Most editors I know and work with use the Chicago Manual of Style as their primary style guide. It’s our go-to source for clarifying which words are capitalized, how to properly use colons, when to spell out numbers, and oh so much more.
While it’s widely used, the Chicago manual is certainly not the only style guide out there. Other popular guides are the AP Stylebook (as in Associated Press, mostly used in journalistic publications) and the MLA Handbook, among others. You can find a good discussion on style guides on Grammar Girl.
Few writers I know get as excited about thumbing through the Chicago Manual of Style as I do. Most writers I work with are quite competent, good at telling their stories, with style basics carried over from their high school and/or college days.
However, there are some style details I commonly correct during line edits, and I’d like to cover them here. If you’re writing a book, take note of these–you’ll impress your editor and save her some time.
Spacing between sentences. Although many of us were taught in school to always put two spaces between sentences, most publishers use a single characters space between sentences, and after colons used within a sentence. This recommendation applies to both the manuscript and the published work. If you’ve crafted a 70,000-word manuscript with two spaces between sentences, someone will need to remove the extra spaces. At a rate of thirty dollars or more an hour, I doubt you’ll want to be paying your editor to do that job.
Time. Words or numerals? Noting time properly in a manuscript can be confusing. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, times of day in even, half, and quarter hours are usually spelled out in text. With o’clock the number is always spelled out. When noting exact times, numerals are used (with zeros for even hours). Lowercase a.m. and p.m. are recommended, though they can also be written in small capitals, with or without periods. Use words for noon and midnight. Here are some examples of time references:
He gets up at five o’clock in the morning.
She went to the gym at half past three.
He gets off work at a quarter of four (or a quarter to four).
She went to bed at ten thirty.
Cinderella’s carriage turned back into a pumpkin at midnight.
The first train leaves at 5:22 a.m. and the last at 11:00 p.m.
She caught the 6:20 p.m. flight.
Dates. These can also be a bit confusing, especially since dates can be written in a variety of ways. When specific dates are expressed, cardinal numbers are used. When a day is mentioned without the month or year, the number is usually spelled out in ordinal form.
Most Americans remember where they were on September 11, 2001.
On November 5, the candidate declared victory. By the twenty-fifth, his popularity had waned.
Decades can either be spelled out in lowercase, or expressed in numerals. Do not insert an apostrophe between the year and the s. An apostrophe is used when shortening a decade reference–the ’80s for example–but is placed before the first numeral, not before the s.
the 1980s and 1990s (less formally the ’80s and ’90s)
Academic degrees. It’s easy to assume an academic degree would be capitalized, but names of degrees are, in fact, lowercased when referred to generically. The exception to this capitalization rule is when the term is used in an institutional setting, or on business cards or other promotional items.
a master’s degree
master of business administration (MBA)
a master’s in counseling
bachelor of music
bachelor of science
a bachelor’s degree
I’ve highlighted only a few style issues here, but these are common errors I see in manuscripts. If you’d like to stay on top of style as you write, the Chicago Manual of Style is available online at www.chicagomanualofstyle.org.
Are there common style issues that trip you up? Do you have other style questions?