5 Ways to Create an Em Dash

Pause with Scrabble tiles

by C.K. MacLeod

Updated on January 14, 2017.

I have all-in-one laptop that weighs the same as a tablet. It’s a marvel of a machine except for one thing: because it doesn’t have a numeric keypad (less keyboard = better portability), I cannot create em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) in my usual way.

(You know there are three kinds of dashes in written English, right? Use them correctly in your writing and you will impress a copyeditor!)

1. Use built-in keyboard shortcuts.

On a regular-size keyboard with a number keypad, I can use keyboard shortcuts to create em dashes and en dashes:

  • Em dash (—): Alt+0151
  • En dash (–): Alt+0150

In Microsoft Word:

  • Em dash (—): Alt+Ctrl+ - (minus)
  • En dash (–): Ctrl + - (minus)

Mac users use these shortcuts:*

  • Em dash (—): Shift-Alt-hyphen or Command + M
  • En dash (–): Alt-hyphen

My usual keyboard shortcuts don’t work on my portable laptop, though. Here are few workarounds:

2. Plug in a full-size external keyboard or keypad.

This option will only be appealing to you if you tend to use your laptop like a desktop.

For editing documents, I like to plug my laptop into a massive monitor and attach a wireless mouse and full-size keyboard, complete with a number keypad.

Alternatively, you can plug in a portable USB number keypad and use your laptop keyboard and touchpad. With this set-up, there are no problems creating em and en dashes in my usual way—using Alt codes.

But what if you prefer to use your laptop on-the-go, as it’s intended? Read on…

3. Use Unicode character codes.

Most compact PC laptop keyboards won’t allow you to use Alt codes to create em dashes and en dashes, but you can use Unicode character codes in most instances:

  • Em dash: 2014+Alt+x
  • En dash: 2013+Alt+x

You can look up other Unicode character codes here.

Note: Keyboard shortcuts using Unicode character codes don’t work in Scrivener, Gmail, or Google docs. For these programs, try one of the options that follow.

4. Use your word processor’s built-in autocorrect function.

In Google Docs, if you type two hyphens followed by a space, those two hyphens will be changed to an em dash. Out of the box, Word and Scrivener will do the same.

There isn’t an autocorrect option out of the box for an en dash, though. So, you can try this:

In Word 2010 and up, go to Tools, Options, Proofing, and click on the AutoCorrect Options button.

Select the AutoCorrect tab and add these keyboard shortcuts:

  • Replace: .em  With: —
  • Replace .en  With: –

Now each time you type .em (dot em) in Microsoft Word, it will be replaced by an em dash, and .en will give you an en dash.

If you want to do the same in Scrivener, go to Tool, Options, Corrections, Edit Substitutions. In Google Docs, go to Tools, Preferences.

5. Use your operating system’s character map.

Using you operating system’s search function, type in “character map.” A grid with symbols will pop up, and you can select the em dash or en dash and copy and paste it into your document. In Scrivener, you can access your operating system’s character map by going to Edit, Character Map. In Word 2010 and up, you’ll need to go to Insert, Symbol. In Google Docs, go to Insert, Special Characters.

Be Efficient

There are many ways to create em dashes and en dashes on your laptop. If your only option is to use the character map (the least efficient option), consider inserting two hyphens for em dashes in your document for now. You can then use your word processor’s find and replace function to replace the hyphens with the correct symbol later.

Do you use a Mac? Let us know how you insert em dashes and en dashes into your writing in the comments section below.

*Thanks to John Espirian and Geri J. for suggesting keyboard shortcuts for Mac users.

Image by Dennis Skley

How to Ease Repetitive Strain Injury

By C.K. MacLeodGraffiti of words repeat again

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Is your wrist starting to ache and your fingers starting to tingle? If so, you could be experiencing early signs of repetitive strain injury.

You're not alone. I've gotten away with the same computer practices I've used for years, without a bodily complaint. Until now. Thankfully, it's not too late to develop new computer-healthy habits.

