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    Who Wants to Read This?

    Who wants to read this? It's a question all writers should ask themselves. Identifying your audience is a crucial part of writing a book, getting it published, and marketing it.

    For example, if you're writing a chapter book for elementary-age kids, you need to carefully consider your word choice and subject matter. Writing an intense psychological thriller filled with ridiculously long words and mature subject matter will probably not be appropriate for this genre. Each genre has its own peculiarities and conventions, and the best way to discover what they are for the genre you're writing in is to read as many other books in that genre as you can get your hands on. It should go without saying, but authors need to read, and read a lot, as a part of honing their craft.

    Considering your audience is also crucial when you're presenting your book to publishers and agents. As I've mentioned before, publishing is a business, and when it comes down to it, a publisher needs to know that it can sell your book before it will offer you a contract. Your job as an author who wants to be published is to show the publisher that there is an audience for the book and who that audience is. For example, if you're writing a memoir about your experiences with your autistic child, who might be a prime audience for your book? My first guess would be other parents with autistic children. Provide the publisher with statistics about how many of these people there are to show what the potential audience could be.

    Knowing your audience is also essential for marketing of a book, although this is more of an area that publishers are concerned with than authors. Narrowing the market for a book can help to maximize the dollars spent in advertising and eliminate advertising in markets that are unlikely to be interested in a book.

    Finally, sometimes you just need to take a good step back from a project and ask, "Who wants to read this?" for a different reason. It's possible that the book you're writing has a very, very limited audience that probably isn't going to attract many readers and in turn, publishers. Many memoirs and autobiographies fall into this category. This isn't to say you shouldn't write the book if it's important to you. Writing a memoir or autobiography is a great way to preserve family history for future generations. You just need to be realistic and know that people outside your immediate circle of family and friends may not be that interested in buying and reading your book.


    An Awesome, Incredible, Nicely Worded, Fun, Smart Post

    So, let's talk about adjectives. I hope you know what an adjective is, but just to refresh your memory, they're descriptive words. For example, in the phrase "a red coat," red is an adjective.

    Adjectives provide valuable word pictures for your readers. Lately, however, I've run into a lot of books that have the problem of too many adjectives. Now don't get me wrong, adjectives can and should be used in writing. Writing would be odd, stilted, and boring without them. So how can you use too many? Let me demonstrate.

    The particular problem I'm addressing is when authors feel like they need to precisely describe everything about their characters in the very first sentence about them. Consider the following example:

    John threw his long, six-foot-two, 210-pound, karate-trained, brown-haired, blue-eyed, lanky, toned body in the path of the speeding, red, wide, noisy Ford.

    Can you see how this can be overkill? Authors, please resist the temptation to shove every bit of physical description about your characters into the first sentence you write about them. You can, and should, spread it out a bit. Important points you want to make about your character can get lost in a sea of description, and your writing can definitely be bogged down.

    And while we're on the subject of adjectives, I'll give you a quick rule of thumb to follow if you aren't sure whether to insert commas between adjectives. Basically, if you would say the word "and" between adjectives, you should insert a comma. For example, you would write "the fast, noisy car" but "the fast Ford truck."


    The Lovely Ellipsis

    The ellipsis—we've all seen it and most likely used it. This piece of punctuation is often abused in informal writing, such social networking and email. So what is the correct way to use it? There are several.

    First let's establish what an ellipsis is. The ellipsis is three periods, not five, seven, two, or eight. There is a method where a four-dot ellipsis can be used, but a four-dot ellipsis is simply a three-dot ellipsis preceded by a period. I commonly see writers throwing a multitude of periods after a sentence for various reasons,  but writers should not do this. Three periods is both sufficient and correct.

    The first way to use the ellipsis is most common in nonfiction writing. It is most commonly used to indicate that a portion of some quoted material is missing. For example, "God so loved . . . he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16). The ellipsis in this quote indicates that part of the quote is missing. This use of the ellipse is pretty uncommon in fiction because other material is rarely quoted in fiction.

    You might notice that although John 3:16 continues after "only begotten son," I did not include an ellipsis after it. I also didn't start the quote with an ellipsis, even though the quote begins with the word "for." This is because Bible verses should not begin or end with ellipses unless the context demands it (e.g., it results in a sentence fragment). Also, introductory words, such as for, and, therefore, but, etc., can be omitted without inserting an ellipsis.

    The second case where ellipses should be used is more common in fiction writing. Ellipses should be used to indicate trailing off thought or speech. For example, "If only I could fly . . ." They should not be used to indicate that speech has been interrupted or to show an interjection or departure in thought. As discussed in this post, the em dash should be used for this.

