Punctuating Children’s Fiction (Part 2)

Punctuating Children's Fiction Part 2 blog post

This Part 2 guide on punctuating children’s fiction follows on from Part 1. It is mainly for my clients who are independent (indie), self-publishing authors of children’s books because it answers the questions they ask about punctuation.

The rules, though, apply to any writer of fiction.

When I give feedback to indie authors who ask for help about how to punctuate, especially the dialogue in their book, this is my advice.

 

Covered in Part 1

  • capitalisation
  • dialogue (speech)
  • paragraph break
  • exclamation mark
  • question mark
  • comma
  • ellipsis
  • curly quote marks.

 

Punctuating further

Here in Part 2 are more advanced types of punctuation: colons, semicolons, hyphens and types of dashes (including the en dash and em dash), and brackets (parentheses).

These punctuation features are used in more complex stories and texts for older children and young adults. As children progress through upper primary school (Key stage 2), they learn how to read them, their function and effect, and how to apply them in their own writing.

  • colon
  • semicolon
  • brackets
  • hyphen/dash (-)
  • en dash (–)
  • em dash (—).

 

Colon (:)

A colon is used to introduce the information that follows it.

– Introducing a list: The colon is used before a list of items, examples, or explanations, eg There are three primary colours: red, blue and yellow.

– Introducing a quote or statement: When introducing a quote, a colon can be used, eg She had one motto: Never give up.

 

Semicolon (;)

A semicolon is used to connect two closely related but independent clauses, creating a stronger link than a full stop or comma. The main uses of semicolons are:

– Joining related independent clauses, eg She went to the party; he stayed at home.

– Separating items in a complex list. When a list already contains items with commas, semicolons can be used to separate the list items. For example, The colours available were red, blue, and green; other colours were unavailable.

 

I’ve seen much confusion in the use of colons and semicolons. Writers don’t remember the differences between them. If it looks wrong, if you’re in doubt, don’t use them. Or ask someone to check you’ve used them correctly.

 

Hyphen/dash (-)

The hyphen or dash is used to join words together to form compound words or to make nouns become adjectival phrases when they are used to describe a noun.

Do you prefer ‘well-being’ or ‘wellbeing’? NODWE (New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors) uses a hyphen; Collins Dictionary doesn’t. When you have decided on whether to hyphenate a word or not, keep the style for consistency.

Another common use is that adjectival words are hyphenated before a noun, eg well-known phrase, up-to-date regulations.

 

En dash (–)

When the dash gets longer, it becomes the en dash/en rule (–) and em dash/em rule (—). Until I did my proofreading training with the CIEP I had no idea there were differences. I hadn’t looked that closely …

The en dash is the length of an ‘n’ and is used in two ways:

1. To represent a range of values, such as numbers or dates, eg pages 10–15, 1980–1985.

2. Instead of commas to show a parenthetical phrase, eg Alfie had fair hair that was far too long – making him peer under his fringe – and pale blue eyes. En dashes are used in the same way as brackets. Used mainly in UK fiction and non-fiction.

Em dash (—)

The em dash is the length of an ‘m’. It is more likely to used for parentheses in fiction published in the US. Again, it indicates a break in thought or to separate parenthetical phrases in a sentence. It provides emphasis, eg The weather—hot and humid—was unbearable. It can also be used to show interrupted speech, eg I thought for a while, then—.

Don’t worry too much about en dashes and em dashes in your book. Children don’t learn about them in school. There is no need to use them in your books for children.

If you are an author and your editor spots that dashes have been used instead of en dashes or em dashes, they have an efficient way of changing them as part of their editing service. So no worries.

 

Brackets (parentheses)

Parentheses are used to enclose additional information or explanations within a sentence. They provide extra detail or clarification, eg The conference (where there were over 200 delegates) was very informative.

