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Understanding Spelling, Grammar, and Proper Punctuation in Nonfiction Writing

Understanding Spelling, Grammar, and Proper Punctuation in Nonfiction Writing
Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are important finishing touches that will make the difference in whether your manuscript gets off of the editor's desk to the press or into the never basket. While some novice writers believe they don't need to worry so much about these elements of good writing because they fall to the editor's job, you will do well to recognize that most editors scoff at the idea of being someone's clean up gal or guy. Indeed, the mechanics of the language and your use of it are your responsibility, not the editor's and overlooking or dismissing this fact will not make you any points with your editor or client.


If you have written even a business letter, then you know that the spell checks in the MS Word program and other similar word processing programs are seriously inadequate for checking a manuscript. The reasons for this are many and do not really reflect on the fine folks at Microsoft or any other company that creates cool computer tools. A quick glimpse at the nature of the problem is to consider the use of words such as their/there/they're, to/too, regardless/irregardless, and others. In the first two examples, your spell check will fail you because it cannot proofread for you and so it cannot determine the context of your usage. In the third example, your spell check fails because it knows that the prefix "ir" is part of the English language and proper usage, but it does not know that irregardless is not a proper word in the language and cannot be used without the writer looking like a hick that uses other double negatives.

There are too many examples of everyday words that fall through the cracks of your spell check to list as words to look out for when watching your spell check program. You, the writer, must simply learn to spell correctly, spell check everything you write, proofread your manuscripts, and use the thesaurus and dictionary when in doubt.

Correct spelling is one of the distinctive elements that marks the educated and separates the ignorant in the world of writing. If you have ever written a cover letter to your resume, then you know that diligence in the area of spelling will also open or shut the door for you in the competitive realm of employment. If it is true in the HR department of a company, then expect it to be true on your client's or editor's desk. Oh, and yes, typos are misspellings in the world of writing and truly a neon sign that reads, "LAZY!!!!"

In my undergraduate studies at the University of Florida, my grammar professor drove home the importance of correct spelling on the first day of classes. He stood before the class of 50 and told everyone that he would assign an A to any student who came forward on the spot and correctly spelled the word "accommodate." He explained that any student who could correctly spell accommodate probably did not need his course and he would gladly opt them out of the course with a top grade. As an undergraduate, this was intimidating. Only two people made the attempt and only one person received his A and had the luxury of not attending for the rest of term.

The professor's point is as important today as it was then, if you can't spell, how can you write effectively? If you can't spell, how will you be taken seriously? If you can't spell, do you think that the world of editors is a world of personal janitors? Do you think your client or editor does not mind reading your poorly constructed sentences? Do you think that text message or email spelling are okay in a manuscript submission? What exactly are you hoping to communicate when you don't take the time or make the effort to check what you write?


Want to learn more? Take an online course in Nonfiction Writing.

In some ways, it is safe to say that if you do not have the basics of the language down, then you should take some classes before trying to become the next great nonfiction writer. On the other hand, I do not want to discourage anyone who has a decent grasp of the language and its rules. Even top writers need help with their grammar. If they didn't, then the job of editor would be only that of a stylist. Although most editors would prefer to be only a stylist, most know grammar and its nuances are the bulk of the editor's job. To gain your client's or editor's favor, take a grammar course, keep and use a handy grammar reference (see below), and do your best to stay in line with what the client or editor is looking for in a manuscript.

Proper Punctuation

A course may also help in the area of proper punctuation. Of course, a good grammar book will do wonders in this area as well as practicing the basics of the language. If you have a habit of not really paying much attention to punctuation, then you will want to practice some diligence in this area of your writing. Remember, when you don't take care of your punctuation, then your writing reads like one big set of run-on sentences and an editor will inevitably chop it in ways you did not intend and some of your original meaning will be lost.

When you do not tend to your punctuation, you also run the risk of straight up rejection from your client or editor. Unless you have a very good reason for your poor attention to proper punctuation, then stop slacking on the details of your writing. There are very few good excuses for a lack of attention to punctuation.

I have a client who is a very successful man in his business. He is a multimillionaire and highly respected in his community. He also has incredible stories to tell, mostly children's stories. He is an interesting man with a considerable amount of charm and charisma and someone who draws people to him. His Achilles heel is that he hardly ever punctuates when he writes his stories because he doesn't really know how to properly punctuate. He has a fourth grade education because he has worked his whole life to support his family. He is the exception with the good excuse because he clearly has much to offer and clearly is not a lazy person. But most writers do not get this type of pass with their editors or clients. So, it is best for you to give your punctuation close attention.

