Manuscript Mark-Up: Are YOU a billboard punctuator?

A guest-post by Suzy Manuscript Marker

A warm welcome to the first edition of Manuscript Mark-Up.

I hope we’ll have all sorts of fun together, and talk about the stuff of writing without getting our shorts in a knot. This should be a relaxing experience. (Listen to this as you read along!)

Today I’d like to discuss an editorial phenomenon I call billboard“billboard punctuation”that is, the incorrectly applied punctuation used mostly by novice writers who believe these props will enhance words, phrases or messages in their work.

Unfortunately, the reverse is often true, causing (at best) momentary confusion with readers and (at worst) an eventual loss of the author’s credibility as a writer, and potentially as a subject matter expert.

Punctuation creates a road-map for your dear readers, and you want to carry them along the path gently and without distraction from your all-important message. Good writing is an art and a science. So how can you reduce or eliminate billboard punctuation from your writing?

Here are four suggestions to consider:

1 – CONTROL YOUR INNER DRAMA QUEEN! Don’t use the exclamation point unless (a) You’re quoting someone who is actually exclaiming something (i.e. “My God! What have you done?”); or (b) Your point can’t be expressed strongly enough through words alone.

Think hard about this, and remember that typically, an exclamation mark isn’t used in consecutive sentences.

2- BE WARY OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. Please don’t SCREAM AT YOUR READER, no matter HOW MUCH you think you NEED TO in order to MAKE YOUR POINT.

Calm your stuff – you don’t need to capitalize.  You need to write clear sentences and use carefully placed punctuation (dashes, semi-colons and even the lowly comma) to set off important phrases. Italics are also a subtle way to emphasize words or phrases without startling or distracting your reader (see #3).

3- GET THE RIGHT SLANT.  Italics are a beautiful thing. With just a simple slide to the right, they elegantly draw attention to the word or phrase. They illuminate. When used in combination with other punctuation and sentence structure, italics can be a subtle or pointed method of making points and conversing with your reader. Check out the example below.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

The first version of the paragraph came to me straight up, and this was how I slanted it. In the first sentence, italics are used to emphasize contrariness between “often do…” and “advises not to do”; in the second, to add emphasis to a one-word emotive fragment that is the punch line for the paragraph. We “hear” the author emphasizing the word just as if he’s saying it out loud.

4. GIVING THE FINGER TO THE QUOTE MARK. This one’s especially for “Megan.” Oh, wait, her name really is Megan. Indie’s Marketing & Sales Director Megan is on a life mission to reform the Air Quoters. You know who I mean: people who, when they’re speaking, suddenly lift both hands and make quote marks in the air with their index and middle fingers. She hates this. See?

Angry Megan

Angry Megan

Incorrectly applied quotation marks are abundant in amateur writing, used primarily for emphasis. Sadly, this is not the purpose of quote marks. Quotation marks have four primary purposes: (1) to express dialogue; (2) to quote content from another source; (3) to introduce a new and generally unfamiliar term to the reader; or (4) to legitimately express a euphemism or coded language.

Here is a correct use of quote marks to indicate a euphemism is being used: She told us she had left work early to “take a nap.” We all knew that meant she’d passed out again. She had been drinking out of that flask all afternoon…

Like many air quotes, incorrectly applied written quote marks create a euphemism out of what is often simple terminology. Consider this example from a list in one of our recent manuscript drafts:

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In this example, the meaning of the highlighted phrase is clear and familiar. The phrase on guard is not euphemistic. It means exactly what it says; therefore, the marks are incorrect. (And yes, the en dash is also incorrectly used. Extra points if you noticed this!)

Like the dood in the famous commercial, sometimes you have try something new to be convinced. So, when you’re writing, you get to the end of a sentence and automatically hit Shift-1 on the keyboard, try something new: Look at it, then backspace and try a period instead. Then try perhaps italicizing the last word in the sentence. Or a phrase, or maybe even the entire sentence. In other words, look at different options. Don’t just write. Craft.

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