Our answers are based on Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) published by the University of Chicago Press. It is one of the most respected and trustworthy guidelines for literary works.
Titles and headers
A very common error in many of the books I edit or proofread occurs in the title, headers, and subheaders. The Chicago Manual of Style states: In regular title capitalization, also known as headline style, the first and last words and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.) are capitalized. Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, are lowercase unless they are the first or last word of the title or subtitle [Ed. 14 reference is 7.127; and Ed. 15 reference is 8.167] .
A book is not entitled (meaning deserving, allowed, permitted); it is titled (meaning to have a title, label, or name).
The titles of books, record albums, movies, TV shows, and screenplays should be in italic type. Do not use “quotation” marks. Do not underline these titles unless you are formatting them for a bibliography. However, article titles, and poem and song titles do go inside quotation marks.
Using all caps
Unless a word is an acronym, it should not be in ALL CAPS. Use italics for emphasis.
Is this okay?
OK should be spelled out: okay.
ISBN is the acronym for International Standard Book Number. To write “ISBN number” is the same as stating International Standard Book Number number. It is redundant to use the word “number” or the pound symbol (#) after ISBN.
Use of percent symbol
Percent symbols (%) should be spelled out “percent” unless used in a chart or table. Numbers followed by a percent should be in numeric form. Example: 91 percent. However, if a percentage is the first word of a sentence in a literary work, it should be spelled out. Example: Ninety‐one percent of the students passed the test.
Spaces between sentences
Use one space (not two) after a period, question mark, colon, or semi‐colon. This is quite the opposite of what we were taught in typing class way back when! It can be a hard habit to break.
Serial commas or killers?
CMOS 5.57 states, “In a series listing three or more items, the elements are separated by a comma.” For example: The dog, cat, hippo, and cow jumped over the moon.
Writing for Decades
When writing years, do not use an apostrophe. Example: 1960s, not 1960’s unless you want the possessive form of the word. If abbreviated: ’60s is correct; 60’s is incorrect. Notice that the apostrophe [ ’ ] is used as a placeholder for missing the numbers, and not a single close quote mark [ ‘ ] which faces the opposite direction. Strunk & White will disagree.
Speaking of years, hyphens and numerals are used when you write “the 16‐year‐old boy.” No hyphen is needed, and the number is spelled out when you write “the boy is sixteen years old.”
Internet and Web site
Internet is a proper noun and the first letter should be capitalized. The debate on whether or not Web should be capitalized is still ongoing. CMOS says it should be written in proper case. It is another name for World Wide Web, which is a proper noun. RE: Web site. When a word is used a lot, its spelling becomes commonly accepted even if it is incorrect. The most common spelling and use of this word is website. However, according to CMOS, it is two words: Web site. As long as you are consistent throughout your book or document, I doubt most people will question either spelling.
You will save yourself tons of time if you keep a style sheet as you write. Any time you make a choice between two possibilities, both of which are right (like web site or website), make a note and alphabetize it. You'll also end up with a much more professional book to say nothing of ending up with a manuscript that is easier for your editor to tweak.
Be sure to give you editor the style sheet. It will help her, too. Always a good idea, especially if you're paying her by the hour. Ha!
To Dash or not to Dash
The em dash [—] is defined as one em (letter “m”) in width. The double hyphen will convert to an em dash—if you type two dashes (hyphens) ‐‐ and do not put a space before or after. Or, you may create an em dash in Windows‐based programs by pressing and holding Caps Lock and Alt while typing 0151 on your number key pad. Similar to a parenthetical phrase, the em dash sets apart clauses in a sentence. In other words, if you would normally put something in parenthesis, it could lend itself to em dashes.
The en dash [–] is one en (letter “n”) in width: half the width of an em dash. The en dash is used to indicate a closed range, or a connection between two things of almost any kind: numbers, people, places, etc. For example: June–July 2008. Create an en dash in Windows‐based programs by pressing and holding Caps Lock and Alt while typing 0150 on your number key pad. There should be no space before or after an en dash.
Away or a way?
a way: noun (such as a path or route)
away: adverb (Go away!)
A lot or alot
Allot or a lot is correct. Used as one word spelled alot is incorrect.
That that that
Overusing “that” is another area where writers tend to go overboard. If a sentence makes sense without using the word “that, ” by all means, leave it out.
When writing dialog, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. When a word or phrase is used to set apart text in scare quotes, the first example below is correct; the second is incorrect: Every day we hear that the price of gas has hit an “all time high.” Every day we hear that the price of gas has hit an “all time high”.
Numbers less than ten should always be spelled out. Some style guides will disagree about higher numbers. Chicago advocates that all numbers under 100 should be spelled out. If in question, always consult a style guide. Be consistent and use the same style guide throughout the document or manuscript.
Questions from our Readers
Molli Nickell: I'd be interested in opinions on how and when "traditional" publishers will be including digital publishing in their plans, and, how will they promote this low-cost method of making books available in the electronic format.
Carolyn and Yvonne agreed that printed books will never be replaced by digital books, but that e-books definitely have their place on the market and are selling, largely due to electronic readers such as Amazon's Kindle Reader. It's best to offer your book in both print and e-book (when appropriate) to reach the largest number of readers in the format they prefer.
