Here you will find guidelines and tips to help when checking any text document, in particularly for prose to be published. It is not comprehensive, and only covers a fraction of what is involved in checking, proofing and editing a book. It is intended the list will grow over time with examples. Remember, what is acceptable practice or standard in one country may not be in another.
- Use single word spacing after a full stop/period. Set your word-processing program to default to single space or, as in Word, the Auto Correct setting. Use Search/Replace to double check and correct any double or treble spaces. There are technical reasons for doing this which I won’t elaborate on here.
- Study a few conventionally published books by the major publishing houses, to see and understand how they have handled things such as dialogue, layout and style, punctuation and formatting, and use as a guide if you are unsure what to do.
- Never rely solely on spellcheckers. Grammar checkers are next to useless, as they cannot distinguish between correct use of words, particularly homonyms (their, there, there are, they’re, or here and hear; where, wear or ware; plain or plane etc). Use Search/Replace to check on word use, particularly on it’s (contraction of it is) and its, their and there.
- Learn and know your weakness words in spelling and add them to the auto correct. When typing, add character names to the Auto Correct, ie bb to type in Barbara. This ensures your character names are always spelt the same way throughout. There are many words that can be spelled various ways. Which ever way you choose, ie if you want to spell “realize” with a z, that’s fine; just ensure you spell that word with a z all the way through the document. The big rule is: Consistency and Standardization.
- Read the text out aloud to yourself, or send document to Kindle etc and read it back in voice mode. It is a bit mechanical but so useful. Or, even better, invest in a voice mode program for your PC, ie TextAloud. This is inexpensive, has English and American voices, male and female, and other languages available. If your text sounds jilted or prolonged when read aloud, it will be even more jarring to the reader.
- Check for one thing at a time throughout the document. Work from the back to the front, sentence and paragraph at a time. This prevents losing yourself in the story again or tweaking so that you forget the task in hand. Don’t try to do the whole book at once.
- Understand the meaning and use of phrases before you use them. You would not believe the amount of times I have read “tow the line” when, in fact, it is “toe the line”.
- Quotation marks. Double or Single? It doesn’t matter which, as long as you are consistent throughout. If using double, ensure any single word or quote within the document is also within double quotes. Do not use double on dialogue and single everywhere else, or vice versa. The only exception is if you have a word or statement within a dialogue or quotation (a quote within a quote, ie: “I didn’t do it because he said to me: ‘If you do I’ll kill you’, so I wasn’t going to argue.”).
- Put each piece of dialogue on a new line every time, unless it is interspersed with a tag line or action by that same person. Avoid constant use of he said/she said tag lines especially in a two-sided conversation. Once order of speech is established, it should be clear from the writing and words used who is talking. Ensure all dialogue has opening and closing quotation marks.
- Punctuation in dialogue. The final comma or full stop/period in dialogue should always be inside the closing quote. If using a full stop, ensure the next sentence begins with a capital letter. If a comma ends a piece of dialogue, ensure a lowercase letter is used on the next word unless it is someone’s name. If a speech tag is before dialogue, a comma should be used, not a colon. A colon can be used before a quotation or indirect speech.
- Exclamation marks should only be used in dialogue on single words or short phrases (eg “Ouch!” “Oh my God!”). The words themselves in dialogue and any speech tag should be enough to show tone and meaning (“Get out of here,” she screamed.) Do not use double exclamation marks, questions marks or an exclamation and question mark together. You wouldn’t use a comma and a full stop, would you? A piece of dialogue is either a question or a statement, it cannot be both. The ampersand (&) should only be used on things like company names, eg Dombie & Sons.
- Numbers should always be in words including centuries, decades, age, measurement, time, although it is acceptable to use numbers on specific years, ie “It was in 1925…”. Numbers after twenty should be hyphenated.
- Apostrophe use. Big minefield if unsure. Apostrophes are not used to pluralise words (thus: TVs, CDs, MDs, CVs, bananas). An apostrophe denotes possession: John’s hat, which is a contraction of the hat that belongs to John. It is also used to show where letters have been omitted as in clipped speech, eg youn’ ’uns. An extra check is needed to ensure you haven’t put in a closed quote mark when using clipped speech in dialogue – another good reason for using double quote marks.
- Use a ruler to follow text line by line. This will concentrate your eye to the words on that line only to spot any error.
- Check manuscript for consistency in Italicised words or phrases used. Italics should be used to emphasise a particular word and on foreign, unfamiliar words. Titles of books, films, newspapers, songs and paintings can also be in Italic as a matter of choice.