NaNoWriMo — the next steps

The folks at Grammarly sent me this infographic to share last month, but I decided that the last thing people who are trying to write almost 2000 words a day need is pressure to edit when they should just be drafting. Still, there are some decent (albeit basic/fundamental) tips here, and now that the pressure is off, the graphic is worth a look at to remind you of some of the things that you should be looking out for on a proofread.

Here are my basic tips for NaNo participants now that the November frenzy is over.

  • Finish writing the manuscript. Just because you got to 50k, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re done. (The average novel is closer to twice that length. Here’s a handy link with recommended word counts for different genres.) And if you didn’t “win” NaNo and didn’t finish your manuscript, that doesn’t mean you should give up. A slow writer is still a writer. I know. I couldn’t win NaNo without a time machine, but I’ve still finished five novels.
  • Leave the manuscript for a few weeks (or as long as you can stand it) before coming back to look at it with fresh eyes.
  • Re-read the manuscript. Do a structural edit and re-write as needed to deal with the bigger plot problems. Copy edit afterwards (but also as you go if you’re like me and can’t let a comma splice be).
  • Send it to your beta readers/critique partners.
  • Review their suggestions and incorporate them as necessary/appropriate.
  • Repeat the previous three steps until you’re done.


That is a NaNo no-no. :p

Five Mistakes To Avoid in Your NaNoWriMo Novel Infographic

Hyphens: a quick and dirty guide, by the Hyphenator

It’s been a while—over a year—since I’ve “treated” you guys to a blog post about punctuation. I’ve blogged about dashes (em rules and en rules) before, and also semicolons. Today I want to talk about the dash’s smaller cousin, the hyphen. At work they call me the Hyphenator, which isn’t as lame as it sounds. Ok, it’s probably exactly as lame, but I really love a correctly used hyphen, almost as much as a correctly used semicolon.

I suppose I should just be grateful they don’t call me the Colonator.

Now, I could save you time by pointing out that at least 50% of the time, when I have a question about hyphenation, my first port of call is my trusty old (actually new) dictionary. Words are always changing, and even between dictionary editions a word won’t necessarily be spelled the same way. Words that work as a pair often evolve from being two words to two words with a hyphen to one word. For example, a few years ago a word like “counterterrorism” was spelled “counter-terrorism”, but the hyphen has been worn away with the word’s frequent use over the last decade.

The other 50% of the time, when the thing you’re looking at hyphenating isn’t one word but two or several working as a compound modifier, whether you need a hyphen is a judgement call. The more-common examples will be in the dictionary, but more-unusual ones won’t.

Compound modifiers

A modifier is typically an adjective or adverb, and a compound modifier is (unsurprisingly) a modifier made up of two or more words. Most of the time when I see them they are adjectives; I can’t think of any compound adverb examples off the top of my head, but I won’t rule the possibility out because the English language is a tricksy thing.

Here are some examples:

  • My long-term goals include becoming a bestseller.
  • She gazed at the blue-green sea.
  • I have a five-year-old son.
  • I’ve got that I-can’t-think-of-any-more-examples feeling.

In all these instances, the bolded words are a compound adjective modifying a noun. Not every word I’ve bolded is an adjective itself, but working together, they form one. Importantly, the compound adjectives are all sitting before the noun. In this instance, I almost always hyphenate the modifiers.

If, however, the sentences were written with the adjectives after the noun, you don’t hyphenate them: “My goals for the long term include becoming a bestseller.” (Yeah, good luck with that.)

Exceptions to hyphenating compound modifiers

There are two reasons I wouldn’t hyphenate a compound modifier even when it’s before a noun. One is when the meaning is clear without the hyphen, and the other is when it changes the meaning of the sentence to add a hyphen.

An example I frequently see is a construction where the modifier to the noun is actually an adverb and a verb, such as “the quickly running boy”. In that instance I wouldn’t hyphenate, simply because there’s no possibility of the reader misunderstanding. “Quickly” can only be modifying “running”, not “boy”.

Here’s another example I see at work a lot:

  • I will read the most popular books.
  • I will read the most-popular books.

The first says that I will read more popular books than anyone else, while the second says I will read only the books that are bestsellers. In that case, whether you hyphenate or not depends on what you’re trying to convey. Sometimes it’s better to reword to avoid ambiguity; for example, some people might misread the first sentence as having the second meaning, even without the hyphen, because they don’t know what a pedant I am for hyphens. If I reworded to say “I will read more popular books than anyone else”, there’s no chance they’ll misunderstand.

Hyphenating numbers and ages

Ages: In my first examples, I included one about my son being five. That sentence would work the same way whether I wrote it with or without the word “son”, because ages are written with hyphens. (The exception is if there is a noun and the age sits after it in the sentence.)

  • I have a five-year-old son.
  • I have a five-year-old.
  • My son is five years old.

Numbers: Numbers written in full are always hyphenated where they are more than one word (so from twenty-one onwards).

As an aside, when you switch from writing in full to using digits depends on the style you’re using—at work we write words for whole numbers from one to nine and then use digits from 10 onwards. Most other places it’s whole numbers from one to ninety-nine. There is one exception to using digits beyond a certain number, though. If the number starts a sentence, it should be written in full—so if you have the number 28563 at the start of a sentence, you might want to reword to put something in front of it, or it’s gonna get ugly.

There is more I could write about hyphens, but this post is already on the long side and I’m sure that you’ve all fallen asleep anyway. If you haven’t, high five!

