Pre-Submission Basic Grammar and Style Primer for Children's Book Manuscripts
Although many publishing houses have their own in-house style or grammar guides stipulating how to treat serial commas or ellipses or em dashes, the following primer will guarantee you a manuscript that’s clean enough to impress any nit-picking editor — even if she later changes it to reflect the publishing house’s style choices.
Punctuation consists of periods, commas, apostrophes, question marks, quotation marks, plus dots, dashes, and all manner of little doohickeys too numerous to list here. A few of the most common errors of punctuation follow:
Watch your commas. Use a comma only to separate two sentences joined into one, which is called a compound sentence, or for making meaning clear when you cannot rewrite to do so. Commas aren’t used just because you paused in your typing or because you feel like it.
Put ending punctuation inside quotation marks. Whether it’s a question mark, an exclamation point, or a period, they all fall inside the ending quotation mark when writing dialogue. One of the only exceptions is when you’re quoting a quote and exclaiming about it or questioning it.
Use single quotes only inside double quotes. For example: Did you hear her say, ‘Little Bear is never, ever, ever getting any more honey?'
Use the correct ellipses. Ellipses are used to indicate pauses, usually in dialogue. An ellipsis should look like this: . . . with spaces evenly throughout. The period, exclamation point, or question mark at the end of a complete sentences is not part of the ellipsis.
Style for children's books
Style is simply how you write. Style involves issues in which you have choices in both your approach and your execution.
Stick with closed-up em dashes. Em dashes, which are the length of two dashes, indicate interruption and lists. Keep your em dashes close to the text instead of adding spaces.
Indicate a range of numbers with en dashes. An en dash is longer than a dash and shorter than an em dash.
Turn off word breaks. Word breaks — which is using a hyphen to break up a word at the end of a line of text like this: manu-script — should not appear in a children’s book manuscript. Let the page designer worry about breaking words at the ends of lines.
Stick to hard text breaks in a chapter book manuscript. Hard text breaks are actual page breaks from one chapter to another. You have to manually insert them according to your word-processing software’s specifications. Don’t rely on hitting the Enter or Return key until you cross over into the next page to get the job done.
Follow the rules for numbers. Spell out numbers under and inclusive of ten and use numerals for 11 and up. Don’t mix both in one sentence. And if you have a bunch of numbers in a sentence, remember that the majority wins.
Pay attention to hyphenation rules. Only hyphenate numbers that modify a following word (as in, one hundred not one-hundred unless one-hundred feet). Similarly, time isn’t hyphenated unless the numeral is hyphenated (so that’s two thirty not two-thirty unless two thirty-five).
Last but not least, don’t hyphenate someone’s age unless it modifies a noun (so seventeen year old is not seventeen-year-old but rather seventeen-year-old girl).
Use serial commas. A serial comma is the comma that appears before the word and or or in a string of three or more verbs, adverbs, adjectives, nouns, or parallel phrases.
The main thing to take away is that consistency is king. If you choose to put spaces before and after em dashes, do so throughout the entire manuscript. Same goes for spelling out numbers and using serial commas. With so many differences in style guides and house styles across publishers, there’s no one correct way to style a manuscript.
Miscellaneous style and grammar issues
Here are some additional common mistakes:
Don’t mix up which and that. Which is used for a sentence with a modifying phrase that could be deleted and still leave the sentence’s meaning intact. If you can take away the modifying phrase and still give the same amount of information you were trying to get across, use which (and put a comma before it). Otherwise, use that — but only if you have to.
Eliminate lazy words and passive words. Vague words such as it and thing don’t really do much for your story. Neither do to be verbs. Get rid of as many of them as you can.
Delete said tags. Said tags, such as she said and he said, tell the reader who said what. You may think you need them, but you really don’t unless there are more than two speakers in a scene of dialogue.
Don’t start every other sentence with But or And or However. Old-school editors still hate that, and doing so has not been a regular part of American English usage for long enough to gain acceptance among the literati — or at least those who fancy themselves as such. Once in a while is okay.
Indent for a new paragraph each time you switch speakers when writing dialogue. Each speaker gets her own indent, no matter how short or long her speech. And if you have to use a speech tag or body language, join it up with the speaker’s dialogue.
Always spell check your document. Be sure to run your word-processing software’s spell check feature — even though it isn’t always correct.
Use contractions in dialogue but not the narrative. Contractions are and should be used in dialogue, because that’s just how people speak; however, in children’s books it is preferable not to use contractions in the narrative.
Vary the rhythm and length of your sentences. Mix up long and short ones. Break up description with dialogue. If you use the same monotonic pattern, your manuscript reader will start to get bored and turned off by the lack of spark and variation.
Address parents and other adults with Mr., Dr., Ms., Miss, or Mrs., as appropriate to their elevated station above children — at least in age. To do otherwise is to put parents and children on the same level, which is inaccurate in children’s books.
When referring to parents in particular, use a capital letter when the relationship is used in lieu of a name and a lowercase letter when preceded by a pronoun. For example: Mom is an expert quilter. Everyone knows my mom spends her weekends quilting up a storm.
In kids’ books, children are the stars, the main characters, the ones we are supposed to get to know on a first-name basis. It will be confusing to the reader if you throw out first names for adults like you do with children. Adults can speak to each other using first names, but kids should not use an adult’s first name — and neither should your narrative.
Don’t rely on shortcuts for emphasis. If you find yourself bolding, italicizing, USING CAPITAL LETTERS, or lots of punctuation!!!!, then your words aren’t doing their job. You need to choose your words more carefully so that any emphasis is indicated in your word choice, NOT these amateurish shortcuts!!!!
Do not have names that sound alike in one manuscript. As a matter of fact, do not use names that start with the same letter, letter sound, or diphthong. And don’t switch from a proper name to a nickname and back again willy-nilly. Readers get easily confused — more importantly, so do editors.
Don’t just jump from one scene to the next without a transition indicating a change in place or time. Put it this way: How would you feel if someone you were engaged in a deep conversation with at work on Wednesday were to simply disappear in the middle of speaking — and show up three days later in your bedroom? Don’t treat your reader this way, either.
Watch tense changes. If you are telling a story in the past tense, stay there. You cannot switch tenses in books for readers 12 and under, and only do so at your peril for young adult readers. It requires significant skill to alternate different points of view in different time frames.