When I copy edit a manuscript, I make at least hundreds—and usually thousands—of changes to adhere to the rules of grammar, Merriam-Webster, and Chicago Manual of Style (the “bible” of the book publishing industry).
By adhering to the 33 tips below, you can do a massive clean-up of your manuscript, which may help speed up the copyediting and proofreading process and move up its publication date.
1) Formatting your manuscript
Here are the basics for the publishing industry, although with manuscripts being transferred electronically, your editor can change margins/fonts/spacing etc. with a global search-and-replace.
Margins: 1.0 inches left, right, top, and bottom. This is the standard format when you open a Word document, so you don’t need to do anything here.
Font: Submit to publishers or agents at 12-point, Times New Roman. However, Arial and Calibri are two fonts that are easier to read, so you can work in those fonts before changing to Times New Roman later. Your editor won’t mind if you send him or her Arial, Calibri, or another easy-to-read font.
Title page: See the many title page formatting examples online.
Headers: Go to the Insert tab on top of the Word document. At the top of each page, include your last name/the book title/page number. Number pages continuously, with the page after the title page being the first.
Line spacing: The manuscript should be double-spaced when you submit to publishers. However, write your manuscript in single-space so that you can see more of your work on the page, then change to double-space after you’re done writing. Your editor shouldn’t care if you send it to him/her in double-space or single-space.
2) Indenting paragraphs
Do not use tabs or spaces to indent your paragraphs. Instead …
On a PC, go to Home/Paragraph/Special/First Line, and type in 0.5 (or 0.3).
On a Mac, go to Home/Format/Paragraph/Indentation/Left, and type in 0.5 (or 0.3).
3) Inserting page breaks between chapters
When you complete a chapter, hit Control/Shift/Enter (on a PC), which allows you to start the next chapter at the top of the next page. On a Mac, the command is Fn/Command/Return.
4) Double spaces
Search and replace double spaces with single spaces.
5) Serial/oxford commas
Chicago Manual of Style (and hence the book publishing industry) calls for the use of a comma before and, but, or or in a series.
Using serial (aka Oxford) commas helps resolve ambiguity. For example, if there is no serial comma, the phrase “Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” implies that the speaker’s parents are Ayn Rand and God. With the comma, the phrase would read, Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
The marbles are red, blue and green. This implies that a marble is either completely red or it is a mixture of blue and green. It is clearer to say: The marbles are red, blue, and green.
6) Em dashes
Within text, dashes should be em dashes with no spaces around them: Wow—I can’t believe it!
The easiest way to create an em dash is to type three hyphens after the word; Word will automatically change the three hyphens to an em dash. Note that this is an em dash and not an en dash. An en dash is shorter.
Em dash: —
En dash: —
Examples of em dash usage:
Although she hadn’t finished her homework—she had been too busy over the holidays—she still knew all the answers.
After days, weeks, and even months of rumination, she finally decided on a color—red.
Never use three or more dashes in a sentence.
7) Capitalizing words in headers
In headers/headlines, capitalize all words except articles (the, a, an) and conjunctions (and, but, or) as well as prepositions that are four or fewer letters. So…
Rose Says She Is Excited About the New House
I Love You with All My Heart and Soul
Prepositions are capitalized if they are part of the verb phrase. So …
Rise Up with the Lord
8) Curly quote marks and apostrophes
On a PC, you can search straight marks and replace with curly marks by doing this:
Go to Find and Replace
Paste the straight double (or straight single) quote mark in Find
Type a double (or single) quote mark in Replace With Search
9) Periods and commas inside quote marks
What’s cool is that you can do a search-and-replace to catch the ones you missed. So search ”, and replace with ,”.
10) Double quote marks for even short quotes
Single quote marks are British style. In American English, we use double quote marks even for short phrases:
Just because he wasn’t the “the smart one” like his brother, it didn’t mean he couldn’t pass the exam.
You clearly said “I didn’t do it” when I asked you yesterday.”
They called Babe Ruth the “Bambino.”
11) Using hyphens after prefixes
Avoid hyphens after prefixes unless the word would be hard to decipher or look awkward if there were no hyphen. So go with …
12) Spelling tip
Compound words that we think are two words, or at least hyphenated, are often one word without a hyphen. Examples from Merriam-Webster:
counterclockwise, backstabbing, breakup, breathtaking, downright, firsthand, footlocker, gearshift, hardheaded, makeup, nighttime, newfound, pawnshop, praiseworthy, racetrack, secondhand, straightforward, sightseeing, transcontinental
Bookmark Merriam-Webster.com, and make a habit of searching the spelling of words you’re not sure about.
13) Italicizing thoughts
Thoughts go in italics, not quote marks.
Why do you always have to do this? she thought.
She still looks beautiful, he couldn’t help but think.
14) Italics for emphasis
Do not use boldface, underline, or all caps to emphasize words. Use italics.
It is more important to consider why rather than how.
It wasn’t just small and brown—it was ugly.
15) Apostrophes and decades
It’s 1970s, not 1970’s. It’s ’70s, not ‘70s and not 70’s.
16) Style for ellipses
Examples of correct number of periods:
Uh…I think it’s okay.
We shall see… (Use three periods at end of sentence only if it’s the end of a quote or the end of paragraph.)
What a day it was…. The next morning was beautiful.
