Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Rules, Style, Abuse, Oh My!

Boston University's director of Creative Writing Program and author, Leslie Epstein, has this hard and fast rule:
Keep commas and periods inside quotation marks, semicolons and colons outside; learn the proper usage for each.


(That's my street-cred way to say I agree, yo.)

We can playfully (even carelessly) get away with casual style and grammatical mischief in emails and blog posts, but our best manners must be used when writing our novels. Dude, no one is a more relaxed, sloppy and fire-a-quick-draft-click-'publish' blogger than me. But you won't see even a snippet of my novels until they're polished to within an inch of their life. Sadly, I read published books every day that are riddled with errors that make the author and editor look like amateurs. I realize they are working under deadlines, pumping out books to make a living, but that excuse doesn't fly in my zone.

Listen, I know we all have our writing style, voice, strengths and weaknesses, as well as our own personal pet peeves. But I think we can all agree that studying craft and improving technique is imperative and never ending. It is important to learn how to write well and to be cautious breaking the rules even in the name of 'style'.

Even among seasoned published authors, I see the same sloppy mistakes and shortcuts, and it irritates me right out of their story. I think we all owe it to our readers, to ourselves, to study our craft, to learn the rules, to improve our areas of weakness. Yeah, some rules are meant to be broken. Once we have them mastered.

 Cormac McCarthy's mastery of craft is stunning. When he chooses not to use quotation marks for stylistic purposes, well, he's earned the right to do so and not look like a fool. The rest of us mortals need to know and use the proper mechanics of dialogue structure and tags.

(With regard to dialogue tags, please do your homework. And, for the love of books, kill the adverbs in your tags!)

When dealing with grey area rules and stylistic choices, the key, in my opinion, is moderation. Overuse of anything quickly becomes jarring and annoying to the reader. Yes, you need to know how to properly use that semicolon. (Not inside the quotation marks!)

Incomplete or clipped sentences/emphatic word or expressions are a powerful way to make a point: 

She'd been here. Recently. 
Time was running out. He needed to find her. Now.

Clipped sentences work well to speed the pace, increase the tension. They can also get old, fast. We want to be careful not to abuse this technique.
The best and most common place for broken sentences is in dialogue, when a character happens to speak that way.

Less is more when it comes to metaphors and similes. Oh yes, a good metaphor is sublime!
Aristotle said: "But the greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor. It is one thing that cannot be learned from others; and it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars." Nonetheless, LIMIT your similes to no more than to two a page. 

It is my belief that every writer should own, study and memorize The Elements of Style (Strunk/White) and Write Right! (Venolia). Learn the rules, so you know when you are breaking them.

On a personal note, I've been a bad blogger and blogger friend lately. I'm sorry. Real Life has been getting in the way of my Writing Life.  I am behind on critiquing, and I haven't opened my WiP in almost 2 weeks. I hope you will understand why I won't be around the blogosphere much this week. I need to play catch-up. I adore all of you.

PS~ I am not a grammar nazi. I don't even proof read these posts.  I'm as sloppy as the next girl. That's why I'm still in Revision Hell.



L. Diane Wolfe said...

Good tips!
The Chicago Manual of Style is my grammar Bible.

Crystal Cook said...

I seriously need to brush up on this stuff. I'm awful at it. I just got this book and now I must dive in and study. *sigh* it feels too much like school. :)

Lexa said...

This is fantastic. I'm just in shock from the rule. I learned it that way in high school and promptly got torn apart for doing that in college. My professor marked me down a whole grade for leaving the periods inside the quotations. Talk about crazy, she wasn't even an English teacher!

Candyland said...

Brilliant. And now my head hurts :/

Chantel said...

Loved this--my "write as I speak" and passionate affair with run-on sentences... *sigh*

Missed you darling, but you know, absence makes one long for just a touch...a breath...

Talli Roland said...

Aw, I like adverbs. Strunk and White would kill me! Love those guys, regardless.

