Writer's Guide: How to Write: Writing Skills for Beginners
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Writer's Guide: How to Write: Writing Skills for Beginners

Writer's Guide: Basic Writing Skills for Beginners: Words, Spaces, Punctuation, Sentences, Paragraphs and Dialog
3.6 (36 ratings)
Course Ratings are calculated from individual students’ ratings and a variety of other signals, like age of rating and reliability, to ensure that they reflect course quality fairly and accurately.
3,157 students enrolled
Created by Brian Jackson
Last updated 11/2018
English [Auto-generated]
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This course includes
  • 1.5 hours on-demand video
  • 6 articles
  • 1 downloadable resource
  • Full lifetime access
  • Access on mobile and TV
  • Certificate of Completion
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What you'll learn
  • Handling your words, spacing, punctuation, sentences, paragraphs and dialog
  • Students need a pencil and paper or preferably a computer to follow along

Welcome to my Writer's Guide.

My Writer's Guide course series is the most powerful tool you'll find on Udemy to get yourself writing today!

This, the first volume in the series, addresses the fundamentals of writing using the English language.

This is appropriate viewing for those who are new to English or need to brush up on their English language skills.

This course addresses the minimum skills I expect all my students to possess before attempting to tackle my more advanced writing training courses.

In this course you will learn...


Spacing, indentation, centering and page layout.


Capitalization, pluralization, hyphenation, apostrophes, italicization and commonly confused words.


How to write meaningful and compeling prose using only a period, question mark, comma and double quotes.


How to write complete, well-formed sentences.


How to write three paragraph essays.


How to write authentic fiction dialog.

Need a refresher or even a full introduction to English grammar and syntax?  You've come to the right place.

So, if you're ready, let's get started now...

I'll see you in the classroom,

P.S. Note that each lecture includes a detailed lecture description.  I recommend you read along with the course.

And don't forget Udemy 30-day no questions asked money back guarantee.

Go ahead, try the course!  What have you got to lose?

I'll see you in the classroom,


Who this course is for:
  • Anyone interested in beginning to write
  • Anyone interested in improving their writing skills
Course content
Expand all 35 lectures 01:30:04
+ Introduction
4 lectures 04:45

This is it; this is where it all begins.  You need to have the contents of this document internalized before you can have any hope of becoming a proficient writer.  Don’t even consider skipping this manual by saying “I know how to write.  I don’t need this skimpy guide.”

I made this book skimpy for a reason!  So you’d read it!

And for those of you who are brand new to writing in English, this document will elevate you gently from the ground floor to the lofty heights of literary perfection.

What’s my point?  Don’t skip this book, any of you!

This book is separated into five chapters that build one upon the other to set everyone on a solid foundation before proceeding to the more complex topics covered in the remainder of this writing series.  The topics covered by this book are simple:


I hope the topic addressed by each chapter is obvious.  Be sure to at least scan each chapter in this book before skipping ahead.

Whether writing fiction or non-fiction, this guide will teach you the fundamentals of writing that you need to know to be the best writer you can be.  The guide is shorter and simpler than you probably would imagine for such a broad goal.

So, what is there that’s left to say?  Let’s get started

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Preview 01:47

Born in Los Angeles, California, in the middle of the last century, I have always wanted to be a writer. After twenty-five some odd years spent working in the computer industry in the heart of the Silicon Valley, first for Lockheed as a Systems Programmer and later for Cisco Systems as a test tool developer, I managed to retire early and begin my next career as a self-published author.

Along with writing and publishing my own novels I also publish the works of my wife, Melanie Jackson. During the past four years I’ve published well over 100 books in paperback and eBook formats. Oddly enough this includes eBooks on how to self-publish books and how to create professional looking book covers using the GIMP. I’ve also recorded and distributed a pair of audiobooks available for purchase on Amazon and Audible. Finally, I spend a portion of my time maintaining both my website and my wife’s website, which was developed using WordPress.

My latest endeavor, begun in July of 2014, is to record training courses for distribution via Udemy. My goal is to provide low cost high quality educational material focusing on my area of expertise; namely, writing, self-publishing and book cover design. As time permits, I plan to extend my catalog to cover Web page development and Udemy course creation.

Now there’s the Writer’s Guide…

I currently live in the beautiful California wine country with my lovely wife, published author Melanie Jackson, and Butterscotch the cat.

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Preview 01:58

I use Microsoft Word for writing.  As a result, I include explanations of how to implement important software features in support of writing using my editor of choice, Microsoft Word.  I realize that writers use many different editors (e.g. Scrivener).  My hope is that rather than excluding my examples because people use different editors that their inclusion will allow users of all editors to transpose my best practices to their personal editor.

