Writers often ask about the difference between “straight” or “dumb” quotation marks and traditional printers’ quotes, commonly referred to as “smart quotes” or “curly quotes.” Add in the need to distinguish between left single quotes and apostrophes, and the primes used to specify feet and inches or minutes and seconds and you end up with a typographic conundrum that confounds many a capable author. This article examines the various types of quotes and primes and explains how to use them.
Book Design Basics: Straight or Dumb Quotes
Straight quotes evolved to facilitate informal writing situations. When typing into a discussion forum, twitter feed, or comment box, use your apostrophe and double-quote keys for all the special characters (except the “degrees” symbol.) “Dumb” text editors don’t try to figure out which direction to slant your punctuation. “Dumb” writers don’t have to go to the “insert special characters” dialog box or remember special key sequences for each type of mark.
Consider the various punctuation styles needed to render the following example:
Straight quotes make it quick and easy to express a thought. You don’t have to be a typographer to make yourself understood. In the right situations, “dumb quotes” are a smart idea. Continue reading →
Clark Douglas Burris discusses his new book Walk & Roll, in which he tells the story of how he started the Miami Beach Senior High Rock Ensemble while battling the progressive effects of multiple sclerosis. Doug Burris shares his thoughts on writing, publishing, and book design.
Two-word clichés are perhaps the least obvious kind. Unless we’re vigilant, they sneak into our prose, steal color, mask our individual writer’s voice, and make us sound like millions of other writers who mindlessly employ the same worn out word combinations. I find countless examples even while editing the work of accomplished authors.
I explored traditional clichés in an earlier post, suggesting that writers who employ phrases like “loose cannon,” “fly off the handle,” and “bitter end” should do so with an understanding of their origins. A loose cannon could do tremendous damage on a rolling ship. An axe head that flies off its handle could easily kill someone. Hanging on to the bitter end of a rope is prerequisite to fastening it (to the bitts or cleats) on the dock. Every cliché has a story, and writers who understand the origins of clichés use them in more meaningful ways.
The two-word cliché is a different animal. Though it may have historical roots (or be a useful-but-tired metaphor like “low-hanging fruit” or “level playing field”), it’s usually comprised of two words that have stuck together and fallen into popular use—often an adjective and a noun. These pairs become inseparable to a point where writers rarely use one word without the other. Continue reading →
If you’re not using your Word Processor’s Track Changes function, you’re missing out on one of the best writing tools of the digital age. The good news: it’s quick and easy to learn. This video tutorial will show you how.
Track Changes is perhaps one of the most useful features in MS Word. This toolset is valuable because it promotes a collaborative relationship between writer and editor. Many first-time authors fear the editing process because they’re concerned an editor will “process” their work and remove their unique, authentic voice from the prose. Track Changes prevents this from happening. By its very nature, Track Changes revolves around discussion; it allows the editor to make suggestions and the author to accept or reject them. And if an editor makes a correction that doesn’t have an obvious rationale behind it, that correction can have an explanatory comment attached to it. Track Changes does what its name implies: it tracks changes. Every revision is saved; author and editor can toggle between the edited text and the original.
Gone are the days when typed paper manuscripts were annotated with proofreader’s marks and comments in the margins were attached with lines to circled phrases. Track Changes is an essential tool that helps guide your narrative from rough draft to polished manuscript.
Tip: Be sure to accept or reject all changes and close or respond to any comments each time you receive an annotated document for review. The right margin fills up with comments and corrections quickly, and these create untenable clutter if they’re left in place. Over time, the document will evolve toward a final version as fewer and fewer changes and discussion points remain.
Watch the video full-screen at 1080p for a better view.
Certain writing style patterns weaken your prose and render it awkward, generic, and impersonal. As we hike the writer’s path of never-ending refinement, we must learn to see patterns that were once invisible to us. Some of these patterns are revealed through the lens of experience; others are shown to us by editors and friends. But until we learn to recognize these patterns, our writing is likely to resemble the work of millions of other authors.
