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Format, Format, Where's Your Format?

Those fiddly little writing errors that can come back to haunt you.

"Format - The way in which something is arranged or set out." (Dictionary.com)

Good writing depends strongly on the writer not only having an interesting story to tell, but writing it out using a good, consistent format. You can get away with bending a few of the rules of punctuation and grammar in SOME cases, but if you don't have a good, reader-friendly format, you're in for a rough time. For instance, when I first really got into writing in high school, any time I mentioned a number in my stories, I'd just type in the numerals: "2 of the aliens advanced on them, leaving the other 7 behind to guard the ship." This is, just, no. Don't do that. Unless it's the character's age, or a date, address, or phone number, write out the number. You have to admit that this sounds slightly more professional: "Two of the aliens advanced, leaving the other seven behind to guard the ship."

Little tweaks like this can greatly streamline your writing and give you a good, professional-looking, grammatically-correct format that will be much more likely to impress readers (and not draw us grammar Nazis down on your head). So, in the spirit of sharing some tips on self-editing (and probably putting myself out of a job), here are a few common faux pas to watch out for:

- Mixing Tenses"He looks at the box and thought, 'That is a cool box.'"

             "Looks" is present tense, "thought" is past tense. Pick one, and stick with it for the ENTIRE STORY. This should either read, "He looks at the box and thinks," or "He looked at the box and thought." 

- Dialogue: one of the most common sets of punctuation errors I see (yes, SETS, because there's usually more than one thing wrong) happen at the end of lines of dialogue. So here are some examples of the RIGHT way to end a line of dialogue:

            Wrong: He sighed(,) "She looks so pretty tonight."

            Right:   He sighed(.) "She looks so pretty tonight."

               (If the action before or after the dialogue isn't describing the dialogue itself - you                                      typically don't "sigh" your words - end it with a PERIOD before starting the dialogue.)

            Wrong: "That's not right(.)" She said.

            Right:   "That's not right(,)" she said. 

     OR  Right:   "That's not right(!)" she said.

               (Conversely, if the action DOES describe the dialogue, you should not capitalize the                                         following word - "she", in this case. And you will end the dialogue with a COMMA in                                   place of a period. If the sentence ends with anything other than a period, however, you                                   leave the punctuation mark alone, like with that exclamation mark.)

- Ellipses: "I don't know about this(...)"

"Are you sure? I mean(...)"

"I was just(...) thinking."

Ellipses are those little lines of three periods. In narrative writing, ellipses can be a handy tool; tack it onto the end of a sentence, and you have a person trailing off in thought. Use it in the middle of a sentence, and you have a person pausing to choose the right word. It's a great device for adding natural pauses to a sentence, or adding mood or tension.

             But DON'T OVERUSE IT:

             
                 "He leaned on the railing, looking into the water... 'I don't know, Mary... I wonder if this is                                           where I'm supposed to be... Do you ever think... maybe we took the wrong path... somewhere                                       down the road...?' They stood there for a long time, staring out over the water..."

Getting too heavy-handed with the ellipses will make your story seem long-winded, drawn-out, and boring. It's exasperating for the reader when they are constantly being told to pause so that the character collects his or her thoughts. As with any device, use it when it is appropriate, and use it sparingly.

These are just a few common grammatical and punctuation formatting issues new writers tend to deal with. You'll learn more of them as you continue writing, reading others' works, and especially get feedback from beta readers who can spot things you've missed. I think you'll be amazed at how fixing these little formatting errors can increase the quality of your writing.

- Jennifer H.

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