Edit, Rinse, Repeat: Taking Care of the Small Stuff

Editors spend a lot of time attending to the smallest of details. And though many of us also take care of the bigger stuff—rewriting for clarity, checking facts, formatting for different media, and so on—the little things will always be there, in every document, to keep us busy.

From Spaces to Hyphens and Everything in Between

Copyeditors, also known as manuscript editors, are usually the ones responsible for the little details, from spaces to commas to hyphens.* But anyone who spends time with a word processor, from editors who develop plot lines to writers who invent them, can benefit from knowing how to keep errors and inconsistencies off the page.

What follows is a summary of the things that will come up again and again, in almost any document, plus some copyeditor-approved tips for finding and fixing them.

Cleanup: The first step

Some errors and inconsistencies should always be cleaned up at once, up front, before editing begins. Otherwise you’ll spend your valuable reading time driven to distraction by things like this:

  • extra spaces between words
  • spaces before the first word of a paragraph and after the last
  • inconsistent tabs
  • hyphens that should be en dashes (as in number ranges)
  • hyphens or en dashes that should be em dashes (as in sentence punctuation)
  • straight quotation marks and apostrophes that should be curly (and correctly oriented)
  • unspaced ellipsis dots (…) that should be spaced (. . .) or, if your style requires the unspaced variety, a mix of the ellipsis character and consecutive periods
  • formatting and font issues

And if you track your changes, you’ll be making a mess if you try to fix all these problems as you read—that is, unless you’re prepared to toggle the tracking feature off and on for each change so that whoever reviews your document isn’t obliged to review hundreds of trivial and repetitive corrections that most noneditors are happy to leave to the care of a professional copyeditor.

So run your cleanup routine first, preferably with the help of macros and wildcards, and definitely with the tracking feature turned off. (For a checklist that’s more detailed than the list above, see CMOS 2.80.)

Now on to the stuff you’ll need to look for as you read. Most of these things are beyond the ability of any program or add-in to find for you in every last case, so you’ll need to pay attention.

Punctuation next to parentheses and brackets

Punctuation next to parentheses and brackets depends on context. For example, the period at the end of this sentence belongs outside the parentheses (which enclose only a part of the sentence). (This one, on the other hand, belongs inside.) Sometimes a period will belong both inside and out, as when the last element is an abbreviation (like etc.).

These distinctions are easy enough to understand but just as easy to read right past, so pay attention (and see CMOS 6.13 and 6.18).

Punctuation next to quotation marks and apostrophes

The placement of punctuation relative to quotation marks and apostrophes depends on the mark and, in some cases, on context. In Chicago style, periods and commas go inside both double and single quotation marks—that is, before the closing mark, “like ‘this.’ ” But if you do a blanket find and replace, you’ll have to account for apostrophes, as in the song title “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Other punctuation marks generally follow a closing quotation mark, except for question marks and exclamation points, which depend on context. For details and examples, start with CMOS 6.9–11.

Periods with abbreviations

In Chicago style, abbreviations that feature two or more capital letters don’t take periods (US, PhD, NATO); most other abbreviations do (Dr., vol., oz., and the F in F. Scott Fitzgerald), except for many technical and scientific abbreviations (cm, Mbps).

But Chicago’s rules aren’t universal. Some styles prefer periods for initialisms like “U.S.” (pronounced as letters) but not for acronyms like “NATO” (pronounced as a word). And some make exceptions for contracted forms like “Dr” (which includes the first and last letter of the word it abbreviates, Doctor) but not for truncated forms like “vol.” (for volume). So expect to find lots of variation in your unedited documents. For more details, start with CMOS 10.4.

Serial (or Oxford) commas

Those who follow Chicago, MLA, or APA will use the serial, or Oxford, comma (the common and fancy names, respectively, for a comma placed just before the conjunction in a series of three or more). Those who follow AP, New York Times or another journalistic style won’t. (Did you notice what just happened?) Either way, you’ll need to be on your guard and add commas or delete them, depending on whose style you follow. For a brief history of the mark relative to Chicago (and Oxford), see this Shop Talk post.

Numbers v. numerals

Changing numerals to words and vice versa is the definitive thankless editorial task. “Fifty-six” and “56” are literally the same thing, so why bother changing either one?

Readers like consistency, for starters. So if you’re spelling out zero through one hundred (Chicago’s general rule), write “fifty-six” everywhere except (a) where numerals would always be used (“page 56”), and (b) when it occurs alongside another number that would be expressed as a numeral and belongs in the same context and category (“56 editors and 230 proofreaders”). If you’re spelling out zero through nine (Chicago’s alternative rule), be prepared to make the same exceptions for a number like “three.”

And if a sentence begins with a numeral, spell it out (a nicety that can help readers recognize the beginning of a new sentence). See chapter 9 in CMOS for more guidance.


Spell check tends to give accents a pass, otherwise this one wouldn’t have made the list. For example, would you refer to the decor in a cafe while enjoying the entree after a matinee, or to the décor in a café while enjoying the entrée after a matinée? Neither MS Word nor Google Docs will help you with that one; a dictionary, however, will. (Café, entrée, decor, and matinee are the first-listed entries in Merriam-Webster; see also CMOS 7.1.)

Hyphens in compound modifiers

A compound modifier that benefits from a hyphen before the noun it modifies doesn’t usually need one when it follows the noun or when it isn’t acting as a modifier at all. This is a basic convention followed by many writers and style guides.

For example, “A well-read editor remains well read only by continuing to read.” Or, “A real-time analysis occurs in real time.” Normally the same compound won’t appear twice in the same sentence—and there are exceptions, as in “high school graduation” and “calls that are toll-free”—so this one requires a flexible approach. For more guidance, consult the hyphenation table at CMOS 7.89.

* * *

The problems listed above are easy enough to find and fix. Most of them can be cleaned up all at once or easily spotted in a read-through. Hyphens with compound modifiers, however, will require a bit more attention not only to context but also to intended meaning.

And then there are numbers. For those, local consistency can matter as much as overall consistency, but make sure that regardless of whether the text says “56” or “fifty-six,” the number itself is correct. Because accuracy is always more important than style.

* Another term associated with copyediting is line editing, and the two tasks do overlap. But when line editing is undertaken as a separate step, before copyediting, it typically involves more rewriting. See “This Needs Just a Little Work: On Line Editing,” by George Witte, and “Toward Accuracy, Clarity, and Consistency: What Copyeditors Do,” by Carol Fisher Saller, in What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing, edited by Peter Ginna (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Top image: Face with Monocle and Page with Curl (flipped for post), Microsoft renderings

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Russell Harper BitmojiRussell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


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2 thoughts on “Edit, Rinse, Repeat: Taking Care of the Small Stuff

  1. Hi,
    Very beneficial post! Thank you!
    Can you please elaborate on how one would use MS Word’s macros in the cleanup step?

    • A good place to start is FileCleaner, a user-friendly Word add-in from the Editorium, a suite of tools and other resources provided by Jack Lyon. And if you’re interested in writing or editing your own macros and using wildcards, check out the free resource WordTips, by Allen Wyatt. Hope that helps!

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