The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VIII: but, then, what’s your function?

conjunction junction train

For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about how professional readers tend to respond to repetition in submissions. (To summarize their reaction for those of you joining us mid-series: not at all well.) While we’re on the subject, I’d like to digress from classic Frankenstein manuscript problems to tackle a related issue. I cannot in good conscience round off my lobbying for reduced repetition in your manuscripts without discussing those ever-popular transients passing through Conjunction Junction: and, but, and then.

(And if that very thought made you long to rush out and find a copy of the old Schoolhouse Rock videos for your kids, you may find them here. You can buy them on other sites as well, but this one also features those great old Bop-Em Bozo inflatable punching bags! What’s not to love?)

Undeterred by that rare (for me) parenthetical commercial plug, positive legions of hands shoot into the air, waving for my attention. Yes, grammar mavens? “But Anne,” you point out, and rightly so, “then isn’t a conjunction! Why, then, would you include it in your discussion of conjunctions, when there are so many legitimate conjunctions — yet, for instance — deserving of your august scrutiny?”

In the first place, you’re right: when used properly, then isn’t strictly speaking a conjunction. However, enough writers are using it these days as if it were a synonym for and in a list of actions (as in The Little Red Hen kneaded the bread, baked it, then fed it to her forty-seven children.) that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — include it here.

Language does grow and change, of course. Back in the bad old days, when dinosaurs roamed the earth Roosevelts were presidents Dorothy Parker was still speaking to Ernest Hemingway editors like Maxwell Perkins called the shots in the publishing world, it was considered hugely improper to begin ANY sentence with and, but, or then; amongst the literate, these words were purely intra-sentence phenomena. As my Uncle Alex (a fairly well-known SF short story writer in the 1950s, an editor at the LA Free Press, and a stickler for grammar for his entire life) used to scrawl in the margins of letters I had written when he returned them to me, a conjunction, by definition, connects one part of a sentence to another.

“Therefore,” he would ink in large letters, “they may not BEGIN a sentence. How’s your mother?”

There are easier things than growing up in a family of writers and editors. Toward the end of his long, colorful, and largely scurrilous life, Uncle Alex was even known to shout grammatical advice at the TV screen when newscasters –sacre bleu! — began their sentences with conjunctions.

Despite Uncle Alex’s best efforts, time and the language have been marching on, and at this point in North American history, it’s considered quite acceptable to begin the occasional sentence with a conjunction. In fact, as you may have noticed, I do it here all the time. So do most bloggers and columnists: it’s a recognized technique for establishing an informal, chatty narrative voice.

That mournful crashing sound you just heard was Uncle Alex and his late cronies from the LA Free Press stomping their feet on the floor of heaven, trying to get all of us to cut it out, already. Back to your celestial poker game, boys — your heavenly cacophony isn’t going to work.

Arguably, there can be perfectly legitimate stylistic reasons to open a sentence with a conjunction. They can, for instance, be very valuable for maintaining an ongoing rhythm in a paragraph:

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station. But would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be. And if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jason stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

As Uncle Alex would undoubtedly have been the first (and last, and middle) to tell you, classic English grammar has an elegant means of preventing those conjunctions from hanging out at the beginnings of those sentences: by eliminating the periods and replacing them with commas. The result would look like this:

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why — or not. Anyway, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second Jason stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

To old-fashioned eyes — sorry, Uncle — this paragraph’s meaning is identical to the first; it is merely cleaner grammatically. However, I suspect that most current readers of English prose would recognize a difference in the rhythm. A period is, as the English like to call it, a full stop; a comma, on the other hand, indicates a pause. A dash indicates a slightly longer and more pointed pause. To this millennium’s sensibilities, the first example has a choppiness, a breathless quality that conveys the subtle impression that Emily’s breathing is shallow, her pulse racing.

The periods my uncle would have forbidden, then, could be regarded as indicators of protagonist stress. At least to those in the habit of breaking paragraphs down into their constituent parts to see what their functions are.

Which is, of course, why any of us pay a visit to Conjunction Junction, right?

Before the next train leaves the station, though, a pop quiz: did you happen to notice any other editorial pet peeves in that first example? No? Okay, let me whip out my editorial machete pen and remove a couple of Millicent’s pet peeves.

Emily spotted the train pulling into the station, but would Jason be on it? He would — he had to be, and if he wasn’t, well, she was just going to have to call him to find out why. Right now, she wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating on what would be a moot point the second he stepped off that train and caught her in his arms.

Any guesses why I made those three changes?

Award yourself a big, fat gold star for the day if you immediately said, “Why, word repetition is word repetition, Anne — which is why you removed the second Jason in the paragraph.” Stack another star on top of the first if you added, “Anyway is often how speakers inform hearers that they’ve digressed from their point. Is there a reason the narrative should go out of its way to inform readers that it has digressed?” And give yourself three more stars if you have gotten in touch with your inner Millicent sufficiently to have mused, “You know, to find out why — or not is logically rather redundant. Would the paragraph lose any actual meaning if I cut or not?”

