Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The ABCs of Book Writing: U is for UNITY . . .

View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
. . . and UNDERSTANDING how to achieve it.

In On Writing Well, William Zinsser characterizes unity as "the anchor of good writing." In other words, any written work that is properly doing its job has a sustained, underlying order that the reader can follow and find satisfying, aesthetically as well as logically. Zinsser next refers to the several "unities" from which an author might choose. By this he means that, depending on the type, length and complexity of a work, there may be more than one way to achieve the desired overall unity. The goal is to make well-considered choices and stick to them. The longer and more complex the work, the more potential choices there are likely to be.

Unity at its simplest: the paragraph

With the exception of poetry and extremely short or experimental prose forms, the paragraph is the building block of written works from essays to full-length books. In the theory and practice of writing, unity therefore begins with the paragraph.

Those who attempted to pay attention during high school writing lessons may recall the phrase unity and coherence. Unity in this context simply means one topic per paragraph. When you change the subject entirely or make a significant turn of thought on the main topic, signal the shift by starting a new paragraph. Coherence refers to the arrangement of sentences within a paragraph into an order that is logical and readily comprehensible to the reader.

For the purposes of this chapter, there is little more you need to know about paragraph writing. I would only add the reminder to keep each paragraph you write to a reasonable, readable length—say, ten or fewer sentences. For those who wish to delve further into the mechanics of paragraph writing, a number of websites and blogs treat the subject. See, for example, http://writeenglish.net/paragraphunity1-1.php and https://wts.indiana.edu/writing-guides/paragraphs-and-topic-sentences.html.

Paragraphs and unity in longer works

Any essay, article, report, or book is essentially a series of clearly focused paragraphs, grouped into sections, scenes, or chapters, and ordered in a way to create and sustain unity in the work as a whole. All books have some unifying factors in common, with certain variations and additions that depend on the type of  book, its complexity, and the creative inclinations of the author.

Unity in nonfiction books

Creating unity in any kind of nonfiction book involves making certain fundamental choices. For example, will the material be presented in the first person from the perspective of a participant, or as a third-person observer or expert? What will be the dominant tense of the book—present for immediacy or past tense to describe something being recollected from a previous time? What will be the overall tone, or mood, of the book? Casual or formal? Emotional or detached? Serious or lighthearted? The choice belongs to the author, but what should be avoided is a dramatic shift from one tone to another completely different one. Among the various genres, travel writing is notable for classic examples of the faux pas of tone. If, say, you are writing a heartfelt first-person account of your romantic vacation in Paris, do not lapse into the elevated tone of what I call "travelogue-ese": Paris boasts a plethora of fine art galleries for aficionados of the exceptional aesthetic experience. Finally, it is important to understand that you likely cannot write everything about any given topic. Focusing on a manageable aspect of a larger topic is the key to achieving unity in virtually any nonfiction book.

For further discussion of the basic factors of unity in nonfiction writing, see William Zinsser, On Writing Well, chapter 8, "Unity."

Above all, thoughtful and effective organizing of a nonfiction book's content is crucial to establishing and maintaining its unity. In a straightforward expository work, such as a how-to book, unity is often achieved by simply describing a step-by-step process in the order the steps would be undertaken. Examples in this category might include the following topics: how to renovate your bathroom in two weekends, how to build simple furniture, ten steps to business success, eight rules for effective resume writing, and so on. More complicated expository nonfiction might further entail such unifying tasks as amassing and organizing points and evidence in order to provide a clear explanation of a complex subject, mount a convincing argument, or support a methodology, hypothesis, or philosophical position. Works of popular or scholarly history, science, psychology, cultural criticism, and philosophy are examples of nonfiction that typically demands sophisticated approaches to creating unity.

Achieving unity in creative, or narrative, nonfiction also requires attention to ordering but often with some added challenges and choices to be met and made. For example, will the organization be chronological or thematic or a combination of both? Will the work incorporate the literary devices of novel writing (such as those indicated in the following section). And if the decision is to take a literary approach, which devices will be used, and to what extent?