And with that, here we go with the first chapter…

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Preview 00:49
Brian Jackson's Writer's Guide Download
+ Words and Spaces
16 lectures 59:43

Introduction to Words

What is it that makes a word a word?  I suppose many would argue for correct spelling of the word; in other words, the placement of letters in a prescribed pattern.  Instead, I’d argue that it’s the spaces surrounding a block of characters that turn characters into words.  Could it be that there’s so much to learn from a space that we must begin there?  Yes, I’m afraid it’s so.  As a result, we’ll begin this seemingly simple chapter with the even more basic discussion of word spacing.  Only then will we move on to the words themselves – capitalization, plurals and more.

Don’t be deceived into thinking that this is a throw away chapter that you can skip.  At the very least you should skim its contents.  I think you’ll find a surprising wealth of complexity when it comes to the proper use of the simple English word in writing.

This chapter is presented as a series of rules for the proper use of words in the written English language.  It includes the most fundamental information that you must memorize and be ready to recall instantly if you are to become an efficient and effective writer.  Make sure you have this information down cold before proceeding to the next chapter.

Now, without further ado, let’s get started with a general description of words and the spaces that create them.

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Preview 01:46

Words and Spaces

This chapter describes the rules for proper spacing when delimiting words.  Additional rules for adding more sophisticated forms of white space follow.

If I had to summarize the contents of this chapter I would say: “Be neat and consistent.”  Following these rules rigorously will improve the readability of your text.

Separate Words with a Single Space

Separate each word with a single space.  You should avoid using multiple spaces between words because doing so causes irregular word spacing which can distract readers from rapidly scanning a page while reading.  Additionally, screen real estate is at a premium on eReaders and other mobile devices and shouldn’t be wasted.

When using the Microsoft Word editor to write, the editor will flag multiple spaces between words with a wavy red line under the pair of spaces.  Use this feature of the editor to quickly locate and correct these errors.

Place Punctuation Directly After a Word and Before the Space Separator

I have yet to discuss punctuation, but as is the case in most complex discussions, it’s impossible to explain for long before running into such a chicken and the egg dilemma.

Suffice it to say that punctuation defines the marks that are placed between words to turn strings of words into easily digestible modules.  For example, periods are used to turn strings of words into sentences just as commas are used to subdivide those sentences.

The question then arises -- if punctuation is to be placed between words, then to which side of the separating space should the punctuation be placed?

The answer is to the left side.  So, the order should be:


As in these examples

    So, what now?

    I walked, for a time, through the mountains, streams and meadows.

Notice in these examples how the punctuation, commas in these cases, comes immediately after a word and before the word delimiter (space).  Now that we’ve established this clear and easily remembered rule, it’s time to break it.

The Space Appears Before an Opening Parenthesis

There are of course exceptions to the general rule of punctuation placement.  For instance, parenthesis (that are more often used in technical writing) should be snugged up around the words they’re parenthesizing as in this sentence.  In other words, they should be placed in this pattern instead of the default one:

    Word (parenthetical expression) word.

Notice in this example how the opening parenthesis appears after the space separator instead of before it.  This is not the case in the following example that demonstrates a parenthetical expression using commas instead of parenthesis:

    Word, parenthetical expression, word.

Notice how the opening comma of the expression appears before the word separating space instead of after.

Follow Sentence Terminators with One or Two Spaces

I learned how to type on a manual typewriter in Junior High (the late 1960s).  I was taught to place two spaces after a sentence terminator before the following sentence.  This was meant to make the sentence separator appear even stronger to the reader to aid in clarity.  Today, this habit has fallen out of fashion.  In the meantime, I couldn’t stop using two spaces if I wanted to.  The habit is now so ingrained into my typing style.

This document is written with two spaces after every sentence terminator that separates sentences.

It is perfectly acceptable, in fact it’s probably preferable, to use a single space between sentences.  As if with other style decisions, the decision to use a single space saves room on smaller reading devices.

This is one of the few opportunities in which I’ll leave it to you to choose your own style.  I will continue to use two spaces between sentences.

Note: Microsoft Word will not flag two spaces after a sentence terminator as an error.

Place No Spaces After the Last Sentence in a Paragraph

The one place where it makes no sense to ad space, one or two, after a sentence separator is at the end of a paragraph where there is no following sentence.  In this case, use no spaces after the last sentence of the paragraph.  Watch for lots of extra spaces, especially at the end of a chapter, and be sure to remove them before publication.

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Preview 05:57

Indentation and Centering

Another instance in which white space comes into play is during indentation and centering of text.  In this chapter I highlight the very few instances in which additional white space may aid in readability.

Delineate Paragraphs with a Tab or Five Spaces or with a Blank Line but Never Both

Again, I have yet to discuss paragraphs, yet I’m still going to ingrain in your mind at this time that they typically appear on a new line and are delineated in one of two ways:

  1. A five space or tab indent
  2. A blank line

This document is an example of the first style of delineating paragraphs.  Notice how this block of sentences is indented.

Now notice how this paragraph is not indented.  Instead of indentation, I use a blank line to separate this paragraph from the next.

See how easy this is?