Here is a brief list of punctuation details:

  • Periods. Belong at the end of a declarative or imperative sentence.
  • Commas. Belong to lists, independent clauses, and dependent clauses.
  • Colons. Belong to lists when preceded by nouns.
  • Semicolons. Belong to lists when written in a series in a single sentence.
  • Ampersands. Belong to lists when the list includes proper nouns such as names in a law firm (for instance, Carstens, Yee, & Cahoon, P.C.); otherwise avoid them in the content of nonfiction.
  • Parenthesis and brackets. Should be written in the same font, size, and style (such as italics, bold, and so forth) as the words contained within them.

For a more detailed understanding of these and related punctuation details, you will want to take a course in grammar or refer to your writer's style book.


  1. Context. - To consider the meaning of the word or phrase inside of its sentence or paragraph. To take something out of context is to distort or construe a word or phrase to imply something the writer or speaker did not originally intend.
  2. Proofread. A manual process by which the writer physically checks the manuscript's content for misspellings, typos, and omissions.
  3. Thesaurus. - A reference book similar to a dictionary, and often a companion to a dictionary, that lists synonyms for the words listed.


  1. The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Published by Penguin Books and now in the Fourth Edition. This is considered one of the industry bibles for writers and editors. [Ref: ISBN 978-0-14-311272-3].
  2. The Chicago Manual of Style, by The University of Chicago Press. This is a desk reference that every writer and editor needs for checking details. Also considered an industry bible, this book is now in its 15th edition and will set you back $50+ unless you buy it used. [Ref: ISBN 978-226-10403-4].

Edit and Edit Again
I once had a very intelligent and educated man apply to my publishing house to become one of our staff editors. He had experience, intelligence, and credentials and he appeared to know what he was doing, so I gave him a short assignment to see if I could send him bigger projects. The assignment was a client's personal memoir and it was about 65 pages. I estimated that the work would take 2 to 4 weeks to accomplish a first edit because of the writer's style.

At the end of the first week, the editor wannabe sent the manuscript back to me with a note saying that he had edited it using his computer's spell check and grammar check and that his new version was complete and ready to go. He wanted to collect his pay and move on to the next project.

What the man lacked in skill, he tried to make up for in enthusiasm for the prospect of becoming an editor at a publishing house. Unfortunately, enthusiasm does not make an editor any more than your computer's spell check and grammar check programs. When it is time for you to edit your material for submission, be sure to set aside at least 15% of your estimated time for this process. You will not want to skip this process if you are determined to become a professional nonfiction writer.

While the nonfiction writer must be prepared for the inevitable changes to his or her manuscript when submitting it to an editor or client, it is of utmost importance to edit your work before submission. I am not suggesting that you try to become a professional editor in order to produce quality nonfiction. Many writers produce very marketable material without having courses in editing. But every good writer seeks to learn more about their craft as they proceed and seek to better present their material so that they endure fewer rejections and enjoy more work.

To make a good presentation, you will need to take your manuscript through at least two edits before it leaves your computer to your editor. Editing your material is one of the last things you will do before submission. Never try to edit as you are writing because you will create your own writer's block by trying to be perfect as you go.

Here is a list of elements you, the author, should provide the editorbefore the editing process begins[1]:

  1. Title page.
  2. Dedication.
  3. Epigraph.
  4. Table of contents.
  5. List of illustrations.
  6. List of tables.
  7. Preface.
  8. Acknowledgments.
  9. Any other front matter.
  10. All text matter, including introduction and part titles.
  11. Notes.
  12. Appendices.
  13. Glossary.
  14. URLs for all Web sites cited.
  15. Bibliography or reference list.
  16. Any other background matter.
  17. All illustrations and all tables.
  18. Illustration captions.
  19. All permissions, in writing, that may be required to reproduce illustrations or previously published material or to cite unpublished data or personal communications.

The publisher usually furnishes the half-title page, the copyright page,and copy for the running heads. The list above, except for most of the front and back matter, also applies to authors contributing an article to a journal or a chapter to a book.[2]

Many editors and clients accept manuscripts and articles in electronic form in this age of cyberspace. You should prepare your manuscript with as much diligence as if you had hand typed it on an old Smith-Corona. Before the popular use of computers, authors broke their backs to make sure there were no white-out chemicals on their manuscript papers (a.k.a. hard copy) and that every word and every sentence was absolutely perfect.

