Saturday, April 13, 2013

Solving the Scrivener Em Dash Smart Quote Problem

Warning: we're about to get into a little bit of writing nerdery here.

I don't know if I've actually gone through my actual writing process on the blog before--if not, I'll happily do so when I'm out of ideas regarding anything else to write about in a future post.

When I wrote the first draft of the Debt of Souls books, I used Word as my word processor.

It was awful.

Word simply isn't designed to handle anything over about forty pages or so. It took forever to load, it was impossible to find chapters, the interface is clunky; in short, it was a mess.

Not to mention that the finished product was still in .docx format, which meant that I was looking at shelling out another $100 or so for a formatter to convert the manuscript to the two major file formats for ebooks: .mobi (for Kindle) and .epub (for everything else).

I looked high and low for a word processor that would handle my work-in-progress better, and output in a variety of acceptable formats. After a number of painstaking google searches, I stumbled upon Scrivener.

If I could embed the "Love at First Sight" noise, I would absolutely do so here.

Scrivener is awesome for too many reasons to count. I could go through a long list of the features I love about it, but that's the thing; its main benefit is its customization. Whatever tips and tricks and quirks I use are probably different than anyone else's.

With one exception: the dreaded quotation mark after an em-dash.

"The who after the what now?"

I'm going out on a limb and assuming that you know what a quotation mark is.

An em-dash is one of those long dashes that people use at the end of sentences to indicate that they've been interrupt--

See, kind of like that, only it's one long line.

I use a fair number of em-dashes in my writing since my characters tend to be impatient jerks and are always jumping over each other in dialogue.

Scrivener uses a common system for quotation marks known as "smart quotes." It's what makes the quotes "open" at the beginning of a word or phrase, and "close" at the end. 

Unfortunately for Mac users, Scrivener does a great many things flawlessly, but some code embedded deep within Apple laptops makes it so that after an em-dash, the closing quote looks like an open quote. How unprofessional! I mean, you don't see that kind of stuff from the big, New York publishers, right?

Imagine my embarrassment when I realized that all of the em dash-quotes are like that in Jesus Was a Time Traveler and the Hack books!

So I spent a Saturday tracking down a fix to the problem. After scouring the Literature & Latte Scrivener forums for a while (big thanks to all the folks over there who provided their various solutions--this is the best of a surprisingly creative lot of them), I came across an easy fix for Mac users. Windows users, I don't quite know what to tell you, other than Windows 8 totally sucks and makes me feel like an old person when I try to use it.

It just takes Eight Easy Steps:

1. Somewhere in Scrivener, type "Hi--a" (quotation mark-H-i-dash-dash-a-quotation mark) (Notice that the second quote is closed. It doesn't have to be an "a", just some character that the smart quotes will recognize)

2. Delete the Hi and the a and copy the shiny, new, correct --" to your clipboard (the double-hyphen should've turned into an em-dash on its own. If not, the shortcut keys for an em-dash are option+shift+hyphen).

3. Open "System Preferences."

4. Click on "Language and Text."

5. Click on the "Text" tab.

6. Hit the "+" box under the list of fractions and other replacements.

7. In the left column, put --" (dash-dash-quotation mark)

8. Paste your correct em-dash/closing quotation mark in the right column

Voila! From now on, your characters can interrupt each other at will without fear of a totally unprofessional-looking open quote on the end.

Hope this helps some folks out there--I know it was driving me crazy. Happy writing.

D.J. Gelner is a fiction and freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Check out his books, available at his Amazon Author Page and on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him at


  1. This article has been shared in the Scrivener User community on Google+.

  2. This is exactly what I needed this morning, to fix this same problem in my own manuscript. Thanks!

  3. No problem, Jennifer--glad it helped!

  4. I found this extremely helpful, but did run into a couple of bugs that Scrivener currently has in the process. I don't know whether it is a Scrivener/Maverick issue, or what, but here is what I had to do to work around it:

    For me, the "System Text Preferences" button did not bring up the System Text dialog. It just sat there looking unhappy. However, I found that this is the same dialog as you can access through Mac's System Preferences -> Keyboard -> Text menu.

    If you want to avoid the whole cut-and-paste scenario, there are Mac keys for these characters:

    em dash: shift-option-hypen
    closed smart quote: shift-option [
    open smart quote: option [

    When I started the whole process (yesterday) my text replacements window was unpopulated. Sometime between yesterday and today, it synced up with my iCloud account and imported the text replacements from my iOS devices. Another sign that there is something just a bit buggy in text replacements, since it should have done that a month ago.

    So I tested my text replacements out in Textedit, and they worked perfectly. (I set up replacements for not just em dash closed smart quote, but also for em dash straight quote, and hyphen straight quote, just to cover all my bases.) Went back to Scrivener, and... no luck. I had Symbol and text substitution checked off. I Quit Scrivener and reopened. No luck. After searching the forums, I tried downloading Scrivener off the website and reinstalling (as there are apparently some issues with text substitution in the App Store version). Still nothing.

    I unchecked the two sub-boxes below "Suggest completions as you type", set up a couple of words on the project auto-complete list, and typed for a couple of minutes, then decided I didn't like that, and turned it back off again (without re-enabling the two sub-boxes). I continued to type, and then suddenly realized that my text replacements, including the em dash closed quote replacements, were suddenly working. Voila!

    So, if you run into either of these two bugs (1) System Text Preferences not opening from within Scrivener or (2) Text replacements not working within Scrivener, try these workarounds!

  5. Wow--thanks PD! Would you mind if I edited the main post to include your new stuff? Happy to link to your blog, etc. Let me know, and thanks for all of the hard work--tough to stay on top of this stuff with all of the updates and whatnot!


  6. When using Word for writing a manuscript you should save your work by chapter. That ends the loading problem. Also you can easily use Calibre to convert your works to any type of format for e-readers and it's free (unless you wish to donate, which I encourage). I'm using Scrivener for my second and third books and prefer it for the actual writing process, however, I will have to put it into a .docx format for submission anyway. Scrivener just helps me keep my thoughts in line.

  7. I prefer working in Word and have none of the problems you mention, but it may not work as well on a Mac, of course. Every time I write something in Scrivener, it drives me nuts, and I never use the features that make it indispensable for other writers. However, in Scrivener for Windows, I believe it does this one particular correction automatically—pretty sure I didn't program it in—and Word does not (and attempting to teach AutoCorrect to do this actually made it do the opposite, converting it to --" as the final result).

  8. Thanks! This is useful. But be aware that there are some cases where you do want an em dash followed by an *opening* quotation mark. For example:

    "Look out"--she was panicking now--"for trees!"

    Making the change you recommended will result in a closing quotation mark before "for", which isn't what you want.

    I think what's really needed is contextually aware smart quotes that look at the character after the quotation mark. In the case of hyphen hyphen quote space, or hyphen hyphen quote return, you do want a closing quotation mark; in the case of hyphen hyphen quote capital-letter, then you want an opening quotation mark.

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  11. Thank you. Seems a bit complicated for something so simple, but it worked. Thanks for doing the 'leg work' on this one; it was driving me crazy.

  12. Does this still work? Unfortunately, I can't get it to work on my end. I can change it in the system preferences, but it doesn't change anything in Scrivener :(

  13. There's a problem with this. If you pause at all after typing your two hyphens, they are turned into a dash before you can add the quote. Then Mac never encounters the combination --" so it won't make the change.

  14. Agreed, Max. The only thing that has worked for me is to save a triple hyphen (---) into the Mac preferences instead of the double hyphen end-quote (--"). This makes the auto-replacement unambiguous for the system.

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