Here are some additional things to note regarding paragraph delineation:

  1. Chapter headings are not indented.
  2. Use Microsoft Word styles to implement paragraph indentation rather than spaces.
  3. Use indentation or a blank line, but never both.
  4. Be consistent in your use of one technique or the other.

That’s all there is to identifying paragraphs using additional space.  By the end of this document I’ll discuss what a paragraph is to complete the picture.

Indent Quotes and Examples

Quotes and examples should be indented and set off by blank lines.  In fact, I quite often utilize quotation marks and italicization (which is probably overkill) to further set off a quote from the rest of my text.

For example:

    “Any man can make history.  Only a great one can write it.”

    --Oscar Wilde

Notice how I both quote and italicize the quotation and follow it with an em-dash to identify the source.  All set off by blank lines before and after.

Center Asterisks or a Pound Sign as a Scene Separator

Many writers use blank lines to separate the scenes in a story.  The problem with a blank line is that it can’t be seen if it occurs at the top or bottom of a page.  Since eReaders and phones display smaller pages, this problem is even more acute in the electronic age

Instead, to create a scene separator, I use three asterisks (*) separated by spaces.  Others use a single pound sign (#).  These characters are centered on the page and in both cases a blank line precedes and follows the line.

For example:

* * *



Use scene separators to create a major break in your story while avoiding the severity of a full chapter break.

Optionally Center Chapter Headings

You may optionally center chapter headings or only head level 1 headings.  Use this technique to produce a more dramatic visual chapter break.  For example:

Sample Chapter Heading

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Indentation and Centering

Page Layout

The final area in which white space interacts with words is in the border that surrounds every page.  This short subchapter discusses white space in page layouts.

Use One Inch Margins Around All Pages

It is standard to place one-inch margins all the way around the text of your document.  This practice originated in the hardcopy days when editors would read a printed copy of a book and use the margins to leave notes.  Modern electronic readers strip the margins from your document before displaying them while Print on Demand (POD) paperbacks will display your margins.

In either case, set one-inch margins all the way around your page in Microsoft Word using the Layout->Margins menu item.

Headers and Footers Are Often Centered or Justified

Headers and footers typically appear at the top and bottom of each page (except for the title page) in paperback versions of a lengthy document such as a book.

The header most often displays the name of the book and may include a chapter title and the name of the author.  This information is either centered for a single item and fully justified for multiple items (e.g. the book title justified to the left and author name justified to the right).  When used, chapter names are most often displayed on alternating pages (e.g. all odd pages) with the book title appearing on the others.  Additional formatting options include aligning header items to the outside edge of each page.

Page numbers are most often displayed alone in the footer and are either centered or aligned to the outside of each page.  They may also appear centered or outside justified in the header of each page.

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Page Layout


In English, words used to represent a person, place or thing (nouns) are modified when they’re used to refer to multiple occurrences of the people, places or things.  This subchapter describes the rules for specifying plurals.

Add an "s" to the End of a Noun to Make It Plural

In most cases you add the letter “s” to the end of a noun to make it plural.  For example:

Chair becomes chairs.

Umbrella becomes umbrellas.

Worm becomes worms.

Add an "es" to the End of a Noun That Ends in “s” to Make It Plural

When a noun ends in the letter “s”, ad “es” to the word to make it plural.  For example:

Business becomes businesses.

Class becomes classes.

Replace the “y” with “ies” at the End of a Noun That Ends in “y” to Make It Plural

When a noun ends in the letter “y”, replace the letter “y” with the letter string “ies” to make the noun plural.  For example:

Sky becomes skies.

Bunny becomes bunnies.

Notable Exceptions to These Rules

There are many exceptions to these simple rules of pluralization.  Here are some of the more notable ones:

Mouse becomes mice.

Goose becomes geese.

Iris becomes iris, not irises.

Buffalo becomes buffalo, not buffalos.

Note the last example in which the same word is used to express both singular and plural forms of the noun.

Scientific Writing and Latin Pluralization

English is rich with words from many languages.  Primarily used in the scientific community, Latin has made major inroads into the English language.  In Latin, pluralization is most often achieved by replacing the end of a word with the letter “i” as in this example:

Octopus becomes octopi.

Unfortunately, a detailed discussion of the rules for pluralization in Latin falls well beyond the scope of this introductory guide.

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Hyphenation is sometimes required to spell a common phrase correctly by connecting the words in the phrase using hyphens (-).  In this chapter I’ll explain how to properly use hyphenation to form expressions.

Use Hyphenation to Create Compound Expressions

Some expressions are properly formed using hyphenation between their words.  For example:





Note that to use these phrases without the demonstrated hyphenation would be incorrect and elicit an error notification from most modern editors including Microsoft Word.

Never Capitalize the First Letter of a Word After a Hyphen

When capitalizing hyphenated expressions, hyphenate only the first word in the expression.  For example:

Self-publishing is fun.

All-in-all, things went well.

