A while ago I copyedited a book written by a woman who is an excellent storyteller -- but was not quite ready to be a professional author.
The book required so much editing that my hands ached from typing and mousing. I charged the woman much more than I would have if the text was prepared better for me.
I'm sure the writer -- and perhaps her friends and relatives -- read the manuscript dozens of times. I'm sure they loved it. I did not.
The biggest single problem was lack of consistency.
Every book needs a style sheet (a set of rules for the writer). I usually make my style sheet as a temporary "page zero" that stays in the front of the book until the book is ready to be distributed.
The styles dictate such things as spelling, capitalization, abbreviation and hyphenation, and are promulgated in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style (from the University of Chicago Press).
The AP book is a reference book you can actually read for fun.
You can adhere to the rules of such style manuals or combine elements of several. It's less important to rigidly follow one book than to be consistent within your text -- but don't be consistently foolish.
Don't have “3 a.m.” on one page and “5PM” 100 pages later. Don't have "41" and "forty-one." Use "chairman" and "Chairman" in the proper places.
Sometimes the style books agree with each other. Sometimes they don’t. For example, "Chicago" (which was first published in 1891) favors the serial comma, but the AP and the Times books oppose it. Their attitude may be based on the need to save space in crowded newspapers. "Chicago" style is more often used by book publishers.
The Chicago Manual of Style tells us that french fries and swiss cheese need no uppercase letters. The AP book says we should capitalize Swiss cheese.
The AP book was first produced as a 60-page booklet in 1953. Over the years, this “Bible of the Newspaper Industry” grew considerably in both size and scope. The 2007 version that I use is still a rulebook -- but it’s also a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a textbook. The AP updates annually. I'm still using the 2010 edition. The Chicago and Times books update less frequently. I have the 2002 version of the Times book. My 15th edition of the Chicago book was published in 2003.
The Oxford University Press and the Chicago Manual of Style insist that an em dash should be attached to the letters before and after it, like—this, with almost no visible space. On the other side, the New York Times likes to put a space before and after each em dash. I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, with different styles in different books. As long as I publish my own books, I control my em dashes. You control yours.
While a self-publisher can choose (or create) her or his style, if you get a contract from another publisher -- or even if you freelance for a magazine, newspaper or website -- you may encounter "house style." Doubleday may have different preferences than Simon & Schuster, and the New York Times may disagree with Esquire.
Online, Slate, Salon and Huffington Post may have different standards.
Just as language does not stand still, neither do the official styles. The AP recently switched from "web site" to "website" and endorsed "email" over "e-mail," "handheld" over "hand-held" and "cellphone" over "cell phone." I made those changes years ago.
- Rampant use of ampersand instead of "and"
- Use of numerals instead of spelling low numbers
- Bad spelling
- Factual errors
- Repeated words and phrases
- Omitted words
- Omitted hyphens
- Unnecessary hyphens
- Omitted spaces
- Unnecessary spaces
- Wrong words (e.g., "house" instead of "horse")
- Lowercasing proper nouns, such as "protestant"
- Unnecessary uppercasing, such as "Church"
- Not explaining esoteric terminology
- Excessive informality outside of dialog (e.g., "my mom" instead of "my mother"
- Not knowing when to use quote marks and italics
- Over-long sentences and paragraphs
- Improper dashes
- Too many em dashes
- Not verifying spelling of names (it's the Philips company, but a phillips screw)
Just as your style sheet specifies the type font for breaker heads and whether you capitalize the "W" in "web," it's good to have a list -- at least in your head -- of screw-ups to avoid.
One of my perpetual problems is giving too many examples. It's partly pedantry, which I inherited from my father. It may also be a bit of egomania, to show off how much I know.
My natural impulse is to write something like, "British automobile manufacturers -- such as Jaguar, Rover, MG, Triumph, Vauxhall, Austin and Morris -- had reputations for unreliable electrical systems."
Under my self-imposed limit, I am allowed ONLY THREE EXAMPLES," so I'd probably ditch Triumph, Vauxhall, Austin and Morris. I'd still make my point, and save some bytes and trees.
More advice in my Self-Editing for Self-Publishers (What to do before the real editor starts editing-or if you're the only editor)
Top illustration from http://www.123rf.com. MG photo from Brett Weinstein. Thanks.