I hear all of your muttering under your collective breath, and you’re quite right: this is nit-picky stuff. Both good writing and professional presentation are made up of lots and lots of nit-picky stuff. Your point?

While you’re trying to come up with a sufficiently scathing comeback for that one, let’s tie the anyway revelation (i.e., that what’s considered acceptable in everyday speech may not work so well in a narrative voice on paper, even if it happens to be in the first person), back to our ongoing discussion of and and but. Conjunction-opened sentences can sometimes mirror actual speech better than more strictly grammatical ones, so the former can be a positive boon to dialogue.

Not sure how that might work? Okay, contrast this sterling exchange:

“And I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. And that’s final.”

“But Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair. But you are fleet of foot in the face of danger. Therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Or what? Or you’re going to come after me with an axe?”

“Or else, that’s all.”

“Fine. Then give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist. But don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

with the same dialogue after the conjunctions have been tucked into the middle of the sentences:

“I tell you, Maurice, it was eerie. I’m never going back into that deserted house again. That’s final.”

“Yvette, you’re ignoring the conventions of our genre! You’re a scantily-clad, unattached female who screams easily, often while tossing your dreamy long red (or blonde) hair, but you are fleet of foot in the face of danger; therefore, you must return to face the danger that any sane person would take extreme measures to avoid!”

“Is there some penalty attached to my refusal? Are you going to come after me with an axe?”

“You must, that’s all.”

“Fine. Give me the key to the tool shed.”

“If you insist, but don’t come crying to me when an axe comes crashing through your door at the closed-for-the-season hotel.”

The difference is subtle, but to a professional reader, it would be quite evident: the second version sounds more formal. Partially, this is a function of the verbal gymnastics required to avoid the colloquial Or what? Or else.

But these are not the only ways aspiring writers utilize sentence-beginning conjunctions in narrative prose, are they? As anyone who has ever been trapped in a conversation with a non-stop talker can tell you, beginning sentences with conjunctions gives an impression of consecutiveness of logic or storyline. (As was the case with the first sentence of this paragraph, as it happens.) Even when no such link actually exists, the conjunctions give the hearer the impression that there is no polite place to interrupt, to turn the soliloquy-in-progress into a dialogue.

I’m not going to give you an example of this, because we all hear it so much in everyday speech. If you feel that your life lacks such monologues, try this experiment the next time you’re at a boring cocktail party (they’re coming back, I hear):

(1) Walk up to another guest, preferably a stranger or someone you do not like very much. (It will soon become apparent why.)

(2) Tell a lengthy anecdote, beginning every sentence with either and, but or then. Take as few breaths as possible throughout.

(3) Time how long it takes a reasonably courteous person to get a word in edgewise.

Personally, I’ve kept this game going for over 15 minutes. The imminent threat of fainting due to shortness of breath alone stopped me.

Which is, in case you happen to be writing a book about such things, why panhandlers and telemarketers so often speak for minutes at a time in what seems to the hearer to be one long sentence: it discourages interruption. Almost invariably, this phenomenon is brought to you by the heavy lifting skills of and, but and then.

For this reason, aspiring writers just LOVE to tuck conjunctions in all over the place: to create the impression of swift forward movement in the narrative. Or, even more often, to create that chatty-sounding first-person narrative voice I mentioned above.

Sometimes, this can work beautifully, but as with any repeated stylistic trick, there’s a fine line between effective and over-the-top. Because it is a device that professional readers see so very much, you might want to screen your submission for its frequency.

Particularly, if you’ll forgive my being a bit pushy and marketing-minded here, in the early pages of your manuscript. And absolutely on the first page.

Why especially the opening? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: agents, editors, and contest judges tend to assume that the writing on pages 1-5 is an accurate representation of the style throughout the entire manuscript. It’s in their interest: just think how much time Millicent can save in rejecting a submission if she assumes that what is found on the first page, or even the first paragraph, is an infallible indicator of subsequent writing quality.

Was that sudden blinding flash an indication that light bulbs just went off over some of your heads? That’s right: this often-unwarranted assumption, renders rejection on page 1 not only logically possible, but reasonable. It certainly underlies the average Millicent’s practice of not reading past any problems that might turn up on page 1 of a submission: once you’ve seen a modicum of this author’s writing, she reasons, you’ve seen enough.

No comment.

Let’s concentrate instead on what a writer can control in this situation. Narrative structure and voice are not just matters of style; to a market-savvy writer, they are also matters of strategy. If you over-use any single narrative tool in those early pages, Millicent and her ilk are not going to stick around to see whether you’ve mended your ways by page 25, alas. They’re going to stop reading, so they may move on to the next submission.

