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There’s “Editing,” and Then There’s Professional Book Editing

book editor and author David AlanBy David Alan, editor

I recently received two memoir manuscripts, both authored by corporate executives—a man and a woman.

“I just want you to review it for content,” said the male exec. “You don’t need to edit it. It has already been edited.”

“It just needs to be proofread for typos,” the woman insisted. “It has already been edited and [self]-published. This is the updated edition.”

Turns out, both manuscripts were loaded with mistakes—hundreds of them. Many authors can’t spot the errors, but the book editor—as if wearing special infrared (or infra-read?) glasses—sees them clearly. So can other people in publishing: publishing house editors, literary agents, and book reviewers (i.e., just the people authors need to appeal to).

What many people don’t realize is that there’s a difference between editing for grammar and professional book editing. With rare exceptions, the book publishing industry follows the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which in hard copy is 1,026 pages. Book editors make sure that the manuscript follows this style.

The grammar editor (say, an English teacher) might let the following sentence pass because it doesn’t break any grammar rules.

The non-controversial measure was fought tooth-and-nail by Congressmen, Senators, Vice-President Biden and even the President.

Book editors, though, see several things that don’t follow CMOS. Prefixes shouldn’t be followed by a hyphen (with certain exceptions); tooth and nail shouldn’t be hyphenated; job titles are lowercase if they don’t precede a name (even in the case of the president); Vice President shouldn’t be hyphenated; and a serial comma should be used. Thus, the sentence should read:

The noncontroversial measure was fought tooth and nail by congressmen, senators, Vice President Biden, and even the president.

Moreover, book editors are trained to notice word construction that’s not right. The battle was hard-fought should be The battle was hard fought. Dashes in running text should be em dashes with no spaces around them. Paragraph indents should be set in Word under Paragraph/Special/First line—not by hitting the tab button (or, egads, by typing multiple spaces).

Experienced book editors catch not only the obvious mistakes—you’re/your; it’s/its—but have their radar up for mistakes that they’ve seen dozens of times. When lawyers write a novel, they tend to have their characters waive (not wave) to each other—since waive is used regularly in legalese. Every time I read thunder, I half expect it to be accompanied by lightening, since the word is so often used instead of the correct lightning.

I actually see the word mantel, when referring to the shelf above a fireplace, spelled incorrectly more often than correctly. In my experience, most people spell it mantle, which is correct only if you’re referring to a sleeveless cloak or the heavy-drinking Yankees slugger.

Yes, book editors can be a little uptight, but at least we get it right—thanks to our infra-read glasses. Or is it infraread?


The author and editor of more than 150 books, David Alan knows what it takes to get a book published.

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