Does Your Writing Need a Mechanic?

mechanic_by_mr__jack-d5czm56Can you believe we’re more than halfway through the summer? I’m not sure what happened to July, but here we are in August. Today, we’re going to talk about some of the mechanics of writing, which includes things like spelling, capitalization, and formatting. It might sound boring, but getting the mechanics right shows that you know and care about your craft.

Okay, so let’s look at some easy ways to tune-up your writing.

Paragraphs are your friends.

They are also your reader’s friends. Here’s what you need to know about writing paragraphs:

  • A paragraph should contain one idea only.
  • All the sentences in a paragraph should support that idea, or provide more information about it.
  • A paragraph can be long or short, but remember that long paragraphs can be overwhelming to your reader—and sometimes, a one-word paragraph can pack a real punch.

Italics, bold, underline.

These are often used interchangeably, but they shouldn’t be. First of all, unless you’re talking about a hyperlink, you should avoid underlining altogether. Underlining was used in the typewriter age, when there was no other way to emphasize text. We have computers now, so there’s no excuse for underlines.

What about bold and italics? Well, while both can be used for emphasis, italics are the standard in the world of publishing. Along with emphasizing a particular word (Dave couldn’t believe she was here), italics can also be used to indicate inner thoughts, dreams, and memories (what a jerk, she thought); foreign words (he was a real bête noire); and some titles, like books, movies, names of boats, and so on. (Titles are tricky though—some go in quotation marks instead, so it’s a good idea to check if you aren’t sure.)

Bold is sometimes used for emphasis in online publishing, because italics are not always easy to distinguish in certain fonts. However, you should try to stick with italics for emphasis and use bold for titles and headings.

Oh, and for the love of all the writers who have come before you, do not mix bold and italics in the body of your writing. Pick one. Consistency is also your friend.

Formatting dialogue.

Okay, so this is one of my biggest pet peeves. Dialogue can be a fabulous way to move your story forward and tell us something about your characters. However, you absolutely have to get the formatting right. Here are the rules:

1. Each speaker gets his or her (or its) own line, like so:

  • “It’s raining cats and dogs,” he said.
  • “I’m pretty sure those are bobcats,” she said.
  • “Actually, I’m a civet,” said the civet.

2. Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.

  • “Ouch!” he yelled.
  • “Are you serious?” she asked.

3. Don’t go crazy with your dialogue tags, which are the words that tell the reader who said what (said, asked, yelled, etc.). It can be tempting to slap on a bunch of adverbs or adjectives (“I wish it would stop raining,” she pouted petulantly.), but it’s generally better to stick with something simple and then describe the action in a separate sentence, like so:

  • “I wish it would stop raining.” She pouted as she stared out the window, a petulant look on her face.

Parallel structure.

This refers to using balanced grammatical forms when talking about two things (or two sets of things) that have the same importance. Parallel constructions increase clarity through the use of logical word patterns. Here are two examples:

Not parallel:  Civets survive by eating mangoes and coffee beans, and they hunt frogs.
Parallel:  Civets survive by eating mangoes and coffee beans, and hunting frogs.

Not parallel:  Bobcats not only love to hunt, but also fish.
Parallel:  Bobcats not only love to hunt, but also love to fish.

Sentences that aren’t parallel sound awkward and can sometimes cause confusion.

Be Your Own Mechanic

When it comes to the mechanics of writing, it’s all about the details. With that in mind, the most important thing you can do is proofread. Seriously. Don’t hit that publish button without proofreading. You’ll be amazed by how far your writing can go when you get your mechanics right.


Image credit:  Mr–Jack @ deviantART

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8 thoughts on “Does Your Writing Need a Mechanic?

  1. Great advice, Suzanne! I laughed a lot at “for the love of all the writers who have come before you.” My pet peeve? Bold, italicized text with multiple exclamation marks. We get it, we get it! Please stop now!!!! 😉

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