In both these examples only the first word in the hyphenated expression is capitalized.

Automatic Hyphenation

Setting automatic hyphenation in your editor is a bad idea.  Better that you have a ragged right-hand margin than allow software to decide when to hyphenate your words.

To turn automatic hyphenation off in Microsoft Word, set the Layout->Hyphenation menu item to None.

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Using Apostrophes

Apostrophes are used for two purposes.  The first is to concatenate words and the second is to express possession.  This subchapter discusses the rules for using apostrophes in these two instances along with a couple notable exceptions.

Using Apostrophes for Contraction

Use an apostrophe (‘) for word contraction as in the following examples:

Do not becomes don't.

Is not becomes isn't.

I have becomes I’ve.

Notice how the personal pronoun “I” remains capitalized even in contracted form.

Using an Apostrophe and s to Express Possession

When you want to express possession, simply terminate the owning word with an apostrophe followed by an s as in these examples:

Fred's book defines a book that belongs to Fred.

The cat's toy belongs to the cat.

There are two exceptions to this general rule as described in the following sections.

Using Apostrophes to Express Possession After Words Ending in s

When expressing possession for a word that ends in s, simply add an apostrophe and skip the addition of the following s as in these examples:

Bess' book defines a book that belongs to Bess.

The kiss' joy defines a kiss that possesses joy.

Next comes the final exception.

Using Apostrophes with It

When forming the contraction of the words “it is”, use an apostrophe as shown in the following example:

It’s snowing outside.

I think it’s too big.

When expressing the possessive form of the word “it”, simply add an s to the word as in this example:

There was smoke coming out of its nose.

Note that the standard case would be to add an apostrophe followed by an s but that this would confuse possession and contraction by making them the same.

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Using Apostrophes

Full Justification - Don't Do It

When formatting a document for display, most word processors provide the options to left justify your text (also known as ragged right justification), right justify your text or to fully justify your text.  I recommend that you never fully justify your text for the following reasons.

Full Justification Causes Irregular Spacing

To fully justify your text along both the left and right borders, your word processor will distribute additional spaces of varying width throughout each line.  This creates uneven white space between words which can be difficult to scan while reading.

Full Justification Typically Involves Automatic Hyphenation

Full justification most often depends heavily on hyphenating the word at the end of each line to achieve justification.  Automatic hyphenation makes these ending words hard to read once more interfering with a visual scan of your text.

When it comes to full justification – just say no!

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Full Justification

When using foreign words in your writing it is customary to italicize those words as in this example:

To say good night in Spanish, use the phrase buenas noches.

This rule holds true when using a word from any language other than English unless that word has been integrated into the language.  For example, the French word critique would not be italicized.
When referring to a product title (e.g. book or movie) it is also customary to italicize the words in the title as in this example:

I love Star Wars movies.

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Italicizing Foreign Words and Product Titles

Using Synonyms and Antonyms

A synonym is a word that means the same thing as another word.  It can be used in place of a word with a matching meaning to add spice and variety to your writing.  An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another word.  Use antonyms to reverse the meaning of a word in a sentence.

This chapter describes the rules and techniques for employing synonyms and antonyms in your writing.

Avoid Repeated Use of Uncommon Words

Repeated use of an uncommon word in your writing can be annoying and demonstrates the lack of a rich vocabulary.  Common words that you can’t help but repeat would include a, an, the and and.  Consider the use of the word foot in the following paragraph.

John lifted his foot and then let his foot drop with a loud bang.

Sometimes repeated words can be avoided by replacing them with a pronoun.  Consider this rewrite of the previous example:

John lifted his foot and then let it drop with a loud bang.

Use a Synonym Instead of Word Repetition

Another way to deal with word repetition is using synonyms.  Consider the following example:

As John approached the plane, the plane seemed to get bigger.

By replace the second occurrence of plane with a synonym I can avoid word repetition as in the example:

As John approached the plane, the aircraft seemed to get bigger.

Use synonyms to spice up your writing by sprinkling alternate word choices throughout your document.

Reverse the Meaning of a Word with an Antonym

Rather than replacing a word with an alternate word possessing the same meaning, antonyms can be used to completely reverse the meaning of a word.  For example:

An antonym for sleep is wake.
An antonym for sit would be stand.

Using Microsoft Word to Find Synonyms and Antonyms

Microsoft Word provides a mechanism for quickly replacing words with suggested synonyms and even antonyms if you choose.  Simply position your cursor on the word you wish to replace and right click your mouse.  The drop-down menu displayed includes a Synonyms option.  To replace the word simply click on the synonym of choice.  Select the Thesaurus option at the end of the menu to find additional synonyms and even antonyms.

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Using Synonyms and Antonyms

Microsoft Word, as well as most modern editors, includes the ability to perform simple spelling, grammar and usage checking of your words as you write.  Errors are displayed in Word using three visual flags:

A Squiggly Red Line Beneath a Word or Phrase: Spelling error or too much white space.
A Squiggly Green Line Beneath a Word or Phrase: Grammar error.
A Squiggly Blue Line Beneath a Word or Phrase: Word Usage error.