Do I hear some moaning out there that’s not attributable to my late relatives’ heavenly cohort? “But Anne,” these disembodied voices moan, bravely beginning their protest with a conjunction, thus risking a thunderbolt flung by Uncle Alex and whatever minor deities he may have managed to befriend in his time in the choir eternal; he always did throw great parties, “not every book’s best writing falls on its first page, or even within its first chapter. Many, many writers take a chapter or two to warm up to their topics. So doesn’t this practice give an unfair advantage to those writers who do front-load their work?”

In a word, yes. Next question?

In fact, I would highly recommend front-loading your submission with your best writing, because I want your work to succeed. So instead of complaining about the status quo (which I’m sure all of us could, at great length), I’m going to give you some hints about how to minimize the problem early on, so your work can get a comparatively fair reading.

Whip out your trusty highlighter pens, and let’s get to work.

(1) Print out the first 5 pages of your submission; if you want to be very thorough, print the entire first chapter, as well a random page from each subsequent chapter.

(2) Pick a color for and, one for but (go ahead and use it for the howevers and yets, too), and one for then.

Why these words and no others? Well, these particular ones tend to get a real workout in the average manuscript: when writers are trying to cover material rapidly, for instance, and, but, and then often appear many times per page. Or per paragraph.

Or even — yes, I see it all the time — per sentence.

(3) Mark where those words appear in your manuscript.

Not just where these words open a sentence, mind you, but EVERY time these words show up on those pages.

(4) After you have finished inking, go back and re-examine every use of then, asking yourself: could I revise that sentence to cut the word entirely? If it begins a sentence, is that the most effective opening?

At the risk of seeming draconian, you should seriously consider excising every single use of then in those opening pages — and at least toy with getting rid of most of the ones thereafter. Sound drastic? Believe me, I have an excellent reason for suggesting it: many professional readers have a visceral negative reaction to repetitive use of then that sometimes borders on the paranoiac.

Why? Well, it’s one of the first words any professional editor would cut from a text, because in written English, pretty much any event that is described after any other event is assumed to have happened later than the first described, unless the text specifies otherwise. For instance:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, then served them.

Ostensibly, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence, right? Perhaps not, but given the average reader’s belief that time is linear, it is logically identical to:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate, and served them.

Technically, then is unnecessary here. In fact, thenis almost always omittable as a purely temporal marker.

Yet it is very widely used in submissions as a matter of style — or, if appears frequently enough, as a characteristic of authorial voice. To professional eyes, though, it’s logically redundant, at best. At worst, it’s a sign that the writer is getting a bit tired of writing interestingly about a series of events and so crammed them all into a list.

Which brings me back to my earlier suggestion: in your first five pages, you would be wise to avoid provoking this reaction by cutting all of the thens. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to omit temporal thens altogether in your writing UNLESS the event described after them is a genuine surprise or happened suddenly. Here’s an instance where the use is undoubtedly justified:

Jean-Jacques poached the eggs in a little butter, slid them onto the plate — then flung their steaming runniness into Anselmo’s astonished face.

Now THAT’s a then that signals a change in sentence direction, isn’t it? Reserving the device for this use will render your thens substantially more powerful.

(5) Turn now to the buts, howevers, and yets on your marked-up pages. Each time they appear, ask yourself: is the clause that immediately follows the word ACTUALLY a shift in meaning from what has come immediately before it? If not, consider excising the words altogether.

I hear more squawking from the non-celestial peanut gallery. “But Anne,” they cry, bravely persisting in their long-term habit of opening every protest hurled my way with a conjunction, “you can’t seriously mean that! Don’t you mean that I should carefully rewrite the sentence, substituting another word that means precisely the same as but, however, or yet? The whole point of my introducing however and yet was to give my but a periodic rest, after all.”

Good question, but-resters, but I did mean what I said. But, however, and yet all imply contradiction to what has already been stated, but many aspiring writers use these words simply as transitions, a way to make the sentence before seem to flow naturally — that is, in a way that sounds like conversation — into the next. What I’m suggesting here is not that you remove every legitimate negation, but rather that you should remove the negative conjunctions that are misused.

How may you tell the difference? Let’s take a look at some practical examples:

Bartholomew wanted to answer, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, his epi pen was in the pocket of his fetching dressing gown, so he need not panic. Yet now that he began to search for it, his personal first-aid kit seemed to have vanished from its usual resting-place.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

I would vote for keeping all of buts, howevers, and yets in this paragraph, because each is serving its proper function: they are introducing new facts that are genuinely opposed to those that came just before the conjunction.

That is not always the case, however. Take a look at a version of the same scene where none of these words is ushering in a twist related to the last information before it:

Bartholomew settled his fetching dressing gown around him irritably, but his tongue seemed to be swelling in his mouth. Was it an allergic reaction, stress, or had Musette poisoned him? He felt panic rising within him. However, he could not breathe. Yet his asthma seemed to be kicking in full force.