 

Ensuring readability and clarity

There we are. That concludes your author guide to punctuating children’s fiction, whether you’ve written a picture book, chapter book, or fiction for Middle Grade (MA) or Young Adult (YA) readers.

Remember to use punctuation marks thoughtfully and appropriately to improve the clarity and readability in your writing. Using a variety of punctuation will keep the reader interested.

But if there is a missing full stop, misplaced comma or quote mark, it will trip the reader up.

If you’re still unsure about how to use punctuation, go to a bookshop or library, pick up a book for the age and genre you are writing for, and look at how the punctuation is used.

 

Using my teaching experience

My experience of 30 years teaching in the primary classroom is valuable if you need advice on writing a children’s book.

Think of me as a fairy godmother placing that punctuation perfectly … Your book is in safe hands.

Fairy godmother sprinkling publishing confidence.
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Email me

See my Contact me page to email me about my availability to proofread children’s books and educational books.

 

Subscribe

Subscribe to my blog to receive new posts directly to your email.

 

Further reading

Punctuating Children’s Fiction (Part 1)

Some of my relevant blog posts:

Punctuating Children’s Fiction

Punctuating children's fiction blog post

This guide on punctuating children’s fiction is for those of my clients who are independent, self-publishing authors of children’s books. They ask me for guidance about how to use punctuation.

When I give feedback to indie authors about how to punctuate their book, especially the dialogue, this is how I answer their questions.

Punctuating children’s fiction

Punctuation in children’s fiction uses the same rules as punctuation in adult fiction, especially when writing dialogue (speech).

If you are an author of children’s books, here’s how you can make sure the punctuation in your story is used correctly.

  • Use age-appropriate language
  • Capitalisation
  • Punctuating dialogue (speech)
  • Paragraph
  • Exclamation mark
  • Question mark
  • Comma
  • Ellipsis
  • Curly quote marks.

Using age-appropriate language

Children’s fiction often targets specific age groups, so the language and punctuation should be suitable for the intended readers.

Younger children’s books will have simpler sentences and less complex punctuation. While books for older children will have a variety of sentence structures (long phrasing contrasted with a short, snappy sentence before or after) to create dramatic effect, tension or humour.

A gripping fiction story will have a selection of action, description and dialogue.

If any of the story is punctuated incorrectly, your reader will spot it and ‘trip up’ which will spoil their enjoyment of the story.

Capitalisation

Capitalise the first letter of a sentence, proper nouns, and the pronoun ‘I’. Avoid excessive capitalisation for emphasis, as it can be distracting and disrupt readability.

Punctuating dialogue (speech)

There are particular rules when punctuating dialogue/speech between characters. In the sentence “I love ice cream,” said Sarah, the dialogue is “I love ice cream”. The dialogue tag is ‘said Sarah’.

  • When punctuating dialogue, use quotation marks to enclose the spoken words. That is, all dialogue goes inside the speech/quotation marks.
  • There is always closing punctuation before the closing quote mark, eg a full stop, comma, question mark (?), or exclamation mark (!).
  • Place a comma before the closing quotation mark when a dialogue tag (eg said, asked) follows the dialogue. For example, “I love ice cream,” said Sarah; “Can we go to the park?” asked Tom.
  • There is always a comma before the opening quote mark if the character tag is first, eg John muttered, “I can’t believe you’re going to do that.”
  • Only the speech goes inside quote marks. The character speaking stays outside the marks.

Paragraph

Use paragraphs to indicate changes in speakers during dialogue or shifts in the action or setting. This helps young readers follow the story more easily and keeps the text visually appealing.

A simple way to remember how to set out dialogue: new speaker = new line.

Exclamation mark

Children’s fiction often includes enthusiastic and expressive language. Exclamation marks can be used to convey excitement, surprise or strong emotions. However, it’s important not to overuse them. Selectively include exclamation marks for impactful moments. And, I suggest, use only one at a time. Four is overkill …

Question mark

Use a question mark at the end of a question. Begin the next sentence with a capital letter, eg ‘How did he get there? He couldn’t have done it alone.’

