When I teach writing classes, I tend not to focus on grammar and punctuation, because those are things you don’t need while you are just getting started on a story. At first, you want to focus on the characters, the plot, the setting—the big stuff. But at some point, you do indeed need to attend to the little things, like commas and semicolons and such.
“Why?” you ask. Isn’t that what editors are for? Oh, honey. Copyeditors will indeed fix those things for you, if your manuscript gets that far. But first you have to get past the acquiring editors, and they don’t like reading manuscripts full of mistakes. It’s hard. Believe me. I’ve done it. We have conventions for a reason—they make it easier to know what the author means. And our brains are used to them.
So before you submit to an editor (or an agent), make sure you manuscript is scrupulously clean of grammar and punctuation errors. Here are a couple of tiny tips to help you out.
Use of commas or periods with dialogue.
This seems to give folks a lot of consternation. But the rules are pretty straightforward. When you write dialogue and you tag the dialogue with “she said” or something similar, use a comma inside the quotation marks, as in the following example:
“Mary, take these garden tools out to the garage,” said mother.
Do NOT use a period after “garage” in this case. Why? Because “said mother” is not a complete sentence. Also, don’t capitalize “said.”
If mother does an action as a complete sentence, then make that a separate sentence, as in:
Mother put the garden tools on the steps. “Mary, take these to the garage.”
You would NOT put a comma after “steps” in this case. These are two separate and unique sentences. Plus, the first one is not tagging the dialogue. It is showing what mother does before she speaks.
Side note on semicolons: If you are tempted to use a semicolon, especially in fiction, your instincts are probably wrong. Most people do not know the correct usage of semicolons. And in fiction, they are stilted and way too formal. Especially in dialogue. I would venture to suggest that you would never want to use semicolons in dialogue. People just don’t talk that way. NEVER use a semicolon to introduce or tag dialogue.
Contractions V. Possessive Pronouns
Please make sure you use the correct form of pronouns in all situations. Particularly in the following cases:
You’re means you are. Your means it belongs to you.
It’s means it is. Its means belonging to it.
They’re means they are. There means a location. Their means belonging to them.
These pronouns are so misused on facebook and in emails that we often forget how to use them correctly. But believe me, if an editor sees mistakes in the usage of these pronouns, s/he will write you off as a amateur and reject your manuscript.
Don’t give them reasons to reject you. Give them reasons to read your nice, clean, correct manuscript and judge it solely on its merits.