Pay attention to punctuation and its rules. It’s worth investing in a reference guide on this subject. If you are confident in your grammar and punctuation, please ignore this section. If you are not entirely sure why the word its / it’s has just been spelled in two different ways in this paragraph, read on.


1. Sentences

Vary the length of each one. Choose a variety of ways to begin a new sentence. For example, use a time phrase.  ‘Once a year we used to go on a family holiday.’

Try to avoid too many long sentences with clauses linked by ‘and’ and ‘but’. It may be better to split them. Be careful when joining clauses together as the rules here are easily broken.


Jeff was fed up of covering for Bruce, he made up his mind not to do it again.

This is just two smaller sentences shoved together with a comma in the middle.


Jeff was fed up of covering for Bruce, so he made up his mind not to do it again.
Fed up of covering for Bruce, Jeff made up his mind not to do it again.
Jeff was fed up of covering for Bruce. Never again.

The last example is slightly controversial as the second sentence isn’t a proper sentence. It doesn’t have a verb and a subject. The modern style is accepting of this, however, as it reads like the character’s train of thought. The reader imagines the phrase ‘Never again’ going through Jeff’s head. This brings the reader closer to his point of view.


2.   Paragraphs

As a general rule, if you change the subject, the location or the time, you should start a new paragraph. If a paragraph is over eight lines long it may well benefit from being broken up. Very short paragraphs of only one sentence can be appropriate when used for effect but shouldn’t be the norm.


3.  Apostrophes

Apostrophes are the most misused of all punctuation marks. There are two acceptable reasons to use an apostrophe:

a) To indicate that a thing belongs to or pertains to someone or something. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth. The apostrophe indicates that the mouth pertains to the horse.

b) To indicate that a letter or letters has been missed out. I can’t understand it. The apostrophe indicates that letters are missing; in other words can’t is a shortened version of cannot.

Sometimes people get so much in habit of using apostrophes that they employ them whenever a word ends in ‘s’. This is wrong. Most words that end in ‘s’ are simply plurals and don’t need an apostrophe. For example, There were three horses in the field.

There is one catch: when a word ends in ‘s’ already, and you need to indicate possession, the apostrophe goes at the end of the word. The horses’ saddles were all missing. This tells us that there was more than one horse and the saddles belonged to them.

It may be strangely tempting to use an apostrophe when you make a plural of a word ending in a vowel. Resist the temptation.

One visa, two visas.  One pizza, two pizzas. One bikini, two bikinis. And (if you want to appear better educated than a certain former American Vice-President) one potato, two potatoes.   

Let's do the show right here - the apostrophe is correct because 'let's' is short for 'let us'
It gets better
- there is no apostrophe in 'gets'. It's not short for anything.

4.   Spelling

Spell-check won’t catch everything. Be specially wary of homophones, aka words that sound the same but mean something different. Here is a quick list of some of the most common errors.





it is / it has

It’s a lovely day.

It’s been a blast.


belonging to it

The government needs to get its act together.


that place / indicator of existence

You can sit over there. 

There was a knife on the table


belonging to them

They took off their coats.


they are

They’re ready to go.


belonging to you

Show me your homework.


you are

You’re skating on thin ice.


who is / who has

Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf?


belonging to whom

Whose line is it anyway?


opposite of win

Kasparov couldn’t believe he would lose this game.


opposite of tight

The neighbour’s dog was running loose on the street.



That’s a bare-faced lie.


carry, endure / large mammal with claws

Bear with me a moment.

The bear growled and shook its chain.


this place

Here we are.


to notice a sound

I can hear the carol singers outside.


to have an impact

Murray admitted that the injury affected his game.


consequence of an action

Jane’s practical joke produced a spectacular effect.


Copyright - Edinburgh Writers' Club