Toby Smart, by Aaron D. Phillips (1:16)

IOD score cardToday we see that punctuation conventions matter, and if you invent your own, readers will careen into the ditch on every turn.

What I gleaned about the story: Toby’s mom is calling him, and she’s a drinker, but if the punctuation is anything to judge by, it’s Toby who is drunk, not her.

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WTF #1: Odd punctuation

Analysis: The very first line of the story reads: ‘Toby! Toby!, come down quick’. Sadly, that does not bode well for what might lie ahead. British style convention uses single quotes instead of double, so I’m fine with that, but no style guide I’m aware of puts a comma after an exclamation, and nobody puts the trailing period outside the quote in this case—not even the Brits. Then the second half, which seems like a complete sentence, isn’t properly capitalized.

Unfortunately, this all says two things very loudly to me: 1) that no experienced editor has been involved in the production of this book; and 2) that the author is not well versed in the conventions of publishing. I hope I’m wrong, but this is not an encouraging start.

WTF #2: Freaky punctuation continues

Analysis: The very next two sentences are:

Toby tutted under his breath. What would it be this time he thought to himself?

That second sentence is not a question. It’s a declarative statement telling us that Toby posed a question to himself. Granted, this type of indirect internal dialogue can be tricky to punctuate. Do you use quotes even if it wasn’t said aloud? But if you don’t use quotes, then where are you supposed to put the question mark? These are excellent questions, but unfortunately, the offered solution creates confusion by suggesting a completely different meaning from what was presumably intended. Putting the question mark on the attribution rather than the uttered phrase comes across as though the author isn’t sure whether Toby’s thinking was directed to himself or not. If it were my problem to solve, I would probably take the free indirect approach by removing “he thought to himself” and rendering it as: Toby tutted under his breath. What would it be this time?

WTF #3: And the punctuation scores a knockout

Analysis: After skipping over one or two dubious sentence constructions, I was still only half a page further on when I ran into: ‘Mum, please tell me you haven’t been drinking again?’.

Well, what’s it gonna be? A statement or a question? You’ve got to pick one. But in this case, apparently, the author couldn’t decide, so we got both. To my eye, the sentence is clearly an imperative demand: tell me this thing. So it’s not a question and therefore would normally take a period. I assume the author has added the question mark to indicate a slight reluctance on Toby’s part to believe that she’d been drinking, and if I had encountered this in the middle of an otherwise well-edited story, I might have actually enjoyed that little trick of putting the question mark there. But then along comes that brash little period and the whole sentence gets thrown into a pickle barrel. There is simply no situation I can think of when a period should come after a question mark or exclamation point.

Is there a story here? I have no idea. I only made it halfway down the first page. And that’s the real tragedy an author sets themselves up for when they don’t work with an editor. All that time and effort spent sweating over an entire novel, only to have readers bail over the trivial stuff before they’ve even learned Toby’s last name.

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

A Very Short Collection of Shorts, by Rebecca Welch (1:15)
Short Stories of the Days to Come, by Kenny Yao and Kevin Yao (0:40)

About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That’s why he writes.