Eric W. Trant said...


If I gave my advice on the same topic, I'd be redundant.

I would mention McCarthy and his quotations. I've done so often, as it amazes me to read it and not feel lost.

I would mention Strunk. Heck, I say in my sidebar in a clip on Required Reading: "Read Strunk. Read it again. Memorize Strunk. Then begin writing."

I would mention moderation in all things.

I would add that you should use metaphoric constructs other than the "like" construct.

e.g. She moved like a cat v. She moved with the grace of a cat

Lame example, but you get the point. Limit not only your metaphors, but change up your construct and do not abuse the like construct.

I have a middle school grammar reference that I read from time to time.

Sure, I have a Chicago Manual, but geez, if I ever am faced with opening the goofy thing, I change my construct to avoid the question and move along, nothing to see here folks.

Keep It Simple, Stupid.


Get it?

- Eric

JEM said...

I kid you not, halfway through your post I wondered about your thoughts on Cormac McCarthy. Lo and behold, there he appeared! Funny.

Falen said...

you know i have strunk and white, but haven't actually looked at it all that much. I'm sure i will at some point, though

Cherie Reich said...

Great tips! I found out about that book when I was reading Stephen King's On Writing. I promptly purchased it on Kindle. Now, I just need to read it. *blushes*

Michelle H. said...

True 'dat! I hear what you sayin'!

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Great reminder of how we need to remind ourselves that, no matter how lax we get in our posts or emails, never allow that to affect our novels.

Bridget Margaret said...

Saw this and had to comment - Totally agree. You've got to learn the rules to earn the right to break them (and then you're welcome to smash them to fabulous pieces).

DL Hammons said...

*withers off into the corner*

I'm sorry! I'll try and do better. Promise!! :(

Theresa Milstein said...

Good post. Grammar is my weakness and I've been working hard to improve it. I carry around Elements of Style and have read several books to that end. The more I learn, the less newbie mistakes I make like dialogue tags with adverbs.

Summer said...

Cormie (as he lets me address him casually) is the man, and he can leave out any rules he wants until the end of time. Yo.

mo.stoneskin said...

Will you be my editor?


I learnt pretty early about commas within quotes, though I never thought it looked quite right. As for semi-colons; I have no idea how to use them, so I don't ever.

Carolyn V. said...

Woo hoo! I have that book. It's helped me through many a grammar issue. =) Awesome post Lola!

Jeff King said...

I agree to be better and work to grow as a writer... yet don't stop composing because of bad grammar. You can get help on that front, but if you stop writing to get there, you won't have a manuscript to get help with. Do your best and hope for the best.


mi said...

thanks for the tips!

Elena said...

Just when I said I wasn't going to follow any more "author/agent/writing/yada yada yada" blogs you had to stop by mine. Thanks...I think.

Anonymous said...

This is very enlightening and interesting. I'm just not sure anyone should come over to my place for a while - I need to tidy up those dodgy semi-colons I pepper liberally... ;)

sarahjayne smythe said...

Great post. And may I just say here and now that I love you. :) Thanks for posting this.

Piedmont Writer said...

Bravo Darling Bravo! Excellent post. Strunk & White has been my constant companion, lo these many years since college.

Anita Shreve is another who breaks all the rules but is so masterful at her craft you don't care.

I'm sorry you're so busy, I truly hear you on the WIP. Genna has been busy in my brain but not on the keyboard however, Thursday will prove to be quite a surprise if you'd care to amble over and take a quick look.

Love love love you! xoxoxoxo

Cheeseboy said...

I like this a lot. While I never use colons inside quotes, I also don't believe I am totally using them correctly. I need some brushing up, yo.

Palindrome said...

I do not agree on the similie point because I've read some fabulous books with more than two per page. I think it depends on the writing style.

The rest I agree with. Werd to yo' mutha.

Saumya said...

Ohh great tips. Elements of Style is one of my favorite, all time books!!!

Lola Sharp said...

