Keep It Legit
- Don’t plagiarize. Ten years ago, we would have thought this advice too obvious to include. But we see acts of (usually accidental) plagiarism all the time, especially in nonfiction works where an author has copied text from online sources. Remember that just because something has no author (like Wikipedia), that doesn’t mean it’s up for grabs. If you’ve copied excerpts from any source, make sure they are paraphrased or properly marked as quoted material (offset in quotes or block quotes) and properly cited. It’s not unusual for an author to lose track of quoted material among multiple drafts. If you come across a passage that is different in tone from your natural writing, paste it into a Google search to see if the exact phrasing pops up elsewhere.
- Provide permissions info for reprinted material. Song lyrics, book excerpts, and even biblical verses—if it’s not yours, get permission to reprint it. Publishers have specific rules regarding how their work is cited, and some even provide boilerplate language that you must include on your copyright page. Don’t leave this step till the last minute, as it can take a few weeks to get a response from some publishers.
- Familiarize yourself with standard citation styles. One of the worst mistakes an author makes is leaving all the citation-gathering work till the end. Chicago Manual of Style has two standard citations styles, outlined here. Familiarize yourself with the rules of your chosen style and fill in your citations—every required field—as you go.
- Consult an attorney if your manuscript contains sensitive material. If you write a vicious tell-all, you should have your book vetted by a defamation attorney. Just because all the cool kids are doing it, doesn’t mean you won’t get sued if you make false or damaging claims about another person. Be aware, too, that “freedom of speech” will not protect you from a lawsuit if by reprinting company documents you violated an employment or nondisclosure agreement.
- Add disclaimers to the copyright page. If your book gives any kind of advice—medical, legal, dating—you should include a disclaimer on the copyright page. Disclaimers can be rather simple, such as “Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Or “This book is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat any medical condition.” If you have any concerns about how to best word a disclaimer, consult an attorney.
- Secure your ISBNs and LCCNs. This is more of a general headache than a legal one, as you can self-publish without either of these identifiers. However, ISBNs are necessary to sell printed books in stores and online, and they are expensive. LCCNs are cheap but require an application process. So do your research ahead of time and factor costs and timelines into your plans.
Search for Continuity Blunders
Surly reader comments are hard to shake—and often, they’re provoked by avoidable errors, such as timeline blips or anachronisms that destroy suspension of disbelief. Simply being a stickler for continuity can mean the difference between a rave review or a one-star rant.
Make a million lists and check them twice. Continuity issues range from an unexplained leap in the timeline to a character’s eye color changing from chapter to chapter. Outline/map all timeline, family tree, or world-building elements. For example, if your story references days of the week as a plot point, stop every time you hit a mention of a new day and mark it down to make sure the timeline is tracking. And if you intend for your story’s timeline to reflect the real world’s timeline, you should check Time and Date to make sure days match the actual dates of the past (e.g., April 12, 1977, was a Tuesday).
Keep a style sheet of character traits, physical and otherwise, and consult it every time a character appears. This is a tedious process—hence why editing is still considered a job—but it’s worth it, especially if your manuscript has gone through multiple revisions. Pay attention to in-scene continuity, too: Are your characters repeating actions, holding objects they never picked up, or standing up when they never sat down in the first place?
- Double-check the spelling and capitalization of character names and place-names. Readers will notice if you spelled the name of your character’s home planet three different ways in the first twenty pages. Keep a running list of all names, real and imaginary, and double-check every instance against that list.
- Eliminate anachronisms. Confusing or inaccurate cell phone technology plagues every genre from dystopian fiction to modern romance. Etymological miscues are popular, too, and not just in dialect-heavy fiction. If a phrase is in wide use today, it’s a good idea to check its history. For example, according to Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, the phrase “bottom line” wasn’t in wide use until 1967, so it wouldn’t make sense to use it in a story set in the 1950s.
Polish, Polish, Polish
Copyediting is a form of pattern recognition that takes years to master. But there are a few measures you can take to eliminate common errors. Every correction you make will improve your reader’s experience.
- Run spelling and grammar checks—really. Even professional editors run spell check, and although it can be slow going, it’s always worth it. In addition to finding glaring spelling errors, it will pick up some other common errors like missing spaces between sentences and repeated words.
- Run global searches for commonly misspelled words and phrases. Use the find-and-replace function to search for problem words. For, example, if you routinely confuse “they’re” and “their,” run searches for both terms and confirm correct usage.
- Fact-check proper names (real people and places). Misspelling the names of well-known figures, places, or brands will distract the reader—or worse, discredit you as a writer. Look up every proper name (and not just in Wikipedia). For company/product names, check official websites; for historical dates, search newspaper articles or reputable educational sites. This goes for fiction as well as nonfiction.
- Look at every line of dialogue. Many authors (even famous, published ones) struggle with dialogue formatting. The Chicago Manual of Style devotes an entire chapter to the topic and with good reason: misplaced quotation marks and unclear attributions can make a passage of dialogue unreadable. If you’re really flummoxed by dialogue, you should work with a professional copy editor. If you feel you have a good grasp of dialogue, you should still confirm the following:
- Double quotes and single quotes are used correctly (the rules differ between UK and American English).
- Quotation marks are placed correctly and are facing the right way (autocorrect settings in word-processing programs can introduce errors).
- All speakers are clearly identified, and blocking is correct (meaning you’ve placed paragraph breaks every time a new speaker talks).
- Dialogue tags are properly lowercased. Look specifically for instances in which autocorrect erroneously capitalized pronouns: Where are you going?” She asked. (“She” should be lowercase.)
- Nonspeaking dialogue tags are reformatted as action beats. Any action that is separate from the act of speaking cannot be used as a dialogue tag. So a character can whisper or shout a line, but they can’t smile a line. “Laughed” and “smiled” are the two most common nonspeaking tags.
Whether you’re creating an e-book or paperback, you’ll suffer fewer formatting woes if you follow these industry standards while preparing the manuscript for publication.
- Use hard returns for paragraph breaks. Tabs and spaces won’t translate consistently, especially in e-book conversion.
- But don’t use hard returns at the end of every line. Word, Pages, and similar programs automatically flow text, so you don’t need to “break” every line like you would with a typewriter. Doing so will actually cause major conversion issues, with lines breaking in odd places.
- Use page breaks to separate chapters. Using hard returns, tabs, or spaces to create chapter breaks will create inconsistencies and run-on chapters. It’s generally easier to set page breaks in word-processing programs than in e-book conversion or design programs.
- Replace double spaces with single ones. The habit of using double spaces between sentences fell out of fashion long ago. The industry standard is to use single spaces.
- Make sure fonts and line spacing are consistent. Use the select-all function and set the entire manuscript in the same font (Times 12 pt is a neutral choice). Set the line-spacing at 1.5 or 2.0. Don’t use hard returns to “fix” single spacing into double spacing.
- Clean up extra spaces around punctuation. There should be no spaces around hyphens, en dashes (–), and em dashes (—). Use the search function to find extra spaces lurking between punctuation and closing quotation marks.
- Make sure all chapter titles and subheads are styled consistently. Use preset document styles to make this easier. Try to limit your design to two or three heading levels.
- Cross-check chapter titles against your table of contents. Check that chapter numbers are sequential.
- Double-check endnote/footnote placement. Notations can shift or get deleted as you make revisions and move text around. Make sure the numbers are close to the text you wish to notate; Chicago advises placing them at the end of sentence or the end of a clause.