25 January 2010

Page Layout - Punctuating Dialogue

Editing costs money - end of story. At least, it'll be the end of your story if you expect a publisher's editor to do it for you. Like all businesses, members of the publishing industry operate to make money, not haemorrhage it. Editing is labour intensive, and no one toils for free.

Editors work to a ratio of input (editing, production, marketing, etc) to sales potential. If your work's required input isn't a good deal less than its sales potential, then it'll receive a fast rejection slip. This is why celebrity faces splatter so many magazine covers, and books by celebrities find so much shelf space; their sales potential is, if not guaranteed, certainly more bankable than we mere mortals. But the balance can be evened up a little, in fact a lot, simply by cutting down the editor’s workload.

“So shes coming towards you is she Paul ”, Duffy offered gloomily looking into the night sky and wondering how many stars made the milky way, not that he could see it, “ And you tried to ram her with your bike”!
“ I swear I did n’t. Your just making this up!
      Duffy shuffled his feet .
“sure you did .”

If that tipped out of an envelope, or into an Inbox, it would be read no further. There is simply too much work involved in correcting the basic punctuation, never mind the time needed to sort the text. Here’s the exchange again, highlighted for problems:

So shes coming towards you is she Paul ”, Duffy offered gloomily looking [into the night sky and wondering how many stars made the milky way, not that he could see it], “ And you tried to ram her with your bike”!
I swear I did n’t. Your just making this up!
     Duffy shuffled his feet .
“sure you did .”

A bit of explanation:
  • speech marks can differ between publishers, check publicatons from your intended market, but the default is single speech marks for the UK and double for the USA
  • speech marks sit tight against the speech they are enclosing – there are no extra spaces – and all other punctuation marks – commas, exclamation/question marks, etc – are captured inside
  • beware of exclamation marks on every line; they are regarded as the mark of an amateur
  • narrative before, interrupting, or after speech should be pertinent to it, otherwise readers lose the thread, or think they are missing something and jump back for a re-read. Either way the flow of the story has been disrupted
  • capitalise words that act as names/titles - Milky Way
  • if narrative interrupts a person’s speech, and that narrative ends with a comma, the continuing speech does not restart with a capitalisation; it does if ending with a full-stop
  • commas are used to ensure the correct pauses are made by the reader, and the correct sense is taken from the text. Does Duffy offer his speech gloomily, or is he gloomily looking into the night sky?
  • correct dialogue tags - is Duffy actually offering his spoken words, or is he asking? It’ll depend on the text that went before
  • apostrophes exist, in part, to show that something is missing, in this instance the contraction of two words
  • proofread for correct use of a word – your or you’re?
  • proofread for errant spaces – did n’t
  • paragraphing – all should be indented, and each person speaking needs a new paragraph. Actions made by the speaker usually run on the same line.
Let’s try it again:

      ‘So she’s coming towards you, is she, Paul,’ Duffy offered, ‘and you tried to ram her with your bike?’
      ‘I swear I didn’t. You’re just making this up.’
      Duffy shuffled his feet. ‘Sure you did.’

All this work to get three lines of dialogue in order. Would you do it for a full novel – someone else’s novel? Then don't expect an editor to do it for yours, even if yours isn't anywhere near this bad. Get it right before submission and you are less likely to get it back by return.

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