Once you reach the formatting stage of your new book – let’s assume that this is it’s in MS Word – it’s time to do all the usual obvious things, from applying the right “styles” (fonts, indents etc etc) to the text on a systematic basis to doing final spellchecks.

But as the text approaches its finished state you’re likely to come across several grey areas of formatting. Or “gray” areas if you’re in the US market. Let’s call this micro punctuation

Most readers – and many writers – are probably unaware or don’t care about this particular stuff. I’ve probably lost them already.

If you’re still with me, here are 10 examples of what I’m talking about.

1. Ellipses…

I use ellipses quite a lot. Probably far too much. But I find the dot-dot-dot thing (the “…”, or the ellipsis) handy in lots of situations.

It can show how a thought trails off, or how someone’s dialogue is being interrupted or overlapped by somebody else… or by, say, a particular event.

This way of leaving a sentence “unfinished” can build tension or show hesitation. Sometimes it can even show that an otherwise long quotation has been condensed (“He began to read the terms and conditions… ‘If you download this app… blah blah blah… the App Store now owns you… all your worldly possessions… more small print… blah blah blah’.”).

Whatever the desired effect, the ellipsis involves using exactly three dots (on the rare occasion I might deliberately use far more for……………. exaggerated effect). Yet you need to have consistent spacing between the dots. What should that spacing be?

Usually in MS Word I’d type the first dot, then the second and third dots in quick succession, letting MS Word add the right spacing between them. So now we come to the €60,000 formatting question: should you put a space BEFORE the “…” starts? That’s what I mean by a micro punctuation problem.

For my first Moss Reid mystery, Another Case in Cowtown, I adopted a simple “no space before” approach. I do the same with this blog. Saves keystrokes, everyone knows what’s happening.

Then for the follow-up novel  I had second thoughts: is this approach widely recognised as book style? I thought I’d better swot up on the dot-dot-dot debate…

Sugar. So that’s what I’m going to use … from now on (at least in the books if not on the blog).

2. Lists

See how I just used a bulleted list? Lists can be handy. Life is full of lists, from the “He begat” lists in the Bible to those “Top 10 Amazing New Lists” in TheJournal.ie or The Huffington Post.

A list in your book should, of course, be properly formatted. It should use proper numbers or bullets from your arsenal of MS Word drop-downs – rather than asterisks or dashes or what have you.

Question: what punctuation goes at the end of each list item? A semi-colon? A comma? Or a full-stop at the end of the final item? Or no punctuation whatsoever after any of them?

My tendency is to go with the latter. No punctuation after, with the first letter of the first word in each item Capitalised.

3. New sections

If you are starting a new section deep within a chapter of your book, a common way to announce this fact is to use the same style that you use for the chapter’s opening paragraph (e.g. a no-indent first paragraph), and some space between it and the preceding section.

But how much space? How many blank lines should go before it?

I’ve gone for one blank line. If it’s good enough for Ruth Rendell and P.D. James…

* * *

That seems straightforward enough. But suppose a new section half way through a chapter happens to fall on the start of a new page; should there be one or more centred asterisks too? Wouldn’t this be a useful indicator for readers?

I’ve decided against the asterisks – keep it simple. No special case just because it’s a new page. I mean to say, if you give in to the demands of a simple turn of the page, whatever next? Special treatment for, um, left-hand pages?

4. Left and right pages

Hold on. A novel does have a left-hand / right-hand rule of sorts. Not that this rule is intrinsically right or wrong: like many a rule or convention it’s simply about meeting reader expectations, perhaps with a degree of functionality thrown in.

A typical reader will expect your first chapter to start on a right-hand page. He or she will probably also expect that right-hand pages have odd page numbers and left-hand pages are evenly numbered.

While all that may seem obvious, we come to a problem towards the end of the book. Suppose the final page of the story proper is on a right-hand page, and you want to add a “Previous books by Mel Healy…” type page after it. If you make it a left-hand page immediately after that preceding right-hand page, it doesn’t seem quite right. It feels too much like it’s part of the story instead of a coda or “extra”. Right.

So leave a blank page between them – a suitable gap before starting this “extras” page on the right.

5. Slashes

About four or five paragraphs ago I used a slash to talk about the left-hand / right-hand rule. When you start getting into punctuation at this granular level, you wreck your head with all kinds of strange questions. Like whether or not to have a space before and after the slash.

I really don’t have the answer to that one; I’d be inclined to have no space (“yes/no”), unless it’s like the above example (“the left-hand / right-hand rule”) and the way the slash glues together the words may confuse readers that we’re talking about some new kind of “hand/right” rule.

On the other hand, there can be a nasty consequence once you adopt a no-space rule: a long succession of one-word hyphenated items (“items/things/stuff/palaver etc”) will become treated as one word, possibly with dire consequences for spacing within the line. And why have two separate rules or styles for slashes?

6. Quotation marks

When it comes to quotation marks, my starting point is to use double quotes.

Double quotation marks for direct speech (e.g. “Is that a dagger in the bathroom”? she asked) and single quotation marks for quotes within quotes (er, something like “Well, I asked him,” she said, “and he said ‘Me? A dagger? With its handle towards my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. Argh.’ “). I know.

