3 Quick Edits for a Final Polish + a Format Fix

punctuation-decorated cookies for National Punctuation Day
flickr credit: DavidErickson

It’s the final round of proofreading for your novel. First of all, congratulations for making this far! Okay, that’s enough celebrating. Time to get to business.

If you’re going to self-publish, you may decide to take on this final proofreading step yourself. Or you may have a friend look over your manuscript. You could also hire a proofreader. The only thing you can’t do is skip this step. Not if you want to put out a quality product.

There are some errors that are so common, people begin to think they’re correct. Or they are simply no longer correct. Either way, you might not know to correct these and you’ll end up with a final manuscript that’s not quite ready. You have to learn to identify these errors, hunt them down, and… well, it’s not that dramatic. Mostly you just hit the delete button. I’m talking about…

No double space after a period

Anyone who learned to type on a typewriter learned that double-tap on the space bar after a period. The origin for the double space was the typesetting process. With computers, this isn’t an issue anymore. Time to retrain the habit to one space after all punctuation.

Don’t expect immediate results—this is likely a deeply ingrained habit. Until the new habit is set, simply use your Find/Replace function. Put two spaces on the Find line and one space in the Replace line.

If you have instances (any specially formatted text) where you want a double space you’ll need to do the Find/Replace one at a time (clicking Find Next). This could take a while for a novel-length manuscript. Replace All is instantaneous, but it will do just that. So you’ll have to make any double spaces you don’t want changed different somehow.

The serial comma

My suggestion regarding the serial comma, and the suggestion of The Chicago Manual of Style, is use it. The serial comma is a comma before “and” and “or” in a list of three more things. For example, I have a dog, a cat, and a bird. That last comma after “cat” is the controversial comma. If you’re unaware of this controversy, don’t worry about it. The main goal in your manuscript is consistency. Decide whether you’re going to use it or not, and be consistent in your use. Use it every time or never. Anything else will look sloppy.

Be aware, many times the presence or absence of the comma will change the meaning of the sentence. Proofread your text with care. You can also read CMS on this for more explanation.

A comma to separate clauses

Another comma issue is one I’m just as guilty of as anyone out there. It’s so easy to simply put that comma where you feel a pause as you write, such as before the “and” that joins two clauses. The rule you may be familiar with is “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.” Key word there is independent. So, that means a comma goes before words like “and” or “but” (conjunctions) if the next clause can stand on its own as a full sentence (an independent clause).

But what we tend to do is put that comma in whether that clause is independent or not. As in I sat down, and waited. You may mentally pause after the word “down,” but there’s no grammatical reason for the comma. In sentences like this, eliminate that extra comma: I sat down and waited. A smoother read.

What the font?

The errors above I see constantly when I edit other people’s work (and my own). I discovered another kind of error in Manuscript Makeover, by Elizabeth Lyon (excellent book on revision). It’s an issue of font. For many writers who jump into self-publishing, fonts are a whole new world. I’m actually a bit particular about my fonts, but not on the basis of any real knowledge. So I learned something here.

The problem Lyon cited was in the common use of Times New Roman (because it’s the default font in MS Word). But it’s a “condensed font,” which makes it unusually thin. This distorts page count, allowing up to 400 words per page. The industry standard is 250. Choose a non-condensed font, using the standard word count as a guide. But skip Courier, since you cannot italicize with it, and would have to underline your text. And you’ll look really old school.

Some editing tools

If you decide to go DIY you should be confident in your grammar and spelling skills. You should also at least skim through Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (just go buy it—best $7 you’ll ever spend). If you’re able, I suggest investing in The Chicago Manual of Style (this will run you $55). This style guide will answer nearly every editing question you have. And for those that aren’t answered, try searching the website.

Keeping these common errors in mind, equipped with these tools on your bookshelf, you should do at least a fair job of proofreading your manuscript.

What other errors do you see yourself or others constantly making?

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