Colons, E-mail Format, Great Storytellers vs. Great Writers, Store Names, and Agent

bookdoctorby Bobbie Christmas

Q: If the wording following a colon can stand as a complete sentence, is it necessary to capitalize the first letter following the colon?
A: It depends. Lowercase the word following a colon if only one sentence or sentence fragment follows the colon. Uppercase the first word following a colon if it introduces two or more sentences, when it introduces a speech in dialogue, or when it introduces a direct question.

Example for lowercase: He gave her two choices: move to Miami or end the relationship.

Examples for uppercase after a colon: He said she had two choices: “You can move to Miami or end the relationship.” One must pack many things for a trip to Canada: Carry a sweater for the cool nights. Take comfortable walking shoes. Pack clothes you can layer.

Q: How do you format the name of a book or movie in plain text e-mails, when they should be italicized?
A: Plain text does not allow italics, so your question is valid. Because plain text e-mail, newsletters, and blogs have no standard style to follow, I have suggestions, but no absolutes. Some people add an underline before and after the name, to indicate italics, as in the following: Gone With the Wind was a bestseller and a blockbuster movie. Others use quotation marks. Some people simply capitalize the title and trust by the content that the reader will understand that it is a book or a movie. Until a widely accepted style book is written about how to format plain text, writers are left to do the best they can. In the meantime, choose a style that helps readers understand the content, and then be consistent. As for me, I simply capitalize the titles that would also be in italics in any other format.

Q: In your recent presentation you mentioned that you were reading a Grisham novel and that he is a great storyteller, but a not-so-great writer. Who is a good storyteller and a good writer, in your opinion?
A: The John Grisham novel was The Broker, the only Grisham novel I’ve read, and it was set in Italy. I’ve traveled to Italy twice, so I enjoyed Grisham’s setting descriptions and the fact that the book teaches readers a little Italian in the process. The point of view was all over the place, though, rather than being confined to one character per scene. In real life we cannot know what is going on in everyone’s head all the time, so I found his lack of attention to point of view distracting; that is, I never felt that I was living the story. I always knew I was reading it. I never could get immersed in the story. In addition, Grisham’s writing style could use a great deal of tweaking.

For me, the best writers keep me involved in the story while they also unravel a good story. I have three favorite storyteller/writers. For fiction, even though his stories are loosely based on his life, Pat Conroy takes top honors. For nonfiction, I’m enamored of David Sedaris and Bill Bryson. Sedaris writes of his life, and he writes with skill, style, and humor, as does Bryson, who writes about his travels. Because of Bryson’s mastery of dark humor, though, some folks may steer clear of many of the places he writes about.

Q: In a novel manuscript, when referring to a store or shop in a town, is there any special punctuation other than capitalization? I have referred to two grammar handbooks, and neither addresses the question.
A: The names of stores and other businesses are handled like any names. Names need to be capitalized only. Example: We bought Band-Aid strips at Eckerd Drugs and took them to McDonald’s to bandage Sam’s burns.

Q: What is your awareness, knowledge, or opinion of a literary agent pushing for a third-party critique prior to accepting a nonfiction book?
A: If the agent asks you to pay a fee to a specific person, it would be a dubious practice indeed. It would appear that the agent is getting a kickback, even if it is not so.
Legitimate agents may suggest that you get your manuscript edited by a professional editor, to improve the book. The agent may even provide you with several names of editors, but legitimate agents would not limit you to those editors. A critique, however, does not improve the book, it simply evaluates it, and in my opinion, an evaluation should be the work of the agents at no charge.

A nonfiction book does not even have to be written to be shopped around to publishers; it needs only to have a good book proposal and sample chapters. For that reason, I’m at a loss to understand what the agent wants critiqued.

Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at


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