Common Punctuation Mistakes

With so many rules and different style guides, it’s hard to know what punctuation to use where in your writing. From comma splices to overuse of ellipses, there are a lot of mistakes you can make that cause you to look less than your best. I know—we all make mistakes. The mistakes I’m going to list below are based on The Chicago Manual of Style, as that is the most commonly cited style guide for writing, editing, and publishing fiction. There are different rules based on the various guides, so be wary of what type of writing you’re working on.

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  1. Comma Splices
    Comma splices happen when two independent clauses are joined by a comma. For example:

John ate dinner with us last night, we had a good time.

You could write this idea differently in a couple different ways.

John ate dinner with us last night. We had a good time.
OR
John ate dinner with us last night; we had a good time.

2. Incorrect Use of Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes
Yes, there is a difference between the three.

Hyphens are used to join two or more words together, such as when two or more words are connected and are modifying another word (to avoid confusion). A good example is up-to-date. Another good example, as given in the CMS, is to compare small animal hospital with small-animal hospital. The first indicates a regular animal hospital that is small in size. The second means a hospital that is only for small animals. It’s important to note that Chicago drops the hyphen when the modifying phrase comes after the noun. For example:

That well-known book is big right now.
OR
That book is well known and big right now.

The hyphen can also be used as separators, such as when you have a character spelling out something:

“My name is Skylar. That’s s-k-y-l-a-r.”

En Dashes typically connect (or deal with) numbers. (Words? Not nearly as often.) It means up to and including (or through) with continuing numbers. It can also indicate an unfinished range of numbers. Note that there should be no spaces around the dash. (Not in Chicago Style, anyway.)

John lived 1920–2005.
Barry Wolfe (1965–) or Barry Wolfe (b. 1965)

According to the CMS, the en dash can sometimes replace a hyphen in the use of compound words, as long as it makes sense or there isn’t already a hyphen in one of the words.

Em Dashes are probably the most well known of all the dashes. They separate an explanatory element in a sentence—instead of commas, parentheses, or colons.

I bought three antique books—all Nancy Drew Mystery Stories that are first or early editions—at the bookshop down the road.

You can also use em dashes around dialogue to indicate sudden breaks. If the break belongs outside the dialogue, then the em dashes go outside the quotation marks. For example:

“I didn’t know, and”—her voice grew hoarse with desperation—”there was no way I could’ve known.”

Bear in mind that you should never use a comma, colon, or semicolon directly in front of an em dash. A question mark or an exclamation point, however, can be used in such a manner. You can also use em dashes in place of commas for a more stylistic type of writing:

“How could you—” began Catalina, but Rob cut her off.

3. Overuse of Commas
This mistake seems to be a commonly cited one, but it’s one I personally tend to make when writing first drafts. I apparently have an affinity for commas, which means I have to carefully edit my writing during revisions for excess punctuation. To give an example:

The girl, however, started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt, but, her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

The above is a huge mess of a sentence that needs to be broken up. While it’s (technically) grammatically correct, it makes for quite awkward reading with so many pauses. You could fix it up several different ways, but one definite edit is to split this up into more than one sentence:

The girl started to get dressed, pulling on jeans and a t-shirt. Her boyfriend ignored her, all while lying in bed.

4. Not Using Enough Punctuation
Similar to comma splices, I mean run-on sentences. Independent clauses that aren’t joined by a conjunction need to be separated by proper punctuation, whether that’s a semicolon or a period. Don’t use a comma to separate two independent clauses unless a conjunction divides them. By this, I mean the two independent clauses should have separate subjects and verbs, and the clauses should be separated by a word such as and, but, if.

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition it’s dated 1948 and the dust jacket is still on!

This example definitely needs to be split up, such as:

One of my Nancy Drew books is first edition; it’s dated 1948, and the dust jacket is still on!

5. Not Using the Oxford Comma
The Chicago Manual of Style adheres to the use of the Oxford comma. It’s the last comma in a series that comes before a conjunction. For example:

Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin, and French.
Without Oxford comma: I studied Spanish, Latin and French.

There’s a ton of debate over this one little comma, depending on which style guide you’re following. Following the CMS? Use the Oxford comma.

The beautiful—and frustrating—thing about English is that there are so many variations of the rules. Writing is such a subjective and stylistic art, meaning we all write in our own way. What punctuation faux pas have you made in your own writing? (We all make mistakes.) I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Crafting Characters: Tips for Creating People

No, I don’t mean procreation when I say “creating” people—that’s a whole separate topic we’re not going to get into. Here, we’re talking about making up characters for fictional stories. What’s great about creating characters for a story is that humans are so diverse. We, as people, are so utterly interesting as a species. From our personalities to our tastes and interests, we vary so much as people. My husband and I are total opposites. He loves sports. I hate sports, mostly because I can’t understand all the rules, for the most part. (Except for swimming—I was a competitive swimmer back in my younger days. Woo, breaststroke!) I’m a violinist and a music geek; he doesn’t understand my obsession with “Carnival of the Animals” by Camille Saint-Saëns or with Yo-Yo Ma. (Actually, the reason why I’m such a big fan of the cellist and of violinist Joshua Bell is that my dad used to take me to see them perform with the Philadelphia orchestra.) You get my point. People vary greatly.

