What is formal style? In an Internet search, it was “longer sentences” and “more complex vocabulary”. Well, it’s not. That’s style. Writing style, more specifically.Formal style could be described as the equivalent of etiquette. But rather than what fork to use, it’s the correct use of punctuation and word case: title/sentence/camel case, how footnotes/endnotes are constructed, how dialogue tags are attached, the sort of dash used, how ellipses are inserted, where italics are used rather than quotes . . . ad nauseam. I am a stickler for formal style. That doesn’t mean I don’t make formal style errors [though I pretend I make none. Uh uh, no way, no how]. Ahem. Or should that be Amen?
Maybe you’ll think: “Roberta, that is not about writing. That is not a writing tip.”
Ah, but it is.
In an earlier post, I wrote that there were no rules, and modified that with “of course, there are rules.” The goal of every author is to keep the reader turning pages. That’s how authors get loyal fans, get chatter about their books, get reviews written. So, based on that goal, here’s my:
Cardinal Rule #1 –Anything that pulls a reader out of the story is a bad thing.
Pulled out of a story is being distracted. And distracting your reader is something to be avoided at all costs. A distracted reader is missing your clever words. Notices other bad things that they otherwise would have ignored. Gets annoyed at you, doesn’t finish the book, doesn’t write a review, and says only negative things.
In this age of instant gratification and the quick scan of opening-chapter sampling to assess and reject/accept a book under consideration for purchase, an author can’t afford a single error that distracts. That’s it. No excuses about how the writing/story/characters are really fantastic and readers should be looking beyond sloppy formal style for the heart of your work.
That’s not going to fly.
Readers deserve better. They’re putting out their money for your work, taking the time and energy to read your work, and you want them to work harder? Don’t think so.
Today’s observation on formal style is about apostrophes. Not “its” vs. “it’s” or “they’re, their, there” – that’s grammar. I’m writing about a particular pet peeve that will have many who read this crossing/rolling their eyes, saying: “Really, Roberta? This is an issue for you? Pedantic idiot.”Maybe. But I’m a reader buying your books, so my opinion counts. And I hate to have to say it, but an open quote is not the same thing as an apostrophe, as much as a period is not the same thing as a comma, as italics are not the same thing as boldface, a cat is not a dog, a shoehorn is not a power drill, and the word “wrong” is in no way the word “right”.
So, my formal-style apostrophe issue: I often see abbreviated words [about vs. ’bout; them vs. ’em; nineteen-seventies vs. ’seventies] where the apostrophe is actually an open single quote: ‘bout; ‘em; ‘seventies.
Don’t see the difference? Hm. I do. And it drives me wild. Does it take effort while you’re keying your eternal novel into Word to make sure you have the right punctuation? A tiny bit; sure. Is it worth it? That’s up to you. And ultimately, your reader - a.k.a., your customer.
This post was originally published on my Goodreads blog.