I love you guys too. :) For realz.

Summer, Cormie IS the man. You got that right, sister. His talent slays me.

Mo, you don't want me as your editor. I struggle with plot holes the size of Texas, among other things.

DL, I wasn't talking about you, silly. I was speaking in broad terms. Including myself in the 'hot mess' category.

Anonymous said...

ooh, yeah. That real life thing. Sometimes it just gets in the way. Also haven't opened WIP in two weeks AND I MISS IT.

Jen said...

Real life is such a drag at times! Good book choice, Stephen King shares it in his novel and it's something I've been meaning to pick up!!

Good luck with the WIP and the conintuation of real life!

Watery Tart said...

I don't think I'd HEARD that rule--baffling, as I have a journalism degree... I always do inside. But you know what? It would NEVER cross my mind to use a semi-colon or color at the quote mark... so i'm not BREAKING the rule... it just seems... you know... like the rule about not cliff diving into the shallows..., I'm not cliff diving ANYWAY.

You... Miss THANG (my street talk is surely outdated, as my teen has ceased communicating jargon for fear I will embarrass her) have become part of the elite leadership of the Naked World Domination Tour for introducing me to Erik the Viking Vampire... see tomorrow's blog... I'm forever in your debt.

Bossy Betty said...

Got it. I like knowing the rules so I can break them--never the rule you site though! I promise!

Jemi Fraser said...

Yup - I agree you've got to know the rules before you play around with them. And you only mess with them for good reasons.

Good luck with catch up! :)

High Heeled Life said...

Great tips! As a novice, this is great advice and knowledge to have. I'm going to pick up this book the next I'm at Chapters.

Yvonne Osborne said...

I love adverbs but I agree, they're deadly in dialogue tags. I am guity of some semicolon usage but I don't think I ever use them in dialogue so I guess I don't have to worry about the quotation thing, though I confess I'd never heard that rule before. Very informative post but oh...so many rules.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a grammarian, but I feel comfortable with grammar. I know I must make mistakes, especially with commas. I look for grammar tips online, and I have a grammar manual I sometimes refer to.

roxy said...

I love The Elements of Style. Thanks for this needed reminder, Lola. Have a good week.

roxy said...

I love The Elements of Style. Thanks for this needed reminder, Lola. Have a good week.

Elliot Grace said...

...copped a grin at your mention of "Elements of Style," considering how it's sitting under my cell phone, roughly six inches away from my left hand.
...the grin widened upon your inclusion of Cormac, who penned "The Road," which is but a glance to my right, front and center, three shelves up.
...funny girl:)

Old Kitty said...


THANK YOU for the tips and usage of all things to do with punctuation marks! My main failing is the comma usage. Grrrr!

So thanks for these helpful post.

Take care

Helen Ginger said...

The good news is you don't even have to memorize the rules - just keep your favorite manual on your desk and refer to it. Over time, you'll learn the rules.

Straight From Hel

Creepy Query Girl said...

Wow, great tips! A lot of these are hard to integrate right away and need practice. But once you're there, it really does polish the work up!

Tish Jett said...

I worked with the real one for years, now "Spunk & Bite" rests an arm's length away from me on the shelf next to my new -- just love it -- "Roget's International Thesaurus" plus: Barlett's, Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions, The Associated press Stylebook and Libel Manual, The NY Times Crossword Dictionary (great for synonyms), The World Almanac and of course my invaluable French/English dictionary and a few other obscure volumes.

I left out the quotes around the book titles because I think it looks weird to put commas inside those quotes. Wait, my Associated Press book says: ooops, yes I'm supposed to put the commas inside the quotes with titles -- but I'm not going back now. Just want you to know that I know.


Portia said...

Oh, you've just hit on one of my biggest pet peeves. I do not want to go into proofreading mode when I'm reading a book. It's supposed to be relaxing, right?

I think I have two copies of Strunk and White right now. I guess I'm really afraid to be without one ...