“Cat got your tongue?” Musette asked sweetly, adding another lump of strangely-colored sugar to his tea.

See the difference? By including conjunctions that imply an opposition is to follow, but not delivering upon it, the transitional buts, howevers, and yets ring false.

Yes, this level of textual analysis IS a heck of a lot of work, now that you mention it. Strategically, though, it’s worth it, for this device is so popular amongst aspiring writers that the transitional but has become, you guessed it, a common screeners’ pet peeve.

Harrumphs all round from my interlocutors, earth-bound and otherwise. “No big surprise there,” they huff. “To hear you tell it, it doesn’t take much for a writerly preference to graduate to industry pet peeve.”

Actually, it does take much — much repetition. It just doesn’t take very long manning the screening desk to discover the first 100 submissions that all share the same narrative device.

And yes, Virginia, the transitional but IS that common. As is the unnecessary then. Trust me, agents and editors alike will bless you if your manuscript is relatively light on these overworked words.

Or if you don’t overuse favorite words in general. English is a marvelous language for prose because contains so very many different words; it enables great precision of description.

“So why on earth,” Millicent wonders, impatiently waiting for her latte to cool (for once), “do these submissions keep leaning so heavily on to be, to have, to think, to walk, to see, to say, and to take? If it happened in, say, one submission out of fifty, I could cope with it, but every other one?”

Good question, Millie.

Varying your word choice almost always makes a better impression upon professional readers than leaning too heavily on the basics. That’s a fact that I wish more first-time submitters knew, but usually, US writers have been taught just the opposite: all throughout their school years, teachers kept flinging THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA at us and quoting either Mark Twain or Somerset Maugham’s (depending upon how old the teachers were, and what examples their teachers had used) overworked axioms about never using a complex word when a simple word would do.

The reason that your teachers told you this is not that simple, straightforward words are inherently better than polysyllabic ones, but because they were trying to prevent you from making the opposite mistake: a narrative that sounds as if it has swallowed a thesaurus whole, dragging in pretentious or obsolete words inappropriate to the book category or target market. For most manuscripts, this is still pretty good advice.

Now, however, it’s considered less a matter of style than of marketing. Remember, the standard vocabulary expectation for adult fiction is a 10th-grade reading level; in many genres, it’s even lower. Doing a bit of reading in your chosen category can help you figure out where to pitch your word choices — and how broad a vocabulary Millicent is likely to expect in your manuscript.

Why is this a good idea? Not only is the gratuitous induction of polysyllabic terminology into a tome projected for a less erudite audience not liable to electrify a professional reader into spontaneous cries of “Huzzah!” (see how silly it looks on the page?) — it can also stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, knocking the reader out of the story.

The much-hyped 2007 movie JUNO contained such an excellent example of this that you might want to consider renting it just to see this phenomenon in action. After spending fully two-thirds of the film establishing the protagonist’s father as a Working Man with a Heart of Gold, living in a house that apparently contains no books, repeatedly telling better-heeled folk that he’s just a plain man, and who never once mentions to his pregnant 16-year-old daughter that her condition might conceivably (so to speak) affect any future college plans she might have (to be fair, the film never indicates that she has any, although her boyfriend does), he says to his daughter, “You look morose.”

At which, naturally, half of my fellow theatergoers laughed, believing this line to be a joke. Morose didn’t seem to be a word that this character would ever use. Yet from context, it wasn’t intended humorously: evidently, the screenwriter simply liked the word.

Nothing wrong with that, of course — but authorial affection is not always sufficient justification. If a word is not book-category appropriate, think seriously about finding a substitute. That’s not compromising your artistic vision; that’s gearing your voice to your audience.

Don’t toss out those marked-up Frankenstein pages, please: we shall be talking more about overused conjunctions in the days to come. Next time, it’s on to the ands!

Yes, yes, I know: today’s picture might well have led a reasonable person to believe that ands would occupy us today, but a girl can only do so much in a single sitting. Keep up the good work!

26 Replies to “The dreaded Frankenstein manuscript, part VIII: but, then, what’s your function?”

  1. This is my favorite series in a long time, Anne. So much useful information. And so timely! (See what I did there?)

    All of this talk on conjunctions got me thinking about something that I’m having trouble with in my own manuscript. It deals with the proper usage of the emdash over parentheticals and vice versa. People seem to use either to describe a bit of extemporaneous information, where one could conceivably use the other. For example (note: not my manuscript… just random pairings of words):

    “While Penelope and Hubert picked flowers in their small, reclusive garden; Lance battled sea monsters with his gilded trident — smelted with the black blood of the Goddess Ersatz — and forsook the demure existence of a simple professional flower-picker.”


    “While Penelope and Hubert picked flowers in their small, reclusive garden; Lance battled sea monsters with his gilded trident, (borne from the black blood of the Goddess Ersatz) and forsook the demure existence of a simple, professional flower-picker.”