    So how do you form an ellipsis? This can vary widely from publisher to publisher. Some publishers I have worked with prefer to use three spaced periods (. . .), while some prefer that authors use three unspaced periods (...) or Word's ellipsis character (…), which is formed by holding down ctrl+alt+the period. Some call for spaces before and after the ellipsis, while some prefer to have no spaces. The important thing, as always, is to pick one method and use it consistently. And of course, if you are still confused, a skilled editor can help you discern whether you're using ellipses correctly. Happy writing!


    Serial Commas

    A much-debated issue in writing is whether to use a serial comma. The serial comma has been known by many names, including the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma. If you’re wondering what exactly I mean by a serial comma, just look at the previous sentence. There are three items in a series (i.e., the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma) in the sentence, and the serial comma is the comma that appears after “the Harvard comma.”  According to The Chicago Manual of Style, three or more items in a series (e.g., eggs, butter, and milk) should have a comma after the second to last item in the series.

    The serial comma is used to avoid confusion, as in the following sentence: “I like all kinds of ice cream flavors, like strawberry, coconut and chocolate chip and raspberry.” Without a serial comma, it’s unclear whether you are talking about coconut and chocolate chip ice cream or chocolate chip and raspberry ice cream. Adding a serial comma will never cause confusion, but omitting it might. In my opinion, a serial comma is an important tool for clarity in writing.

    There are some style guides that do not use the serial comma, most notably the Associated Press style guide. That is the guide used in writing for newspapers, where space is an issue. In book writing, however, the serial comma should almost always be used. I have personally never run into a publishing house that doesn’t use a serial comma, although I’m sure they exist. Also, the authority on writing for books is The Chicago Manual of Style, which calls for a serial comma.

    There is one notable exception, though, that often trips writers up. The serial comma should not be used when you use an ampersand (&). Ampersands usually should not be used in the text of a book but are often used in titles, ads, and other supporting materials. If you are called upon to use an ampersand, remember that a serial comma isn’t needed.


    Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes—Oh My!

    One of the least-understood sets of punctuation in writing are dashes. Most people don't realize there are three distinct versions of them, and they are used for very different purposes.

    The most commonly used and confused dash is actually not a dash at all but just the plain old hyphen (-), which is the same character used for a minus sign. You will see this used sometimes in books where a word is split across a line. This is something for book designers to worry about, though, not writers. You should never split a word across a line yourself as a writer. The hyphen is also used to hyphenate two words, as in "twenty-one" or in compound modifiers, like "a little-known restaurant." There are rules governing when a compound modifier should be hyphenated, and they can get pretty confusing. Here's a quick guide for you:

    • Don't hyphenate compound modifiers that come after the words they modify (e.g., "a restaurant that is little known").
    • Don't hyphenate compound modifiers if one of the words in an adverb (e.g., "a rapidly filling cup").
    • Spelled-out numbers between one and one hundred should always be hyphenated (e.g., twenty-one, ninety-nine).
    • Compound modifiers before words should usually be hyphenated (e.g., "a three-year-old boy" or "an American-football player"). The second example demonstrates why hyphenation is needed for compound modifiers. If the word wasn't hyphenated, the phrase could be interpreted either as a player of the American version of football or as a player of football who is American.

    The second form of dashes is the en dash, so named because it is roughly as long as the lowercase letter n. It's bigger than a hyphen but smaller than the em dash. This dash is used between ranges of numbers or values, as in "Arkansas beat Ohio State 31–3 in the Sugar Bowl." (And yes, that is wishful thinking!) En dashes are also used in the rare event of a compound modifier where one or both of the modifiers is made up of two words, as in "a pre–Civil War house." You can create an en dash in Microsoft Word by pressing ctrl+the hyphen on the number pad.

    The em dash is the most utilitarian of the dashes and was so named because it's roughly the size of a capital letter M. To create an em dash in Microsoft Word, press ctrl+alt+the hyphen on the number pad. It's the dash most people are looking for in writing. It is used to indicate a change in thought or tone or to replace sets of parentheses or colons. For example, "Our dinner—which was delicious—had five courses." It can also be used in dialogue to indicate the speaker has been interrupted. For example:

    "But you said—"

    "I said I'd do it when I'm ready!"

    The em dash can be used effectively in writing, but be careful not to overuse it. An overabundance of em dashes can be distracting, and they tend to lose their effectiveness when used too often.