Play needs rules. So does life.

It’s no fun playing when you don’t know the rules. Not for chess or mah-jongg or life or writing. Knowing how to play makes it more fun to play.

Even recess has rules:

  • Invite a crowd
  • Play nice
  • Walk it off
  • Respect the bell

Play within the rules and everybody wins. Especially you.

Knowing the rules is the reason I have trophies for chess and karate and Dungeons & Dragons (really).

The better you know the rules, the more you can be in the moment—the more you can be free to play instead of distracted wondering whether you’re doing it right. For writing, this doesn’t mean you have to be a strict grammarian, but it does mean that the more confidence you have in the tools you use, the more your confidence will show up in the stories you tell.

You can, of course—and should—rely on an editor. But don’t make it hard on her; leave your editor some energy to help make sure your message is clear rather than squandering that energy tidying up a few basics.

Here are the first few rules to help you write with confidence.

When … to Use … the Ellipsis

That’s three dots in a row, used to indicate the omission of words, a pause in speech, or an unfinished thought. Ellipses arise all too often in less-formal writing.

Here’s the primary tip: Don’t use them.

In most cases they represent lazy thinking, when you don’t care enough to wrap up one thought before starting the next. Or they’re used to indicate an abrupt break in thought, when dashes instead would be appropriate.

But if you must use this construction of convenience, at least do this one thing: use exactly three dots.

Don’t just hold down the period key until you’ve had enough.

Exactly three. No more. No fewer.

Should you put spaces between the dots? Should you surround them with additional spaces on each side? Should you use the typographical symbol (…) that most Word configurations autocorrect to?

These are all matters of style. Me, I like the typography symbol surrounded on both sides by spaces. But you do you, as long as you’re consistent. Just don’t use any number of dots other than three, or else I’ll …

Double Spacing

Put exactly one space between sentences.

The time to stand your ground on this was 20 years ago, when your Selectric finally gave up the ghost. The battle is lost.

If you don’t stop this backward practice, your editors and book formatters (hey, that’s me!) will have to do it for you, and even though we fix it all with massive search-and-replaces, we still mutter at you for not acknowledging that modern electronic typography does in fact know how to space sentences properly, thank you very much.

My Personal Crotchets

These are my personal nettles. I’ll stand athwart the tide just a little longer for these, even though for each one you’ll find usage guides relenting to modern pressure. Language evolves, and if we fight too hard against its fluidity we’ll get swept under, curmudgeons drowned in populist democracy, when swimming with the tide is so much easier.

Still. If you ignore these around me I’ll cringe and give you a wicked side-eye. You’ve been warned.

  • I’ve yet to see an instance where “sooner rather than later” was not improved by substituting “soon.”
  • We champ at the bit, not chomp. We stanch a flow, not staunch.
  • Flaccid rhymes with the first two syllables of accident.
  • If you can use the word compose in its place, then don’t use comprise. They differ.
  • We “home in” on a target. We do not “hone in” on anything. We hone a knife.
  • A threat of force for not acquiescing is not blackmail. It’s extortion. Blackmail is a subset of extortion reserved for the threat of releasing damaging secrets.

There. I feel much better now.

Robots to the Rescue

Tech tools can help. You already use your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker to catch that first round of typos. For round two, you might try Grammarly. Its free versions (especially the Chrome extension) help you write with confidence and are worth installing.

Disagree with my rules suggestions? Have pet peeves of your own? Speak your piece in that cute little comment box below.

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