    Now, I also realize that the extemporaneous information would probably do better in another sentence at a different time in the manuscript, but given the construction of the particular sentence, which one is considered correct in editorial circles? Thanks for your time.


    P.S. – I keep on trying to write a reasonable comment on how much I love this series, but I find it dithering half-way through, and I just get embarassed so I stop. So, suffice it to say: great series.

    1. I’m so glad you’re liking it, Ken. I’m going to give an in-depth answer to your question soon, but as there seems to be a motorcycle convention outside my window at the moment, I’m going to hold off until I can think a bit more clearly.

  2. Hello, Anne!

    Caught the reference to your “Uncle Alex”, an Editor at the LA Free Press. Am wondering about his last name, and if you would like me to look for any writing he might have contributed. Will look forward to hearing from you!

  3. GAH!!!! I never even thought about “then!” Once again, Anne, you come to my rescue!

    I just deleted about 100 “thens” from my book. And some “nods” too, although some seem necessary (like when someone is dying of a sucking chest wound and can’t speak), so I left them in.

    I guess the “ands” are next. Damn, I’m sick of looking at this thing. Next time, I’ll do all this in the first pass!

    1. Believe it or not, Elizabeth, the mere fact that you’re being so conscientious about going through this manuscript is very, very likely to mean that your next manuscript won’t need anywhere near the scrutiny. This is how good habits are made, and I’m proud of you for taking the time to cultivate them!

      1. Thank you, Anne. I could not have done it without you. Learning this stuff on your own is hard work. I see why Millicent has such a tough job and I don’t want to make her day any worse. I don’t want her to spill her latte on herself in disgust or give her a headache; I want her to enjoy my book!

  4. Three cheers for Conjunction Junction! Hip, hip, hooray!

    Also…is it a bad sign when I find myself mentally copy-editing the blog entries themselves? *blush*

    “Right now, he [[she]] wasn’t going to waste her energy speculating”

    “the second version is sounds [[pick one]] more formal.”

    “attributable to my late relatives [[possessive]] heavenly cohort?”

    “and seriously considering [[no -ing]] getting rid of most of the ones thereafter. ”

    “but usually, US writers [[have?]] been taught just the opposite:”

    “it’s considered less a mater [[matter]] of style than of marketing.”

    I very sincerely apologize if this is rude. I wouldn’t point out these kinds of errors on any other blog, but since this one deals so intimately with editing manuscripts and catching errors, I thought maybe you would want to correct the above. If you do, feel free to hide or delete this post afterwards.

    Thank you, again, for keeping this excellent blog and making it available to the public!

    1. It’s a good sign that you’re spotting them, actually, Anne, but I don’t know that I (or any other blogger, for that matter) would encourage you to point them out in the comments. (FYI, in the history of this blog, I’ve only ever deleted one legitimate comment, and that’s because it was obscene.) Pointing out the typos is not rude, precisely, but it does seem to confuse the level of polish required on the printed page with the norms of blogging, which is supposed to be spontaneous and is usually (as in my case) a volunteer activity. Like many bloggers, I generally write these posts at the end of a rather long workday, and not infrequently in the dead of night. Also, since the nature of this particular blog requires my revisiting the same issues over and over again, I’m often updating parts of old posts and merging them together. While you’re quite right that ideally, I should be re-reading my posts (in addition to spell- and grammar-checking them), if I invested the time in doing that, I would end up posting about a third as often.

      And, frankly, if many readers took up the practice of calling me out publicly on typos without telling me in which lines or paragraphs they occurred, I might well avoid posting altogether, My blogging program does not permit me to search within a post for specific words and phrases, so I had to go back and re-read the entire post with an editorial eye in hard copy (because, as I point out early and often, it’s much harder to spot typos on a computer screen). On a daily basis, that’s just not as efficient a use of my time as working on content. I already spend about half an hour a day answering questions on back posts, something most readers don’t even know I do, but I regard as valuable. I’m not willing to give that up in favor of going back and hand-editing my entire blog opus. The benefits would be minimal: as much as all of us might like it if this blog were totally devoid of typos, the vast majority of readers do not go back and read old posts unless they are looking for something specific.

      That being said, I did take the time to go back and make the changes you suggested — as well as several others that you did not catch. Thank you for pointing them out; I’m sure it was kindly meant. I would appreciate it, though, if the next time you spot some, you either merely made a mental note of them or dropped me an e-mail, rather than implicitly inviting other readers to mention any typo they might find. I’m always happy to correct any errors on my blog, of course, but I honestly do think it would be a waste of everyone’s time if the comments section devolved into an exercise in proofreading my posts.

      1. Duly noted. I honestly had no intent to “call you out” or create more work, and you make very good points about the nature of a blog. Anyway, I’m sorry — and really quite embarrassed. I appreciate the immense amount of work you put into maintaining this blog, as well as reading and responding to comments, and I didn’t mean to detract from that in any way.

