SPAG= Spelling, Punctuation, and Grammar
Hi! I’m so glad you stopped by. For years, I’ve been laboring under the assumption that any writer with a story could handle their own SPaG, but I was utterly, terribly wrong. None of us come into this passion with the same background, education, or privilege, and we all learn this stuff in different ways and different times.
Because my adorably autistic brain gets hung up on SPaG issues (seriously, I TRY NOT TO), I want to do my best to share this information so no one (with my privilege or fixation) misses out on all your story can be. In three simple steps, you can massively level up your draft, and maybe a learn a tiny bit on the way to make editing easier the next time.
Please feel free to use this page as you want. And if you drop SPaG questions in the comments, I’ll rally forces to get you the best answers I can find. I suggest reading (or at least skimming) to the end before following the steps.
This one’s the simplest to manage, because we’ve got wonderful tools to do it for us.
- JUST USE SPELL CHECK. It may miss typos or word switches, but in step two you’ll likely catch most of those. Most writing programs have a spellchecker included, but here’s a couple others.
- READ YOUR SUB ALOUD. Listen to the way the words feel as you say them. If something sounds choppy or confusing to you, it probably will for the reader. (Yeah, I snuck this in here, even though it’s not really spelling, muwahaha; just do it and thank me later.) I like to use “Read Aloud” in word or a service like http://www.fromtexttospeech.com/ as well, because, being me, I self-correct as I read aloud, and that’s the opposite of what this exercise is supposed to help fix.
- A) USE A PROGRAM. The other sites above will do the job, but here’s a couple more.
Whatever program you use, double check that the settings are for “punctuation inside quotation marks” and “single space after sentence ending.”
- B) TAKE A DAY TO LEARN THE RULES. I’m sure I’m not the only one obsessed with knowing the correct way to do things, so I can flail with joy when I catch a program getting it wrong. Here are some basic links from others who’ve taken the time to share (https://www.wordy.com/writers-workshop/basic-english-punctuation/ https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/punctuation-rules.html), and here’s my quick version if you’re not in a new tab mood.
A sentence doesn’t need a comma unless there’s a good reason. If it’s a sentence with a joining word in the second complete clause (like “and, but, so,” or “or”), the comma goes before the joining word. This is a complete clause, and so is this. This could have two separate clauses but doesn’t.
When used with dialog, commas indicate a dialog tag, not action beats.
She said, “Don’t mix up tags and action beats, please, because I’ll have a brain fit.”
She exploded from a brain fit. “I warned you.”
I mean, do you really need them? Some writers do, and they use them to great advantage. They indicate a contrast of content, balanced on either side of semicolon; both are whole apart, but somehow they’re incomplete alone. If in doubt of using them correctly, my recommendation is just don’t use them. More than one on a page is likely overuse, but that’s only my opinion.
“It looks precarious; that is all that matters.”
–N.K. Jemisin, THE FIFTH SEASON
These are very special punctuation marks, like a breaking news symbol for prose. They announce that some special message is arriving next.
“What she thinks then, and thereafter, is: But he was free.”
–N.K. Jemisin, THE FIFTH SEASON
No lie, these are my most favorite marks to see on a page, despite them being misused and overused in almost all early drafts. These indicate an interruption, or break, in content—very fitting for my excitable brain and wandering thoughts—when the outer point hangs, waiting for the pause before continuing.
They’re used a lot in dialog, too, to show a speaker being interrupted—of course, if you use the emdash, there’s no need to tell us the speaker was interrupted. Also, they can be used to interrupt dialog for an action beat midsentence.
“I thought you had to—”
“I can’t leave until I find” —her glasses slid down her forehead— “my glasses. Ahem.”
Because my characters tend to be as wander-minded as me, I try to limit these on the page in the editing stage, so readers can follow with less confusion. My personal standard: no more than two interruptions per page (250 words).
For informal text, these are undeniably important for cheering, whining, and pretty much all forms of communicating strong emotion. In fiction, however, they’re a red flag that the words themselves aren’t doing enough work. I don’t recommend using them at all for prose, and only sparingly for dialog, because they can trick the writer into thinking that emotional spike has been earned when it hasn’t.
I suggest letting the words carry the weight on the page, and saving your explanation points for squeeing with your friends.
This feels weird to explain, but I assume that’s my privilege poking through again. If a character has asked a question, use a question mark. If your POV character is processing in prose, try not to overload the reader with more than two consecutive questions at once.
(Yes, I realize we do a lot more questioning in our heads at a time, but each question asked in prose puts a burden on the reader to maintain focus, and there’s usually a way to rephrase a question into a statement to ease that burden and keep the reader’s attention taut.)
Sidenote: Please don’t use a question mark next to an exclamation point. Pick one, and let the words do the work.
I’m not actually going to spell all of grammar out on this page, because there’s no end to this topic. Some great links are here:
Instead I’m going to spend a minute on a parallel points.
First parallel point: Formal American grammar is not the only correct grammar. Not only is AAVE (or BEV or BVE, whichever you prefer) a distinct language, it is correct and consistent, despite how different it may sound or look on the page. There are many other emergent languages—too many to list—that are also consistent to form and correct. Use the English that is authentic to you and your story, and fight like hell anyone who tells you it’s “wrong.”
That said, if AAVE, or another emergent language, is not “yours” authentically, please don’t insert it into your prose. I’m white and from the south, so while my informal speech may overlap AAVE in a lot of ways, it isn’t the same language, despite its proximity, and an AAVE speaker/reader would immediately spot the falseness the same way a native speaker of any language will hear a non-native speaker’s accent even if it’s “good.” Use the language you know best, and write stories that are yours to tell.
(You can take this point as policing creativity, if you like; I won’t deny it, nor will I change my opinion. One caveat here is that it’s much easier to write “up” in terms of privilege than it is to write “down” [though I hate using up/down here]. As a queer, white, femme-passing, abled-seeming person, I feel comfortable writing from the spectrum of these POVs as well as intersections that have more privileges than me, but I won’t write from POVs who have less. Consider your own power and make the best choices you can for your story and its readers.)
Second parallel point: This is fiction we’re discussing, not formal English (most likely). Characters don’t always speak in complete sentences, even in their heads, nor do they always use correct grammar or even the “right” words. Fragments are wonderful tools when used for impact. Don’t fear them!
Simple manuscript formatting basics
12pt Times New Roman font, double spaced, with 1” margins
First line of paragraphs indented .5” (except for the first line in a chapter, typically)
No space between paragraphs
Chapter headings are a godsend; standard is 5 spaces down from the top of the page, centered. (And apply “heading 1” to make reading easier?)
Insert page breaks at the end of each chapter
I hope this helps you!
If you’ve done steps 1-3 (whichever 3 you choose), you should be well on your way to having a polished submission. Hahaha, now do this for the rest of your story!
I welcome questions if you have them, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you before I go hunt it down. And if I’ve made some grievous mistake, please tell me! Also, if I or someone like me has ever hurt you for not knowing this stuff, and you really need to let out your feelings, my comments are open (and private). I will read them (privately) and take that hit, because I’m sure I’ve earned at least that much from someone, if not you.
Shhh! Secret area with self-editing tips