Tools to write with…

Tools to write with…

grammar_o_892749I am not a classically trained writer, and I never finished University. If you want a teacher to tell you about the finer intricacies of grammar and style, I am not your man. Without sounding arrogant, however, I will state that I am a successful ‘popular’ author and that I make a good living selling books. Many of my ‘classically’ trained contemporaries do not.

My training came through the experience of jumping right in the deep end. My first novel, The Final Winter, succeeded because of its story. As an avid horror fan, I was able to create a plot that other horror fans enjoyed. Technically, though, it was a bit shoddy. I’ve since rewritten The Final Winter, and it is a better book today than it was then. The reason being that I am a better writer. I’ve learned from experience, feedback, and reviews. I’ve fixed some of my flaws and gotten better at putting forward my strengths. That doesn’t mean there are not things I still struggle with though.

Below are a few examples of the intricacies of writing that took me a long time to find peace with. These are all now a part of my established style, and not necessarily the most correct ways of doing things, but I have learned that a writer only needs to be consistent. Find your way of doing things and then stick to it. Readers won’t care as long as you do it your way.

So without further ado, here are a few tools to write with…

Em dashes

Ever seen it when authors use em dashes—like this—to convey their meaning? The device has become more prevalent in modern writing, and I think the reason is because the device is so versatile. An em dash (usually formed by typing 2 of these little dashes ‘ – ‘ in a row followed by a completed word) can be used in place of parenthesis ( ), commas, and colons ;  : . They are great for having a character make an aside, or to inject a thought mid-sentence. The most common style is to have the em dashes directly joined up with the words on either side—like this—with no spaces. Journalistic style is slighty different in that you add a space before — like this — and afterwards.

Here are a few examples of em dashes being used in fiction.

Harry raised the gun—was he really about to do this?—and pulled the trigger.

The young boy—so beautiful with his wide brown eyes—sat amongst the lilies and played.

Dave unsheathed the machete—brushed steel glinting—and prepared for battle.

Now, any of those sentences would have worked with commas. For example:

Dave unsheathed the machete, brushed steel glinting, and prepared for battle.

So why use em dashes? Well, with the example above, the em dashes serve to highlight the snippet of inserted description‘the brushed steel glinting’. This creates a strong image in the reader’s mind that would be diluted with the use of commas. Commas are very stealthy and do little to break up a sentence. So, a rule of thumb for an em dash could be whether or not you want to draw focus to the intended snippet of text. It’s up to you, and it will form part of your style.

Furthermore, you can also use em dashes to begin a sequence instead of using a colon :

James listed off the reasons he wasn’t going to work—headache, nausea, and a massive case of the squits.

I use em dashes a lot—perhaps too much—but they are a part of my style and I enjoy using them. I prefer to have one item that takes the place of several. I have stopped using colons almost completely and use parenthesis rarely. I only use the other devices if—for some reason—em dashes just don’t seem to work.


To avoid being unfair to those cute little brackets (  ) I will admit that they fit very well for certain writers. You may have noticed that Stephen King uses parenthesis a lot, and they are most prevalent in his 1st person stories (such as his recent ‘Revival‘). The reason parenthesis fit better for other writers is because some writers use 1st person (or deep 3rd person). My comfort zone is 3rd person limited (although I plan on writing a 1st person novel soon). This puts me in a character’s head and allows the reader to experience the story from over the POV character’s shoulder. The reader is a spy, along for the ride. Other writers however, such as the ‘One Matt Shaw‘, use a much stronger narrator’s voice, and have their characters talking directly to the reader. For this reason, parenthesis take the place of little whispered asides that the POV character is letting the reader in on (the reader is not a spy like in 3rd person limited. They are in a direct conversation with the POV character). For example.

I met up with Mike at the diner (don’t tell anyone but I can’t stand him).

The way Emily was looking at me sent a shockwave though my spine (my cock was pretty hard too, I can tell you).

The above doesn’t really suit my style of writing, so I have less use for parenthesis than others might. You can decide on a case by case basis whether they are a good fit for your writing, but be consistent. Don’t use em dashes one minute and parenthesis the next. Pick your tool and employ it.

Points of Ellipses

Points of ellipses seem to be different wherever I see them. They are most often used to denote a pause, or to have a character trail off at the end of a sentence. The style I use is to have them joined to the prior word but followed by a space before the next. Examples:

James looked around. “I don’t recognise this place. It’s… different.”

“I think. I think I’m going to be…” Janet lurched forwards and vomited.

Don’t use them, though, if you want have a character interrupted. In that case, you should use an en dash or an em dash (I’m not entirely sure which is correct, but either work fine in my opinion).

“Matt Shaw told me the other day that he is the world’s best writer. Then he told me-“

“He said what? Everyone knows Iain Rob Wright is number one. Ridiculous!”

Speech Tags

The key decision you need to make with speech tags is which way round to use them. Many established writers, such as Stephen King, put their dialogue between a pair of single speech marks.

‘Hey, asshole,’ Mike shouted.

Other writers—such as me—use double quotes.

“Matt Shaw is an asshole,” Iain said.

It doesn’t matter which way round you do it, so long as you are consistent. Pick your poison and stick with it. It will, however, affect how you place emphasis on words. If, for example, you are going ‘King-style‘ then you would emphasise words by either italicising them, or using double quotes.

Donald Trump calls himself a “politician”.

If you went with the opposite style, you would use single quotes. Basically the opposite of whatever you are using for speech marks.

Matt Shaw said that he and the amputee were just ‘friends’.

Scene Breaks

I use 3rd Person Limited POV which means I don’t have the ability to ‘head hop’. If I want to change to a different character’s POV, then I have to either begin a new chapter or add a scene break. I add a scene break like this.


I believe this is the most accepted method, but there are authors who opt for a paragraph break and an empty line, or other symbols such as +++ or —. Again, this one is up to you, but keep it the same throughout. I would suggest you use *** though, as many automated ebook formatting programs (such as Vellum) can detect scene breaks when denoted in this way, which makes life easier when using them.

Prowriting Aid

Anyway, I hope you found these little tips helpful. It’s not an in-depth post, by any means, but those are some of the things I struggled to get right early on, so I thought I would highlight the solutions I went with. Hopefully they will take some of the headache away for those still trying to nail down their own styles.

One other thing I wanted to promote to you (and I am promoting it) is a neat website/program called ProWritingAid. I use this extensively during my final drafts before sending my books off to my editor. It is absolutely amazing for tightening up your writing and can save you hours and hours that you would otherwise take searching through your work manually. You can try it right now for free by simply copying and pasting your work into the website and having it auto-edit it for you, but I would strongly suggest that you purchase the Word add-in that will allow you to scan your entire manuscript from within Word itself. I use it for every book I write and it has helped me tremendously.

You can get a copy here or at the banner below. Then just click he ‘Microsoft Word’ option at the bottom of the box.

Writing Improvement Software

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