By Cheri Lasota

Ever heard of an em dash? I thought not. I hadn’t heard of it until a few years ago, when I finally delved into the subject after much confusion on what a hyphen and dash actually look like. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, “Hyphens and the various dashes all have their specific appearance … and uses.”

There are three types that fiction writers generally use:

–        the hyphen: used in compound words, in URLS, and to separate telephone numbers, etc.
–     the en dash: used to connect numbers such as dates, times, verses, sports scores, etc. 
—       the em dash: used to set off an explanatory element or to indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure.

However, seeing the difference doesn’t particularly help you know “how” to create these dashes. And in truth, you don’t have to know, according to Chicago Manual of Style. “Writers are advised (unless otherwise instructed by their editors or publishers) to use a single hyphen both for a hyphen and an en dash, two hyphens for an em dash.”

This is accepted practice, but for those who want to use proper typesetting format (woohoo!) there are two ways that I know of for creating en- and em dashes: by careful use of spaces while typing or by a pre-determined keystroke.

Em dashes require no spaces on either side. To create one, type a letter, then two hyphens, another letter, then a space. En dashes, on the other hand, require a space on either side of the double hyphen. To make an en dash, you type a letter, a space, two hyphens, a space, a letter, then another space. Whew! Did you get all that?

The keystrokes already set up in Microsoft Word for en- and em dashes are awkward, so I just created my own easy-to-remember keystroke: F2 and F3. To create your own, simply go to Insert, Symbol. In the Symbol box, click on the Special Characters tab, then click on the Shortcut Key button. In the Customize Keyboard box, simply press the key(s) that you wish to use.

Editors are impressed by writers who know proper formatting. It shows the writer has done his homework, and gives them another reason to say yes to his writing. I highly recommend using proper formatting, for your own sake and your editor’s.