Heather Summerhayes Cariou, the author of Sixty-five Roses: A Sister's Memoir, left a new comment on Carolyn's blog post Opportunity to Get Your Title Mentioned on Podcast. She wrote:
I went over my manuscript with a fine tooth comb, then had an English teacher friend check it for grammar, punctuation, and typos, then my agent and publisher/Editor went through it, then my copy editor, then I did one more sweep and there were STILL a handful of errors that one reviewer found it necessary to point out. What can be done to avoid this with my next book?
Yvonne's answer: This is especially for Heather, but it may help others as well. I ghostwrote a book for a client last year. After writing it, I edited it twice: once to reduce the 700-page count, and again to get the gremlins out. Then, I had my mom proofread it. The author and another editor proofread it. The author's publicist proofread it. The publisher proofread it, and everyone who gave endorsements proofread it. You would think that the book would be error free by the time it went to layout, right? Nope! A typo reared its head in the final PDF today! Fortunately, we still have time to fix it before it goes to print, but I wouldn't be surprised if another boo-boo doesn't manifest after we get a copy of the printed book in hand.
Like Carolyn said, even professionals make mistakes, and I've seen typos in textbooks produced by the most reputable companies. Most readers won't notice a tiny error, and those who do, may not mention it. It's the big, ugly errors (like misspelled words and noun/verb disagreement) repeated over and over in a book that throw it out of the running as an enjoyable read. I see that a lot with POD and self-published books.
An anonymous guest on Carolyn’s blog wants to know if we will touch on securing an agent.
Getting a good agent and/or publisher is very important. One of the big reasons writers must learn to edit well is to secure a publisher or to secure a well-connected agent who will secure a publisher for her! Even if an author prefers to self-publish or use a POD service, doing a great job of producing one's own book goes a long way toward generating sales. A poorly written book is not one that people are going to promote by word-of-mouth to their friends. A reader may not even finish reading the book—let alone recommend that someone else read it. For that very reason, WITS Podcast has criterion that a book must meet before we have an author on our show. When we write a book review for a client, it may note areas that need improvement.
Barbara Techel, author of Frankie, the Walk 'N Roll Dog, www.joyfulpaws.com is in the process of writing her second children's book. Her first children's book had a critique group helping with the editing until Barbara felt her manuscript was "good enough" to give to an editor. She no longer has a critique group to run her manuscript by. The book is about half complete now.
Here is Barbara’s question: is there a good point to bring on an editor? Should I bring one on now for advice or wait till I have the manuscript completed? Or, should I work with an editor during the entire process?
Carolyn says bring an editor on as soon as possible.
Yvonne’s answer: I agree, but budget may not allow them to do this. The more the author can do beforehand, the less it will cost to get the book edited. Therefore, I suggest an author get her book as ready as she can before approaching an editor.
I’m not sure about all editors, but the editors on my team are able to help an author with her book at any stage of the manuscript process. We offer different levels of editing depending upon what the book needs when it comes to us. If an author is on a budget and can’t afford the level of editing the book truly needs, we may give suggestions for improvement and have the author do more work before bringing the manuscript back to us. I recently had an author re-write his script into third person rather than first person . It probably took him ten or more hours to do this, but it saved him at least $500, and the book is much improved as he employed the tips I gave him for writing dialog.
We offer developmental, medium, and light editing as well as proofreading of the final manuscript. These services are described in detail at http://writersinthesky.com/editing-services.html, but here are the basics:
Developmental or Substantial Editing is used when an author needs a writing coach to guide her work to the next level. We not only mark errors in the text, we offer specific suggestions for improvement as we assist the author with making changes to strengthen her writing and develop her story to its best potential. A developmental editor may help with all elements of the book including front and back matter, and making sure the text adheres to Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. Additionally, we may instruct the writer on working with styles, and formatting text, margins, headers, footers, and placing graphics or end notes. Since this is all part of the writing process, a fully-developed book will still need to be copy edited and proofread before going to a publisher.
Medium Copyediting includes having our editor go through the manuscript and complete the needed changes to include:
- Correcting mechanical, grammar, and usage errors.
- Correcting spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
- Check for proper alignment and spacing of text.
- Consistently format dates, headlines, numbers, and alphabetized, bulleted, and numbered lists.
- Note any biased language or stereotyping. Note awkward transitions, redundancies, and hyperbole (the author may fix this or we can rewrite sections for her if needed).
We also offer a book evaluation to help determine market readiness of a manuscript in its current condition. One of our editors will read your book or manuscript (up to 70,000 words) and give a written assessment of its commercial potential. A kind but honest opinion of the author's strengths and weaknesses will be given along with tips for improving the overall quality of writing. The evaluation includes an assessment of the manuscript's publishing condition and what it would take to get it ready to submit to an agent or publisher.
Here is a list of resources Carolyn and I mentioned during our conversation.
Chicago Manual of Style The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers 15th Edition. ISBN 0226104036.
Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips™ for Better Writing. Mignon Fogarty. ISBN 978-0-8050-8831-1.
Grammar Snobs are Great Big Meanies A Guide to Language for Fun & Spite by June Casagrande. ISBN: 1582975612.
Mortal Syntax 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs--Even If You're Right by June Casagrande ISBN: 0143113321.
The Frugal Editor Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success by Carolyn Howard-Johnson ISBN 978-0-9785158-7-4
Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s newsletter for writers.
The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, How to Solve the Mystery of Weak Writing by Bonnie Trenga ISBN: 1582975612.