        1. Don’t be embarrassed at all, Anne — actually, I’m rather surprised it doesn’t happen more often! No umbrage taken, in any case.

  5. I grew up with School House Rock and I sang the Conjunction Junction song the whole way through your blog post. This is a great series. I am past the structural revision of my ms and in the midst of the line revisions. Your Frankenstein advice is guiding my way. Thank you.

    1. I’ve had the song stuck in my head for the last couple of days, too, Suzanne. I’d quite forgotten how catchy some of those tunes were.

  6. I have recently discovered your wonderful blog, and I am in awe of your expertise and generosity to give us such sage advice. Each post is long and filled with excellent detail of how we can better our writing. Thank you so much for devoting your time to maintaining this blog!

    I haven’t had time to go through all of your past entries (although I am currently doing so now) so please forgive me if my question has already been answered. But reading about repetition in manuscripts has me quaking in my boots. I understand that poor Millicent doesn’t want to read the same 15 words strung in a different order for 300 pages, but I was also under the impression that it was better to use a character’s name over a pronoun nine times out of ten, for clarity.

    Obviously, it depends on how many times I replace the pronoun with the character name, as well as if Jason is the only “he” in the room, then there is less of a chance for confusion (unless there is also a transsexual in the room as well). One shouldn’t change every “he” to “Jason” just to be clear, or vice versa.

    Now that I fully recognize the evils of repetition, I want to do my part and squelch it in my manuscript. I am just in agony over what to do about character names versus pronouns now that you mention that repeating the character’s name over and over is tiresome.

    On another note, have you read Noah Lukeman’s “A Dash of Style”? I own it, and think it’s a great tool for writers. He talks about punctuation not just in a “grammatically correct sense” )though he does mention it), but also from a creative writing stand point. He (or should I say “Lukeman” instead of “he”? I am torn with indecision now) mentions, as you just did, how the period reads as a full stop (Lukeman likens them to Stop Signs), a comma is a pause, and a semi colon falls somewhere in between. He also discusses the merits of using various points of punctuation within a paragraph…anyway, I could ramble on about grammar for ages.

    Thanks for the great blog!

    1. Welcome, Elizabeth P, and you’re welcome! You’re quite right that name vs. pronoun is a complex issue — so much so that since your timing was so very good in bringing it up, I now think that I should write a post on it later sometime within the next week or so. Thanks so much for bringing it up!

      The short answer, though, is that there really is no short answer to this one, unless (as you point out) there is only one he and one she in a scene. If so, clarity isn’t really an issue that could be resolved by repeating either name more often, is it? So the 9 out of 10 rule (which, I must confess, I had not heard in about 15 years; stylistic guidelines like that aren’t much favored in the editing community) really wouldn’t be applicable in that instance.

      I suspect that the real intention behind the rule is for multiplayer scenes — and, as is true of many pieces of specific writing advice that get passed on as if they were hard-and-fast rules, probably was first scrawled in the margins of a scene with a large cast, most of whom were merely described as he or she. Obviously, where there are several characters of the same gender, referring to each by name would reduce confusion quite a bit. (The rule of thumb for transgendered characters is pretty straightforward in English, though: use the pronoun the character would use to refer to him- or herself, regardless of the stage of physical transition. Saves a TON of confusing back-and-forth shifts.)

      It would also be possible to construct the narrative to minimize both confusion and name repetition — but that’s a subject for an upcoming post. Do stay tuned. (To allay your fears about the next-to-last paragraph, though: since you had mentioned only one male in the paragraph, it would have been odd had all of the subsequent hes NOT referred to Mssr. Lukeman, wouldn’t it? Since any reasonably attentive reader would have drawn that conclusion, there was no need to repeat the name.)

      I am familiar with Mssr. Lukeman’s opus of advice for aspiring writers — an interesting focus, considering that when he first began publishing in his own right, very seldom represented writers new to the biz. (In fact, he used to be rather famous on the writers’ conference circuit for announcing that previously unpublished writers should not bother to pitch to him. I have no idea whether he does that now that his primary audience is aspiring writers.) I know quite a few writers who swear by him. That being said, though, punctuation being taught by ear was in fact extremely common fifty years ago, so his books would probably not be the first place I would send an aspiring writer to learn the technique. Everybody learns slightly differently, however.

      1. Yay for upcoming posts about pronoun versus name usage! Yay for upcoming posts about how to construct a narrative where we minimize confusion AND word repetition! You rock, Anne (I hope colloquial expressions are allowed on this pristine blog of wondrous grammatical and authorial insight)! We really appreciate the time you spend educating us. Some of the information you dole out in one blog post alone I have been looking for years for.

        I did not know that Lukemen was so adamant about not representing aspiring authors. It’s pretty funny that he has spent considerable time writing books aimed towards them. I also own “The Plot Thickens”, and “The First Five Pages”, and I have found “The Plot Thickens” to be very helpful.