The goal of The Writer’s Guide to Powerful Prose is not to define particular usages as right or wrong or good or bad. When we speak, ideas pour instantly and spontaneously from our mouths, but good writing is not such an automatic process. Writers have the luxury—the responsibility—of editing their ideas before sharing them. Writing style patterns become trigger points for conscious decision making. Could I use a better adjective? Is my metaphor a tired cliché? Does my sentence work just as well without “that” in it? Or do I want to leave this sentence as I wrote it?Continue reading →
This article explores ergonomic solutions to writers’ repetitive stress problems. As static as it may seem, writing is a physically demanding endeavor. I’ve spent decades sitting in a chair staring at a screen, tapping on a keyboard. During that time, I’ve experienced neck pain, shoulder pain, elbow pain, wrist pain, forearm pain, and back pain—sometimes to a point where I questioned whether I’d be able to continue writing, designing, programming, editing, or any of the other computer-centric activities from which I derive income and enjoyment.
Caveat: I’m not a doctor and this isn’t medical advice (insert customary legal disclaimer here). If the commonsense writing ergonomics adjustments described in this article don’t work for you, see a physician. Repetitive stress injuries can end your writing career, and some injuries do require surgical fixes. Continue reading →
As storytellers, teachers, and thought leaders, writers must cultivate a skill for communicating without blocking the spotlight, don’t you think?Now tell me, isn’t it annoying when you’re watching a movie and one of the characters turns, faces the camera, and makes some remark to “the audience”—as if he’s in a live show and you’re sitting somewhere in “television land,” ready to cheer or shout advice? I’m sure you’ll agree that audience engagement must be managed cleverly. The Rocky Horror Picture Showpulled it off masterfully, but the editorial “we” has the potential to ruin the relationship between the reader, the narrator, and the characters in a book—even if the narrator is the main character. Talking to the reader is fine (and often inevitable) but the editorial “we” implies a partnership that hasn’t been sanctioned by both parties.
Talking directly to your reader from the inside of a story is a bit like hugging a stranger. As warm and personal as that gesture may be, it will likely be perceived as an invasion of space. Your book is about what you think. Your reader doesn’t owe you an opinion and even if she did, you can’t be “sure she’ll agree with you.”
The Oxford comma, or serial comma is a subject of constant debate among writers. Do we need that comma before the last item on a list? Even without a list, the comma is an important determiner of meaning.
Time to eat children.
A comma after “eat” will better support your petition for unsupervised visitation.
Proponents of the Oxford comma (which include MLA, CMOS, and Strunk & White) regard the comma as a logical grouping device.
The teams wore jerseys colored red, blue, green, black and orange.
Four color schemes or five?
The teams wore jerseys colored red, blue, green, black, and orange.
Discussions of English Language pet peeves provide an entertaining forum for the expression of ire. In fact, if a “pet” is something we cherish, and a “peeve” is something that annoys us, “pet peeves” are what we love to hate. Here’s a collection of common English solecisms—guaranteed not to literally blow your mind:
English Pet Peeves: Logic Problems
“I could care less.” – If you’re expressing disinterest, you couldn’t care less.
Every time I hear Paul McCartney sing, “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in…” I cringe. Correct usage is “… in which we live.”
“The reason why this happened is because…” – use either “why” or “because,” but not both.
The reason this happened is because …
The reason why this happened is …
To be picky, we can do away with “The reason” if we precede the cause with “because.”
I was contacted by a not-so-articulate person who requested my services as an editor for an article. I looked at his document and found a ten-page paragraph that needed plenty of help. I wrote a polite response explaining that this piece would be time-consuming and expensive to edit, but the author seemed intent on having me rewrite it. He readily agreed to my price, explained his 30-day deadline and told me he’d send a check.
If this doesn’t sound suspicious to you, it should.