Unity in novels

A solid plot, without holes or lapses in forward momentum, is the mainstay of a novel. Most crucial to any plot and its unity is handling of point of view. A novel may have a single point of view throughout—for example, one first-person narrator or one third-person character point of view. A novel may also need several points of view in order for the plot to function. There are various possibilities: among them, multiple third-person character points of view, more than one first-person narrator, or a combination of first- and third-person narration. It is important to decide on how to handle point of view before starting to write, as you want to avoid the disunity of too few, or too many, points of view. Is one point of view sufficient to tell the whole story? Or do you need two or more? If four are required, then don't introduce additional points of view to clutter the story. When necessarily working with multiple viewpoints in a novel, as you write, be disciplined and vigilant about maintaining one point of view per scene. Do not jump in and out of different characters' heads during a single scene. This is not only disruptive to the unity of point of view, but it will also disengage the reader from both story and characters.

In many instances, an airtight plot and considered, consistent handling of point of view are sufficient to produce a unified, engaging novel. But depending on the demands of their stories and personal inclinations as writers, some authors will introduce additional unifying elements into their fiction. These elements might include a main theme or important subtheme explored in various ways (for instance, different characters variously experiencing loss or abandonment). A theme or subtheme may be developed and unified through the use of recurring motifs and/or extended metaphors. For discussion, definitions, and examples of themes, motifs, metaphors, and related literary devices, go to https://writingexplained.org/grammar-dictionary/motif, https://literarydevices.net/motif/, https://literarydevices.net/extended-metaphor/, and https://www.litcharts.com/literary-devices-and-terms/extended-metaphor.

Unity in short

I've often said to anyone who will listen (or pretend to listen) that the basis of good writing is good thinking. Unity in book writing accordingly comes down to logic of ordering and consistency in handling the individual elements of unity—whether the goal is to explain a process, formulate a cogent argument, recount a true story, or plot a novel. In all cases, as Zinsser advises, "get your unities straight."

Up next . . . "V is for VOICE"

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The ABCs of Book Writing: T is for TITLE . . .

Infographic for Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
. . . to capture your THEME.

"What's in a name?" asks William Shakespeare's Juliet. "That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet." Compelling though this sentiment is, what might apply to floral names does not typically work for book titles. In fact, an apt title enhances both the artistry and marketability of a book, while a poorly chosen title can subvert a book's intention and meaning, and adversely affect its reception. This is true of both fiction and nonfiction.

If an author has a conventional book contract, the publishers will often step in and insist on renaming the work. This can be a mixed blessing, as the publisher's title will often be catchier and more marketable than the author's but will not necessarily reflect the book's content with strict faithfulness. Publishers typically have the power to override the author's title preference but will usually concede the author's right to give input. My advice to any author faced with a publisher's title is to listen to your own instinct. If the new title sounds good to you, then run with it and everyone is happy. But if you strongly dislike the publisher's title, then risk being considered difficult and advocate for your own title. You might not win this battle but at least you will have the satisfaction of having stood up for your own creation.

Some writers appear to have a natural feel for a good title and are quick to devise one or more concise and compelling options for naming their manuscripts. Many others, myself among them, struggle with titles and never quite feel that we've chosen wisely. I know of no easy way out of this dilemma. But at least the possibilities for titles are numerous, and awareness of how others have successfully titled their books may set you thinking in some new direction that will eventually lead to a title that works for you and your manuscript.

Here, for both fiction and nonfiction, are some title categories and examples of each:



The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


Pride and Prejudice
Sense and Sensibility
Magnificent Obsession


Gone with the Wind
To Kill a Mockingbird

Literary references

For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Sound and the Fury
Brave New World

Biblical references

East of Eden
Song of Solomon
A Time to Kill
The Tower of Babel

Character names

- Moll Flanders
- Fanny Hill
- Joseph Andrews
- Jane Eyre
- David Copperfield
- Oliver Twist
- The Great Gatsby
- Rebecca
- Cross
- I, Alex Cross

Setting or place names

Wuthering Heights
A Room with a View

Single words 

The thriller writer Jonathan Kellerman is a notable contemporary master of the one-word title—

- Rage
- Motive

—to cite just a few.

