Be careful with your commas. The majority of people use too many. You need a comma when you have multiple prepositional phrases in a row, when you have a dependent clause joined to an independent clause, when you have two independent clauses joined with an “and,” and when you have a list. That’s pretty much it. Before you comma, justify why you need one before you hit the button. If you’re not sure, google it. Even editors do that.
Minimize your punctuation, especially when it comes to ellipses, em dashes (the long dash), semicolons, colons, and exclamation points (one of each per page max). Only italicize internal monologue and eliminate underlined word and words in all caps.
Mix up your sentence structure, or your readers will fall asleep. I.e. Short, short, long, short, compound, short.
Minimize “dialogue tags” (he said, she said) in favor of “dialogue beats”. These are physical actions that denote who is doing the speaking. “Why’d you do it?” Rachel’s eyes squinted as she glared at Timothy from across the room.
It‘s not necessary to tell your audience who is speaking every time, especially if there are only two people in the conversation.
The difference between ‘that’ and ‘which’ – four out of five times, ‘that’ should be used. If you’re writing a clause that is nonessential to your sentence, use ‘which’.
Be open to suggestions and fierce editing. For the good of your work. A good editor or critique group will care as much about the work as you do, and their job is to draw good writing out of you. Editing is a conversation, to provide another perspective. Authors edit as authors, but editors edit as readers.
Beginning what I hope to be a lifetime of editing books, I have begun to notice what is “normal” in book format. How should they look and feel? How many blank pages between the acknowledgement and the title page? What size font for chapter titles? Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss are a married couple living in New York and are among my favorite living authors. Their bestsellers include Everything Is Illuminated and The History of Love, respectively. Like many of their readers, I was shocked to learn that they were married, followed quickly by a smack to my forehead. It should have been obvious.Their themes are so similar: love, European immigrants, precocious child narrators, elements of magical realism, and an obvious penchant for all things nature.
I reread Krauss’ The History of Love most recently. Despite the title, you don’t have to be a romantic to enjoy the novel, although I’m sure it helps. It is driven by three narrators, a melancholic old man, a teenager coping with her own grief and that of her mother, and a third, omniscient narrator, whose prose made me close the book at times to form philosophical renderings in my head. Just as Krauss nontraditionally explores some of the same themes as her husband, she also employs some of the same post modern devices. Unlike almost any other novel, it would be impossible to suck the words out of their books, spit them into an ebook, and result in the same book. This is because both authors use methods such as blank pages, condensed typography, different paragraph spacing for different narrators, or just a few words on a page to prove their point. One particularly poignant example from Everything Is Illuminated:
I don’t believe that either authors intended any of these devices to simply disrupt or destroy the reader’s idea of what a novel should conventionally be, nor are these devices superfluous. The physical manifestation of how the text appear changes how we read and internalize the words. Why can a novelist not be a visual artist as well? Ultimately, no one can argue the point better than the author himself. When queried about his use of photographs (including a fifteen page flip book of a man falling from one of the World Trade Center towers, but in reverse) and images in his novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer answered:
“One answer is: why not?” Foer says. “Why don’t novels have these things? Why is literature less accepting of the full spectrum of the arts than, say, painting or music? It’s not at all strange to see writing within a painting? Why is it so strange to see painting within writing? “A book is a little sculpture. The choice of fonts, the size of the margins, the typography all influence the way the book is read. I consciously wanted to think about that, wanted to have the book really be something you hold in your hands, not just a vehicle for words. So I was involved in every step of the design, right down to how the book is stamped underneath the dust jacket.”