Hey Mythcreants — I’m almost finished with my first novel! It’s been quite a bit of time in the making, and the editing phase is finally within view. I was casually perusing my manuscript when I stumbled across something relatively simple that I’m not sure what to do about: hyphens and ellipses. As it turns out — I use quite a bit of these…to say the least. Especially in dialogue. Is this okay? Are there alternatives I should consider?

– Evan


Hi Evan,

It’s hard to tell for sure without looking at your prose and seeing how you’re using them and how often. Right now, all I have to go off of is the question you submitted, including this sentence: “As it turns out — I use quite a bit of these…to say the least.”

That sentence suggests you’re using them when you should be using commas. It would normally be “As it turns out, I use quite a bit of these, to say the least.”

The double hyphen is generally a quick keyboard replacement for an em dash, or possibly an en dash with spaces on either side. They can be used in place of a comma for a more dramatic pause. That doesn’t make much sense after “as it turns out,” but you might say “As it turns out, I use quite a bit of these — to say the least.” to emphasize that last clause. An ellipses should represent trailing off, but writers often use it for dramatic pauses as well.

With any technique used to add emphasis or make something more dramatic, like bold, italics, or exclamation points, you have to use restraint… or die. If overused, your writing may come off as melodramatic.

I have also seen writers use too many en dashes or em dashes to insert asides that might otherwise go in a parenthesis. The risk there is if you’re using them to avoid the work of creating a smooth flow of thought, then you’re interrupting your prose with tangents all the time. As a result, the reading experience becomes cumbersome, and sentences are more likely to be convoluted and confusing. I have some critiques of prose with too many interruptions and tangents; see my coverage of Twilight and Tommyknockers.

Even if the usage is appropriate in any given spot, if you’re doing it enough that readers start to notice and get distracted by it, then you’ll want to cut back.

I hope that helps,

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