by Kimberly Peticolas
Have you ever wondered what your editor isn’t telling you? The little manuscript details that aren’t mentioned in the effort to craft a better story? The points of order that would make your editor’s life that much easier, if only you knew what they were?
There are a number of edits you will probably never notice that your editor makes before she even begins reading your work. They’re so standard, they won’t even be included in the tracked changes. However, if you are looking to improve your writing (and make your editor especially happy), here are five easy editing tips to help you better prepare your manuscript before it hits your editor’s desk. NOTE: All are consistent with The Chicago Manual of Style and assume editing in Microsoft Word; keyboard shortcuts will work on most platforms.
#1 Drop the Double Space
It’s a hard habit to break, but it’s time to drop the double space at the end of a sentence. This is an old holdover stemming from the typewriter days. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with typewriters—I even collect them—but the double space is just not necessary anymore. Computers today can recognize the end of a sentence and automatically program in the correct amount of space. Adding in another space can actually mess with the formatting in your manuscript and especially in writing online.
Having trouble breaking the habit and can’t tell where you’ve used the double space? There is a great feature in both Word and Google Docs under the ‘Edit’ tab called ‘Find and Replace’. In the ‘Find’ field, type in two spaces. In the ‘Replace’ field, type in a single space. Then click ‘Replace All’. Click ‘Replace All’ two or three more times until it yields zero results. Your document is now free of the double space!
#2 Embrace the Oxford Comma
This is a tricky one because it’s not a consistent rule across every style guide. However, the Chicago Manual of Style is the standard for book publishing and it calls for the Oxford Comma—in other words, the use of a comma before the word and in a list of three or more. For example: Writer is such a vague term; I prefer wordsmith, scribe, and inkslinger. However, it should be noted that some other style guides like the Associated Press (AP) Style, only call for it when it prevents misreading.
Unfortunately, there is no easy trick to fix this in Word. This is one tip that you will just need to be aware of when you’re reviewing your own work.
#3 The En Dash–Em Dash Dilemma
The dash system can be complicated. Most beginning writers tend to use a hyphen or a double hyphen with a range of spacing options to represent either the en dash or em dash. Here are a few tips for using both properly and using the correct keyboard shortcut.
En dashes are most commonly used to indicate a numbered range like years (2016–2017), times (11:30 a.m.–4:00 p.m.), or page numbers (6–10). It can also be used to replace the word to; for example, the New York–London flight leaves at 6:15 p.m. Learning when to use these and learning the proper keyboard shortcut can really polish your writing and will definitely save your editor some time. On Mac computers, the shortcut is alt–hyphen (or option–hyphen) and on PC computers, the shortcut is control–hyphen. NOTE: There is no space either before or after the dash, it should be immediately next to the number or letters on either side.
Different than the en dash, the em dash is longer and is commonly used in place of commas, colons, and parentheses to set off an important or explanatory element in a sentence. It can also be used to indicate an abrupt break in thought. Just be careful not to overuse it, especially near another instance of the em dash. Add variety to your writing by using a mix of em dashes with other marks. On Mac computers, the shortcut is alt–shift–hyphen (or option–shift–hyphen) and on PC computers, the shortcut is control–alt–hyphen. NOTE: Like the en dash, the em dash should not be offset with spaces, it should be immediately next to the letters on either side.
#4 The correct ellipsis . . .
Ellipses, while often used correctly, are often formatted incorrectly. This is always one of the first things that editors check. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, ellipses should be formatted as spaced periods. Or in other words, you should type them in as ‘space-period-space-period-space-period-space’ and it should look like this ( . . . ). Also, be sure that if your sentence ends with an ellipsis, you end the ellipsis with a period (for a total of four). WARNING: If you just type three periods, Microsoft Word will autocorrect these incorrectly! Don’t use their auto-formatting option; make sure to type it in manually. NOTE: AP Style handles ellipses differently, so again, make sure to note which style guide you need to follow for different types of writing!
#5 Towards is going nowhere
Another common mistake I see all too often is the addition of an s to toward, afterward, backward, upward, downward, and afterward. In American English, you shouldn’t add an s to any of those words. However, this is not the case for British English where the opposite is true. So unless you’re writing for the British crowd, dropping that s is another way to add a bit of consistency to your writing.
There’s always more to learn
These are just a few quick editing tips, however don’t forget to have a conversation with your own editor(s) about these and similar issues. They can help you identify other areas in your writing where you can improve. Many editors and author coaches offer services beyond editing to help you with your writing skills and help you learn the ins and outs of any style guides you need to master. The publishing industry is complex and ever-changing; there is always more to learn. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.