In dealing with RSI, it's important to do whatever you can to interrupt or reduce the actions that are causing you discomfort. Cycling through a variety of strategies on a daily basis can help. Here's what I’ve tried:

  • left-hand mousing (I typically mouse with my right hand—and yes, the first left-hand day was rough)
  • a new kind of mouse (to change my hand position)
  • a new way of mousing (on my pant leg—a lower hand position can ease strain)
  • a new keyboard, with a different configuration than my old one
  • keyboard shortcuts (to reduce mousing)
  • macros (to automate editing and proofreading tasks)
  • speech-recognition software (to reduce keyboarding and mousing)
  • writing in markdown (to prevent mousing for formatting operations)
  • frequent breaks (with the assistance of Workrave, a free RSI prevention app)
  • roller derby wrist guards (to temporarily immobilize my wrist and prevent further strain—yes, I play roller derby, and surprise! I sustain more injuries from my computer) — use with caution because, as my chiropractor pointed out, "mobility is better than immobility"
  • old-school technology (to reduce mousing)
  • hand exercises (thanks to J Washburn for this tip)
  • physiotherapy (thanks to Ahmed and Mike for sorting me out)
  • chiropractic (for a derby injury—but this will be my first stop if I have the misfortune of of sustaining a computer-related back injury)
  • rest

Disclaimer: I am not an authority on RSI—only a victim of it. But I did query an occupational therapist, a kinesiologist, and a physiotherapist, and they agreed that changing things up is a key to reducing strain. If you have pain in your wrist and fingers, your wisest course of action is to first consult with your physician, physiotherapist or chiropractor.

I suspect that the best way to deal with RSI is to prevent it. What are your RSI prevention strategies?

Image by Feral78

How to Create a Keyboard Shortcut for the Snipping Tool


by C.K. MacLeod

I'm trying to use my mouse less and my keyboard more. Why? Keyboard shortcuts can

  • reduce repetitive strain injury from too much mousing
  • help you to complete writing and editing tasks more efficiently

Save Time

Hilary Powers, in her excellent book, Making Word 2010 Work for You, has pointed out that it often takes less time to execute a keyboard shortcut than it takes for your hand to wander to your mouse, click through a menu in a word processing program or in Windows Explorer, and wander back to the keyboard. She has a point. Why leave the keyboard, if you don't have to?

Create Your Own Shortcuts

In this post, I'll describe the steps for creating your own keyboard shortcut for the Windows Snipping Tool—a handy application for taking screenshots while writing and blogging.

It's a multi-step process to find the Snipping Tool with Windows Explorer. Instead, I've assigned the Snipping Tool the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Alt + K so that I can open it in seconds.

Quick Steps

  1. Find the Snipping Tool application in Windows Explorer by going to the Start menu and keying in "Snipping." The Snipping Tool should show up in the Start menu.
  2. Right-click on the application name (Snipping Tool) and click on Properties.
  3. Next to Shortcut key: insert the key combinations you want to use to open that application. I've used Ctrl + Alt + K because the that key combination isn't already being used for another action* and because the K reminds me of a pair of scissors left open on a table.
  4. Click Okay, and try your your new shortcut.

Once you integrate them into your workflow, keyboard shortcuts can save you time. What other writing-related applications could you assign a keyboard shortcut to?

*Note: Some key combinations are already assigned functions in Windows 7. Windows will let you know if you choose a combination that's already taken.

Image by James Bowe

Wrist-Saving Keyboard Shortcuts

Hand on keyboard by Branko Collin

by C.K. MacLeod

Using keyboard shortcuts can help you to ease repetitive strain injury (RSI) in the fingers and wrist caused by overusing a mouse or touchpad. And once these shortcuts become second-nature, they can help you to write more efficiently as well.

The keyboard shortcuts listed below are not software-specific or operating system-specific—they don't just work for Windows users, or Word users, for example. They should work on most computing devices, even the old-school intelligent keyboards that some authors, like Bryan Cohen, are experimenting with to help them focus on writing without the distractions of social media and the Internet.

Print this downloadable file and stick it next to your computer for easy reference. Do you use a Mac? Check out this post by Adrienne Montgomerie for a handful of Mac keyboard shortcuts.

Tip: When using keyboard shortcuts, be sure to keep your wrists straight, and allow your hands to float over the keys.

Hide Your Mouse

Old habits die hard. When I began to feel strain in my wrist, I was surprised to discover how often I reached for my mouse without really thinking about it. I was also shocked to discover that my hand rested rather tensely on my mouse when I wasn't typing.

If your mousing habits are entrenched like mine are, you may need to unplug or turn off your mouse for a few minutes each day, so you can learn to rely a bit more on keyboard shortcuts. If you use a touchpad, you can put a sticky note overtop to temporarily disable it.

You don't have to learn all of the keyboard shortcuts listed in this post—learn the ones you like. If a few of them become habit, you'll reduce your mouse use and have a better chance of easing some of the strain.

Tip: if you learn the Jump to shortcuts first, the rest of the shortcuts are easier to learn. The keys you'll use the most in these combinations are the Ctrl key and the arrow keys.The Jump to shortcut keys are useful for scrolling through online articles, too!

Image by  Branko Collin