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
- Punctuating dialogue (speech)
- Exclamation mark
- Question mark
- 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.
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.
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.
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 …
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?
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.
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 …
See my Contact me page to ask about my availability to proofread children’s books and educational books.
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