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  • Writer's pictureNate Methot

Em Dash Minutiae

The dashes you see in the middle of a sentence―the ones that provide visual separation for additional information―are called em dashes. They often appear in my book. Not too much, I've been assured, but regularly, to be sure. I’d like to illuminate the editing and design process with this one tiny character.

For a number of years, I’ve been writing with my mouse and an on-screen keyboard. At some point during my five years in Monkton―perhaps shortly after I bought a new laptop―my hands could no longer type in any reasonable way. Somehow, I don’t remember the transition; I guess it’s been lost amongst all of the others. Like moving from the touch pad to a mouse several years before, it wasn’t so much my fingers as it was my wrists. For a long time, I hadn’t been strong enough to reproduce the “wrists up and off the desk” form we were taught in Computer Applications in the ninth grade; mine were firmly planted in front of the keyboard by gravity. But eventually I didn’t have the strength to lift my palms off the table and hold my fingers over the keys. My right wrist went first―following the path that had begun with the shoulder―though I’m not sure that it mattered. I needed two hands to type, especially with my wrists glued to the table. So, I tried to find a new way.

I found two options: a talk-to-text function intended to provide access to all of the machine’s features, and a pop-up touchscreen keyboard that could be controlled with a mouse. Both were built into Windows. I tried the talk-to-text feature a number of times, adjusting the microphone volume and even borrowing a headset from the ALS clinic. It was terrible―horrible―seemingly light years behind modern smartphone technology. My other option, while tedious at the start to a sadly discouraging degree, was almost failsafe in its execution. Though theoretically much slower, there would be few mistakes to correct.

The on-screen keyboard functions like a smartphone: it guesses your words as you type them. It’s rare that I type every letter of a word without clicking on the words presented to me. If I counted correctly, that sentence took forty-one mouse clicks in total. Without any assistance (if I had to input every character), it would have been ninety-four. Wow, this is really minutia!

There are multiple options for the “keyboard,” some that mirror the actual keyboard and take up a lot of space on the screen, and one that’s smaller, about three inches square, that I’ve found less likely to get in the way. They each have their pros and cons―the larger one has more keys as well as more space for the guess-words―and sometimes it makes sense simply to toggle between them.

For several years on my old laptop, I wrote in a Google document―well, not really. I opened a new email and wrote there, only pasting it into the cloud-based Google doc after I was finished. I had a very good reason for this convoluted process: the word-guessing function didn’t seem to work in the Google doc. The vast majority of my memoir was written within Gmail.

Toward the end of my writing, my laptop―which I dropped at least twice while carrying it between rooms in the Monkton house―decided not to turn on any longer. It had been a problem for over a year. I’d been following a ridiculous self-made procedure (press power, wait a few minutes until the fan starts up, hold power to force shut down, press power and hope), but one day, my cleverness wasn’t enough.

I bought an all-in-one machine (a desktop without a tower) and against my frugal tendencies, spent the extra hundred bucks on Microsoft Office. All of the editing―passing shared documents back and forth countless times―was done in Word. In the first minute, my editor changed the font to Times New Roman 12-point. I don’t know what it was before.

On to the em dash. Finally finished with the edits (or so I thought), I sent the Word document off to my design guy to convert to a side-by-side paged, book-style PDF. In doing so, for reasons unasked, the font was changed. In my initial review, I didn’t like the em dash. It wasn’t doing its job.

The midsentence em dash is intended to visually separate an add-on phrase from the overall sentence. It’s like an enhanced comma, aiding the reader by providing an obvious cue. That’s what punctuation is for: to make things easier to read―to make them clear. The new font’s em dash didn’t seem long enough; it wasn’t the visual aid that I wanted. So, I asked to have a space added before and after.

I’ve seen it written both ways: “―” and “ ― “. In every website article I read, there are spaces; in books, there almost never are. I don’t know why they’re different.

After several more rounds of proofing, and countless visual reviews, I finally gave the green light to print. One copy, that is. To review.

UPS delivered my book a few days later. My mom ripped open the package and we had a look. I didn’t particularly like the recommended matte finish or 6 by 9 trim size, but upon opening it up, I found another surprise. The font was enormous! Almost comically so. I hadn’t even considered the font size; I guess I thought he knew what he was doing.

Informing my (cover and interior) design guy of my shock and awe, I requested some changes. To reduce the trim to 5.5 by 8.5, change to a glossy finish, and choose a more reasonable font. He sent me three font examples, we printed them out, and with the aid of a few books for comparison, chose one.

It took him a number of days to reformat the entire document and I had to request a round or two of changes after a thorough review. Finally, satisfied that I wouldn’t find any more formatting inconsistencies, I gave my second green light.

When we received the new sample (it took about ten days this time), I looked through it as before. Just like with the PDF, I was looking for formatting mistakes: missing or out of order pages, missing headers, too many or too few lines on a page. Despite the visual differences inherent in a new font, I didn’t think to check my precious em dash.

That was a mistake. There are spaces. There don’t need to be.

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