As a freelance editor, I have been working extensively with a number of publishers. Each one has a slightly different ‘house style’, but I have managed to boil down a general list of what is required. You can either use this to guide your own work, or if you have already written something, to go through it again and clean it up. This will help any of our Inca resources to get the work back to you with minimal edits required, or save you several hundred Pound-Euro-Dollars in engaging a paid-for editor. There are other requirements across the publishing houses but if you follow these guidelines, the publishers won't have too much trouble converting your work to their own styles: (See also the new page on automating your document editing.)
Spell out precise numbers up to one hundred; over 100 use Arabic numerals
Spell out general numbers: “It was over six thousand years ago that Ishur Ninku wrote about the coming of the Strangers.”
(Ankerita – Strangers with the Eyes of Men)
Sentences should never be started with a numeral – if the sentence cannot be re-organised, the numeral should be spelled out in words, no matter how large
Percentages should be a numeral plus the words: e. g. 20 per cent, not 20% or twenty per cent, and 'per cent' is usually two words, however, some American publishers will accept ‘percent’ as one word.
Always use hyphens in spelled-out numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine
Dates are formatted as the numeral + month + year, e. g. 13 May 2017. Note that the month and numeral can be reversed in American English. Never say 13th May, however.
For decades use 'sixties', 'seventies', etc. or, if absolutely necessary, 1960s, 2000s etc. There is some argument over whether to capitalise these,
but consider the sentence, “He was in his late sixties in the Sixties,” and make your own judgment. In the American publishers, you might find 1960’s, but then is that a possession of the 1960s? “He had a hat from
the 1960s," or would it be, "he had a 1960’s hat"?
It is best not to use ’60s, as most publishers do not find it acceptable depending on house style. The general advice is that the decade should not be capitalised unless you can argue it is used as a proper noun, such as: “Liberation of young women really began in the Swinging Sixties.”
Date Ranges. Use a closed-up ‘en dash’ for date ranges. E.g. 2000-2010. There are further details about types of dashes to be found in the site, although you don’t usually need to worry about these because modern word processors automatically use the correct spacing and characters.
When adding numbers to your text, use the least number of figures possible, but they must make sense when spoken. E.g. 2000–2010 or 2008-9 but not 2000–2, 08-09 or 31-24 Never use a slash between years i.e. 2015/16
Times that are on the hour, half hour, or quarter hour should be written out as words. E.g. “He vowed to be at lunch by twelve thirty.”
A.m. and p.m. should be written out as full if on the above breaks: “He was always at lunch by one p.m.”
Precise times should always be written out with numerals: “Today, though, John did not eat until 1.10 p.m.”
Books, magazines, newspapers, plays, albums (and compilations), motion pictures, TV and radio programs, operas and other long musical compositions, paintings, statues, and other artworks, cartoons, comic strips, should be in italics.
Poems, chapters, songs, newspaper and magazine articles, essays, short stories (when part of a collection, series or anthology), single episodes of TV programs, should be enclosed in quotation marks.
Web sites, prayers, creeds, religious events, concepts, etc., books of the bible, armies, battalions, corps, etc., exhibitions, fairs, and similar events, should be capitalised with no quotations marks.
Use italics for foreign words that are not commonly used in English and not in the Merriam Webster dictionary (https://www.merriam-webster.com/)
Do not use italics, quotation marks or underline for names of streets, restaurants, nightclubs, etc. but do capitalise them.
Tags, the phrases before and after speech, should only ever be descriptions of the dialogue itself, not words that describe an action. A dialogue tag must be verbal. See the examples below.
Wrong: “You’re right,” Steve nodded. Right: “You’re right.” Steve nodded.
Wrong: “Whatever,” shrugged Steve. Right: Steve shrugged. "Whatever,” he said.
Wrong: “Devastating,” frowned Steve. Right: “Awful.” Steve frowned.
Interjections are words or phrases that express emotion and do not relate grammatically to the rest of the sentence. When they are contained within a sentence – as opposed to being written standalone – they should be separated with a comma. Words and phrases such as ‘similarly’, ‘hey’, ‘well’, ‘gosh’ and ‘excuse me’ are used as interjections. E.g. Pete shook his head. “Well, blow me, golly-gosh, I’m glad that’s all over.”
Stuttered words are joined by an em-dash (the long dash can be found in the 'symbols' section in Word, or simply created by pressing the ctrl and alt keys along with the minus sign, all together.
“I—I can’t.” or “I—I’m fine.” Stuttered letters are joined by single short hyphens.
You can also use the ellipsis (triple dot) to denote a break in the text, such as “I...I can’t.” For single letters use the short, 'en' dash “P-p-Pete, what’s happening?”
Always a tricky one. The Chicago Manual of Style, which most publishers follow, suggests that thought, imagined dialogue, and other interior discourse can be enclosed in quotation marks or not, according to the context or the writer’s preference, but here is what a major mainstream publisher suggests:
All first-person and/or present-tense internal dialogue, thoughts, and prayers should be italicised and without quotation marks.
I wish I had his income, she thought. The man has more money than sense.
If a thought is in the third person, past tense, italics aren’t necessary.
He has too much money, she decided.
Remembered dialogue should be italicised and include quotation marks.
She recalled her interview. “Surely, you’re not suggesting I work for a living?”
A special note for telepathic communication: it would ideally be formatted with both italics and quotation marks. The quotation marks to denote a telepathic conversation, the italics to show it’s not spoken.
As you can see, it depends on House Style again, so my suggestion will be to go by instincts and write it down in a way that seems right to you. It is not really a major issue and no publisher will reject your manuscript for that.
EXCERPTS FROM BOOKS, LETTERS, SONGS, NOTES, POEMS, ETC.
Long notes or excerpts should be indented. Delete any accompanying quotation marks when you indent text, unless a character is reading aloud. In a letter, the first paragraph is flush left, and the other paragraphs, until the sign-off, are indented. For the most part, indented material should be in Times New Roman. Italics are not necessary.
Short notes or very short excerpts of a song or poem need not be indented. They should be matched with what precedes and follows. In that case, quote marks stay in. Italics are not necessary, but are sometimes used for clarity.
If the run-in excerpt or note is being read aloud, use single quotation marks within double.
A kinship name is uppercased in direct address or when the term is substituted for the personal name.
“I can’t do the washing-up, Mother.”
“My father can’t decide which shirt to wear.”
He drove his grandma to the chiropodist.
“Did you give Grandma her drink?”
“Where are you going, Great-Aunt Gertrude?”
However, use lowercase brother, sister, cousin, son, aunt, uncle, coz in direct address.
“How are you doing, coz?”
Titles used in direct address should be uppercased, but not for miss, sir and so on.
“I am, General, at your service.”
“Could you get me a bedpan, Nurse?”
“Oh, no, your Honour.”
You will have difficulty doing this yourself, so the best plan is to get a friend to read it through. Usually, a friend will not want to hurt your feelings by telling you that you've written a load of hogwash, so get them to answer the following questions, honestly. If you are asked to review someone's work, then you can also use this same set of questions to provide useful feedback:
Did the beginning of the story capture your interest right away?
Did you find the main characters relatable? Did you care what happened to them?
What was your favourite scene?
What sections did you find boring or hard going?
Were there points in the story that didn’t make sense or that you found frustrating?
Did you feel compelled to keep reading? Why or why not?
Did you ever get confused about who was who?
Were there any sections that you felt got bogged down with too much backstory, dialogue, or description? Or that needed more?