November 29, 2010

Subheads, em-dashes, plural possessive, and other things I’m grateful for


Like many American families, ours honors the Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table and saying what we’re thankful for each year. This year I have a lot to be grateful for, most especially my amazing partner and stepsons, and my first baby, James, who’s due on Christmas Day.

This year, after the Thanksgiving meal was over (and probably because I spent a lot of the weekend working), I started thinking of some of the less-often-recognized things for which I am thankful. This Thanksgiving season, therefore, I want to give a shout out to a few of my favorite editorial whatnots.

The Subhead
Because my professional career has been mostly devoted to nonfiction, I must profess my love of the subhead. Memoirists and novelists, you can bypass this section, but my feeling is that all writers should understand the value of the sub.

Subheads give us structure and hierarchy. They help readers by containing information and giving a sense of what’s to come. A good writer understands that the content that falls beneath a given subhead is meant to be contained to the subject matter the subhead professes to cover. The space under a subhead is like a bucket. Throw in everything you want to say about that topic, but don’t let it overflow or spill out. There’s skill to keeping relevant content within the constraints of the subheads you’ve delineated, and oftentimes I feel that one of my biggest job as an editor is helping people shove certain lines or paragraphs of text back under its appropriate sub after an author has accidentally let it leak.

Subheads come in different levels. Don’t be afraid to use A-level, B-level, and C-level heads. However, any time you make use of subheads, remember the cardinal rule: Do not open your chapter with a subhead. It conflicts with the chapter title and deprives the reader of some introductory and general text about the chapter they’re about to read.

A simplistic example of a chapter that uses multiple levels of subheads might look something like this:

Chapter 2. Best Desserts
There are so many good desserts in the world that narrowing them down to just a few in this chapter is going to be hard. I must also note that it’s a subjective exercise and you will only be reading about desserts I love to eat.

[A]Ice Cream
I love ice cream and I eat it every day. There are so many reasons I love it. I love the texture, the different flavors, and the fact that it’s a healthy dessert.

[B]Texture
The texture of ice cream varies, and I like it creamy or icy. I like it in milkshakes, too. I’m a fan of added elements as well, like cookie dough and Oreo and Heath bar. Crunchy or smooth, I’ll eat it.

[B]Flavors
Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry, of course, but also Chunky Monkey and spumoni and orange sherbet.

[B]Health Value
Ice cream is high in protein. Many people may argue that the fat content cancels out the health benefits the protein offers. But I’ll just defer to a video posted at http://fasteasyfit.blogspot.com on how to make high-protein, low fat ice cream. I think these people are geniuses.

[C]Fat Content
According to CBS News, “A chocolate-dipped waffle cone at Ben & Jerry's has about 320 calories and 16 grams of fat. Add one scoop of Chunky Monkey ice cream and the total surges to 820 calories and 26 grams of saturated fat---roughly as much as a one-pound rack of ribs.” Hmmm … maybe I should consider cutting back on Chunky Monkey.

[A]Tiramisu
And then we start all over again…

Not all books require you to think about multiple levels of subheads. Many self-help books, for instance, tend toward using only A-level headers, and this is another fine choice. 

I recommend that any author preparing to write a book think about their chapter outline---and subheads---when they sit down to write their summaries. Having a good outline is just like getting the foundation of your house done before you start putting up the walls. It shows you where to build, and in the end, it also makes for a better reading experience for the public out there who will be clamoring for your book.

I’m thankful for subheads because I’m a structure freak, I admit it. But if you have a book that would benefit from structure and hierarchy, you should become one too. And give thanks to the subhead's capacity to organize your information and keep you on track!


The Em-dash
The em-dash is my favorite punctuation mark, hands down. However, too many people misuse it and/or don’t know the key command to get an em-dash into their writing.

Mac key command: option+shift+hyphen
PC key command: Alt+0151
Good alternative: pressing the hyphen three times in a row, like this ---

The em-dash should never have spaces around it. Do not --- as shown here --- have spaces on either side of your em-dash. Em-dashes need to run up right against the text---like this---and always get closed up on the other side. It’s fine, too, to end a sentence on other punctuation following an em-dash---because that’s allowed, too! 

The em-dash exists to show a break in thought or a shift in tone. It’s also used to convey an aside---because our minds tend to wander---when we’re otherwise very much on track with an idea. A sentence that’s broken by an em-dash should make perfect sense and read as a complete sentence when you read it without the em-dash. Taking the above sentence as an example: 

“It’s also used to convey an aside ---because our minds tend to wander---when we’re otherwise very much on track with an idea.”

I’m thankful for the em-dash because it’s pretty and I've always loved it, but it's way too often shoved aside by people mistakenly using en-dashes ( – ) or hyphens ( - ).  Learn to love em-dashes like I do, but once you do, resist overusing them. You shouldn’t, for instance, use them when you should be using commas. But if you don’t use them at all, start today!


Plural Possessives
I’m not going to get into the rules of plural possessive here. If you want a good little write-up, click here. The only reason I bring it up is to highlight that names ending in “s” get the possessive apostrophe-s tacked onto the end just like any other proper noun. This is a self-serving addition because we’re naming our new baby James, and I figure he's in for a lifetime of seeing this like "James' room is cool." Also, there's a new edition (16th) of  Chicago Manual of Style, the Bible of all editorial style choices. The 15th edition exempted Jesus and Moses from the plural possessive. So while we would still write about James’s choices, we would only speak of Jesus’ followers. This has now changed and there’s one single rule for everyone, dead or alive. They all get the apostrophe-s. Thank you, Chicago 16! Yes, very small things make editors happy.

I’m thankful for the plural possessive (and specifically the s-apostrophe-s rule, because it’s hard to have a first or last name that ends in “s.”And it's hard to remember exceptions to the rule. So life just got that much easier for everyone.


And Other Things I’m Grateful For
I’m thankful for my readers, my clients, and my authors and for all of you who put time and energy into good writing. For those of you who value good writing. For those of you who read books---and who buy books! Thank you. I’m thankful to people who have the ambition and passion to write, and I’m thankful for all the many many types of writers and projects that come my way. People’s creative depths inspire me week in and week out. 

Until next month,
Brooke

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