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  • Betsy Thorpe

You don’t “find yourself” in places: Common Technical Issues with Writing Fiction and Nonfiction:

My editorial letters consist of three parts: one, a discussion of the technical issues that the author is having in writing their novel, memoir, or nonfiction work; two, a discussion of the big picture issues the author needs to work on; and three, a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book along with my thoughts after I’ve finished reading/editing the whole book.

Today, I’d like to concentrate on some technical aspects of writing that I find a lot of writers struggle with.

1) Too many ellipses.

Ellipses, if you’ve forgotten from middle school, are when the writer or speaker in dialogue just sort of stumbles, or takes a pause, or is too shy or traumatized to speak. “I don’t know whether… I should come in…,” she said, pausing to look around at the basement.

I think ellipses are somewhat a blast from the past, and reminds me greatly of the Barbara Cartland novels I read for about two weeks when I was a tween (and quickly grew frustrated with her writing). Her heroines were ALL hesitant, nervous young maidens, too overwhelmed and intimidated by the new powerful and handsome bachelors put in their presence. So much so, that they could barely utter a complete sentence. As a young feminist, I couldn’t take these gals not having any agency.

A lot of writers love those ellipses. One of my favorite clients, (and she’ll know who she is), used to put in random amounts of periods to make an ellipses—sometimes seventeen, sometimes twenty, sometimes five. Whenever her hand had gotten tired of holding down the period button……………….. she’d stop.

If you like ellipses, and do find a place for your character who should be hesitant, or is traumatized and can barely speak, use ellipses sparingly. Intersperse pauses in other ways, with a semi-colon(;) and an em dash(—). Both indicate pauses or the linking of two ideas.

2) Exclamation marks!

I took a history class in the Empire of Queen Victoria, and my wonderful professor, Michael Burns (shout-out Professor Burns!), had previously been a child/teen/young adult actor in his early years before he got into academia. (Remember “Gidget”? He was Moondog in one movie. So fun!) Anyhow, he delighted us in showing us passages from Queen Victoria’s diaries, and she wrote with a lot!!!! of exclamation marks!!!! (“Dear Albert is sooooo handsome!!!!).

So whenever a writer uses exclamation marks in her work, I often think of that overly enthusiastic teen queen. The exclamation mark should be reserved only for situations of high drama, or you risk looking immature. What does high drama look like? Narrowly getting shot (“Bam! A bullet slammed into the wood paneling next to me.”), almost falling off a cliff, (“I slipped! Rocks and gravel cascaded around me, but luckily I’d managed to grab at a tree branch, saving myself from a 200 foot fall.”)

I like to tease my authors that I only allow three exclamation marks a book. But seriously. That’s all I’m allowing. Save them up.

3) Capitalizing titles, names, places

Writers have a hard time with capitalizing titles, places, people (it it Mom and Dad, or my mom and my dad?). In general, (and I’m not an expert copy editor here, merely a developmental editor trying to get my writers’ manuscripts into better shape for submission to agents or for a copy editor if self-publishing), you capitalize proper names, like he was a vice president at Bank of America (note, vice president is not capitalized, because his name is not in front of it). “Vice President Harris works in the White House.” “Captain Mark Phillips used to be married to Princess Anne.” “The princess who lived down the street from us on Elm Street was discreet about her royal origins.”

4) Punctuating dialogue

How to punctuate dialogue (note: this only applies in the U.S. and not the U.K. and Canada where they have different rules).

Here is what’s right:

“I don’t know where I’m going,” Bill said.

Here’s what’s wrong:

“I don’t know where I’m going”, Bill said.

Also wrong: “I don’t know where I’m going”! He said.

Right: “I don’t know where I’m going!” he said.

The punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, and the pronoun after the dialogue is not capitalized.

5) Found himself

Here’s an easy one, that personally gets me every time (I may be the rare case). “He found himself in the seedy side of town, where the jazz clubs lined the streets and the booze was cheap.”

What’s wrong with that sentence? He “found himself.” I know writers love that phrase, as though he just happened to stumble upon that part of town, and then looked up, and said, “Oh, look at me, I’m on the Lower East Side!”

This shows no agency or free will, so unless you’ve been clonked over the head, thrown in the back of a car, and dumped in an unfamiliar part of town, you can’t use “found himself/found herself/found myself.” Just stop. Stop! Reserve this for when it’s real.


When you’re reading (and please please please read a lot of you’re a writer), take note of these technical issues. See how other authors, if they are professionally published or self-published with the assistance of editors and proofreaders, handle these different scenarios. While the four out of these five issues are easy for me to correct (and again, I’m just the first line in a long line of editors you should be going through before you get published), punctuating dialogue can take a long time, and will cost more editing dollars in the long run. Save those dollars for when you next “find yourself” near a good jazz club.

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