High five

How to use a semicolon…

I noticed yesterday that some poor soul on the internet had been directed to my site via the search “how do I use a semicolon”. Presumably Google thought my poem about semicolons contained some jolly good advice. Which it does. But for any future random arrivals, here is a plain text explanation of correct semicolon use.

There are two ways (excluding emoticons) to use a semicolon.

The first is in complex lists. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s a simple list.

My dog likes running, scratching himself and digging holes.

(As an aside, you’ll note I didn’t put the comma before the “and”. That type of comma is called an Oxford comma—some people always use them, others regard them as optional. I personally only use them if the sentence would be confusing otherwise.)

Here is a complex list about the same dog.

My dog likes running, especially after the neighbour’s cat; scratching me, himself and the furniture; and digging holes in my flower garden.

In this example, one or more items in the list contains internal punctuation. If we were to use a comma after “cat” and “furniture”, it would be difficult to figure out where each part of the list ended. The semicolon therefore takes the place of the serial comma.

You can put a colon at the start of the list to flag it’s coming (so, in this case, after “likes”), but it isn’t required unless the list breaks out over several lines. That’s not the sort of thing you’ll be doing in a novel, but you may do it in a minute or academic text.

My dog likes:

* running, especially after the neighbour’s cat;

* scratching me, himself and the furniture; and

* digging holes in my flower garden.

(Bloody dog.)

The other time a semicolon is used is to join two clauses that could otherwise be written as complete sentences (“independent clauses”). You might want to do this if the two ideas are linked in some way—either contrasting or supplementing each other.

I say aluminium; you say aluminum.

My dog has no tail; we call him Stumpy.

Semicolons are awesome; I use them a lot.

If one of the clauses is a fragment, a semicolon is not correct. Likewise, you don’t need a semicolon if the second clause begins with a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, yet, so), even if the clause is otherwise independent. Use a comma instead.

Stumpy smells bad, but we still love him.

I love coffee, so I cried when we ran out.

But (and bear with me here) if the second clause starts with a conjunctive adverb such as however or therefore—or a transitional phrase such as of course—a semicolon should be used before it and a comma after.

(Interestingly, Wikipedia says not to use the comma after a conjunctive adverb if the adverb is only one syllable, like thus. Ok, maybe that’s only interesting to me. Wake up, you!)

Stumpy smells bad; however, we still love him.

I drank all the coffee; of course, she’ll never prove it!

I am allergic to cats; thus I don’t mind when Stumpy chases them away.

Now, I had someone on Twitter (who shall not be named) tell me he’d been told semicolons were a redundant form of punctuation, and that therefore he doesn’t use them. It’s true that, outside of complex lists, there’s nothing a semicolon does that a full stop doesn’t achieve—if all you’re after is a correctly punctuated sentence. But, to my mind, being able to link ideas gives a writer an additional tool to add nuance to their work. Unless you’re writing picture books or instruction manuals, why wouldn’t you embrace that?

And thus endeth the lesson. I hope this makes sense, random Googler, should you ever return.

An Ode to a Semicolon

I said yesterday I’d written a poem about semicolons once. It was called “An Ode to a Semicolon”, and I wrote it back in my crazy university days. I was such a party animal.

Unfortunately the original version has been lost to the dusts of time, but I’ve had a go at recreating it (the second verse is new) for your reading pleasure.

And so you can all mock me. 😉

Little punctuation mark,
Seldom ever used,
Rarely used correctly,
Oftenest abused.

Paired up with a bracket,
You’re a winking face,
But as a punctuation mark
You’re losing your place.

Sometimes you’re like a comma,
To break up complex lists—
The use of semicolons
Oftentimes assists.

Sometimes, you’re like a full stop
But gentler than he
Oh, little semicolon,
You have a friend in me!

Edit: If you want a proper description of how to use a semicolon, I’ve written one here.

Doing your dash: en rules and em rules …

Ever noticed how there are separate dashes of several lengths? Ever wondered how you use them correctly? Then, boy howdy, this is the blog post for you. (Yes, correct punctuation use excites me. I wrote a poem about semicolons once.)

En rules (also known as en dashes) are so called because they were traditionally the same length as an “n”. They can be typed in Word by pressing CTRL and the minus key on the number pad: –

(Note that “en” is pronounced like the letter, not like the French word for “in”.)

They can be used in a couple of ways. One is to connect spans of time or entities, with no spaces either side:

the January–February carnival

the US–Canadian border

The other way they can be used is to insert a break into a sentence, or to include a statement that could otherwise be broken out with commas or brackets/parentheses. If they are used for this they must have spaces either side.

My hair – which is really curly – refuses to do what it’s told.

Em rules (also known as, unsurprisingly, em dashes) are (also unsurprisingly) known as such because they are traditionally the same length as an “m”. They can be typed in Word by pressing CTRL, ALT and the minus key on the number pad: —

As with en rules, em rules can be used to insert a break or a parenthetical statement into a sentence. Unlike with en rules, though, they shouldn’t have spaces either side.

My hair—which is really curly—refuses to do what it’s told.

Em rules are also used to attribute quotations:

“Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.”  Stephen King

Don’t use both “—” and “–” to break up your sentences in one document or you’ll look a little nutty. If you’re writing for a specific publisher, then you can have a look at other books they’ve published to see what they prefer. I personally use em rules in my writing, but at work the style is to use en rules.

Also, don’t overuse them. More than a set of en rules (or em rules) in a paragraph starts to make me feel like I’m being dashed in the eye!