We hold these truths…but they’re not always as self-evident as you’d think.
Professional writing holds a number of truths that sometimes receive a mere nod rather than being adopted as habit, developed as practice, and sustained until the Chicago Manual of Style tells us differently.
Agents and editors looking at queries or proposals can note a number of curiosities that “mark” the writing as Old School versus Up-to-Date.
Truth 1 (note, not in order of importance, necessarily):
Accepted practice is one space between sentences.
If you have yet to conquer the one space between sentences rather than the Old School two spaces we were taught before computers were invented, devote part of this week to mastering the habit. It’s true (no pun intended) that it may take no more than a week of intentionality to break the habit of hitting the space bar twice at the end of a sentence. Once you do, you will graduate forever from Old School and earn your Up-to-Date Writer certificate.
Not a big deal, you think? Agents and editors inadvertently tense when they see two spaces between sentences, no matter how good the writing. It won’t necessarily make them turn down the project, since it’s correctable. But it plants a subconscious question about what else the author might not be aware of regarding current publishing expectations.
Semi-colons and colons have gone the way of typewriter ribbons and correcto-tape.
Except in academic work, semi-colons and colons have far fewer usages than imagined, despite how cute they look in emojis. For a variety of reasons, today’s writer needs the Costco size of period and question mark punctuation, a moderate size batch of commas, and a package of semi-colons, colons, and exclamation points that resembles your home supply of saffron threads.
Readability is one factor that contributed to the demise of semi-colons. Especially in fiction, but also true in nonfiction, readers see a period as a rolling stop, a comma as a brief pause, and a semi-colon as a conundrum. “What am I supposed to do with this? That looks like two sentences, doesn’t it? But they’re joined. Or does one half explain the other?” And that is all the hitch the reader needed to get drawn out of the story to think about the punctuation.
Opt instead for shorter, but meaningful sentences. If you adore semi-colons, practice with a section of your work. See how else you could word that passage without the flag-waving semi-colon. It may take no more than a simple period (and you already have the giant economy size of that).
Yes, colons work for making lists and sideways smiley faces. 🙂
Block writing–left justified with double spaces between paragraphs–is reserved almost exclusively for web writing. It’s the domain of blogs and social media posts.
When writing for books or articles, indent the first line (by setting your default, typically to 0.5), and add no extra space between paragraphs.
In your proposal, the guts of the proposal will be single-spaced and the sample chapters will be double-spaced between lines (by default, not the computer equivalent of a carriage return, for those who remember the term), but with no additional double-space between paragraphs.
You may live in a country that adds a “u” to the word color and flavor, but you are submitting your work to publishing houses and audiences (primarily) that dropped the extra letters too many years ago to count. Write with abandon. But before submitting to a U.S. agent or editor, go back through and neutralize spellings that mark the work by country rather than content.
Some writers believe they can’t break these long-ingrained habits.
Untrue. Those same writers somehow adapted to the idea of clicking a remote rather than getting out of the chair to change the TV channel. We won’t even bring up the idea of telling Alexa to turn the channel for you.
Even if you are locked into one of the above writer habits, take courage. You can conquer the habit. And if you do, you will position yourself in a better light with agents and editors.
Agents and editors are lovely people…for the most part. And we recognize the value of forgiveness. In fact, we count on it!