Creative nonfiction

Also known as narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, includes such genres as history, true crime, biography and memoirs, and uses many novelistic techniques. This alliance of fiction and nonfiction is reflected in the many creative nonfiction titles that derive from sources similar to those that have inspired the naming of novels. Here are a few examples:

My Family and Other Animals (humor/whimsy)
The Russian Album (metaphor)
The Pebbled Shore (literary reference)
All Creatures Great and Small (hymn reference)
All Things Bright and Beautiful (hymn reference)
Angela's Ashes (subject's name)
Dietrich (subject's name)
Liverpool Miss (place name)
Lime Street at Two (place name)

Expository nonfiction

Expository nonfiction, such as self-help, how-to, and motivational books, tends to look less to outside inspiration for its titles and more to capturing the main content of a book. This imperative typically, though not always, requires the use of a title-subtitle combination. In today's world of Internet marketing, another consideration for titles is the need to provide meaningful keywords for online searches. Here are some representative examples of expository nonfiction titles and subtitles:

Stand-alone title: The Seat of the Soul
One-word title + explanatory subtitle: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
Short title + concise subtitle: The Wealthy Barber: Everyone's Commonsense Guide to Becoming Financially Independent; Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ
Short title + long subtitle: Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow
-Title + shorter subtitle: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change

Brainstorming titles

Not inspired by the examples listed above? Then try brainstorming a range of words and concepts, and combining and recombining them until some potentially viable titles emerge. Just Google "book title generators" and you will discover a number of websites that generate titles either randomly or by your choice of genre and words relating to your book's content. To my mind, many such titles have an awkward or contrived feel, but title generators might nonetheless stimulate your thoughts and spark that just-right title for your book.

Book titles matter

As Google results and the sampling of titles given here show, when it comes to naming your book there are many sources and kinds of titles, as well as variations on the basic title-subtitle combination. This embarrassment of riches may or may not be helpful to you, the author, as you try to nail the perfect title for your work. Frustrating though the endeavor can be for some, even the most title-challenged writer can at least take comfort in knowing that the effort is worthwhile. As much as the content of the pages—sometimes even more so—the title is crucial both to representing the intent of your book, and to maximizing its appeal to readers.

Up next . . . "U is for UNITY"

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The ABCs of Book Writing: S is for SCENES . . .

Infographic for Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
. . . and SHOWING them clearly.

Breaking up long or medium-length chapters into shorter scenes is a sure way to add drama to your fiction and flair to your nonfiction—not to mention enhanced readability to whatever you write.

Scenes and physical structure

All but the shortest chapters can benefit from being divided into scenes. Here's why:

Scenes look good.

At the most basic visual level, breaking up chapters into scenes creates white space and makes manuscript or book pages look more attractive and inviting. Physically indicate a new scene by entering extra line spacing or, preferably for greatest effect, by adding a simple textual divider or small graphic to most clearly show the end of one scene and the beginning of another.

Examples of textual dividers 

Three-em dash: ———

Five or six underlines: ______

Three asterisks: ***

Section character: §

Hash character: #  Don’t use three hash characters (###), as this is reserved for the end of the book.

Examples of graphic dividers

Graphic dividers are often botanical shapes, landscape or architectural icons, small scrolls or flourishes, and various symbols.

Some graphic dividers to indicate scenes within book chapters.

Scenes add to readability and impact.

Divide chapters into scenes for any or all of
readability, drama, suspense, 
emphasis, and clarity.
In today's busy world of time constraints and demands on our attention, not every reader has the leisure or inclination to read several chapters or even just a single chapter at one sitting. Scenes provide convenient stopping points for readers, whereas undivided chapters may necessitate their leaving the story in mid-episode. Scenes thus enhance the reading experience, especially for the busiest of readers.

For all readers, the space between scenes is a physical representation on the page of a pregnant pause or deep breath or long moment of tension, any of which can elevate the drama and suspense of episodes within chapters.