Today, your approach to your editing process should be conducted with very much the same diligence and attention to detail. Although it is popular to assert that a truly creative mind cannot be encumbered by attention to details, this cannot be your excuse for sloppiness. Again, editors resent being thought of by their writers as the maid or clean up guy or gal. The nonfiction article or book is your creation, so why should an editor accept it if it is presented with a dirty diaper? It is doubtful that you would disrespect your babysitter by dumping your poopy-pants child, so don't dump a sloppy manuscript on your editor with any expectation of publication.

Here is another list of things to check in your manuscript before sending it to your editor or client:

  • Word and sentence cadence. If you read your writing out loud to yourself, then you will hear the natural cadence of the words. This will help you to determine if your work flows well and has a natural rhythm.
  • Ideological balance in content. Did you complete or balance your assertions? Starting an idea or asserting a set of arguments for, or against, something and then failing to follow through to cover them all is a faux pas that will create work for you if and when the editor bounces it back to you.
  • Prepositions and prepositional phrases, idioms. You will want to pay particular attention to these if you are a non-native English writer. Even if you are a native born English writer, you will want to watch these.
  • Split infinitives. This is common in the spoken language, especially in slang, but very inappropriate in the written language.
  • Dependent and independent clauses. Proper use of commas in relation to the noun/pronoun/verb/adverb.
  • Did I keep my language bias-free? (Avoid racism, sexism, and so on).
  • Did I alternate my pronouns to reflect gender balance? (Alternating the use of "he" and "she" when referring to generic others).
  • Change passive voice to active voice. Key: Avoid being verbs; change "ing" words to their active form where possible. Passive voice is one of the most glaring errors made by novice writers, and it makes your writing sleepy.
  • Delete everything behind the "com" in all website addresses listed in your content UNLESS the page content is necessary for the reader to find the particular information or product. If he can find it by going to the site and tabbing through the site's pages, then delete it. The main reason for this is that URLs change frequently in sites and leaving the code behind the "com" makes your writing vulnerable to becoming obsolete. The reader expects to go to the site and find the subject of discussion. As long as the reader can find the main site, then you have done your job. The exception to this, of course, is if the site is linked to another or if the page is indexed in some obscure way that a passing site visitor could not find it; then, you would include the code behind the "com".
  • Foreign phrases or word. If your reading audience will be unfamiliar with them, then be sure to italicize them. This gives the reader the assurance that the word or phrase has a non-English origin; and an opportunity to look it up by having the correct spelling and context.
  • Repetitious words or phrases. Except as used in good taste and in hooks, repetition in your words or phrases should be avoided. Eliminate your favorite sentences (ones that you use frequently) just as you would eliminate your favorite "uhm" in your speech when preparing to speak before a crowd of professionals.
  • All CAP WORDS. Avoid them all together unless capitalization makes an emphasis that would otherwise be missed by a skim reader. Generally, it is good to avoid writing in all caps or all bold, these read as screaming to your reader and you will lose his or her attention.
  • Historical, cultural, and military terms. Be sure to look them up to make sure you have used them correctly and spelled them correctly and in the right context.
  • Check for run-on sentences and improper use of commas. Sentences longer than three lines should be carefully scrutinized for restructure or rewriting. If the sentence is five or more lines, then rewrite it into two or more sentences.
  • Check your tenses. It is quite irritating to read a sentence that has both the present and past tense in it in a wrong context.
  • Check your singular and plural nouns and pronouns. Do not mixthe writer with they in the same sentence.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it will get you well along the path to editing your work so that you can create favor with your editor or client. There is no such thing as a perfect writer; there are, however, excellent writers. If you strive for excellence, you will become a well-published nonfiction writer.


  1. Epigraph. A quote from another writing or artwork that a writer uses at the beginning of a piece of writing, chapter, article, or book.
  2. Preface. An explanatory introduction in the front of the book that has a personal tone to it, from the author to the reader.
  3. Acknowledgments. Normally a page in the front of the book that lists names of the author's sources of help, encouragement, and support for the writing.
  4. Appendices. Supplementary material that supports portions of the writing or book, normally appearing at the back of the book.
  5. Half-title page. This page carries nothing but the book title in it. The book's title is printed at the top of the page and the half-title page precedes the title page in a book layout.
  6. Copyright page. This page includes the copyright notice, the copyright owner's name, the year the book is copyrighted, and usually the city and state of the copyright owner. This is part of the front parts of a book, normally prepared by the publisher.
  7. Running heads. A header that is set in the top portion of the page, in the top margin, and runs the length of the chapter or book.

[1] The University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, 15thedition, Chicago 2003: 58-59.[2] ibid.

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