When we talk about the mechanics of a manuscript, we are ultimately talking about details: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like. Style is also a component of mechanics, as is manuscript format.
But remember that when I introduced the Elements of Nonfiction Editing Checklist I said it was in order of importance. There’s a reason Mechanics is the last category on the list. It’s the least important.
Which isn’t to say that it’s unimportant. Continue reading
Often when we’re writing nonfiction we need to refer to words in such a way that the term being used is itself the subject of the discussion, rather than the concept the term describes. If I say “My Sunday school students have difficulty understanding the concept of propitiation,” it means something very different from “English is her second language, so she has difficulty understanding the word propitiation.”
Photo by Brenton Nicholls • FreeImages
When in your writing you need to discuss the word or phrase itself rather than the concept described by the term, put the term in italics. Continue reading
An editor once excised the semicolons from my writing with the marginal note “Death to semicolons.” He changed every one of them to a period.
Not every editor is so vehement about this much-maligned mark, but those who are may be provoked by the fact that so many writers don’t know how to use it properly.
This lack of accuracy may come about because some people learn that a comma is a pause and a period is a stop. One could readily deduce that a semicolon is somewhere in between.
Almost, but not quite. Continue reading
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.
Photo © Alliance • Fotolia
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
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
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.
Photo illustration © WavebreakmediaMicro • Fotolia.com
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
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.
Photo by © RiumaLab, edited by Kristen Stieffel • Fotolia