Self Editing Mechanics

writing mechanics

Today’s post will provide you with tips related to common errors in the mechanics of spelling, capitalization and punctuation.

When I do a sample edit for a prospective client, I provide a free hour worth of editing. In that sample edit, I keep an eagle eye out for certain common errors. If I see you are repeatedly making the same errors, I will explain how to correct them, and offer you the opportunity to fix them in the rest of your manuscript before I edit it for you. This not only will save you money (because I won’t be taking so much time fixing endless small errors), but it will also help you learn to improve your writing as you fix them yourself. Of course, if you prefer, I can go ahead and fix it myself. Your choice (and your money).

To start with, I recommend you use, if at all possible, Microsoft Word 2010 as your word processor, with the Times New Roman font, size 12, and double-spaced. This is the general “industry standard” and most publishers, whether they be book publishers, printers, magazine publishers–or yes, editors–will be very pleased if you use this standard (if they ask for an alternative, of course you should follow their preference). You will also want to keep handy a good style manual, and use it whenever you are in doubt.

Correct spelling:
– If the dictionary offers alternative spellings of a word, choose one spelling and stick with it (be consistent).
– Be aware of your main audience and use the spelling that audience is used to (British, Canadian, American, etc.).
– Watch out for homonyms (words that sound alike, but have different meanings and often have different spellings: to, too, two, there, their, they’re, etc.)
– If you use acronyms in your story line, write out the whole set of words the first time, and put the acronym in parentheses: Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Thereafter, you may simply use the acronym.
– Avoid using abbreviations, other than very common titles (Mr., Mrs., Ms, Dr.) in stories or articles. You may use abbreviations in tables and graphs, letterhead and envelopes, and other technical uses. Be aware of the modern commonly accepted forms, and if there are choices, be consistent.
– When writing numbers (other than in tables and other technical uses), always write the numbers out as words up to nine; thereafter, the “rules” vary widely. You will want to check with a style guide that is suited to your genre; also, if you are writing for a particular publication or publisher, you may be provided with a style guide that lists their rules.
– Be careful with plurals. While most plurals simply add an -s, some add -es, and others change the word (woman, women) while still others use the singular form for plural (deer, deer).
– Spelling does sometimes change over time. Use an up-to-date dictionary. This is especially true of words that in the beginning were separate words, then through common use together became hyphenated words, and finally end up as compound words.

Correct punctuation:
– Every writer should purchase, or research online, a style handbook that provides the basic rules of punctuation–and follow those rules.
– Use exclamation marks only for exclamatory phrases. If possible, rewrite your sentence until the reader can sense the tension or excitement through the words, rather than through use of an exclamation mark. And never use more than one exclamation mark (or other end punctuation) at a time.
– If you are using dialogue in your story, don’t just study the rules in a handbook. Find at least three or four books or stories similar to yours, published by reputable writers and publishers, and examine how dialogue punctuation has been handled. Of course, if your publisher provides you with a style guide they want you to follow, do so.
– There are a variety of different kinds of hyphens and dashes; you will want to learn what they are, and when they are used. One handy tool in Microsoft Word 2010 is found under the “Insert” tab, in the “Symbol” section. Click on “More Symbols” and then on “Special Characters” for hyphens, dashes (em and en), ellipses, and lots more useful quick ways to use these punctuations correctly. You’ll also find dozens of other unusual special symbols in the “More Symbols” section, which is especially useful if you’re doing technical writing.
– Familiarize yourself on the different uses of parentheses ( ) and brackets [ ], as well as dashes.
– Generally speaking, single quotation marks (‘ ‘) are only used for quotations within quotations! If you feel you need to emphasize a particular word, it is always best to rewrite your sentence so that the word stands out. If you still want to emphasize it more, consider using italics (you can also use italics for foreign language words). Direct quotations (the exact words of the person being quoted) are in double quotation marks, unless it is a long quotation, in which case you may well use a block indentation. Again, check your handbook for examples, as there are a number of variations.
– Be careful with the use of apostrophes. Generally, aspostrophes are used to indicate possession (That is Jim’s dog) or for contractions (cannot: can’t). They are NOT used for plurals unless it is a case of plural possession (The parents’ car is in the garage). Apostrophes are not used with acronyms (MPs, MLAs, PCBs) except in cases where there might be ambiguity (SIN’s, Q’s and A’s).
Comma rules are complicated. Study the examples in your writer’s style guide. And be clear on the difference in uses between commas, semicolons, and colons.
– Familiarize yourself with the rules related to titles. Generally, we use italics (instead of underlining, which is no longer used due to confusion with computer links) for longer works (books, plays, movies, long poems, works of art, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets). We use quotation marks for shorter works, including works found within longer works (short stories, essays, songs, short poems, articles in magazines). Make sure you check out your style manual for specific questions you may have.
Abbreviations have very specific rules. Be sure to check your style guide, and possibly your dictionary, for correct usage.

Correct Capitalization:
– Capitalize proper nouns (formal names of people, places, and specific species of plants or animals, for example). Do not capitalize common (general) nouns.
– Capitalize titles that go with people’s names (Dr. John Smith) but do not capitalize such words, or abbreviate them, if they do not go with a particular person (I went to the doctor). Be careful when using family words; capitalize only if you are naming the person with that word (I went to the store with Mom BUT I went to the store with my mom).
– When capitalizing the names of works, capitalize the first, last, and all major words in title and subtitles (Roughing it in the Bush; Stories for Young Children).
– Check your style guide to learn about capitalization of first words in lists, first words following a colon, and other special cases.

If you take the time to learn how to spell, punctuate, and capitalize correctly, you will be able to do a lot of self-editing in this areas, and give your manuscript a polished look. It will also allow your editor to focus on important editing tasks related to your actual writing, instead of getting caught up in endless small errors.

Keep posted for upcoming articles on other aspects of writing your editor will look for in your writing.

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