richard harland's writing tips

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My advice on punctuation is advice vis-a-vis publishers—and especially advice to myself vis-a-vis publishers. The trouble is, I like using italics and dashes and exclamation marks (as in these writing tips), but most publishers frown on them.

I guess the rationale is that these forms of punctuation are mere add-on devices for creating emphasis and excitement, whereas the job ought to be done by the words themselves. I don’t have an argument against that. I guess italics and dashes and exclamation marks can be a lazy author’s option. Only I don’t think I’m a lazy author, and I still want to use them!

However, most publishers have a definite down on them, and some are allergic to the mere look of a page sprinkled with italics and/or dashes and/or exclamation marks. This is worth bearing in mind if you’re submitting without a reputation to back you up. Better to play it safe and use those forms of punctuation only where you have to, not where you’d like to.

sign(There was a great moment in a TV version of Mrs Gaskell's 19th century novel, Cranford, that I saw recently - one sweet old lady discussing a letter received from a friend: "She wrote in a state of great distress. There were (awed whisper) exclamation marks.")

Similarly with other special forms of punctuation such as ellipses (…) and parentheses (brackets). I don’t like the look of parentheses in novels myself, even though I use them all the time in emails and letters. What’s the big difference?

It’s probably just a convention, but so is spelling—and look at how annoyed people can get over non-conventional spelling. If you don’t want to put publishers offside before they even start reading, keep ellipses to a minimum and avoid parentheses altogether.

As for paragraphs, in popular fiction you’ll be looking to keep them short, a few lines or a few sentences. I like writing short paragraphs as much as I like reading them, so this isn’t a problem for me.

The only material I have to work at breaking up is description. Ironically, this is exactly where I don’t want long unbroken chunks of text, because description tends to be low on momentum already. It helps to splice description with action or a character’s inner thoughts or reactions.

One thing I’ve noticed is that very short sentences seem to go best at the beginning or end of a paragraph. Here’s Col in Worldshaker:

… He opened his mouth and let the freshness fill his lungs.

They had come out onto a platform above the Bridge. All around were masts and wires, which sighed and sang in the wind. Col watched half a dozen small puffs of cloud—so close, it seemed he could reach out and touch them. He could have stayed there for ever, just feeling the sun and air on his face. It was like sailing in the sky.

But already his grandfather was striding forward to …

Maybe very short sentences would interrupt the flow in the middle of a paragraph, maybe they’re especially effective for kicking a paragraph off or snapping a paragraph shut. Actually, I don’t know what it means. I only mention it because I’ve noticed myself doing it.



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Copyright note: all material on this website is (c) Richard Harland, 2009-10
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1997 - 2010 Richard Harland.