Colons and Semicolons, Organization and Tables of Contents, and Breaking the Rules of Point of View


book doctor 2015by Bobbie Christmas

Q: I liked the way you addressed commas in a prior column. Have you addressed colons and semicolons in depth, as well?

A: I haven’t addressed colons and semicolons in my Ask the Book Doctor column, but those details (along with hundreds of other details) are in my book doctor reference book, Purge Your Prose of Problems. I will say this, though: (note the colon) If a manuscript uses colons and semicolons frequently, chances are the sentences are too long. It’s something worth examining.

Q: I am a poet/writer in the process of writing a book. It is unique in the sense that it is a series of life events with my poetry interwoven into it. Essentially I will tell the back stories to my poetry by going in depth as to how each piece was inspired. I am having trouble understanding how to break the book into chapters. For example, many pieces are about my upbringing (father, mother, brother, etc.), some pieces are about love, and others about adversity. How do I break this combination into chapters?

I also need to know how to handle the table of contents. Please assist.

A: No rules exist for breaking books into chapters. The only thing that applies is that information should flow in a logical manner. Does it have to be chronological? No. It sounds to me that you have the following overall topics: father, mother, brother, love, and adversity. There may be more than you listed, but we’ll use these as examples. You may want to think in terms of sections, rather than chapters, with each section labeled by topic.

If it were me, I would list the sections in the table of contents and then under each section list the titles of each item that appears in that section and the page numbers that start those items.

Even though the format may go a little wonky in this column, the table of contents might look something like this:

Section I: Mother

Back Story …………….3
Nurture versus Nature…4
Where Were You?……….5

Section II: Father

Back Story ……………10
New Parenthood………11
Fly Fishing…………….13

Section III: Brother

Back Story …………….21
Sibling Rivalry…………22
Hatchet Burying………..24

Section IV: Adversity

Back Story …………….25
Why Now?……………..26
Mountains to Climb…….27

Q: Does a reprint of a book that has no changes in content require it to be labeled Second Edition? I would like to leave it as is, first edition, but want to follow protocol.

A: A reprinted book in its original form would be called the second printing, third printing, and so forth. A new printing does not constitute a new edition.

When the book differs from the original but is also similar, it is a new edition. With my book, Write In Style, for example, when my publisher decided not to go into a second printing and returned the rights to me, I changed the subtitle, updated the information, and greatly expanded the book. Because of all the upgrades and changes, the new printing is considered a second edition.

Q: I have a client whose manuscript has a limited omniscient point of view, but the author gets into the perspective of only two characters: a woman and then her boyfriend. These perspectives are not in separate scenes, but within one scene, all through the book. Can an author do that? I’m thinking it will be a deal breaker with a publisher, but the author is quite determined to keep it. What do you think?

A: Creative writing tends to have guidelines, rather than rules. The guidelines say to use only one point of view per scene, and that each scene should be in the point of view of the most important character in that scene. New writers hoping to sell to a publisher are wise to follow that rule of thumb, because not following it could be a deal breaker with many a publisher. If an agent spots something that would be a deal breaker with a publisher, the agent has no incentive to handle the book either.

I recall reading a wonderful book with two perspectives of each scene, but the author handled it brilliantly by putting the scene in separate chapters, first in the woman’s point of view, and then in the next chapter, the same scene from the man’s point of view. The points of view differed in hilarious ways. The book rocked!

Has anyone ever succeeded while disregarding the current one-point-of-view-per-scene recommendation? John Grisham comes to mind. He tells great stories, but in the one book that I read, the POV was often in three or more characters within the same scene. It drove me crazy. As a result I will never read another of his books. Anyway, if a writer has a reputation and readership as strong as John Grisham’s, it’s fine to ignore the basic tenets of strong creative writing, but I would never advise an unpublished writer to disregard those tenets.

Although we editors must give advice, the author makes the final decisions, until and unless an agent or publisher gets involved. Will an agent or publisher even get involved with a book that breaks away from the standards of creative writing? Grisham’s success says yes, but how many of us are as well-known as Grisham? I didn’t read his first published book, so I don’t know if it followed the standard guidelines for point of view. I suspect it did, and after he met with success, he could write any way he wanted. If anyone knows differently, I’m open to hearing more information.

For much more information on hundreds of subjects of vital importance to writers, order Purge Your Prose of Problems, a Book Doctor’s Desk Reference Book.

Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor, owner of Zebra Communications, and quadruple-award-winning author of Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at



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