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Self-Copyediting Tips


25 Simple Things You Can Do to Dramatically Clean Up Your Manuscript


By David Aretha

After copyediting hundreds of book manuscripts, I’ve found that authors struggle with 25 things when it comes to the rules of grammar and adhering to Chicago Manual of Style (the “bible” of the book publishing industry).


You can make your manuscript dramatically cleaner by following the rules below.


1) Remove double spaces.

Search and replace double spaces with single spaces.



2) Indent paragraphs correctly.

Do not use tabs or spaces to indent your paragraphs. Instead…


On a PC, go to Home/Paragraph/Special/First Line, and type in 0.5 (or 0.3).


On a Mac, go to Home/Format/Paragraph/Indentation/Left, and type in 0.5 (or 0.3).



3) Format your manuscript properly.

Here is a nice summary:



4) Insert page breaks between chapters.

When you complete a chapter, hit Control/Shift/Enter (on a PC), which allows you to start the next chapter at the top of the next page. On a Mac, the command is Fn/Command/Return.



5) Use serial commas.

The colors were red, white, and blue.



6) Use em dashes.

Within text, dashes should be em dashes with no spaces around them: Wow—I can’t believe it! The easiest way to create an em dash is to type two hyphens after the word.


Note that this is an em dash and not an en dash. An en dash is shorter.


Em dash: —

En dash: –


7) Put periods and commas inside the quote marks.

What’s cool is that you can do a search and replace to catch the ones you missed. So search ”, and replace with ,”.



8) Use double quote marks for even short quotes.

Should be: She was tired of playing “second fiddle” to the team captain. (Not ‘second fiddle.’)



9) Here’s when to use hyphens after prefixes.

Avoid hyphens after prefixes unless the word would be hard to decipher or look awkward if there were no hyphen. So go with…









If in doubt, search the word on


10) Follow this spelling tip.

Compound words that we think are two words, or at least hyphenated, are often one word without a hyphen. Examples from Merriam-Webster:


absentminded, afterburner, bullheaded, counterclockwise, deathblow, extracurricular, footlocker, ghostwriter, gunpowder, hairdresser, halfhearted, hardheaded, headfirst, homeowner, kindhearted, lifelong, lighthearted, longtime, makeup, overaggressive, policyholder, schoolteacher, secondhand, shortsighted, straightforward, turnaround, underdeveloped, uppermost, waitperson, windowsill, workstation


Bookmark, and make a habit of searching the spelling of words you’re not sure about.



11) Italicize thoughts.

Thoughts go in italics, not quote marks. So: How could I be so stupid, he thought.



12) Here’s how to capitalize words in headers.

In headers (headlines) capitalize all words except articles (the, a, an) and conjunctions (and, but, or) as well as prepositions that are four or fewer letters. So…


Damon Says He Is Pscyhed About the New Role

Her Singing Comes from Her Heart and Soul


Prepositions are capitalized if they are part of the verb phrase. So…


Rise Up with the Lord



13) Use curly quote marks and apostrophes.

On a PC, you can search straight marks and replace with curly marks by doing this:


Go to Find and Replace

Click More

Click Wildcards

Paste the straight double (or single) quote mark in Find

Type a double (or single) quote mark in Replace With




14) Use italics for emphasis.

Do not use boldface, underline, or all caps to emphasize words. Should be: That rhino was a big son-of-a-gun.



15) Here’s how to deal with decades.

It’s 1980s, not 1980’s. It’s ’80s, not ‘80s and not 80’s.



16) Here’s the style for ellipses.

Examples of correct number of periods:


Uh…I think so.

We shall see… (Use three periods at end of sentence only if it’s the end of a quote or the end of paragraph.)

What a day it was…. The next morning was beautiful.


I suggest searching any automatically formatted ellipses and replacing with three dots. That way you’re a) consistent throughout and b) four dots looks better than an automatically formatted ellipsis followed by a period.



17) This is the word on s’s.

Chicago Manual of Style states that they “prefer” s’s for possessive proper nouns. So they prefer to say: It was Dickens’s best work. To make sure you consistently followed this style, search s/apostrophe/space.



18) Here’s how to handle numbers.





twenty-first century


the ’80s (decade)

seven hundred

seven thousand

seventy thousand

seven hundred thousand

twenty-seven million






Still confused? See:



19) Here’s how to deal with titles of periodicals, films, etc.

I watch CNN and the MLB Network.

My favorite show is Dancing with the Stars.

I subscribe to The New York Times.

I read Newsweek.

The Godfather is a classic film.

I’m reading the book War and Peace.

I wrote a poem called “Why Doves Cry.”

He painted the Mona Lisa.

He starred in the play Streetcar Named Desire.

My favorite song on the Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album is “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”

The headline read, “Detmer Wins in a Landslide.”

He plays Angry Birds on his phone.



20) Here’s the style for capitalizing a person’s title.

Proper usage:

I sent a letter to Senator Jill Davis.

Hello, Senator.

I just talked to the senator.

I just talked to the executive vice president, Miguel Garcia.

I just talked to Executive Vice President Miguel Garcia.



21) This is how to use commas in compound sentences.

Use a comma before and, but, or and other conjunctions in a compound sentence. The only possible exception would be a very short sentence. So…


Mandatory comma: I really didn’t want to go to school on Monday, but I went anyway.

Optional comma: I’m tall and my wife is short.


Note that a compound comma is more important to use than a clause comma. So…


Do this: When I reached for the mug I realized that the coffee was cold, but I drank it anyway.

Do not do this: When I reached for the mug, I realized that the coffee was cold but I drank it anyway.



22) Here’s the style for hyphenating compound modifiers.

First of all, words such as high school, real estate, and living room are compound nouns, and they are never hyphenated when used as a modifier. So: high school student, real estate agent, living room couch.


But in terms of hyphenating compound modifiers, this is how you do it:


the dust-covered records; the records were dust covered

the still-hot tea; the tea was still hot

it is a well-traveled road; the road is well traveled



23) Here are guidelines for using commas following opening clauses.

In more “formal” genres, such as essays, history books, or juvenile nonfiction, use a comma after every opening clause. But in more “informal” genres such as novels or memoirs, it’s okay to forgo the opening-clause comma in order to provide an easier flow. So…


History book: In 1939, Germany invaded Poland.

Novel: When I got home last night my parents were still awake.


Even in novels, if it’s a long opening clause, use a comma. And be consistent: Don’t write When I woke up it was bright out. and then later write When I went to bed, it was still light..

24) This is how to handle percents.

Chicago Manual of Style says to use 5 percent, not five percent and not 5%. CMOS says you can use % if the book is science or stats related.

25) Describe your characters.

This is not a copyediting issue, but I want to bring it up. In almost every novel or memoir I edit by nonprofessional writers, the author falls short in describing characters. We need to see each major and secondary character; otherwise it’s like watching a movie with the faces blurred out. Major characters should be described in detail: face, hair, body shape, clothes, accessories, and distinctive physical traits and mannerisms. Moreover, continue to give us a visual of the character as the book progresses. How does she have her hair today? Is he still doing that annoying sniff-sniff again?


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