As a novice writer, you should be sure to pay attention to all these errors and correct them at the appropriate time.  Do not ignore any of them; though, I must admit to ignoring a fair number of the grammar errors myself.
To enable automated error checking in Microsoft Word go to the File->Options->Proofing menu item and check the appropriate boxes in the dialog window to configure automated error checking to your liking.

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Automated Spelling/Grammar/Usage Checking

The following are words which are commonly confused by using one of the words in the other’s place.  Make sure you don’t make these obvious mistakes while you’re writing.

“a” and “an”

Use the words a and an to indicate any one of a group of choices.  Use a when the choice begins with a hard-consonant sound and an when the word begins with a vowel sound.  For example:

I bought a ball.
I ran a mile.
I stepped on an ant.
I inserted an s.

Note in the last example that an is used instead of a because the word following has a vowel sound, even though it begins with a consonant.

“there”, “their” and “they’re”

Use the word there to indicate a location as in “the ball is over there”.  Use the word their to indicate possession as in “it turns out it was their ball”.  Use they’re as a contraction of the phrase “they are”.

“fewer” and “less”

Use fewer to indicate a reduction in countable items and less to indicate a reduction in non-countable items.  For example:

There are fewer cubes of ice in my drink than yours.
These is less water in my glass than yours.

In the first example, cubes of ice are countable, so you use the word fewer with that expression.  In the second example, water is not countable, so you would use the word less to indicated that one glass contains reduced water.

“vein”, “vane” and “vain”

Use the word vein to indicate a tube in your body used to pass blood or a seem of ore.  Use the word vane to indicate a weather vane.  Use the word vain to indicate a hopeless situation someone who is self-impressed.  For example:

Blood flows from one vein to another.
We follow the vein of gold until it ran out.
Which way is the weather vane pointing?
You’re so vain!
I tried in vain to improve my skating.

“then” and “than”

Use then to express a time and than to express comparison.  For example:

Then we went to the party.
I’m taller than you.

The first example uses then to designate when we went to the party.  The second example uses than to compare heights.

“through” and “threw”

Use the word through to indicate passage from one side of something to the other or completion of a task.  Use the word threw as the past tense of throw.  For example:

I passed through the portal.
I’m through with him.
I threw the ball to Marty.

“bear” and “bare”

Use the word bear to describe the animal and the word bare to indicate naked or to expose something.  For example:

The bear lives in the woods.
My feet are bare without socks and shoes.
It was time to bare my soul.

The expression “bare my soul” is used to indicate exposure of one’s inner most values.

“me” and “I”

Another common misuse is of the words me and I when using them in a conjunction.  For example, which of the following is correct.

Randy went to the movies with Jodie and I.
Randy went to the movies with Jodie and me.

To discover the answer, simply remove the other half of the conjunction to see which works as in these rewrites:

Randy went to the movies with I.
Randy went to the movies with me.

The second sentence is clearly the correct one and is therefore also the correct choice in the above conjunction example.

The same is true of this sentence:

Jeff and I ran to school.

This sentence is correct because the following is correct:

I ran to school.

“good” and “well”

The simplest way to differentiate the use of good and well is to recognize that good is an adjective used to describe a noun and well is an adverb describing an action.  For example:

You do a good job.
You do a job well.

In the first example, good is describing the job which is a noun.  In the second case, well is describing how you did the job, therefore the adverb form is correctly used.

“whose” and “who’s”

To remember this, I always need to flash the “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” logo before my eyes, then I remember: Use whose for ownership and who’s as a condensation of the phrase who is.

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Commonly Confused Words

Words are separated by a single space.  Words are used to construct sentences.

The first word of a sentence is always capitalized.  Sentences end with periods.  Though a question mark is always nice when asking a question.  Isn’t it?  Don’t forget the exclamation mark!  These three punctuation marks can be used to terminate a sentence.

Sentences also end in one or two spaces.  I use two spaces to terminate sentences.  But I place no space after the last sentence in a paragraph.

Sentences can also be subdivided using commas, as in this example.  The comma should always appear after a word and before the delimiting space.

Capitalization, hyphenation and use of apostrophes aren’t the only extensions to these rules.
When stuck, copy others.

Words and Spaces Writing Workshop
Words and Spaces Section Project

In this chapter, we discussed the following topics:

Words and Spaces

Use single spaces to separate words, in probably sentences.

Indentation and Centering

Indent scene separators and optional chapter headings.

Page Layout

One inch margins.


The first word of a sentences, peoples titles (e.g. Mr.) and acronyms.


Add an s or es after words ending in s.  Change y to ies.


As in all-in-one.  DOn't let the software hyphenate for you.

Using Apostrophes

Use apostrophe s for possession -- with exceptions.