A question generally starts with one of these five words – What? Where? When? How? Why?

Comma

Use commas to separate two or more items or adjectives in a list of description, eg She packed her favourite toys, books and snacks.

In longer children’s fiction, consider contrasting a long sentence (with commas placed for breathing pauses between clauses) after a short sentence, for dramatic impact.

A serial comma (Oxford comma) is used before ‘and’ in a list. For example, (from the sentence above) ‘She packed her favourite toys, books, and snacks’ I’ve added a serial comma here. Some would argue the serial comma is not needed as the meaning is clear. However, in other contexts, the comma would add clarity. Whichever style you choose, ensure consistency throughout your manuscript.

If a sentence contains two independent clauses, avoid using a comma to separate them.

❌ I loved walking, I tried to walk for an hour each day.

This is called a comma splice. It doesn’t work. Separate the two sentences with a full stop.

✔️ I loved walking. I tried to walk for an hour each day.

Ellipsis

An ellipsis (3 dots: …) can be used in dialogue to indicate a pause or speech stalling. It can help convey hesitation or suspense. For example, “I’m not sure … maybe we should wait.”

Make sure you use three dots, not two or four dots. Decide how you’re going to use space around the ellipsis: no spaces / no space before and one after / one space before and one after. Whatever spacing you use around your ellipses (plural), make it consistent throughout your manuscript.

Curly quotation marks

Quotation marks, also called inverted commas, are of two types, single (‘ ’) and double (“ ”), and can be curly, like these examples, or straight.

Straight quote marks are the easiest to type (just use the keyboard). However, curly quote marks are the convention in fiction publishing.

Double curly quote marks can be inserted using Alt codes. Ensure consistency of use, ie single or double quotes, not a mixture.

If you’re unsure, your editor/proofreader will change them to curly quotes as part of the editing process.

There are other types of punctuation that I will cover in another post, eg colons, semicolons, hyphens, and brackets (parentheses) which children learn to recognise and use in upper primary school.

Giving a smooth reading journey

It is vital you give your readers a smooth reading journey and that they enjoy your book without the distraction of punctuation errors.

Ensure punctuation is used correctly and consistently. List your style choices on a style sheet to help you remember what decisions you’ve made. Give this list to your editor/proofreader so they know the styles you prefer.

If you don’t have a style sheet, we will create one for you by listing what we find as we read, advising on the most consistently used styles in your writing.

Always consider the age group of your intended audience to ensure the punctuation enhances the readability and enjoyment of the story.

Using my teaching experience

My experience of 30 years teaching in the primary classroom is valuable if you need advice on writing a children’s book.

Children build on their writing skills through primary school, developing complexities in punctuation as they approach Year 6 (age 10/11).

So it is vital that punctuation is correct in children’s books. They learn from reading good examples. Then they can apply a range of punctuation in their own writing.

Learning from published children’s authors

Another tip. I advise new indie authors to go into the Children’s books section of a bookshop. Open a book for the age range you are writing for, one that tempts you by the cover, and study how the punctuation is used. In other words, learn from a variety of published children’s book authors.

Me? I research the releases of new books for children, keeping an eye out for authors/illustrators that have published stories that are recommended.

Personally, I adore the skill in well-illustrated picture books, especially for older children, that carry profound messages.

Finally, think of me as a fairy godmother sprinkling publishing confidence. Placing that punctuation perfectly …

Fairy godmother sprinkling publishing confidence.
signature

Email me

See my Contact me page to ask about my availability to proofread children’s books and educational books.

Subscribe

Subscribe to my blog to receive new posts directly to your email.

Further reading

Punctuating Children’s Fiction (Part 2)

Some of my blog posts which fit with this one:

Writing a children’s book?

