There’s no disadvantage to being an unpublished author—agents and editors love them—but it never hurts to look like you know what you are doing. I’ve compiled a list of things I wish I had known before I started submitting. These are style and formatting notes that will make your final draft appear more polished. Some things will vary between publishers, but for the most part, they are universal. If you think of more that I’ve left out, please add your comments.
- The first line of the first paragraph of a chapter or section is not indented.
- Use ellipsis rather than 3 periods.
Ex: I used to ride my bike before…Henry left.
To make the ellipsis on PC: Alt+0133, on Mac it’s Option+Semi Colon
- Hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes are different and have different uses. A hyphen is used to hyphenate words such as: twenty-two, long-term, father-in-law. The hyphen key is on your keyboard next to the = key.
- An em dash is used to mark a break in the sentence much like parenthesis and commas: The men marched—all twenty of them—into the mess hall. Use em dash with no spaces. On a Mac: Option+Shift+Hyphen Key. On PC: Alt+0151, but I’m told Microsoft Office apps will figure out what you mean and convert the symbol for you if you type a double hyphen between the words.
- An en dash is used for marking range. Think of it as a replacement for the word to or through. An example: My editor made me cut pages 14–22 from my manuscript. On a Mac: Option+Hyphen Key. For PC Alt+0150. Again, I believe Microsoft will convert if you surround the hyphen with spaces between the two numbers like this: 14 – 22.
- Use an exclamation point for shouting rather than for emphasis. Be sparing with the use of exclamation points or they will have no meaning and become invisible to the reader. It’s not wrong to use them for emphasis, but may be considered amateurish by agents and editors. In general, they are used in dialogue. When your character shouts, you use either the exclamation point or a dialogue tag to describe the volume. Never both. Ex: “Get in the truck!” Or “Get in the truck,” he roared.
- White space is your friend. This may sound insignificant, even silly, but you can help your readers through some dense, but important text by using creative paragraphing. Try breaking up your long paragraphs into smaller, more easily digestible chunks.
- Repeating the MC name over and over can get monotonous. Don’t be afraid to use pronouns. A very general recommendation: use any single character’s name only 2 to 3 times on the page.
- Dialogue Tags. Be sparing. Avoid using a thesaurus. Use “said” and “asked” and very little else. You want dialogue tags to be almost invisible. Use them to keep who is talking straight in the reader’s mind. Use action tags in place of dialogue tags to anchor the characters and the reader in the moment or to produce body language that adds meaning or illustrates state of mind. And remember: you cannot smile dialogue. You can smile while talking, but you can’t smile words.
- Unless you are self-publishing, don’t include embellishments between sections or at the beginning of chapters—things like:
Personally, I love them and love seeing them in books, but publishers have their own notion about that stuff, their own “look.”
- As for commas…you’re on your own, babe.
Jennifer Rupp writes historical romance under the name Jennifer Trethewey. Her foundation for story-telling is grounded in her long career in theater as co-founder and former co-artistic director of Renaissance Theaterworks, one of the most successful and the second longest running women’s theater company in America. As an actor-turned-writer, she has moved her performances from the stage to the page and invites you to enjoy the drama of the Scottish Highlands in her Highlanders of Balforss series, featuring brawny Scots, sweeping romance, and non-stop adventure, all laced with a liberal dose of humor.