What does that mean for your storytelling? Your characters should be just as diverse, especially if you’re writing human characters. I’m not a Sci-Fi or Fantasy writer, so I can’t speak on creating characters in those genres (characters such as aliens, elves, hobbits, et cetera). However, I do write women’s fiction, romance (kind of a blend), and am currently working on a mystery novel. I love to read mysteries and suspense, so it was only natural to move my writing into that genre. Writing romance/women’s fiction, however, did help me study how people interact with each other.

Anyway, back to creating characters. Here are some tips for crafting your characters.

  1. Characters should have flaws.
    Humans aren’t perfect, which means your characters shouldn’t be perfect, either. Your main character’s flaws should help fuel the conflict. Examples of flaws could include greed, jealousy, prejudice, dishonesty, or arrogance.
  2. Characters should have strong motivations.
    There should be a reason why your characters act the way they do, whether it’s your antagonist looking to conquer the world because his life is being threatened or a protagonist simply seeking companionship. For a fantastic example of strong character motivation, check out one of my recent posts, A Case Study in Character Motivation: Legally Blonde. A great source for motivation ideas is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
  3. Make your characters memorable.
    Don’t just write mundane descriptions such as hair color and eye color. Do they have vivid scars? A certain gait? (Think Penguin/Oswald Cobblepot in the show Gotham, based on the Batman series.) Funny preoccupation? (Like Ed Nygma and his fascination with riddles, as he ends up becoming The Riddler. I’m on a Gotham kick, if you can’t tell.) Ask yourself, “What makes my character stand out?”
  4. Each character should be well-developed.
    Every human has their own unique background. In my debut novel, The Days Without You, Kylie is losing her mother to cancer and already has a history of tragic loss. She has her own interests and aspirations (such as a surfing and her desire to be a crime journalist), as well as a reluctance toward her budding relationship with Adam due to her history with past relationships. What type of childhood did your characters have? Was it happy or sad? What are their personal goals? Their likes or dislikes? Make your characters as uniquely human as real people are.
  5. Characters should be diverse.
    This, of course, will depend somewhat on your setting (such as a monastery or a convent, for example, in which case your characters would all be monks or nuns, although there still would be some diversity amongst them). What I’m trying to say is that the world isn’t made up of all straight, white, neurotypical men. People have disabilities, illnesses (mental and physical), ailments, different sexual preferences, different physical appearances. Don’t make all your characters the same, and don’t only go into detail on the characters who aren’t straight, white dudes.

I suppose the ultimate idea I’m trying to convey here is that you should make your characters as real as possible. Stop and think about what it’s like to be human. Humans vary. We are diversely different as a species, and there’s no right or wrong way to be human. (And, if you’ve never listened to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns, I highly recommend it, especially the movements titled “The Elephant” and “The Swan”. Seriously, double bass never gets any love.) Happy writing!

How Long Should My Novel Be?

If you’re just starting out, or maybe you need a refresher, you might be wondering about the proper length of a novel. The short answer? Somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000. This is the standard, expected length for a first novel, especially if you’re looking to traditionally publish via an agent. Although anything over 40,000 words is typically considered a novel, the expected minimum length is 50,000.

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Again, that’s the short answer. Your word count will vary based on the genre you’re writing. For example, genres that involve a lot of world-building (read: Science Fiction and Fantasy (and we’ll include Historical Fiction in that, too)) will require a higher word count. Why? Because the world the characters live in needs to be believable, or what’s known as suspension of disbelief.

I want to note that these figures are based on standards established by the publishing industry authorities. While it’s true you should, at least, aim for a standard word count for your particular genre, keep in mind that every novel will vary; don’t be discouraged or frustrated or upset if your final product doesn’t meet or exceeds industry expectations. The following numbers are approximations or “comfortable” ranges.

General Fiction: 50,000 to 100,000

Sci-Fi & Fantasy: 90,000 to 120,000

Romance (Mainstream): 50,000 to 90,000

Sub-genre Romance: 40,000 to 100,000

Historical Fiction: 80,000 to 100,000 (but more so on the 100,000 side)

Suspense & Mystery: 70,000 to 90,000

Young Adult: 40,000 to 80,000

Middle Grade: 25,000 to 40,000

You’ll find varying numbers on different websites, as different publishers and experts (I don’t claim to be a publishing expert, just a thirty-something girl with a degree in English and writing fiction.) have different ideas on the “proper” word count for a novel based on its genre. Your novel may differ from , but if you’re looking to traditionally published, be prepared to explain or justify your reasons for going outside the expected word count. But again, every story has its own word count, so write your story naturally—the way you write.