Common Mistakes Writers Make When Writing

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For those writers who plan to have a book published, I can only hope that your manuscript will go through a thorough edit before it is printed. That is especially important for those who self-publish or use publish-on-demand services to bring their book to market. These methods usually do not require or offer editing services to catch mistakes that can cost you credibility as an author.

As an editor for individual authors as well as working as a contracted editor for two publishers, I’ve seen many grammatical or mechanical errors in manuscripts. I’ll share a few of the more common mistakes in hopes that you might avoid these pitfalls.

Please note that Associated Press (AP) style is commonly used for journalistic works such as newspapers and Web text. The examples I am going to use are from Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) published by the University of Chicago Press. It is one of the most respected and trustworthy guidelines for literary works such as books.

1. A very common error in many of the books I edit or proofread occurs in the title, headers, and subheaders. The Chicago Manual of Style 7.127 states: In regular title capitalization, also known as headline style, the first and last words and all nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, adverbs, and subordinating conjunctions (if, because, as, that, etc.) are capitalized. Articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, for, nor), and prepositions, regardless of length, are lowercase unless they are the first or last word of the title or subtitle.

2. A book is not entitled (meaning deserving, allowed, permitted); it is titled (meaning to have a title, label, or name).

3. The titles of books, record albums, movies, TV shows, and screenplays should be in italic type. Do not use “quotation” marks. Do not underline these titles unless you are formatting them for a bibliography. However, article titles and poem and song titles do go inside quotation marks.

4. Unless a word is an acronym, it should not be in ALL CAPS. Use italics for emphasis.

5. OK should be spelled out: okay.

6. ISBN is the acronym for International Standard Book Number. To write “ISBN number” is the same as stating International Standard Book Number number. It is redundant to use the word “number” or the pound symbol (#) after ISBN.

7. Percent symbols (%) should be spelled out “percent” unless used in a chart or table. Numbers followed by a percent should be in numeric form. Example: 91 percent. However, if a percentage is the first word of a sentence in a literary work, it should be spelled out. Example: Ninety-one percent of the students passed the test.

8. Use one space (not two) after a period, question mark, colon, or semi-colon. This is quite the opposite of what we were taught in typing class way back when! It can be a hard habit to break.

9. CMOS 5.57 states, “In a series listing three or more items, the elements are separated by a comma.” For example: The dog, cat, hippo, and cow jumped over the moon.

10. When writing years, do not use an apostrophe. Example: 1960s, not 1960’s unless you want the possessive form of the word. If abbreviated: ’60s is correct; 60’s is incorrect. Notice that the apostrophe [ ‘ ] is used as a placeholder for missing the numbers, and not a single close quote mark [ ‘ ] which faces the opposite direction.

11. Speaking of years, hyphens and numerals are used when you write “the 16-year-old boy.” No hyphen is needed, and the number is spelled out when you write “the boy is sixteen years old.”

12. Internet is a proper noun and the first letter should be capitalized. The debate on whether or not Web should be capitalized is still ongoing. CMOS says it should be written in proper case. It is another name for World Wide Web, which is a proper noun.

RE: Web site. When a word is used a lot, its spelling becomes commonly accepted even if it is incorrect. The most common spelling and use of this word is website. However, according to CMOS, it is two words: Web site. As long as you are consistent throughout your book or document, I doubt most people will question either spelling.

13. The em dash [-] is defined as one em (letter “m”) in width. The double hyphen will convert to an em dash-if you type two dashes (hyphens) — and do not put a space before or after. Or, you may create an em dash in Windows-based programs by pressing and holding Caps Lock and Alt while typing 0151 on your number key pad. Similar to a parenthetical phrase (like this), the em dash sets apart clauses in a sentence.

14. The en dash [-] is one en (letter “n”) in width: half the width of an em dash. The en dash is used to indicate a closed range, or a connection between two things of almost any kind: numbers, people, places, etc. For example: June-July 2008. Create an en dash in Windows-based programs by pressing and holding Caps Lock and Alt while typing 0150 on your number key pad. There should be no space before or after an en dash.

15. When writing dialogue, all punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. When a word or phrase is used to set apart text in scare quotes, the first example below is correct; the second is incorrect:

Every day we hear that the price of gas has hit an “all time high.” Every day we hear that the price of gas has hit an “all time high”.

16. Numbers less than ten should always be spelled out. Some style guides will disagree about higher numbers. Chicago advocates that all numbers under 101 should be spelled out. If in question, always consult a style guide. Be consistent and use the same style guide throughout the document or manuscript. Correcting these common errors will make your manuscript much easier and enjoyable to read.

If you need assistance with preparing your book manuscript, the editors on our team would be happy to help you. Our rates are more affordable than you might expect. See for more information.

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