Scenes in novels and creative nonfiction

Beyond their positive effect on the appearance and readability of a novel or work of creative nonfiction (memoir, biography, or other true story), scenes play crucial roles in the narrative structure. Every novel is a world unto itself, and while chapters are the main territories within that world, scenes within chapters are the signposts that keep readers oriented and engaged.

Scenes help readers navigate the unfamiliar landscape of each new novel or true story they read.

Within chapters, make a new scene to signal one or a combination of the following:

- Shift in point of view (POV): rule of thumb—one POV per scene.

- Major change of locale: for example—different city or country, across town, shift to another character’s home or workplace; generally, a character walking from one room to another or other minor changes of locale do not necessarily call for a new scene.

- Significant passage of time: this might mean years or a shorter duration—days or even hours. Plot requirements and writer's instinct determine what is significant and merits a new scene.

Sections in expository nonfiction

In expository nonfiction, dividing chapters into sections (the equivalent of scenes in fiction) not only aids readability but can add emphasis and impact to your content in self-help, motivational, how-to, and other informational books.

Make a new section to show the following:

- Major turn of thought.

- New topic.

- Sidelight or elaboration on the current thought or topic.

In expository nonfiction a new section can be signaled by using textual or graphic dividers such as those shown above. Usually, though, it is most effective to use subheads to indicate new sections and the particular topic or subtopic to be covered in each.

ABCs of Book Writing: S is for SCENES
Cultivate scene sense

Like paragraphing, deciding exactly when, where, and why to end one scene or section, and to begin another, has an element of subjective judgement call involved. Seasoned authors develop a keen feel for the scene or section. It can therefore be helpful to revisit your favorite authors and study their handling of scenes or sections. This technique and your own good judgement add up to the common sense of scenes and, ultimately, to the creation of functional, marketable, and memorable books.

Up next . . . "T is for TITLE"

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The ABCs of Book Writing: R is for REVISING . . .

Infographic for Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
. . . which means REWRITING.

Completing the first draft of a novel or nonfiction book is a notable achievement. Many aspiring writers don't get this far, and when you join the ranks of those that do, you may understandably experience a satisfying feeling of completion. Of course, you will probably do some subsequent revising, a little pleasurable tweaking and tinkering. Revising has a nice ring to it—revised edition or revised draft each carries a strong connotation of improved. The trouble is that revising, if it is to be productive, typically requires careful scrutiny, sometimes painful rethinking, and resultant changing of the first draft—in other words, rewriting.

The contemplation and task of rewriting can be daunting and unpleasant to many novice, and even some seasoned, authors. It is natural to wonder whether the creative process has to be this uncomfortable. Is rewriting really so crucial?

Why rewrite?

In his well-known best seller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey advises beginning with the end in mind. This means not just having a goal but establishing the right goal. When they start out, many writers' goal is to have written. They look forward to the day when their words are in print and their faces on book jackets. They imagine the signings, book reviews, public appearances, and interviews. In fact, it's okay to fantasize about your first interview with some notable media personality—as long as the fantasy remains separate from the true goal. Rather than wanting to have written, you want to be the kind of writer who produces quality work—whether that means the finest literary novel, clearest how-to guide, or most romantic Harlequin romance. When being a quality writer is your goal, then what you must do becomes clear: you learn, write, refine your craft, write some more, rewrite, and (if need be) rewrite again . . . The interviews and signings will follow in their time.

How do I get over my dislike of rewriting?

I know of no quick tip or easy formula that will help you come to like rewriting. Probably, in the beginning, everyone hates it. I know I did. But now that I am an experienced re-writer, I prefer rewriting to writing. The reason is that writing turns your ideas into tangible form, which can be exciting; but rewriting is what will ultimately allow your ideas to reach others. To rewrite, is to write better and to communicate as effectively as possible—that, to my mind, is the real excitement.

Writers write. Writers rewrite.
The more you rewrite, the more you will find it a rewarding
effort, and the better your writing will become.
I reached this point through practice, because someone made me rewrite, or because I knew I had to do it. Somewhere in the midst of grumpily undertaking what seemed to be an unavoidable and distasteful chore, I came to tolerate rewriting, and then to like it. The only way I know to become comfortable with rewriting—even grow to enjoy it—echoes the advice I gave previously in this series: JUST write—writers write. They also rewrite.

