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  • Writer's pictureMatt Davies

A few grammar tips for novelists

I edit for a living. It’s freelance work, and I mostly work for health-related clients – Cancer Council Victoria, Beyond Blue, the Department of Health – and I also edit health textbooks.

Editing fiction and nonfiction calls on different skills, but I thought I’d throw together a quick list of common issues I see in people’s creative writing. I won’t call them mistakes; and I won’t use the word ‘rules’, because many are merely conventions or style choices. I’m also writing this based on Australian publishing standards, which are different from, say, the US, where spelling and punctuation conventions differ from ours, as does phraseology (we tend to say ‘towards’ where an American would say ‘toward’, for example).

A lot of writers feel themselves questioning punctuation decisions (Does the full stop go before or after the closing quote mark?), and it can be hard to find the ‘right’ answer online because of the proliferation of American websites. Almost no one knows how to use semicolons, and dashes elude many writers too. You don’t have to be a grammarian to be a great writer (that’s what editors are for, right?), and the conventions in fiction are looser than in more formal types of writing (for example, you can get away with fragmented sentences to create the effect you want in fiction), but your manuscript will present more professionally if you do a final proofread before sending it to a publisher with the following tips in mind.

American spellings

It’s easy to miss Americanisms because we are so used to reading American novels and American spelling on the internet. And if we don’t have our MS Word program set to British or Australian English, the spell checker will miss them.

The main differences between American and Australian spellings are:

  • ‘ise’ vs ‘ize’ (organisation, not organization)

  • ‘our’ vs ‘or’ (colour, not color)

  • ‘eing’ vs ‘ing’ (ageing, not aging)

  • ‘ll’ vs ‘l’ (install, not instal)

  • ‘oe’ vs ‘o’ (oestrogen, not estrogen; diarrhoea, not diarrhea)

  • ‘ae’ vs ‘e’ (haemoglobin, not hemoglobin; paediatrician, not pediatrician)

  • ‘yse’ vs ‘yze’ (analyse, not analyze).

I also like to drop the ‘–me’ in Frenchified nouns that end with ‘–mme’ – for example, ‘program’, not ‘programme’. The Brits tend to prefer ‘programme’.

Don’t put full stops after contractions in cases where the full word ends with the same letter as the contraction like the yanks do (Dr, not Dr.). Don’t insert full stops within initialisms either (USA, not U.S.A.).

Quotes marks

We use single quote marks for speech in Australian English. Double quote marks are reserved for ‘speech within speech’:

Bridget leaned in. ‘Tom just proposed,’ she said. ‘He called me his “angel”, and it was so beautiful.’

En dashes, em dashes and hyphens

Dashes often trip writers up. Hyphens have many uses; sometimes they’re optional, sometimes they’re there to make the meaning clearer (re-creation vs recreation; twenty-odd people vs twenty odd people). Most often, they link two or more words (or word parts) that have to do the job of one – a heavy-set man, high-quality sound.

People often use hyphens when they should be using en dashes (or ‘en rules’). En dashes are used for:

  • spans of figures (Please read sections 4–6 by tomorrow.)

  • spans of years (The strategy will be rolled out in 2022–23.)

  • spans of time (6–7 p.m.)

  • spans of distance (500–550 Lonsdale Street)

  • words as linked but separate entities (mother–son relationship, parent–teacher interviews, hand–eye coordination, the Gillard–Rudd years, federal–state agreement).

Spaced en dashes can be substituted for unspaced em dashes (the longer ones; also called ‘em rules’). Take this example from my upcoming novel Things We Bury:

It was strange seeing Ma like this—a stitch loose in the seam that kept her self-assurance firmly intact—and it stilled him.

This is a matter of style and choice – you could use spaced en dashes in place of the unspaced em dashes:

It was strange seeing Ma like this – a stitch loose in the seam that kept her self-assurance firmly intact – and it stilled him.

Whatever you choose, be consistent. Commas would work in the above example as well.

In novels, I like to use em dashes for interrupted speech. Another example from Things We Bury:

‘Well, that’s—’
She held out a hand. ‘I know it’s my fault. I want to change that.’
‘Does that mean you might . . .?’
‘Don’t read anything into it, Ma.’

Sometimes Australian publishers use en dashes (or, God forbid, hyphens) for interrupted speech, but I like the longer ones. (I included a couple of extra lines of dialogue in the above example because I wanted to show when to use ellipses [the three dots] too. Save those for speech that trails off rather than being interrupted.)

Oxford commas

An Oxford comma (also called a ‘serial comma’) is a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, before ‘and’ or ‘or’. I disagree with using them, as do most Australians. Take this sentence:

In my toiletry bag I packed a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste and two combs.

Oxford comma users would put a comma before the ‘and’. But why? What does it add? How would it make the meaning clearer?

Proponents of the Oxford comma will cite examples like this one to justify their use:

I went to the pub with my two best friends, Jack and Kate.

This sentence is clear enough if your two best friends are called Jack and Kate. If you meant that you were with four people (your two best friends + Jack + Kate), then you would punctuate it as:

I went to the pub with my two best friends, Jack, and Kate.

This is not an example of an Oxford comma. This is placing a comma to clarify meaning. That should always be your go-to. Would it be confusing or ambiguous without the comma? Then you need it. If not, omit it.

Or it might just be better to recast the sentence:

I went to the pub with Jack, Kate and my two best friends.


Never start a sentence with a digit (28 people came to the party); spell it out (Twenty-eight people came to the party). Although, in Australian novels, many publishers spell out numbers up to a thousand anyway (I waited forty-five minutes for the train; She counted one hundred and six people in the queue; It was four p.m. by the time Thomas arrived).

A final word

All publishing houses have a style guide that dictates where they fall on these conventions (the spaced en dash versus the unspaced em dash, for example). Sometimes they’ll leave it up to the writer’s preference, as long as it’s consistent.

A couple of other points before I go:

  • If the speaker changes in an exchange, start the new dialogue on a separate line (see example form Things We Bury above).

  • Never insert two spaces after a full stop (most of us stopped using typewriters in the 80s).

Happy writing!

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