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?