        Since you stated his book wouldn’t be the first place you’d send aspiring writers to learn the fine art of punctuation, where would you recommend we learn it? Much of my pleasure from “A Dash of Style” is finding information that I haven’t come across elsewhere. You also mentioned punctuation “being taught by ear”. I assume (forgetting momentarily what happens when we assume) that part of learning punctuation by ear is reading our manuscripts OUT LOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN THEIR ENTIRETY like a wonderful blogger I know is fond of saying ( 😉 ), but is there more places that I should be scurrying off to learn punctuation from?

        On that same note, is there any books on writing you would recommend to us bright eyed aspiring writers?

        Again, thank you so much for your help!

        1. I thought as soon as I wrote that, “Gee, I should probably suggest a few alternate titles here,” Elizabeth! I’m going to ponder that one and come up with a solid list; I don’t think I’ve ever written a blog post devoted entirely to the subject, believe it or not. For grammar, I always recommend starting with Strunk & White’s THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and working up from there. For plotting, my first recommendation is usually Don Maass’ THE BREAKOUT NOVEL, because it’s so practically-minded. I also love to recommend Carolyn See’s CREATING A WRITING LIFE; she does such a superlative job of setting realistic expectations for aspiring writers.

  7. Okay, the motorcycles are gone now; I’ve had a nice nap, and it’s time to tackle Ken’s question! Before I do, though, I’d just like to point out to anyone whose eyes might have lit up at the sight of the word emdash: it’s NEVER correct to use an emdash in a manuscript; standard format requires a doubled dash with a space at either end. I’m relatively certain that my blogging program will not allow me to use a doubled dash here in the comments (like Word, it’s fond of automatic format switches), but here goes: a dash in a manuscript should look like — this. Historically, doubled dashes have appeared in manuscripts to differentiate between intended dashes and hyphens. A hypenated word in a manuscript should be a single dash and should not have spaces at either end, as in look-out.

    But that doesn’t really address your question, does it, Ken? The general rule of thumb for mid-sentence digressions is that parentheses work better for longer asides (particularly multi-sentence digressions), as well as ones that are off-topic. Digressions within dashes are usually quick, offset to make a point or a joke. For an aside as brief as the one in your example, though, either would be perfectly proper. It’s really a matter of personal style.

    All that being said, I would not advise using either dashes or parentheses for offsetting the information in this particular example. Commas would be proper here — and while I’m at it, I’m going to change that semicolon to a comma, too. (For a semicolon to work in this sentence, the introductory clause would have to be a complete sentence. Since a semicolon in this context is a substitute for comma + and, both the part before and after the semicolon would need to be able to stand alone as sentences.) The edited version, then, would look like this:

    While Penelope and Hubert picked flowers in their small, reclusive garden, Lance battled sea monsters with his gilded trident, smelted from the black blood of the Goddess Ersatz, and forsook the demure existence of a simple professional flower-picker.

    Does that make sense? If you’d like to suggest another example, I’d be happy to take a crack at it for you.

    1. Anne!

      Your examples are pristine as always. When I said emdash, I meant the double-dash… my lingo is obviously still lacking. I suppose I have not yet broken out of my authorly chrysalis. I have actually gone into the depths of my word processing program (with gilded trident in hand, mind you) and found that wonky little trigger that causes the double dash to seize and meld abhorrently into that extended beast: Emdash, so now I don’t have that problem. It is slain.

      With all that being said about the aside, I want to thank you for your more-than-thorough answer on the question posed. I believe that my dash-usage is inherently over-done because I use it to signify breaks in sentence without having to resort to a period. I tell myself its a stylistic choice, but it’s more than likely just wrong. I will need to go back and rethink my usage in a lot of these sentences as I think they are probably confusing. I’ll give you a couple examples of what I first thought was a masterfully worked bit of prose, and I now think might just be the slapdash structure of an amateur trying to be too big for his britches:

      I expect it, sitting here, looking — waiting for my invitation to heroism, and all while singing that tinkling little tune that plays like a dreary instrument — mezzo piano — at the end of a long, reverberating hallway.

      Old memories of a young person are not always true, but there is no way to disengage the act from its consequences — even if the facts are but fiction, the conclusion of my mother’s theretofore life-long bouts with psychosis and depression remain as real as you or me.

      A storm roils in the distance — a silver sliver of lightning; the tremulous rumble of thunder — I dig my toes deep into the sand, steadfast.

      It is a 10-page short story… and all three of these are within the first 2 pages. It just goes on like this. I am a dash-junkie, and the first step towards beating it is admitting it, I guess.

      I do have another question about the use of only one dash in a sentence as a demarcation of a turn in the sentence (ref. sentences 1 & 2). I don’t know if this is allowed. I’ve seen it in published works, but we all know how little bearing that has. I was wondering if Milli would look at that with a caffeine-dilated glare and reject it forthwith. I’d imagine so.

