés. That is, after a long passage of writing in your own unique voice, you might be able to make a point or create drama by deploying a cliché. Sometimes clichés can become ironic or otherwise effective in a new, well-conceived context.

If, however, you have any doubt about whether you’ve earned your cliché, bypass it and reach for a fresh turn of phrase or up-to-date narrative technique. Odds are, this effort will serve you better than even the most judicious falling back on the stock figures of speech and bygone narrative tropes of hackneyed writing. Whenever you can, turn the outdated into the original.

*The list of tired phrases includes examples from Judy Birnberg, WordThoughts (blog), March 14, 2017,; and Mark Evans, Grumpmeister (blog), January 14 and August 7, 2012, For additional examples, see Brian A. Klems, The Writer's Dig (blog), August 15, 2012,

Coming next week . . . "I is for INTERTEXTUALITY"

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: G is for GRAMMAR . . .

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. . . and four GOOD reasons to GO GET some.

To be a book author, you do not necessarily have to grasp the difference between a gerund and a participle (although such understanding doesn't hurt). You do, however, need to know enough grammar to write a readable—and publishable—book manuscript.

What is grammar and why does it matter?

Grammar is a system of rules that define the structure and functioning of language. Here are four reasons why brushing up your grammar is a worthwhile endeavor:

Writing is all about communicating clearly. Grammar aids clarity by giving you, the writer, a fixed set of rules, or conventions, that readers can readily interpret. If they have to struggle to find the meaning within erroneous or inconsistent grammatical usage, misinterpretation is possible and clear communication is compromised.

2. A knowledge of grammar empowers your writing by providing you with a set of tools that are always in working order and always available to you. These tools enable you to produce correct, original writing and reduce the likelihood that you will fall back on the errors of email writing style or the tired ploys associated with hackneyed writing.

3. Like every other author, you have an individual voice and personal vision of the book you wish to write. The better your grasp of grammar, the better your ability to bring your voice to its highest potential and effectively share your creative vision with your readers.

4. Writing a book with the greatest possible grammatical correctness will reduce the amount of editing required. For conventional authors, a manuscript that requires minimal editing will have enhanced appeal to agents and publishers. For self-publishing authors, a grammatically correct, carefully prepared manuscript will increase the chances that you will only need basic copyediting or proofreading—as opposed to expensive stylistic and substantive editing. Good grammar, in other words, can significantly reduce your publishing costs.

Your grammar foundation

You may never bother to find out the definition of a gerund or an ergative verb, and you don't necessarily need to do so. You will, however, do yourself a disservice as a writer if you ignore grammar altogether and make no effort to master its conventions.

Gaining a sophisticated, or merely adequate, grasp of grammar is an ongoing process for most people. Even high-level editors have to look things up and are always adding to their knowledge of the finer points of grammar.

For beginning writers who feel the need to strengthen their grammatical knowledge, my suggestion is to master a grammar foundation, to bear it in mind as you write, and to build on it as part of your overall growth as a writer. Opinions undoubtedly vary as to what is a minimally acceptable level of grammatical understanding. The following is what I consider to be a basic grammar foundation—that is, the very least you should know before starting to write a book:

A noun is a word designating a person, place, thing, or idea. Nouns usually form plurals by adding an s. For possible exceptions, check a reliable dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Nouns also have possessive forms that take an apostrophe: singular—the cat's tail; plural—the cats' tails.

A pronoun is a word used as a substitute for a noun (for example, he, she, you, it).

A verb is a word or set of words expressing action (We traveled by train to Paris.) or state of being (Paris is a beautiful city.) or possession of some tangible (Paris has many museums and galleries.) or intangible (Paris has an air of romance.) attribute(s).

Verbs have tenses, which signify the time of a verb's functioning. The most common tenses for book writing are present, past, and future: These days, I walk to work. Last year, I walked to work. When spring comes, I will walk to work. You may want to use the resources cited below to familiarize yourself with the nuances of the perfect and subjunctive forms of these tenses.

A sentence expresses at least one complete thought and must consist of at least one subject (noun, pronoun, or group of words functioning as a subject) and one predicate (verb).

A run-on sentence contains two or more complete sentences, each separated by a comma. For an example and how to correct it, see "E is for EMAIL," under "Self-editing email style"/"Break up run-on sentences."

A sentence fragment stands on its own and ends with a period, but is missing either a subject or predicate. Used in moderation, sentence fragments can add drama or emphasis.

A paragraph is a group of sentences treating a single topic or theme. When the topic changes, make a new paragraph. Most topics or subtopics of a longer discussion can be handled in paragraphs consisting of nine sentences or less. Paragraphs that run on for more than twelve sentences are tedious, as well as detrimental to readability and the aesthetics of the printed page. Occasional usage of one- or two-sentence paragraphs can create extra drama, suspense, or emphasis.