Writing a children's book blog post

Are you writing a children’s book? Are you an independent author who hopes to self-publish? Not sure how to go about it? I receive many proofreading requests from first-time authors seeking help. Most of the requests that I receive are from indie authors who have found my website and are seeking help to get their children’s book ready for self-publishing. The most common phrase is, I’ve written a children’s story. I am new to all this. What do I do next?” I thought it would be helpful if I put all the information that I give to clients here, in one place. Indeed some of this advice will answer questions asked by any indie authors, regardless of the audience age. So read on if you write any kind of fiction or are an editor for indie authors.

Proofread or proof-edit?

When you ask for help are you asking for a proofread or a proof-edit of your book? They are slightly different and I explain the difference in my services here. If you’re not really sure what kind of help you want, that’s fine.

Age bands in children’s books

I will ask you what age group you are aiming at, and the kind of story you’ve written. Generally, there are a lot of ways to categorise books. But all published children’s books have to be given BIC marketing categories, which have specified age groups based on interest level (not reading level), so publishers will categorise their books into age bands.

Age bands

Children’s fiction and non-fiction will be split into these age groups: 0-5 years, 5-7 years, 7-9 years, 9-11 years, 12+ years. Most non-fiction for primary age is for the 5-7, 7-9 and 9-11 ages. The 0-5 age group can be broken down into 0-2 and 3-5 to specify board books or picture books.

Terminology for each type of book

Board books 0-2 Picture books 3-5 Early Readers 5-7 Young Fiction 7-9 Middle Grade 9-12 Teen 12-15 YA 16+

Genres (types) of children’s books

  • Fiction, eg fantasy, horror (eg Goosebumps series), personal and social issues (by authors like Jacqueline Wilson)
  • Non-fiction: hobbies and interests, reference (for topic research, eg volcanoes).

Use bookshops for ideas

Visit any bookshop and flick through a variety of children’s books. Choose a selection of ages and genres. This will help if you are unsure of where to pitch the vocabulary in your book. Looking at a selection will give you examples of how the writing and illustrations are presented. Also, see how the speech (dialogue) is punctuated, if applicable.

Choosing an illustrator

children's book Have you written a book for younger children? You will need illustrations. Most new clients send me a Word document with the text. It would be useful to know how you visualise your story. The illustrations tell the story as much as the words do. Placement of the illustrations is crucial to the impact of your story. Have you chosen an illustrator? Have you thought about your cover?

If you need help choosing an artist, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) has a directory (see below). From there you can choose a Partner Member who offers a service, eg illustration, book designer, etc. Perhaps you are going to illustrate your story yourself? Marvellous!

Writing a blurb

Have you written a blurb for your story? A blurb is a synopsis found on the back cover which summarises the story … without giving away the ending. There is a particular skill in keeping the blurb succinct. I can help you. I will offer to proofread your blurb, included as part of the final proofread of your PDF.

How can I help you?

I proofread children’s books using my decades of knowledge teaching reading in the primary classroom. Showing my students how to value books and enjoy well-written stories, I modelled how they could improve their writing by discussing how the stories were written. I continue to share reading time with my tutees as part of our tuition lessons. See the blog post I have written about How I Teach English.

What next?

If you are a children’s author, see my Rates page for the packages I provide. I have supported several independent children’s authors to self-publication. They’ve told me they’ve seen my Partner Member profile in the directory of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). Use the link to join.

Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) As mentioned earlier ALLi has a range of helpful resources and guidebooks to support indie authors in the self-publishing process from editing to designing to publication. You want to be proud of the book you’ve written. You need it to be the best it can be. Your editor or proofreader will polish your book or know who to recommend. Good luck! I look forward to seeing your book published.

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Source for children’s book age bands and categories – credit to Lisa Davis, Children’s Book Editor and Publishing Consultant. Fellow CIEP member.

Recommended resource: ‘Pen to Published Podcast’ by Alexa Whitten (independent book publisher) and Alexa Tewkesbury (author, editor and proofreader).