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I'm interested in learning to write as someone that has been a reader my whole life. I'm aware there are many website for tips like "every time a different character speaks, start a new line" but I'm looking for a step-by-step walk through on the rules of writing. Some things I'm interested in learning:

  • where do commas, periods, etc. go in quotes
  • when to start a new paragraph
  • when to use italics
  • etc.

I love books, but don't pay attention enough to see if the author/editor put periods in or out of quotes. Where can I find a resource like that? I'm basically looking for a guide to properly editing/formatting a book.

Thanks!

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  • "where do commas, periods, etc. go in quotes" That depends, do you want adhere to traditional US rules, or the more logical British rules? :P
    – user54131
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 21:06
  • @towr while I have no doubt that the British rules are more logical, I'll need the US rules since that's where I'm from lol
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 3, 2022 at 21:20
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    Don't waste your money (or time) seeking such resources - go back to some of the books you love and read them again, this time paying more attention to their answers to your questions. Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 10:48
  • There should not be. Grammar is grammar, with no divisions. If "Novel/story grammar" meant something, might the other choices be "factual" or "non-fictional" grammar, or what? To what extent could you explain either of them, let alone the differences between the two? How is that Question Asking anything beyond "What are the basics of grammar?" Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 1:16

4 Answers 4

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There's more than one answer as to where a comma goes inside quotes - and the best answer will be the one that fits your intended purpose. There are a number of reference works that you could do with having on your shelf as a writer.

A good dictionary is one. Philip Pullman recommends the Chambers English Dictionary because of its often quirky and amusing definitions. A good dictionary will include the word, the part(s) of speech it can appear as and the definition(s) of each, the pronunciation, etymology, and related words, along with any notable spelling or grammatical variants (e.g. colour/color in British/American English; or the conjugation of irregular verbs).

Specialist dictionaries that are worth having access to in print or on line include etymological dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, pictorial dictionaries, dictionaries of phrases and allusions, symbols, and quotations.

With regard to rules of grammar and style, there are a number of style guides to choose from. As a UK author, I refer to The New Oxford Style Manual for my own writing; as an editor, I also work to other guidelines, including Chicago and MLA referencing. Other, more general works, include John R. Kohl's 'The Global English Style Guide' and Dreyer's English, or Stephen Pinker's 'The Sense of Style'. In practical terms, you may find both Joseph M. Williams' 'Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace' and Warriner's 'English Grammar and Composition (Complete Course)' particularly useful. You might also take a look at '[25 Great Sentences and How They Got That Way]15' and 'Because Internet'.

At the level of words, Bill Bryson's 'Dictionary of Troublesome Words' is useful, as is 'The New Fowler's Modern English Usage'. One of my personal favourites is Crabbe's 'Synonymes'.

When preparing a manuscript at the final editing stage, I recommend and when it comes to laying out the manuscript for print, you could refer to Butcher's Copy-editing.

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For the specific questions you gave:

Punctuation almost always goes inside quotes. Periods and commas always do, while exclamation marks and question marks go inside if they part of the quote.

"Do you have a pen I can borrow?" Bob asked.

"Did mama really come up with 'life is like a box of chocolates'?"

Start a new paragraph when introducing a new idea. In creative/story writing, this often comes when a different character does something.

I sat down at the corner of the table. It had been a long day, and was ready to eat. ¶

Jill walked over with the roast, and asked me about my day.

Use italics to emphasize a word or phrase, or in novels you can possibly use it to show sarcasm or other pronunciation changes.

"Thanks, Jimmy, for the spoiler alert. Good Lord, dude."

It had to be this one, right?

As for a resource, I can't think of any off the top of my head. Searching "Style guides" into Google will certainly get you a few good ones, though.

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    The "Chicago Manual of Style" comes to mind. It's quite a hefty work though, so maybe something shorter would be preferred. (It's also not free. Which is another consideration.)
    – user54131
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 6:27
  • @towr Yes, I was going to suggest it, but I figured something online would be easier to find. Another option would be ELU.SE
    – Murphy L.
    Commented Mar 4, 2022 at 14:06
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Strunk and White's Elements of Style is considered THE classic American style guide --the top-selling grammar guide for over 100 years. It would be a good place to start.

https://www.amazon.com/Elements-Style-Fourth-William-Strunk/dp/020530902X

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  • It's also very short! Definitely worth a read-through.
    – GammaGames
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 18:40
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For dialogue, in fiction, the best resource is the web. There are many sites with details on how to properly punctuate dialogue. Here are just a few 8 essential rules for punctuating your dialogue, Editor's guide on punctuating dialog. You honestly can't swing a dead cat on the web without hitting one.

The information is also in style guides. The gold standard is Strunk & White and is boring as watching paint dry. Other style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style are expensive and mostly used by non-fiction.

Also, and most importantly, it is not really that important. Pick a style guide. I use the Oxford style guide, even though I'm an American in the US. As long as you are basically in the ballpark, and consistent — that is the important part — then as the author your focus is in the storytelling. If you finish are novel (or short story) and think it is good enough to share, and worthy of publishing, and want to send it to an agent, then you can hire an editor to copyedit the first chapter if you are really worried. You don't have to.

Steven King says in his book 'On Writing' that none of those details matter, only the story matters. Focus on learning to write good sentences and great stories, the punctuation details will fall in on their own as you practice more and more. The reason is that as we learn to be writers, we start noticing a lot more how published authors actually write. We soak of that minutia through our reading.

Putting off writing because you are unversed in punctuation of dialogue, or the proper use of comma, is just an excuse to not write. The thing that separates writers from non-writers is that non-writers let things put them off. Writers write.

Good luck. You can be terrific. And enjoy yourself.

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