Resources for building on your grammar foundation


Favorite Grammar & Style BooksNot all grammar books are the dull texts you perhaps remember from junior high English classes. Check out Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. This book is both educational and fun to read. On the cover, there's a cute panda that, depending on the presence or absence of a comma, either subsists on a diet of green shoots and leaves or, after eating a sandwich, shoots his way out of a café. A comma is sometimes a matter of life and death.

The classic authority on grammar and elegant writing is The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This little book is readable and entertaining. Take a couple of hours to read it from cover to cover, refer back to it as needed, and before long, you will be a proficient grammarian and stylist. You can purchase a recent, updated edition or find the first edition online for free.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the grammar and style bible for the English language book trade is my all-time favorite book. Where else would you find out whether your ellipsis should have four dots or three, how to quote things with or without quotation marks, and where to put hyphens in every possible scenario (unless of course you should be using an en dash)?! The CMS is available as a pricey hard cover book aimed at editors and other seriously dedicated grammarians and stylists. To sample the CMS for free, try the reference section of your local library.


Some college continuing education programs and other community programs include basic grammar courses. Quality no doubt varies but the ones that I know about have been popular due to instructors who make the effort to bring grammar to life through humor and lively examples. If you're the kind of learner who likes to take workshops and courses, it's worth investigating the educational offerings in your community to see if they include Grammar 101 or Syntax Made Simple.


The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) offers an online subscription. To sample a range of its content for free and to get answers to specific grammar and style questions, visit Chicago Style Q&A.

If you're after quick and dirty—but reliable—grammar tips, then try the blog and podcasts of Grammar Girl. Careful, though: they can get addictive.

Benefits of building on your grammar foundation

Building on your grammar foundation and knowing where to find the resources to do so offer significant benefits. Not only does your grammar improve, but your writing becomes stronger and easier. This in turn boosts your confidence as the kind of book author who has something important to say—and knows just how to say it.

Coming next week . . . "H is for HACKNEYED writing"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: F is for FORMATTING . . .

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. . . and FOUR reasons to FIGURE it out.

So what's the big deal about manuscript formatting? It's just something boring that I'll worry about later or get someone else to fix. If I want to write my book with a purple comic font on a yellow background, that's my choice and it's OK for now.

Well, yes—and, then again, quite possibly no. In fact, there is some basis for getting your formatting right—right now, as you work on your first draft.

Four reasons to figure out formatting now

1. Formatting is its own thing of beauty with intrinsic value, like a newly stretched and primed blank canvas. A correctly formatted manuscript may contain unresolved writing issues, but at least you can feel like a professional because the tangible expression of your ideas—ultimately the only thing that counts—is presented to meet book trade standards.

2. Formatting may help you write more easily. With correct, functional formatting in place, you have one less thing to worry about, freeing at least some small part of your mind for creative endeavor. It is a further boon that proper formatting eliminates annoying, distracting glitches and reduces the possibility of file corruption. Finally, professional-level formatting that you learned to do yourself may also contribute to your confidence as a writer geared to success.

3.  A correctly formatted manuscript meets the basic expectation of the publishing industry. Sending a sloppily, incorrectly formatted manuscript to agents and publishers will result in its immediate relegation to the reject pile. It won't matter how beautifully you write, as no one will be bothered to read what looks like a substandard production.

I recall visiting the office of my New York agent. The latest manuscript from her highest-earning, best-selling author had just arrived. My agent handed it to me to look over. Of course, the writing style was polished, but I was also struck by the presentation of the work: heavy white bond paper, clear black font, generous margins, correctly placed headers, and so on. This was an object lesson to me that in the real-world book trade, ability to format is right up there with literary talent.

4. Formatting facilitates book design. Designers can fix most formatting errors and oversights. But why not give them something that already looks good? It might well lead to a better final design, and it will save on production costs.

Formatting your manuscript

The following list presupposes that you are writing in Microsoft Word. If you are using some other kind of writing program, you should still be able to conform to these guidelines. Doing so will produce a professional-looking manuscript and reduce compatibility issues across programs.

Basics of formatting a book manuscript

Set up margins. One inch all around.

Set up line spacing. Double.

Use a standard font. 12-point Times New Roman, Arial, or Courier. Black, no colors.

Include an unnumbered title page. It should contain the book title, your name and contact information, word count, and copyright line: Copyright © 20xx by Your Name.

Start the body on page 1. Insert a header and page numbering. Your Name / Your Book Title (shortened if long) / 1. Align the header right.

Start each chapter on a new page. Use Insert/Page Break, not extra enters, to make a new page. For both print and ebook layout, drop the chapter heading down the equivalent of four single-spaced lines. Alignment may be centered or left. Chapter number and title, if any, can be all caps, bolded, or a combination of these.

Align main text. Left, not justified. First line of each chapter may be set flush left or indented as below.

