Before you submit your work for a peer critique, give yourself a robust self-edit. Look for common punctuation or grammar challenges that often appear in the work of less experienced authors.
Consistent use of serial commas. Writers will gird their loins for battle over the use or non-use of the so-called Oxford comma, but regardless of which side of that partisan divide you happen to fall, check your work to ensure that you’re consistent. The Oxford comma requires a comma before the final item in a series; the method favored by modern authorities like The Associated Press Stylebook omits that final comma except when one or more items of that series includes a compound term.
Progressive aspect verb forms. English verbs feature a syntactical form called aspect that indicates the character of the action. English uses four aspects:
- Terminate: Represents a fact as a whole or as already completed.
- Progressive: Represents a fact or action in progress.
- Point-Action: Directs attention to the beginning stage of the action (ingressive aspect) or the final point (effective aspect).
Aspect matters because many writers over-rely on progressive-aspect verb forms when terminate forms are more appropriate. In general, only use progressive forms when you wish to indicate ongoing action not completed. Usually, you can spot a progressive form because it uses a helper verb and ends with –ing.
Example (worse): “Bob missed the bus because he was walking on the wrong sidewalk.” (Because we already know that Bob missed the bus, the fact that he walked on the wrong sidewalk is logically already complete, so was walking is the wrong verb aspect.)
Example (better): “Bob missed the bus because he walked on the wrong sidewalk.” (The walking part was already done by the point Bob missed the bus.)
Ellipses and exclamation marks. The less frequently these forms of punctuation are used, the better. In general, an ellipsis should be reserved for non-fiction prose, to indicate an omission in quoted material. It should not be used in fiction prose to indicate that a speaker’s voice trailed off, or to indicate an extended pause in a soliloquy.
Numerals. Pick a style and remain consistent with it. The Associated Press approach, which is used by Caffeinated Press, requires spelled-out forms for numbers less than 10 and figures for larger numbers. Always use figures with measurements and ages. If you intend to submit your manuscript to a specific publisher, check with that publisher’s editorial team to identify which style manual they prefer.
Spaces between sentences. Because most software features a global search-and-replace tool, it’s a minor point — but with modern typesetting environments, it’s generally no longer appropriate to include two spaces between sentences.
Dashes. To render a dash effectively, use two hyphens surrounded by a single space on each side. Let the publisher manage the conversion to a proper em dash!
Comma splices. Do not use a comma to join two independent clauses without a conjunction. Use a semicolon or a period instead.
Example (worse): “She put on the dress, the mirror reflected her image.”
Example (better): “She put on the dress and admired her image reflected in the mirror.”
Ambiguous pronoun references. Particularly in scenes with several speakers, ensure that your use of personal pronouns like he or she clearly associate with a specific character. Regular use of character names or other methods of speaker identification help the reader follow the flow of the dialog.
Sentence fragments. Fragments are like mountain climbing — it should only be attempted by people who already know what they’re doing. In the abstract, a sentence fragment can serve as an effective literary device to indicate an abrupt transition or a succinct thought; the structure of the fragment reinforces the semantic value of the content. However, inexperienced writers tend to mimic the abrupt style of favorite authors in a manner that rarely works well. Unless you’re an experienced author, avoid the creative use of fragments.
Prepositions with verbs implying action. You rarely need an on or an in or an up with verbs that already imply motion. For example, skip constructions like “He stepped up toward the sound of the gunshots then typed in his passcode to unlock his phone.” Render it, instead, as “He stepped toward the sound of the gunshots then typed his passcode to unlock his phone.”
Inanimate objects doing things. As a rule, try not to have inanimate objects appear to act of their own volition.
Example (worse): “The car drove off the cliff.”
Example (better): “Bob drove the car off the cliff.”