Full Justification

Just say no.

Italicizing Foreign Words and Product Titles

Using Synonyms and Antonyms

Automated Spelling/Grammar/Usage Checking

Commonly Confused Words

Words and Spaces Writing Workshop

Words and Spaces Section Project

Next up is punctuation...

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Conclusion to Words and Spaces
+ Punctuation
6 lectures 11:28

Punctuation is an important subject when it comes the formation of Words into more complex structures such as sentences and paragraphs.  Punctuation involves placing symbols, or punctuation marks, into our text to break it into smaller more easily consumed phrases.

Though punctuation is an extremely important subject, it’s also extremely simple so you’ll probably be surprised at how fast you learn my abbreviated rules to punctuation.

Note that this is not a detailed guide to English punctuation.  My belief is that I can write anything given a period, question mark and a comma.  Spot me a double quote for dialog and I’ll throw in fiction for you.  My point is that punctuation need not be complex to be effective.  I’ve been attempting to demonstrate that fact throughout my writing style in this guide.

I’ve written to this point in the chapter using nothing but periods and commas.

Can I say it enough?  Punctuation need not be complex to be effective!

“Oops, I’ve added a question mark and exclamation point to the chapter, to say nothing of the double quotes enclosing this dialog,” the author quipped.

With this brief introduction begins my simplified overview of English punctuation.

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Introduction to Punctuation

Here it is, punctuation.  That complex and scary dragon that I’m about to slay with four simple rules and some comments.  Are you ready to learn how to use simple punctuation?  Me too, so let’s get started!

1st Fundamental Law of Punctuation

Use a single period (.) to terminate a sentence.  Yes, it really is that simple.  Begin a sentence with a capitalized word and terminate it with a period.  If you’re following along, go ahead and write several sentences in your journal or word processor window.

The first rule is simple: terminate a sentence with a single period (.).

2nd Fundamental Law of Punctuation

Use commas to insert pauses into sentences.  Before beginning to use commas, note that it’s better to use to few commas than too many (comma-itis).  It’s also best to read your work out loud to hear the pauses, which are the commas, in your writing.

I’ll have a great deal more to say about commas in the remainder of this document and series.  For now, let’s suffice it to say that you’ve learned your second rule:

The second rule is vaguely defined: use commas to insert pauses into sentences.

3rd Fundamental Law of Punctuation

Use a single question mark (?) instead of a period (.) to terminate a sentence that asks a question.

Do you understand this rule?

I certainly hope so, otherwise you’re not very perceptive. 

4th Fundamental Law of Punctuation for Fiction

Use double quotes (“”) to enclose dialog.  This rule applies mainly in fiction since people are rarely quoted in non-fiction.

Notice how Microsoft Word inserts smart quotes (quotes that angle toward each other) at the beginning and end of a quote by default.

“Hi, Carol.”

I’ll be discussing dialog in greater detail in a later chapter.

For now, that’s it!  These are the basic 4 laws of simple punctuation.

Brian’s Guiding Principle of Punctuation

Keep it simple.

I can write compelling and persuasive prose using no punctuation other than a period and a comma (okay, and a question mark too).  Of course, you’ll have to include the double quote, for dialog, if you want me to write fiction.  The exclamation mark can come in quite handy as well.

Four shape punctuation.  That’s what I’m promoting.  Begin simple, then use the remainder of this guide to add complexity to your well-formed sentences.

Now that we’ve established them so beautifully, let’s go break a few rules…

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My 4 Fundamental Laws of Punctuation

1st and 3rd Laws Amended: Sentence Terminators

Sentences are terminated by one of three punctuation marks: period (.), question mark (?) or exclamation mark (!).

Notable exceptions include the use of the colon (:) to terminate a paragraph before a list as in this example:

The first item.
The second item.

Try to avoid needless spaces after the last sentence in a paragraph

Note:  The items in a bulleted list and titles are not terminated using punctuation.

When I Use Exclamation Marks

To express extreme emotion!

I typically relegate exclamation marks to dialog:

“Don’t you dare!” she exclaimed.

2nd Law Expanded Upon: Use Commas to Insert Pauses into Sentences

In this chapter I want to demonstrate four specific instances in which to use commas to insert pauses into sentences.  I want you to read these sentences out loud so you can hear the pauses being inserted.

Sentence Lead Ins:

First, there was the weather.  To be fair, it wasn’t that bad.  In fact, it was pretty good.

These are all little pre-sentence qualifiers that give you a hint as to what the sentence is going to say.


He won the first, second and final race of the day!

Strunk and White and the Oxford comma versus the newer Chicago style.

Parenthetical expressions:

Sir Anthony, a notorious womanizer, was the last to arrive at the party.

Parenthetical expressions sound to me as though they’re being whispered in the middle of a sentence.  You could use parenthesis to enclose these though I feel parenthesis look out of place in fiction writing.


“You must be mistaken,” Audrey exclaimed.

