From our own reading, most of us know that some paperback and hardcover novels have a table of contents page in the front and some don’t. Lurking online, I perceive a widespread notion that tables of contents are old-fashioned and pointless for fiction.
The comma between city and state—or, following the same principle, between city and province or city and country—is so thoroughly inscribed in the written record that most editors don’t give it a second thought.
Narrators and characters in novels and other creative writing can talk about whatever they want. A character might read the Chicago Sun-Times; they might say they like to sing “Drivers License” while brushing their teeth. A narrator might mention a famous poem or novel or TV show: “The host didn’t mention that he’d heard the same joke on The Simpsons.”
Though capitalization can depend on context, there are some general rules that will apply most of the time. Proper nouns and adjectives—including the names of people, places, and brands—are almost always capitalized.
Certain pronouns change their form depending on whether they’re used as subjects or objects. These include the pronouns “who(ever)/whom(ever),” “I/me,” “she/her,” “he/him,” “they/them” and “we/us.” The ones that cause the most trouble are the first two subject/object pairs.
Creative writers sometimes mangle grammar on purpose or get creative with punctuation. At the drafting stage, we keep a dictionary and style manual at hand. When slips are unintended, we count on our copyeditors to catch them.
Editors spend a lot of time making decisions related to hyphens. That’s because hyphenation depends not only on accepted usage but also on context—and sometimes on both.
If the first rule of copyediting is “Do no harm,” the second would be “When in doubt, look it up.” This month’s workout focuses on some commonly confused homophones and uncommon variant spellings that can slip by unnoticed if you let your focus lapse.
Before a book is printed, while the text is still in manuscript form, editors at publishing houses speak in terms of word count, not page count. An appropriate word count for a project depends on the kind of book.
Like many copyeditors, I sometimes find myself enforcing rules I don’t fully agree with. For one thing, I wouldn’t want anyone who might know the applicable rule to think I’ve made a mistake.
Editors are trained not only to look for errors but also to account for contextual nuances and stylistic preferences. We impose consistency and clarify ambiguous prose, and we know when and where to look things up. To make sure we haven’t missed anything, we make use of spelling and grammar checkers.