I’ve been a crafter and DIY-er for most of my life (and most of my career). To keep up with that side of my life, I’ve started up a separate blog, Homemade•Handmade (homemade-handmade.net). If you want to see what I’ve been beading, baking, or doing around the house, please visit me over there!
One of the most common errors I see when copyediting is confusion of em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens. I don’t think these dashes are commonly taught in school—I know I learned the difference between them my first year in publishing. So here’s a quick lesson:
Em-dashes are the triple length dashes that separate ideas in a sentence.
Example: My dog—who loves to run—is chasing her tail.
Often em-dashes are used in place of parentheses.
En-dashes are (usually) double length dashes that are used to show ranges.
Example: The shrubs may grow 36–42 in. high.
En-dashes are usually used between numbers, like dates or measurements. In some fonts, en-dashes and hyphens are indistinguishable.
Hyphens are a single dash used within words (such as en-dash and em-dash), to join words (such as compound adjectives) or to break words at the end of a line.
Example: She wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini.
Like most grammar rules, these aren’t set in stone. Publications have their own styles. Many people use space–en-dash–space instead of an em-dash for example. Or they use a hyphen instead of a an en-dash. Or, when there is a hyphenated phrase containing a hyphenated word, the hyphens between words become en-dashes (as in the sentence before last).
To make it easy, here are three basics to remember:
1. Always use a single short dash (hyphen) to join words or break a line.
2. Always use a longer dash (en-dash or em-dash) to separate thoughts in a sentence.
3. Be consistent.
I suspect one reason people often use the wrong dash is that they don’t know how to insert the correct one. Hyphens are standard on any keyboard, including most smartphone keyboards. If you are using Microsoft Word, you can find both en- and em-dashes on the Symbol list on the Insert menu. On a Mac, the shortcut for en-dash is option+- and for em-dash is option+shift+-. If you can’t figure out how to make a real en-dash or em-dash, you can substitute a hyphen for an en-dash and two hyphens (–) for an em-dash.
Truth be told, these are old printer conventions, and as digital publishing evolves, things are going to change. As with most grammar quibbles, the important thing is to be consistent.
Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs a classic coming of age story, set in a Wisconsin college town in the year following 9/11. Tassie Keltjin is a naive 20-year-old, looking to make money babysitting. Her job with a couple of east-coast transplants and their newly adopted bi-racial daughter brings both love and heartbreak into her life. The fear, uncertainty and racial issues of the post-9/11 world and War of Terror have an unanticipated impact on her sheltered life, both through her romantic experiences and family issues.
Moore’s descriptions and elegant sentences capture the post-adolescence of her young narrator perfectly. There’s an almost willful innocence, and sometimes ignorance, behind Tassie’s every move and thought, and the characters—even those that appear only briefly and then disappear—often tell us more about her and her mistakes and misperceptions than Tassie seems to realize for herself.
As a reader, I did run into a real dilemma reading this novel. As enjoyable as Moore’s writing is (as she does have a great style), the perspective and timing of the novel clashed completely with my own experiences. Perhaps I’m over-identifying (and it’s quite likely), but as a native Wisconsinite, who was in college at the time of 9/11, only a year older than the narrator, working as a part-time babysitter and as a classroom assistant in an urban kindergarten class in a Midwestern city with a sizeable college community, the perspective struck me as distinctly East Coast. The attitudes, especially in regard to race and world view, were exaggerated. I could tell that Moore, though she might teach at Madison, is definitely not a Midwesterner or a Wisconsinite. There were stereotypes and just some outright ignorance about the people and places she was writing about (especially Green Bay). Granted, young people exploring the world on their own for the first time will typically look back at their home with a little disdain (I know I did at that age), but since the narrator was looking back over a distance of time, this should have been tempered. It really read as though the mother, Sarah, was the one telling the story at times. Several members of my book club commented that the novel felt as though it were taking place ten or twenty years earlier than it was actually set. The Midwest of the novel is seriously dated.
How do we, as writers, write from a different perspective? Moore crafted a very well-written novel with a beautiful story, but the perspective will probably fail with many who should identify with it. Writers must stretch themselves to write beyond their own experience, but how do we stop short of writing caricatures? How do we capture a truth that we can’t know from experience? This is an issue I’ve encountered again and again: when the male author fails to capture the female perspective, when the author messed up the geography of my city, when I see movies featuring people who work as assistant editors living huge loft apartments…. Am I the only one who has this issue? I love reading stories about people who are vastly different from me in part because there’s little risk of this happening.
As a writer I don’t want to limit myself, but I’m reluctant to try to write from a male perspective. I think it’s incredibly brave when writers reach beyond their narrow world scope and try something different. (And in many ways, I think Fantasy and Sci Fi manage to escape this dilemma because none of us know what it’s like to live in the worlds these writers create.)
I’d be interested to know who you think writes well from a different perspective. What makes them successful?
We lost our dog Benny last week. Not my dog, really, not anymore, but the last dog we got when I was still somewhat living at home. The silly, neurotic dog that sat on my feet day after day as I prepped application after application when I came home from college. The dog that had to do three counter-clockwise circles and army crawl under the dining room table every time he went from the kitchen to the front door. He was old, and skinny, and sick on regular basis the last few months and then, finally, he was done.
I’ve been thinking about him a lot this last week, particularly about my beginning with Benny. I was in California for the summer when he was born in our basement, part of Riley’s only litter. I almost missed him entirely, but his two littermates picked on him so much and so often that my parents kept him with them, separated from the other puppies for his own protection. By the end of the summer, they were so attached they couldn’t give him up. My mother had told me that the puppies had been taken away by the breeder, and I was disappointed to miss them entirely.
I flew back to Wisconsin on a red-eye flight, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. I stumbled up the front-steps, bleary-eyed in every way possible, opened our front door, and pretty much tripped over him as he bounded outside.
New puppies are a marvelous distraction.
My story with Benny has a clean beginning, and a slow, unwinding end. I’ve been thinking about that, and how easy and difficult it is to write about beginnings and endings like that. Sometimes beginnings creep up so gradually you don’t know where to start. With my grandmother, for instance–where would I begin that story? Endings are, usually, much easier. Often there’s a definite finish.
One common problem that writers face is starting too early. Introductions drag on and on. Or a novel opens with a character’s entire back story, instead starting with the beginning of the story itself. (For this reason, I love Kate Atkinson’s “I am conceived!” beginning of Behind the Scenes at the Museum. You can only get away with this on purpose.)
How do we know where to begin? I think it’s part of the problem I’m having getting this blog going–I keep wanting all the support pages, the About Me and Links and other decorations to be in place before I start the conversation. I want the timing to be perfect, so I have time to think and write and edit everyday. But, obviously, that will never happen. Life always happens. There’s always going to be something.
This week, my dog died. But I’m going to try to begin here anyway.