When you add who’s speaking, you terminate the quoted statement with a comma instead of a period.

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Amendments to My 4 Fundamental Laws of Punctuation

The following are alternative that you can use instead of a comma.  The remainder of the punctuation symbols fall into this category.

When I Use Parenthesis ()

I use parenthesis much more in nonfiction than I do in my fiction writing.

In fiction writing I prefer to use commas to delimit parenthetical asides.

The new student, who was a bit of a loner, left the room without comment.

I always use parenthesis to identify an acronym.

International Business Machines (IBM) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Once you’ve defined an acronym in this way you may use it in the place of the full name.

When I Use Semicolons (;): Combining Sentences

Semicolons are used to insert a pause in a sentence harder and longer than a comma pause but short of terminating the sentence as in the case of a period.

I don’t need them & therefore only use them for one simple trick: to connect sentences.

Fairness in testing was not a priority.  The tests were rigged.
Fairness in testing was not a priority; specifically, the tests were rigged.

Another example:

You may have grasped my point.  Punctuation is simple.
You may have grasped my point; namely, that punctuation is simple.

Semicolons should also be used in place of commas when connecting sentences with a conjunction that contain commas themselves.

When My Wife Uses Em-dashes: Parenthetical Expressions

My wife has the interesting habit of using em-dashes in place of commas in parenthetical expressions.

Sonya was a mess – in fact, she was dressed in rags – though she was still technically considered royalty.

This has become essential to my wife’s writing style.

4th Law: Use double quotes to enclose dialog

I never use single quotes.

Use quotes and a period terminator when performing simple quoting of statements.

“Don’t be stupid, Leroy.  Take the money.”

Note the comma between the first statement and the target of the statement.

Use quotes and a comma to identify the source of the statement.

“Don’t be stupid, Leroy,” Laura said.  “Take the money.”

Note the second comma that extends the dialog through “Laura said.”

Let’s expand on the basics some more…

When I Use Colons: To Precede Lists

Remember the basics of punctuation: periods, question marks, commas and quotes.

Notice the use of a colon before a separate list:

First Item
Second Item

Also use colons to join sentences when trying to save space for connecting words.

Agile Project Management using Scrum and Trello
Agile Project Management: Scrum and Trello

When I use the Ellipses…

Use an ellipsis to terminate a sentence that is incomplete… or soon completed.

“John, I don’t know what to say,” Gloria gasped.  “I just don’t…”

Slash, Square Brackets and Braces

I did a Google search to see if I missed anything from memory and came up with these.
Other than in coding, the slash is the only remaining punctuation mark I use.
Use a slash to connect options: Spring/Winter/Summer/Fall.
Or to signify division or apportionment.

One hundred dollars per year, or $100/yr.

That’s everything!

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Comma Alternatives
Punctuation Section Project

In this chapter on punctuation, we discussed the following topics:

Introduction to Punctuation

Keep it simple.

My 4 Fundamental Laws of Punctuation

4 Shape punctuation: Period (.), Question Mark (?), Comma (,) and let's go with Double Quotes for dialog (") 

Amendments to My 4 Fundamental Laws of Punctuation

Exclamation marks and colons as sentence terminators.

Comma Alternatives

Parenthesizes, semicolons, em-dashes, colons and ellipses

Punctuation Writing Workshop

Punctuation Section Project

Next up is sentences...

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Conclusion to Punctuation
+ Sentences
3 lectures 06:39

If mathematics represents the building blocks of the universe, then surely sentences form the foundation of the English language.  This is it, you’ve reached the big time.

In this chapter you’ll learn to write well-formed sentences.  This is where grammar and syntax collide to produce beautiful prose.

Without further ado, let’s get started...

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Introduction to Sentences

Here then are the rules for writing well-formed sentences.

Rule #1: Write Using Sentences

The first word of a sentence begins with a capital letter.

Sentences end with a full stop or terminator such as a period, question mark or exclamation mark.


I went to the store.
Yesterday was a good day for writing!
Why are you asking me that?

Rule #2: Write Using Complete Sentences

To be complete a sentence must have a subject and a verb.

The subject is the noun (person, place or thing) about which you are writing.


you          me          him          Sarah          a book

The verb is the action being performed by the subject.


walking     sitting     reading

These are examples of complete sentences:

Suzie ran to the store.
Suzie ran very fast.
She arrived at the store in no time.

This is an example of the use of a verb of being (am).

I am Brian.

Rule #2 Challenged!

What about this sentence?


The subject “you” is implied as is the object clause “what you’re doing”

A more complete but less thrilling sentence might read:

You, stop what you’re doing!

Note the reference to less thrilling, which we’ll discuss later in breaking the rules.

Rule #3: Order Your Words Correctly

The most common order for the parts of a sentence is: subject, verb and object (if present).

The object is the receiver of the action.


Brian threw the ball.