      And on the third sentence, I used the dashes to take the place of the conjunctional “and,” and I like to think that it reads well by cutting off extraneous beats in the sentence, but I would like for you to opine on the matter.



      1. I’m glad you’ve slain Word’s emdash-generator, Ken, and your analysis of your love affair with the dash made me laugh. An agent of my acquaintance, someone who has long urged me to be on the look-out for promising talent to send his way, recently suggested that my blog readers may be catching dash-loving from me, since my blogging voice relies rather heavily upon them. So my apologies if the many, many dashes you’ve seen here may have encouraged your addiction.

        I think you may have answered your own question about the use of only one dash, at least indirectly: what works stylistically depends in part on the frequently with which the device is used in the text. Millicent might well be perfectly happy with a particular dash structure if it appears only once every 15 pages, but become frustrated should it happen to turn up three times in a single paragraph. When in doubt, dash-favorers might well consider printing up pages of text, using a magnet to attach them to the refrigerator, then trying to scan them from the other side of the kitchen. If horizontal lines seem to dominate the page, even when viewed from ten feet away, you might want to winnow some of them out.

        Which is to say: the dash marking a change in tone or logic is a well-established device. It’s considered perfectly legitimate in most book categories — provided, of course, that it’s used sparingly, and only where appropriate.

        I’m bringing that last part up not just because it’s a good rule of thumb (although it is), but because to my eye, most of the dashes in your examples could be omitted without harming the meaning of the text, or even its rhythm. In your second example, for instance, a simple period would achieve more or less the same effect:

        Old memories of a young person are not always true, but there is no way to disengage the act from its consequences. Even if the facts are but fiction, the conclusion of my mother’s theretofore life-long bouts with psychosis and depression remain as real as you or me.

        See? If you could find and revise all of this kind of dash usage, you would free up conceptual room, so to speak, for the sentences where only a dash would achieve the momentary pause that you want. Technically, a semicolon would be equally proper punctuation for a turn in thought between two complete sentences, as in your second example, while a dash could separate a complete sentence and a fragment. That said, just because a thought continues doesn’t necessarily mean that a dash or semicolon is required, or even appropriate; quite often, as is the case in this very sentence, a period would have been just fine, since both what happens before and after the semicolon could easily have stood alone.

        Your third example would be fine in literary fiction or high-end science fiction (where semicolons are more warmly embraced than elsewhere, I’ve noticed), but generally speaking, you might want to be cautious about featuring more than one piece of fancy punctuation per sentence. It may sound silly, but I do know editors who would object to #3 on that basis alone. When the urge to pile ‘em up rears its creative head, ask yourself: is there an artistic reason that ALL of this information needs to be confined to a single sentence? Or could I achieve a similar rhythm with less Millicent-baiting punctuation, perhaps something along the lines of this?

        A storm roils in the distance: a silver sliver of lightning, the tremulous rumble of thunder. I dig my toes deep into the sand, steadfast.

        Read aloud, I think you’ll find that it sounds the same — and to a writer who loves the percussion of words on the ear, retaining the rhythm is one of the primary goals of revision, right?

        I would apply the same technique to any sentence that contains more than two dashes, like your first example. Pretty much any Millicent (or editor, for that matter) would do a double-take at the combination of the two- and one-dash conventions within a single sentence. Rhythmically, I don’t think all of them are really necessary — and frankly, I think the first detracts from Nos. 2 and 3. Look at how well the sentence flows with out it:

        I expect it, sitting here, looking. Waiting for my invitation to heroism, all while singing that tinkling little tune that plays like a dreary instrument — mezzo piano — at the end of a long, reverberating hallway.

        That’s not to say that Millicent might not have other problems with the sentence, of course. As I was making the edits above, I could practically hear her carping: Looking at what? What tinkling little tune? Is it playing in the moment, or is this a flashback? These are much more discussion-enabling objections, however, than a theoretical aversion to stacked-up punctuation.

        Does that help?

          1. Thank you, Ken — and I LOVE to teach bread-and-butter writing and formatting classes to writers’ groups. I much prefer it to giving general talks, actually; I feel that the practicalities make more of a difference in writers’ day-to-day lives.

  8. You’re welcome, Elizabeth! I’m THRILLED to hear that you’re thinking actively about Millicent’s enjoyment of your prose — in the throes of revision, it’s incredibly easy to forget that a submission is supposed to be entertaining, as well as beautifully-written, professionally presented, and book category-appropriate. Keeping that in mind is going to make you a much, much stronger self-editor — just you wait and see.

  9. Ha! I did just spend an evening pulling buts out of my manuscript. I’m not doing too badly on thens, but I definitely had too many buts. Now to work on the ands…

  10. Woah this blog is excellent i like reading your posts. Keep up the great work! You realize, lots of persons are searching around for this information, you can aid them greatly.

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