Single quotation marks are very very common in books. Many crime novels use single. Some authors don’t use any quotation marks whatsoever for their dialogue.

But I’ve gone for the doubles. This one is a personal preference. The important thing is to use a style that (a) is absolutely clear to readers so that they know which bits are direct speech, and (b) is then consistently applied throughout the book.

And in terms of micro formatting, the quotation marks need to be straight – not curly.

You can set MS Word so that it automatically changes straight quotation marks – the ' or " sign – to curly or “smart” (or typographer’s) quotes as you type. That’s the kind of quotation marks you want.

To toggle this feature – at least in my ancient 2004 version for Mac – I go to the Tools menu, select AutoCorrect Options, and look for the “smart quotes” check box within the “AutoFormat As You Type” tab.

I think I finally have a handle on this quotation marks question. Apart from the following niggly problem: suppose, as in the Macbethian example above about the dagger, you have a single quotation mark followed by a double quotation mark (or a double followed by a single) and there’s no punctuation between them? Should you leave a tiny space between the two sets of quotation marks so that they don’t merge together and look like a triple quotation mark? Or is a triple quotation mark OK?

I don’t have an answer to that one. Suggestions please in the comment box below.

7. ‘Smart’ apostrophes

(Sorry, nearly forgot to mention that my “starting-point-is-double-quotes” rule breaks down if you have a heading or subheading, such as this one here – in which case single quotes look better.)

Some software programs automatically turn a typed apostrophe at the start of a word into a single quotation mark. This is sometimes called a smart apostrophe; the kind of apostrophe that’s so smart it ought to be a guest on the Sean Moncrieff Show.

The reason I bring this issue up is because I tend to use such an apostrophe in phrases along the lines of, um, “Book ’em, Danno.”

‘Em is short for them. I like using ’ems in my dialogue. It’s full of ’em. It’s conversational. If you don’t use the kind of apostrophes you find in natural speech, it can make your dialogue seem stilted – jarring even.

But here’s the problem. Strictly speaking, the punctuation at the start isn’t a single quotation mark; it’s an apostrophe – it signifies an omission of the “th” in “them”, just as Cockney dialogue might say ‘e and ‘is (for “he” or “his”).

My MS Word goes a bit bonkers at this. It thinks this should be a single open quote, in a nice curly serif font. This is not the same thing as an apostrophe, which is more like a single closed quote – the quotation mark at the end. My preference is for a proper apostrophe – the prevalent style you find in classic novels.

On my machine, MS Word doesn’t do this automatically. Or if it does I haven’t worked out where this flaming stupid setting is. So I have to fool MS Word: when it’s not looking, I type two single quotes (or apostrophes) in quick succession, then delete the first (open) quote mark, thus leaving an apostrophe proper, if you know what I mean.

8. Space: the final     frontier

One of the last things to do in the formatting process is to remove any stray spaces that creep into the text. One way to remove these stray spaces is to start by doing a find-and-replace of double spaces with single ones.

That still leaves the redundant spaces at the start or end of paragraphs. Actual spaces as opposed to proper indents or even tabs, if you know what I mean. For spaces at the end of a line this is plain housekeeping (for example, it will reduce the size of your eBook).

For spaces at the start of a paragraph it’s plain messy. You could delete these manually, but your novel is too long and life is too short. To make life easier, it’s well worth grappling with the inner complexities of find-and-replace:

  • For spaces at the start of paras I do a find-and-replace of both the paragraph command itself and the space after it, replacing them with just the paragraph command
  • For spaces at the end of paras I do the opposite, as it were: a find-and-replace of a space plus a paragraph command, replacing them with just the paragraph

If you don’t know the formatting command for finding/inserting/deleting a paragraph (in Word it’s a “^p”), in MS Word open up the Replace window and look for the “Special” drop-down menu.

9. Other spacing issues

There are a couple of other formatting issues that I probably shouldn’t bother with but I do. For example, for my first novel the gullies between the type and the spine of the book were slightly too narrow, despite using a template recommended by Amazon’s CreateSpace crowd.

I also get uppity about “unaesthetic” gaps in the text. The two chief criminals are:

  • A last page in a chapter that has only one or two lines of text
  • Large unsightly gaps that appear throughout a paragraph, because the type is justified and there is no end-line hypenation (and I want to avoid doing a “forced” hyphenation)

So here’s a little confession. I don’t know what other authors do, but at least when you’re self-publishing you can tweak the text at this late stage: I will either shorten or stretch a chapter to remove the two-lines-on-the-last-page problem.

As for the paragraphs with ugly gaps, I might even dive in and tweak a sentence, split sentences, shuffle them around, tweak the paragraphing, in order to remove these “holes”. Mad, isn’t it?

10. Footnotes

I could go into other micro-punctuation problems. For example, one of my non-crime novels I’m working on has footnotes for running jokes. So now I have to decide where the footnote number goes within the main text – directly after the most pertinent word or phrase, or – a common style in academia – after the punctuation at the end of the sentence in question?

But that problem can wait another day.