[subject] [verb] [object]

Rule #4: Parts of Speech (Subject, Verb and Object) Aren't Always Single Words

Subject, verb and object aren’t always single words.

People who write a lot get better at writing.

"People who write a lot" is a subject phrase or predicate…

People who write a lot get better at writing.

“get better" is the verb…

People who write a lot get better at writing.

“at writing" is an object clause (the receiver of the action).

Rule #5: Compound Sentences are Combined Using Commas and a Conjunction

If two things happen, use the conjunction only:

Raymond stopped what he was doing and [he] ran to the gas station.
Would you like to have a seat or [would you like to] leave?

How about compound subjects?

Sally and I went to the races.

How about compound verbs?

Sally laughed and played.
Sally and I joked and laughed at the races and later at the movies.

What about the commas?

Use commas to separate every item in a list from the other except the last which is separated with the conjunction “and” or “or”:

Raymond stopped, looked both ways and ran to the gas station.
Would you like to have a seat, stand or leave?
Bob, Pete, Sam and Ray hiked, slept and ate in the forest and by the lake.

Rule #5B: The Oxford Comma

A comma before the conjunction is known as the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma is encouraged in Strunk and White but discouraged in the Chicago Manual of Style which is edging out the older manual as the current standard.

Examples of the Oxford Comma:

Raymond stopped, looked both ways, and ran to the gas station.
Would you like to have a seat, stand, or leave?

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Fundamental Rules for Writing Sentences
Sentence Section Project
+ Paragraphs
3 lectures 04:56

Words use punctuation to become sentences.  Sentences are used to construct paragraphs, the subject of this chapter.  Finally, as far as this book need be concerned, paragraphs are used to produce dialog.  Of course, beyond these basic constructs come scenes, chapters, novellas and novels or emails, blog posts and books if you lean toward non-fiction.  But those topics will be deferred until later in the series.

My point is that it’s time to discuss the next major construct that you need to know inside and out to be a proficient writer.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I didn’t fully understand what a paragraph was until I took bonehead (a class for student’s who were behind) English in junior college.  In bonehead English, we spent the first third of the class writing sentences.  The second third we wrote paragraphs and the final third we wrote three paragraph essays.  Through this semester length class, I learned how to write sentences and paragraphs very well.  As you will now…

This is my chapter on paragraphs.  Be ready to feel challenged as I challenge your writing to take form.  At the same time, revel in the fact that your writing is finally getting closer to what you’d originally envisioned.

And now, the paragraph…

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Introduction to Paragraphs

What is a Paragraph?

As we’ve already learned, a paragraph separator is typically implemented using a newline followed by five spaces of indent or a blank line.  But what’s a paragraph?  A paragraph delimits a shift from one thought to another.  Consider this paragraph and the following as examples.

If I were to begin discussing the moon and its distinguishing elements, I would do so via a new paragraph as I’ve done in this instance.  I would then support the topic sentence of my paragraph with additional sentences of information.

When I first began reading I thought that paragraphs were arbitrary breaks in large walls of text inserted to relieve eye strain.  In a sense, I was correct.  If I do find myself writing a solid wall of text, I soon implement ways to break that text into smaller paragraphs.  Still, the decisions I use to break up large bodies of text are far from arbitrary.

Paragraphs are composed of one or more topic sentences along with supporting information.  For example, a paragraph may be composed of an argument followed by supporting details.  The paragraph may be fully composed of narrative describing a character or scene.  Dialog imposes further requirements upon the use of paragraphs.

Paragraphs should seldom be composed of a single sentence except for emphasis or when writing dialog.

One of the things you may find yourself doing as a result of reading this book is slowing your reading and analyzing the way the writer constructs their sentences and paragraphs.  Their punctuation and word use.  How they handle dialog.  This is a good thing that I encourage you to continue.  That said, some authors you’ll find yourself skimming for the story while others you’ll slow down to savor every word.  Analyze what you read as your read it and how it affects you!

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What is a Paragraph?

Paragraph Section Project
+ Dialog
3 lectures 02:30

“Ah, dialog,” the author quipped.  “Need we even bother?”

“You bet we need to bother,” the voice of reason interjected.  “Dialog is the spice of fiction writing and can even come into play in non-fiction when quoting sources.”

“Alas, you’re right again, Voice of Reason (VOR),” the author retorted.  “As always, you’re right again…”

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Introduction to Dialog

To find your character’s voice, you must become your character!

Use local vernacular and language to support setting and define place.

Avoid anachronisms such as modern tools and language when writing historically or off world.

When inventing a new language or writing in Gaelic or Welsh, avoid too much realism – i.e. keep it recognizable to modern readers

Consider giving each character some distinctive vocal mannerism or affectation so readers can recognize them

“I shan’t be able to ride the road at night.”

“Aye, ya shan’t at that, young laddie.  Best ye stay the night.”

Use oui or eh to suggest French or Canadian accents; but again, don’t overdo it!

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Final Words of Advice
Dialog Section Project