I suggest searching any automatically formatted ellipses and replacing with three dots. That way you’re a) consistent throughout and b) four dots looks better than an automatically formatted ellipsis followed by a period.
17) The word on s’s
Chicago Manual of Style states that they “prefer” s’s for possessive proper nouns. So they prefer to say: It was James’s ball as well as Nicholas’s.
Common nouns also need an s’s at the end.
The bus’s seats were wet.
The walrus’s head was enormous.
To make sure you consistently followed this style, search your manuscript for s/apostrophe/space.
18) How to handle numbers
the ’60s (decade)
three hundred thousand
Still confused? See The Chicago Manual of Style Online.
19) Titles of periodicals, films, etc.
I watch NBC and the BBC Network.
My favorite show is Friends.
I subscribe to The Wall Street Journal.
I read Good Housekeeping.
The Dictator is a funny movie.
I’m reading the book Gone Girl.
I read a poem called “The Good Morrow.”
He painted The Starry Night.
He starred in the play Much Ado About Nothing.
My favorite song on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album is “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”
The headline read, “Wilson Found Guilty of Murder.”
He plays Pokemon Go on his phone.
20) Capitalizing a person’s title
I sent a letter to President Trump.
I just talked to the president.
I just talked to the vice president, Mike Pence.
I just talked to Vice President Mike Pence.
She’s the new general manager.
General Manager Chai Wu starts today.
21) Hyphenating compound modifiers
First of all, words such as high school, real estate, and living room are compound nouns, and they are never hyphenated when used as a modifier. So: high school student, real estate agent, living room couch.
But in other cases, this is how you do it:
the dust-covered records; the records were dust covered
the red-hot poker; the poker was red hot
it is a well-traveled highway; the highway is well traveled
22) Using commas in compound sentences
Use a comma before and, but, or and other conjunctions in a compound sentence. The only possible exception would be a very short sentence. So …
Mandatory comma: I don’t like the taste of peanut butter, but I hate the taste of margarine even more.
Optional comma: I’m happy with it but she isn’t.
Note that a compound comma is more important to use than a clause comma. So …
Do this: I was driving so slow I didn’t think I would make it, but I managed to reach just in time.
Do not do this: I was driving so slow, I didn’t think I would make it but I managed to reach just in time.
23) Using commas following opening clauses
In more “formal” genres, such as essays, history books, or juvenile nonfiction, use a comma after every opening clause. But in more “informal” genres such as novels or memoirs, it’s okay to forgo the opening-clause comma in order to provide an easier flow. So …
History book: In 1939, Germany invaded Poland.
Novel: When I got home last night my parents were still awake.
Even in novels, if it’s a long opening clause, use a comma. And be consistent: Don’t write When I woke up it was bright out. and then later write When I went to bed, it was still light.
24) How to handle percents
Chicago Manual of Style says to use 5 percent, not five percent and not 5%. CMOS says you can use % if the book is science or stats related.
25) People as who, not that
Don’t refer to people as that. The following are correct.
Emily is the girl who is always late.
I talked to the manager, who was at the front desk.
The French are a people who love cuisine.
26) Avoiding empty words
Don’t use words like really, very, totally, actually, basically, quite, rather, somewhat. They don’t add anything to your manuscript.
Instead of saying something is really big, say massive or enormous or use a metaphor or simile.
27) Active voice, not passive
Active is almost always more interesting than passive.
Passive: Waste materials are disposed of in a variety of ways.
Active: The city disposes of waste materials in a variety of ways.
28) Sentences that open with There
You don’t want to open a sentence with There. It’s the ultimate in passive writing. Try to rewrite every sentence that opens with that word.
Passive: There are many people who live in Tokyo.
Active: Many people live in Tokyo.
29) Hyphens and ly words
Do not hyphenate an adverb that ends in -ly to the word after it.
stylishly dressed woman
highly recommended movie
gravely ill patient
30) Opening clause as modifier
Make sure the opening clause modifies the word that immediately follows the comma.
Wrong: Born in 1957, the world Jane Dwyer entered was not female friendly.
Right: Born in 1957, Jane Dwyer entered a world that was not female friendly.
31) Run-on sentences
Cut long sentences in two as they can be difficult to read.
Run-on: When I was younger I didn’t like reading or playing the piano at all whereas my brother liked reading a bit but not that much and my sister only liked playing the piano but she didn’t like reading.
Better: When I was younger I didn’t like reading. My brother didn’t like playing the piano, but he did like reading a bit. My sister only liked playing the piano.
32) Misuse of literally
Avoid the term literally when you mean figuratively.
I literally died when I heard that.
I literally couldn’t believe it.
I was literally climbing the walls.
33) Describing your characters
This is not a copy editing issue, but I want to bring it up. In almost every novel or memoir I edit by nonprofessional writers, the author falls short in describing characters. We need to see each major and secondary character; otherwise it’s like watching a movie with the faces blurred out. Major characters should be described in detail: face, hair, body shape, clothes, accessories, and distinctive physical traits and mannerisms. Moreover, continue to give us a visual of the character as the book progresses. How does she have her hair styled today? Is he still doing that annoying sniff-sniff again?
DAVID ALAN has edited more than 200 books and authored nearly 100 books for 30 publishers. His edited books have earned more than $20 million in sales.