Lola Sharp said...

Tish, you crack me up! I want you to know that I know you know. And I want you to know, I would have done the same.

Portia, exactly.

Hel, I think a writer should know the basics as well as have a style manual within arm's reach.

j.leigh.bailey said...

Ditto. I couldn't add anything that hasn't already been said, so Word. I, too, am one of those bloggers that type it up, hit publish, and am then finding random typos and errors each time I re-read the post for whatever reason. Sadly, I can see the mistakes when others make them, but when it's me, my brain doesn't notice.

Courtney Barr - The Southern Princess said...

oh boy...this is where the pantser writer rears up with me....

when I write - I write. My fingers and mind find a niche and just GO. Revision is where I see these errors and well, I don't always see them all!

I try. Really I do. But my biggest peeve of anything in writing are words spelled incorrectly. It can make me scream when I read a book knowing that it isn't a rule purposely broken.

Other than that - well, pray for the editor that sees my work.... ;o)

Visit My Kingdom Anytime

DL Hammons said...

Phew! I was worried there for a minute. A copy of ELEMENTS OF STYLE is my constant companion...but it's not a cure all. :)

Angie Paxton said...

Thanks for the quick refresher course. I need to get that book! We'll miss you while you deal with real life, but we'll still be here when you get back. Good luck!

KLM said...

The blessed Strunk and White guide is on my shelf. I know it well, although less well than I used to when I had to know how to punctuate footnotes and endnotes at my first job as an editorial ass. Truly, they should create a grammar boot camp for writers. I'm shocked when I critique stuff and people are making basic grammar and punctuation errors. Makes me cringe.

Hope you find some writing time soon. That real life sure can be pesky. Sheesh.

Ann said...

Colons and semi-colons are a problem for me, so I just don't use them. Enjoyed your post and the tips were very helpful. I am weak in this department.

Lola Sharp said...

Ann, the good news is that this is the part that can be taught! Imagination, talent, passion...these you have or you don't. Grammar and mechanics can be taught/learned. Craft can be honed.

Shelley Sly said...

Word! True that, sista. Thanks for the grammar reminders. :) You're right -- we need to know the rules first before we break 'em.

Terresa said...

Fab post. I liked the bit about Cormac McCarthy's
rule breaking.

As they say, if you break the rules, know how to do it, do it consistently, and do it right. :)

Samantha Bennett said...

My critique group cured me of my simile obsession by mercilessly marking up my manuscript with red. Totally agree with the two or less per page. Great post and thanks for visiting my blog!

Anonymous said...

sheesh, it took me a while to get down here to post. I forgot what I was going to say now. Could you try to be less popular?
Oh yes, less metaphor is better for novels--they stick out at odd angles. Still, I loved that quote by Aristotle.

B. Miller said...

Wonderful tips, Lola. I love Elements of Style... just about worn my copy out.

I tagged you in my blog today! Hope you get a chance to check it out.

Clara said...

Im in that hell with ya sistah!

I already ordered the art of war for writers, from your previous post! Really excited to read it.

Regarding grammar, I just suck at it, but do like speed phrases. Too much. Like you said, we gotta be careful with it.

justsomethoughts... said...

this *snarf* is why i *snort* dont wri- *snort* write nove- *snx* novels.

see, i cant even write it with a straight face.
no. the reason i cant write novels is because i cant write novels.
i am where good punctuation goes to die.

r.i.p. you were much loved.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Excellent post, Lola. These kind of mistakes do pull us out of a story, and that's often enough for me to put the book down and reach for another. I occasionally teach a class on self-editing, and I'm always amazed at how many writers don't understand the basics such as punctuation in dialogue or misuse/overuse of adverbs.

Susan Fields said...

Great tips! I do get confused about punctuation inside/outside quotation marks. It seems like I see it done different ways different places. I like hard and fast rules - they're much easier to figure out.

Donna Hosie said...

