How to Use Quotation Marks

On my to-do list was a note to write you a post about the correct use of quotation marks. Then I discovered that Jonathon Owen over at Arrant Pedantry had already done so. His article is useful and thorough, so I’ll send you over there to learn How to Use Quotation Marks. He even has a nifty flow chart.

quotation marks

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I especially like Owen’s comments about scare quotes. Those are the quotes people put around a word to draw attention to it for … well, no good reason, actually, as Owen explains. Whenever you are tempted to put scare quotes around a term, I want you to imagine you are speaking to an audience and when you get to that part of your writing, you make “air quotes” with your “fingers” every time you put “scare quotes” around a term. Continue reading

What to Do with Hyphens

The guidelines for hyphenation are complex and inconsistent. At least copyeditors are kept in business, but it can be frustrating for a writer to understand when to hyphenate and when not. Hyphenation errors are among the most common spelling problems I see. Yes, spelling. Hyphens are often thought of as punctuation, but matters of hyphenation are correctly classified under spelling, as they are in Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors and The Chicago Manual of Style. At the risk of sounding like your mother, most of what you need to know about how to spell a word can be found by looking it up in a dictionary. Continue reading

Two Kinds of Dashes and How to Use Them

One of the finer points of punctuation is the use of dashes. In casual writing, we often use them willy-nilly, but when you are writing nonfiction for publication, take care to use them properly.

Fiction writers only need concern themselves with one kind of dash. They will rarely have use for the other. But nonfiction writers need to understand the differences and when to use them.


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The first and most common dash is the em dash—so called because in a proportional font it’s about the same width as the letter M. There’s one in the previous sentence. The em dash is used in nonfiction much as it is in fiction: for an abrupt break that’s not suitable for other punctuation. Continue reading

Using Ellipses Properly in Nonfiction

The rules for ellipses in nonfiction differ slightly from those in fiction. In fiction, ellipses signal a hesitation or trailing off of speech. But in nonfiction, they indicate omissions from quoted material. If you’re writing a memoir or other narrative nonfiction, you may use ellipses the way they’re used in fiction.

When you use an ellipsis to indicate an omission, you must take care not to misrepresent the original text. Using ellipses to get around parts of a quoted work that oppose your argument while leaving the bits that support it is cheating the reader. For similar reasons, don’t use an ellipsis to join sentences from passages that are widely separated in the original.


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How to Fine-Tune Your Nonfiction Book

As was the case when we looked at fiction, Mechanics is the last section of the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist. Everything we’ve covered up to this point needs to be taken care of first. Then we can worry about the kind of copyediting fixes that come under this heading. For the most part, manuscript guidelines in these areas are the same for nonfiction as they are for fiction. Continue reading

Double- and Triple-Check Your Facts

Even the smallest details in your story require fact checking. As an old saying in journalism goes, “If someone tells you your mother loves you, verify it.” So the last few items in this section of the checklist have to do with verification.

Claims have been verified by reliable sources.

Search book genre fact checking

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When to Use a Bibliography

Last time, in our discussion about endnotes, I mentioned that a bibliography is helpful but not required. The reason it’s not required is that all the information about the books you cite can be contained in the notes. The bibliography simply presents that information in alphabetical order.

You might want to include a bibliography even if you’ve used in-text citations rather than notes, as a courtesy to your reader. Your bibliography can also include books that you consulted but did not directly quote. It’s a quick way for the reader to see what other books are available on the topic. Continue reading

How to Use Notes and Bibliographies

The next item on the Nonfiction Editing Checklist has to do with citing your sources:

Footnotes, endnotes, blind notes, and reference lists have been used appropriately and are formatted correctly.

The Chicago Manual of Style offers several options for citing your sources. The first of these is the least formal, and the last is the most formal:

  • In-text citations
  • Notes with bibliography
  • Author-date references with list

The more scholarly your audience, or the more technical your work, the more likely it is you will need one of the latter two systems.


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The Difference Between Infringement and Plagiarism

I shouldn’t have to say this, but I must.

Don’t steal. Don’t lie.

Writers of all people should know that passing someone else’s words off as your own is Not Done. Yet it happens often, sometimes with spectacularly embarrassing results, even to professionals. Continue reading

Place Your Story for Best Effect

Although memoir writers have an entire book in which to tell their story, many nonfiction writers use their personal stories only as an introduction to a broader topic. When that’s the case, you need to consider what place in the book will be the best to showcase your personal story.

If you need to establish your credentials before presenting your information, you may wish to include a brief background at the start of the book to demonstrate your expertise. Continue reading