Narrative is a different kind of prose. It’s not journalism, and it has to render rather than report. O Tempora, o Mores, what is accepted today as good narrative prose is different from books and novels of the past. Flowery prose, pedantic descriptions, passive voices that were part of the accepted narrative styles of even half a century ago, are today seen as the mark of the debutant.
One of the things I learned—and that resonates as a mantra—is to ‘cull all unnecessary words.’ If you want to have a good start with style, read and digest The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
With “The Elements” in mind, what an independent author could do in order to make the life of editors and proofreaders better so that readers end up with a something that gives pleasure rather than headaches? Here’s a compendium of rule-of-thumbs that you might want to consider and apply.
ABBREVIATIONS & CAPITALIZATION
• Unless it is widely known to your readers (USA, UK, EU, UN) spell out the phrase or entity the first time you use it, with abbreviation in parentheses: The World Health Organization (WHO) was was established on 7 April 1948, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
• There is no need for periods in abbreviations like those mentioned above.
• Avoid littering your text with acronyms and abbreviations. Note: Acronyms differ from abbreviations in that they read as a single words and often evoke meaning through spelling: Driving under the influence (DUI), Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) OR Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
• Best not to capitalize whole words for emphasis (except when creating a style sheet). It reads like a SCREAM!
• Use capital letters to begin sentences, proper names, cities, nations, and the like.
• Titles & Rank– Avoid capitalization unless referring to a specific person: President Barack Obama landed in Havana. BUT The U.S. will soon have a new president.
- Italicize foreign words not commonly understood: I love croissants. BUT For Mary, it was a nuit blanche.
- Use italics sparingly for emphasis as good writing usually makes it clear where the emphasis falls: I could not not be there for the wedding.
- Use italics for titles (plays, books, and major compositions): Handel’s Messiah OR Pamuk is the author of Snow.
- DO NOT italicize proper nouns. Harvard University NOT Harvard University.
- DO italicize abbreviations that would be italicized if spelled out: He likes the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
NUMBERS, DATES, TIME
• Spell out whole numbers from zero through one hundred and rounded-off multiples of these. Ex: thirty-two, one hundred nine thousand, fifty-four thousand, three hundred thousand.)
• If many numbers appear within the same paragraph or short text, use numerals, even if they should be spelled out according to the rule above.
• Use month-day-year dates: June 30, 1914 NOT 30 June 1914. Note that in text, a comma follows the year: When he was born on June 30, 1914, the world was on the brink of war.
• Spell our time of day in even, half, and quarter hours: We will resume at ten thirty. – Spell out numbers when “o’clock” is used: Her day begins at five o’clock in the morning.
• Use numerals & colons with exact times, using lowercase a.m. (ante meridiem) and p.m. (post meridiem) with periods: Her train leaves at 5:22 a.m. and mine at 7:00 p.m..
PUNCTUATION IN GENERAL
A comma BEFORE “and” in a series (called the “serial comma”) helps to avoid ambiguity: He took a picture of Mary, John, and Susan. Use also if the last element includes “and”: They ate cheese, mustard, and bread and butter.
• Quotation Marks
Use double quotations for speech within text and place commas, periods, question marks, and exclamation points inside quotation marks: “I love you!” he shouted, OR Her eyes were “indigo,” as blue as the sea.
Double quotes may be used (sparingly please) to imply a satirical or atypical use of a word: After working in a dockside bar that summer, she considered herself “experienced” with the U.S. Navy.
Use double quotes for songs, poems, stories, paintings, and other short compositions: We all sang “God Save the Queen.” OR Mary Oliver’s best poem is “Wild Geese.”
Use single quotation marks for quoted material within quotations: “Why do you always say ‘ladies first’ before you open the door for me?” OR John said, “I love that poem ‘Wild Geese.’”
If your sentence ends with a quote, however, the final punctuation mark may fall outside the quotation marks, depending on usage: Why should we tolerate insults like “dumb blond”? OR I love that poem, “Wild Geese”!
• Colon vs Semi-colon
A colon says “note what follows.” Use with lists, to set a word/phrase apart, or to focus attention: His heart sank when he saw the sign: “Building Condemned.” – A semi-colon is like a joint (think of your knee or elbow) allowing separate-but-related elements to act as one: She had always wanted a water view; the river so near made it feel perfect.
• Hyphen, em-dash, and en-dash
Each serves a function:
- Hyphens typically separate elements in adjectives where prefixes come into play: anti-abortion, pro-democracy, un-American.
- When a comma does not create enough “breath” between clauses, the long em-dash helps by setting a related thought apart or giving it emphasis: She traveled to Australia—despite the cost—because it was her only chance to see her family.
- The shorter “en-dash” connects dates and numbers: William Shakespeare (1564 –1616) OR “23–29”. (NOT 1564-1616 or “23-29”). Place lifespan dates in parentheses.
Hyphenate compound words when used as an adjective: James Baldwin was an African-American writer. But not when used as a noun: My friend is an African American. Another example: She loves eighteenth-century art while he finds the entire eighteenth century fascinating. Please note: We are living in the twenty-first century.
Hyphenate number compounds: She turns twenty-one today,OR The ninety-nine-year-old man won the race.
One word or hyphenate? When in doubt, use one word: multicultural NOT multi-cultural; email NOT e-mail.
• Suspension points
Use when a thought is unspoken/unfinished: “You know how I feel…”
PUNCTUATION IN DIALOGUE
If you choose to omit punctuation altogether or to indicate speech with am em-dash, please do this consistently. If you choose to use punctuation, you may follow these commonplace rules:
• Place spoken words within double quotes and with punctuation inside quotes: “Why now?” he asked.
• Use commas inside quotation marks to link speech interspersed with narration: “I really wish you’d stay longer,” she said, “because I’m not sure I can handle the pressure alone.”
• If you lead into spoken words with “that” then there should be NO COMMA BEFORE quotation marks: He finally told his brother that “You are no longer welcome in this house.”
• If your characters are well-drawn, there will be limited use for “he said,” “she replied,” and other such identifiers.
• If you choose to write in dialect, be consistent so that readers can “hear” the voice you aim to create.
Massimo Marino is a scientist envisioning science fiction. He spent years at CERN and The Lawrence Berkeley Lab followed by lead positions with Apple, Inc. and the World Economic Forum.
Massimo currently lives in France and crosses the border with Switzerland multiple times daily, although he is no smuggler.
As a scientist writing science fiction, he went from smashing particles at accelerators at SLAC and CERN to smashing words on a computer screen.
He’s the author of multi-awarded Daimones Trilogy, with over 1,000 ratings in combined Amazon and goodreads. He’s an active member of SFWA, Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.
The Daimones Trilogy:
• 2013 Hall of Fame – Best in Science Fiction, Quality Reads UK Book Club