Dumpster or dumpster? Important Editing Skills That You Need to Know

The first time I really became aware of style concerns in a novel is when I read Dumpster, not dumpster, in my book of the week. I think I was in high school or college. Did you know that Dumpster is a proper noun because it is a brand name? Neither did I.

As book authors, you all have to follow specific conventions based on the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS). Even if you are not aware of all of the editing conventions, your editor is, and he or she will call you on them during your revisions.

Here are ten interesting rules that writers of books must follow when using CMS.

  1. Include an ‘s’ to indicate possession after words that end in ‘s’. For example:  Uncle Thomas’s garden produced several large vegetables. Other style manuals indicate that it is okay to not include the last ‘s’, but CMS does not recommend it.
  2. Do not include “scare” quotes. In other words, do not do what I just did. When you include a term that is not really your term or your character’s term, do not include quotation marks around it. Simply write it as is.
  3. CMS prefers a.m. and p.m. So, that means no am, pm, AM, PM, A.M., or P.M.
  4. These are a few of my favorite things. You must use the Oxford comma when writing a list. In other words, if your character is going to the grocery store, he needs to buy milk, eggs, and orange juice. He should not buy milk, eggs and orange juice.
  5. “What about using dialect in my writing?” you may ask. Fortunately, you’re in the clear. CMS specifically states issues of dialect fall outside of the scope of its manual. Still, be consistent in your use of dialect. Also, your editor may have some good tips for writing appropriate dialect. Follow those guidelines.
  6. Spell out numbers zero through one hundred for non-technical documents.
  7. I often see this mistake: When you combine two independent clauses (complete sentences) with a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet,so–FANBOYS is a great way to remember them), always include a comma before your coordinating conjunction. For example: I like cats, and I like dogs. Books are fun to read, but they are not as fun to read as magazines. Note that you would not include a comma if one part of the sentence was not complete: Books are fun to read but not as fun as magazines.
  8. If there is a mistake in the final version of your novel, you are ultimately the one responsible. “In book publishing, the author is finally responsible for the accuracy of a work; most book publishers do not perform fact-checking in any systematic way or expect it of their manuscript editors unless specifically agreed upon up front” (chicagomanualofstyle.org). That said, most of the editors that I know are excellent fact checkers and editors. However, do not assume that just because you have an agent or an editor that he or she will take care of the errors in your book. Take ownership of your work.
  9. If you are writing for a newspaper and you are talking about effective punishment methods for three-year-olds, you might use the word timeout. However, if a character in your novel is throwing a temper tantrum, he or she needs a time-out.
  10. And, finally, although this is not an error that I see too often any more, do not include two spaces after a period. Two spaces used to be necessary because typewriters were not formatted to handle a period followed by a T, for example. The left side of the T would overlap the period. Now, computers handle all of the spacing issues for us, so we do not have to worry about hitting the space bar twice.

Now, let’s put some of your editing skills to work. Find the error. Its nearly impossible:


Do you know of any other CMS differences of which writer should be aware?

43 Replies to “Dumpster or dumpster? Important Editing Skills That You Need to Know”

  1. Love it! I write a column for a newspaper, and do the fiction writing, as well. I really wish I could split my brain in two because my two different editors must think I’m the biggest idiot in the world, constantly and inadvertently swapping styles. I love your eggs, toast, and juice example–and I think I mentioned this on FB–but newspapers can’t afford the comma space, so you get your OJ on the toast. I never get to include that third comma. On the other hand, my editor for my novel is had a lot of fun inserting it in my manuscript over and over. (Sorry!) The only other clear difference I’ve seen now that I’ve got my edited manuscript back from the publisher, is a book writes out all the numbers, whereas my editor at the paper pretends her skin is peeling if I don’t write the number numerically. For example: My 3 year old–is for the paper. My three-year-old–is for a book.

    1. Oh, and I don’t mean to be the little nerd here, but the error is in the word “its.” Should be “it’s.” I’m awesome, woo-hoo!!! (You can hide my comment to give others a chance. ha ha!)

    2. Yeah, it’s always more difficult when you are used to writing in a different style. In fact, my best friend graduated from law school in 2009, but when she first started, a professor explained to her why she was so frustrated with law writing. Essentially, my roommate was such a good scholar and writer in undergrad, that transitioning to law writing (where you don’t get to use transitions and fluffy words to make the paper flow better) was even more difficult for her. It’s like a parabola shape. She was getting an A on the high side of undergraduate writing, and in order to get an A in law writing, she needed to travel all the way down and all the way back up. In comparison, someone who got a C in undergraduate writing didn’t have to travel as far down on that side to transition to good law writing. Her professor mentioned that research has actually proven this.

  2. My mum still uses the double space after the period, and always nags me to do it too. It’s so irritating 🙂 Thanks for sharing these tips.

    1. I agree about the spacing after a period, but the explanation is a bit strange. The problem with typewriters is that ALL the characters are the same size, so the letter ‘w’ takes up the same space as the letter ‘i’, so there’s no way that the bar of the ‘T’ could over lap the period.
      Because the spacing has to be enough for the widest letters, the other letters appear to be spaced farther apart. That means to make it easier on the eye, the double space after a period is used to mark the end of sentences.

  3. It’s the ‘its’ used in the beginning sentence. “Its nearly impossible.” Whenever it’s takes the place of it is, an apostrophe is mandatory. Of course, most of the English-speaking world seems not to know this. Loved your list. We grammar people must try to keep the language correct, yes? But not when we’re chatting over a coffee. There is a place for a loosening of language rules.

    1. I agree with you about ditching grammar rules when having coffee with a friend. I always do this with one particular friend and, without fail, she corrects my grammar. I don’t get mad at her for it, I just explain that because my brain is always in editing mode, it’s nice to take a break for a while. I am definitely NOT a grammar snob, just a grammar professional. 🙂

  4. The GGG column is one space in, isn’t it? Thanks, Sarah, for these tips. I feel like I’ve been to school today. I can think of a certain novel’s hero who needs to have every possessive altered. After sending you my MS, I also discovered the new hard-and-fast rule about one space only after periods. I’ve fixed that already.Now off to give Prentis more ownership.

  5. Great reminders, Sarah! This is the little stuff that makes me sweat. Have I mentioned yet today how much I appreciate you? (:

  6. Thanks, Sarah. It’s the technical stuff that trips me up. These are great reminders.

    Oh, and its should be it’s. Thanks for the exercise! 🙂

  7. Ii have a question about the numbers. Does this rule apply to time?

    1. Oops, apparently I can’t write a sentence.
      That should be I no Ii, lol

      1. Great question, Sandy. For time, spell out every hour that lands on the hour, quarter hour, or half hour. For example, it is five thirty right now. Also, with o’clock, the number is always spelled out. However, if you write, say, 7:37, then you can just write it with the numbers.

  8. Love, love, love the graphic: Why I Still Use the Oxford Comma. I have to leave that baby out at work, but in my personal writing, I get to use it. 🙂 It brings such clarity.

  9. Hi Sarah,

    Some useful explanations about the things that I see all the time but fail to see their logic. Thanks for the straight forward explanations.

  10. Fabulous post and very timely! FANBOYS will help me a lot, and, yes. You can expect that I will be returning to my MS to make sure I have those done correctly, and no. I didn’t know Dumpster was a proper noun. Ha!

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