So if I must rewrite, how exactly do I go about it?

Different kinds of books and authors require varying kinds and levels of rewriting. Generally speaking, seasoned writers rewrite in order to improve basic grammar and spelling; to ensure correct and effective word choice; to adjust pacing and sustain forward momentum; and to re-position words, sentences, and/or paragraphs for any or all of greater clarity, flow, logic, credibility, impact, and drama.

Additionally, a good deal of productive rewriting is a process of deleting or paring down that might include any or all of the following surgical procedures:

* liposuction of flabby writing. (See "O is for OW . . . Overwriting")
* removal of repetitious words or ideas
* amputation of excess adverbs and adjectives
* excision of any or all of extraneous characters, unnecessary points of view, inner monologues, circular arguments, logical gaps or fallacies, and clumsy transitions

How do I know when to stop rewriting?

Rewriting may run to several drafts
Some writers will speak of a feeling in the heart or gut that tells
them they are done with rewriting.
I have no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of when you should stop rewriting; neither do I know of any quantitative measure to determine how much rewriting is enough. But, from experience, I have learned to recognize  qualitative, intuitive signals that tell me this book is done.

Some writers say things like, I know it in my heart or I feel it in my gut. For me, I first realize that I have to rewrite when my satisfaction at having written a first draft is marred by a growing sense of uneasiness. This sense usually resolves into the odd new idea or way of thinking about some or all of what I have written. This leads to an irresistible urge to revisit the manuscript, at which point the rewriting begins, and continues. . . . I know when to stop when that sense of uneasiness is no longer with me—and, not least of all, when I can again sleep through an entire night. You, too, will develop your own way of knowing.

Is there anyone who does not have to rewrite?

Perhaps the blockbuster greats, like Stephen King or John Grisham, don't have to rewrite—if necessary, their publishers will get someone to do it for them. If you are a natural-born literary genius, then maybe you don't need to rewrite, though I doubt it. If you are unparalleled at planning your book before even starting to write, then this could reduce the amount of necessary rewriting, but I again doubt that you could successfully avoid it altogether.

In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White similarly remark that "few writers are so expert that they can produce what they are after on the first try." If the history of literature, judgement of experts past and present, and requirements of today's mainstream publishers are any indication, then most writers of most kinds of books should, and do, rewrite as a matter of course.

Writing is rewriting

Ernest Hemingway has been so often quoted on the subject of rewriting that a spirit of originality makes me reluctant to follow in the wake of so many and to repeat what he said in A Moveable Feast. On the other hand, he was Hemingway, and I can do no better than to join the ranks of those who have quoted a master writer's characteristically succinct take on the creative process: “The only kind of writing is rewriting.”

Up next . . . "S is for SCENES"

Monday, January 29, 2018

The ABCs of Book Writing: Q is for QUERY (letter) . . .

Infographic for Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
. . . and when to start QUERYING.

As most authors know, the usual first approach to agents and publishers is via a query letter. It's a given that the stronger your query, the better are the chances of sparking interest in your book project. Less widely known are the optimal times for drafting and for sending your query letter, as well as the most effective content to include in it.

When to draft your query

It is never too soon to write the first draft of your query letter. Drafting your query at the beginning or early in the writing of your project will help you focus on the most original and marketable aspects of your manuscript. This is turn can lead to insights on how to best structure your book. If, as the writing proceeds, you get new ideas, you can always revise your draft query to reflect any new ideas that emerge as the writing proceeds.

If, however, you did not write a draft query early in your project, and left it to the middle or the end, this is not a serious problem. More crucial are knowing when, or when not, to query initially and how to ensure the effectiveness of the query letter's content.

When to start querying

The point at which it is reasonable to start querying, and to expect some positive results, varies according to the category of your book. Here are the basic guidelines:


Novel. Any novel of any genre must be completed before querying. For practical purposes, in most cases a completed manuscript will not be a first draft but a well-revised later version, possibly also edited or assessed by a professional editor.

