How to avoid embarrassing errors in your manuscript

A style guide takes and time and effort to create but will prove an invaluable resource for you.

Courtesy of Petr Kratochvil.

Courtesy of Petr Kratochvil.

As both a writer and an editor, I often find manuscript errors created by inconsistency in mechanical conventions. Some common errors are:

  • Chapter headings that use numbers at the start of a manuscript but then are inexplicably spelled out later on: Chapter 1 but then Chapter Ten.
  • All caps are used to illustrate a raised voice in parts of the manuscript, but italics are used elsewhere for the same effect: “GET OUT!” versus “Get out!”
  • Three spaced periods are used to create an ellipsis (. . .) in some instances but then the ellipsis symbol (…) is used elsewhere.
  • A quotation is placed at the start of each chapter, but the quotation is set in italics in some chapters and regular font in others.
  • The author uses italics to illustrate internal dialogue (“Great,” she thought sarcastically.) but then elsewhere uses quotation marks for the same purpose (“Great,” she thought sarcastically.).
  • Digits are used for hyphenated numbers (“she was 54 years old”) but spelled out elsewhere (“she was fifty-four years old”).

Variations in spelling are also common. For example, a character uses her cellphone in chapter one but a cell phone in chapter three. As I wrote in an earlier blog, such errors will not be found by your word processor’s Spell Check if such variations are not in themselves misspelled.

You might also be surprised to discover how many authors misspell their own characters’ names, for example vacillating between Elisabeth and Elizabeth. Or who change a character’s hair color, age, height, or other characteristic partway through the novel.

So how can you avoid these embarrassing and yet all-too-common errors? By creating a style guide that you can reference while you write.

A style guide (also called a style sheet) is a list of:

  • All names and other capitalized words used in your manuscript. This should include all character names, street names, locations, companies and trademarks, creative works like TV shows or books, and so on. I also add the relationships between characters, their jobs or professions, and any physical characteristics specified in the manuscript. This helps me keep track of all my characters — not just the main ones — and their traits while I write.
  • Your preferred spelling of specific words where variants exist: cellphone versus cell phone, to cite the above example. This is also true of words that were once hyphenated, and often still are, but are now acceptable closed. For example, you can look in a rearview mirror or in a rear-view mirror; it’s your choice as an author. There are also words that started out capitalized but are moving to lowercase; the internet (versus the Internet) is one example. When a word or phrase is in flux like that, again it is your choice as the author which version to use.
  • Coined words, foreign words, and uncommon words (particularly medical or other scientific terms that are often not found in a dictionary).
  • Compound nouns. Is it print on demand manufacturing (compound noun), or print-on-demand manufacturing (adjective modifying a noun)? Whether you elect to use only one form, or different forms under specific circumstances, should be added to your guide.
  • Preferred mechanical conventions. This includes such things as whether you want spaces around your em dashes or not, or around your ellipses; where and when you use digits versus spelling out numbers; whether you use italics or quotation marks for internal dialogue; and so on.

You will also find it helpful to add to your style guide:

  • Words you use that are hyphenated or not depending on their form: for example, air-conditioning is both an adjective and a noun, but back seat is the noun while backseat (or back-seat) is the adjective. Adding such oddities to your style sheet helps you keep them straight while you write.
  • Words you use that are spelled differently depending on their form. For example, in Canada licence is the noun form but license is the verb. One pays up front (adverb) but makes an upfront payment (adjective). Making a note of such differences helps you avoid using the wrong form.
  • Words you use that change capitalization depending on use. For years we Googled everything, but there is a trend developing to google stuff using Google. Some words also mean entirely different things when capitalized or not; one example is the Church versus the church. The first refers to either the Catholic or Anglican Church as a body, the latter is a generic term. Again, making a note of such differences helps you avoid errors.

Style guides are specific to each project, or to a book series, and are equally important for both fiction and non-fiction works. Click here for the PDF of the style guide I created for my second novel, The Point Between. As you will see, the guide is a lengthy, comprehensive document. It takes and time and effort to create but will prove an invaluable resource for you.

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