Spacing between sentences. One space, not two.

Indent paragraphs. Use the tab key, not spaces. Better still, set up an indented paragraph style using Styles for Normal Text.

Italicization. Use the italic font, not underlining.

Submitting the manuscript. If printing, use 20-lb. bond paper. If sending digitally, follow recipient's instructions.

Format margins, title page & paragraph style
Set up margins, unnumbered title page, and paragraph style for your book manuscript.
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A final note. IMPORTANT—If you follow the above guidelines, your manuscript will be professionally acceptable. But to enhance your manuscript's chances for a favorable reception, always check agents' and publishers' websites to determine specific requirements and preferences.

Proper formatting can enhance your chances of publication success by making a good first impression on agents, publishers, and designers. You can hardly go wrong by easing the lives of the professional support people on which authors depend. Not least of all, as you progress with your draft, a well-formatted manuscript will help add to both your sense of  professionalism and satisfaction as a writer.

Coming next week . . . "G is for GRAMMAR"

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The ABCs of Book Writing: E is for EMAIL . . .

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. . . and ERRORS in writing.

Email, a relative newcomer to the world of written communication, is now deeply embedded into our daily lives. And why not? It's mostly quick and easy, and it doesn't demand the time-consuming formalities of old fashioned letter writing.

The problem is that what is acceptable in email writing style, even colorful or amusing, can be downright annoying in a book manuscript—annoying to the point of being a deal breaker. Agents and publishers will take one look at a manuscript riddled with the typical errors of email writing and think: "Too much editing required." In today's competitive book trade, that's all you need for a rejection. If you are self-publishing, your editing costs will soar if you do not self-edit the email style out of  your book manuscript. If you choose to bypass editing, some readers might not mind your cool, free-wheeling style, but plenty of others hold book authors to a higher standard. Can you afford to lose these potential readers?

Video still of "Email Writing Syndrome"
Email Writing Syndrome.
Watch the video below . . .
A few years ago, I noticed the extent to which email writing mannerisms and errors were infecting book writing and coined a tongue-in-cheek term for this contemporary malady: "email writing syndrome." You can read all about the symptoms and find out my suggested cures here. Alternatively, watch the video version at the end of this blog post.

How to recognize email writing style

The main signs of email writing style are:

Inattention to paragraphing. Paragraphs run on despite topic changes; alternatively, there are too many one-sentence paragraphs, creating a choppy effect.

Use of hyphens instead of conventional punctuation. Hyphens have specific uses, for example in compound words and in some prefixes and suffixes. They are not sentence punctuation.

Overuse of sentence fragments. Incomplete thoughts presented as sentences have their place and can create drama or emphasis. But too many sentence fragments lead to disjointedness and impaired readability.

Run-on sentences. Connecting several complete sentences or thoughts together, separated only by commas, has its uses in dialogue, as it shows how people often talk. This dialogue technique has made its way into the chatty style of email but needs to be used with restraint in other forms of writing.

Ellipsis gone wild. She paused..............................then tried again, without success, to tell her story............................................

Use of capitalization for emphasis. This KIND of EMPHASIS is acceptable in design, advertising, and some headlines but generally NOT appropriate in book writing.

Overuse of exclamation marks. Need I say more?!!!!!

Self-editing email style

Here are the basics for editing email style out of your book manuscript, and replacing it with a dash of elegance:

Break long paragraphs into shorter ones. Use no more than twelve sentences per paragraph in most kinds of writing. Use occasional one- or two-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect or extra emphasis.

Use hyphens for compound words and some prefixes and suffixes. Examples include kilowatt-hour, mass-produced, co-op, anti-inflammatory, university-wide, and so on. Consult Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary for authoritative help. In sentence constructions, replace hyphens with commas, semicolons, periods, or em dashes (—), which are sometimes typed as two hyphens--as shown here.

Use sentence fragments sparingly. The fragment is a device to add compelling, not distracting, effect to your writing. A device—not a complete writing strategy.

Break up run-on sentences. Insert periods to make shorter sentences, or use conjunctions and semicolons to separate thoughts within a sentence. Wrong: The dog was black, the cat was white. Right: The dog was black. The cat was white. / The dog was black and the cat was white. / The dog was black; the cat was white.

Use ellipsis properly. Ellipsis is signified by three points, with a space between each, used with or without added punctuation. Ellipsis can indicate speech trailing off in dialogue:  "What . . . ?" "I don't . . ."  It also indicates time elapsed and/or repetitive action: They walked and walked. . . . In advertising and design it can be an attractive substitute for a colon or em dash.

Avoid using capitals for emphasis and keep exclamation marks to a minimum. Create emphasis through language and imagery, punctuation, cadence, and occasional use of italics.

With email style eliminated or reduced, your true authorial voice has a chance to be heard.

Coming next week . . . "F is for FORMATTING"