Short stories and short story collections. Unless specified otherwise, for anthologies, journals, and the like, individual stories should be completed and as polished as possible. Unless you are an established and well-known fiction author, short story collections should also be completed.


Creative nonfiction. Unless you are established and well-known in your genre, memoirs, popular histories, biographies, and other creative nonfiction should be completed before querying.

True story and poetry collections. Unless you have an established reputation, collections must be completed before querying.

General commercial nonfiction and niche-market nonfiction. This category includes self-help and how-to books of various kinds, as well as assorted textbooks, manuals, and guides. When you have a publication track record in your field, or have otherwise established your expertise (through workshops, talk circuits, and webinars, for example), you may be able to secure a book contract on the strength of a detailed proposal and written samples. The minimum sample requirement is typically an introduction and first chapter. But the required minimum may vary according to publisher and genre.

If you have expertise in a field but do not have standard credentials, then it is unlikely that anyone will give you a contract based on a partial manuscript. Your best chance is to wait until you have a completed, polished manuscript that is publication ready. This minimizes risk to the potential publisher and will increase the odds that some acquiring editor just might take a chance on you.

When never to send a query

Never waste your own or others' time by sending out queries when you are an unknown writer with a great idea (you think) and little or nothing written down. In the book trade, ideas and titles cannot be copyrighted and therefore do not hold commercial value or interest for agents and publishers. The value rests in the tangible expression of the idea: book, collection, story, essay, or poem.

Length and content of an effective query letter

Queries may vary by author, genre, and particular manuscript, but in all cases, a basic effective query letter should be no longer than two single-spaced pages; one page is best. Your query letter should include the following content:

Opening “hook.” This is a paragraph of one to three sentences that introduces the book as concisely and compellingly as possible. In some instances, framing this introduction as an open-ended question, or question and answer, may work well. Some agents like the formula of "blank meets blank in . . ." Example: The Walking Dead meets The Hunger Games in this post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller.

Short description of the book, a.k.a synopsis. The synopsis embedded in a query should be brief: 100 to 250 words that clearly convey the overall subject/theme/story line/characters/problem/resolution/purpose of the book.

Marketing information. Summarize any or all of the following, as relevant to your particular book: the most important statistics/facts/information about the book’s topicality; its main targeted readership; its secondary readership, if any; the current works that it compares to or would be in competition with; how it differs from the competition or will fill a gap in the market; whether the book is part of a series or will have a sequel; what your next book will be about and how it will relate to this one.

Brief author bio. Focus on prior publications, if any, and what qualifications—education and/or professional credentials and/or research interests and/or life experience—make you particularly suited to write this book.

Summarizing paragraph. This is an optional paragraph to include any crucial information you have not managed to convey in preceding paragraphs: for example, availability of complete manuscript and/or sample chapters and/or full proposal; genre or subgenre; and total actual or projected word count of the completed manuscript.

A few final tips

Do make it clear that your manuscript is completed. This can be a selling point even if you have the kind of nonfiction project that does not necessarily require completion. A bird in the hand . . . is how agents and publishers think.

Don't ever assume that almost meeting completion or other requirements (such as word count) is good enough because agents and publishers will make an exception for you. They won't.

Do articulate what is different about your manuscript; specify how it offers something beyond the current competition in your genre.

Don't say your manuscript is unique: this raises the skeptical hackles of agents, acquiring editors, publishers, and their marketing personnel. Remember the prior blog post N is for NEW . . . and its message that little if anything is entirely new or unique.

Do use email or snail mail according to the stated preferences of agents and publishers. Consult the submissions pages of their websites and, to the letter, follow the guidelines given.

Don't, unless specifically invited to do so, query agents, publishers, or their acquiring editors by telephone.

You're a writer, so write.

Up next . . . "R is for REVISING"

Monday, October 23, 2017

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

Infographic for Blog Series on Book Writing and Publishing
View larger image: Right click;
then left click "Open link in new
window." Zoom to 200% or
preferred size.
. . . 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"