And to think there are some people who think writing is easy! Finding that knock-em-dead idea is the easiest part when you consider punctuation and grammar have to be perfect as well.

My downfall lies with semicolons, which is only aided and abetted by Word's obsession with them when I check a document!

Great article and a great blog, Lola.

MissV said...

I do need to pay more attention to this stuff.

I think a lot of us are having trouble balancing real life and writing life. Problem (for me) is that I really enjoy the writing and the blogging so it's the last thing I want to give up!

PJ Hoover said...

I do feel like I'm regaining some of the knowledge I had back in sixth grade about all of this stuff!

Jai Joshi said...

I've always believed that only someone who knows and understands the rules is allowed to break them.


Rebecca @ Diary of a Virgin Novelist said...

I love this post. I have my copy of Strunk & White but it has not been read in a long long time.

Donna Hole said...

Uh, ditto.!?

Wow, great post Lola. I'm sorry I haven't stopped by sooner, and I regret you must be away when I'm just getting to know you. But real life must be your priority. I hope everything goes well with you during your hiatus.

Be well, be content. Git er done.


Victoria Dixon said...

Great post and I feel for you on the real life thing. I was doing great on the blogging thing, then I had to do an emergency rewrite of my first chapter and synopsis for a contest. There was a week of no blogging - just ONE WEEK. Every thing's off kilter now. LOL ARGH.

knk said...

its very interesing
nice post

~Nicole Ducleroir~ said...

I'm so with you! I always loved grammar, so that may be why I think it's so important to understand the rules that let our creative thoughts shine. At any rate, I'd never applaud the attitude that a writer should write and let the editor fix the mistakes.

Great post!

Lola Sharp said...

Donna Hole, I'm glad we found each other.

Donna Hosie, You are SO right! WORD LOVES semicolons. ;) True, that.

Everyone--Thanks for being.

I love my writer friends....YOU.

Lydia Kang said...

Ooh, I just read a book that has so many clipped sentences it drove me mad with irritation.

Thanks for the tidbits. I am also a Strunk and White junky too!

Missed Periods said...

"Sadly, I read published books every day that are riddled with errors that make the author and editor look like amateurs."

I just read a novel that described someone as "bathetic."

Tahereh said...

haha!! another fabulous post!



DL Hammons said...

Pssst. You've been tagged over at my place. :)

Postman said...

Don't mean to sound like an amateur, but I never had a problem with punctuation. Always had that stuff down pat. The lower three drawers of Stephen King's metaphorical toolbox were always well-equipped with me at the handles. It's the macro-stuff I can't do well, like characterization and foreshadowing and plot flow.

And I carry a copy of Strunk & White with me everywhere. I hate Strunk's guts, but his Rule 17 ("Omit needless words") holds more water than even I know.

Hey, people who pump out books for a living don't have to be amateurs. Look at Robert E. Howard. Commercial writer to the bone, and yet he never turned out a stinker. Not an awkward turn of phrase or a punctuation mistake in there.

My sin is sending my novel out to my readers before (ahem) polishing it properly. This is my first novel, okay?!

Clara said...

Lola, I awarded you on my blog!


Ann Marie Wraight said...

LOLA - Hi from follower # 258!

Thanks for your kind comment over at Tahereh's blog!

Your post is EXCELLENT! I'm one of those people who can't see their own mistakes but can spot someone else's a mile off! Have to be more careful.


May your pen be mighty

May your pen be mighty

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Lola Sharp
My name is Lola. (I'm not a showgirl) Yes, L-O-L-A Lola. It's the least of my worries. Let's move on, shall we? This blog is mostly about my misadventures on the journey to publication and beyond. My passion for lush prose, quirky characters, art, music, literature, performing arts and anything creative will be a major theme here. This journey of mine will not always be pretty. Much like rubbernecking a train wreck, I know sometimes you just can't help but look at the carnage that is often my life. So strap on your neck brace, helmet and 5-point harness and come along for the ride! Licentia poetica.
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