Grammar books: there are tons of grammar books that point out commonly misused words, punctuation, trivia, etc., like Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, or The Transitive Vampire (complete with hysterical examples and Victorianish line drawings). And Joseph M. Williams’s dreamy Style: Toward Clarity and Grace…no, I’m going to cut myself off there.
Consider it a professional investment to read books about grammar, vocabulary, style, and language in general–how we use it and how it uses us. One, you’ll edit better. Two, you’ll make better choices when you’re writing your first draft, and reduce the amount of time you spend editing. And writers would rather spend more time writing than editing, yes? But do try to pick language books with some sense of joie de vivre in them. Language is too much fun to kill with pedantry, this blog aside. Also, the books with a sense of humor tend to allow that rules are there to be broken, as long as you do it consistently and with panache.
If you need to get more granular than what I’m writing here, go to your style guide.
Sentences with missing initial capitalization and titles like Mr. and Mrs. will likely be caught by your spelling grammar checker. But keep an eye out.
Capitalize names and words that stand in exactly for a person’s name: “Grandmother, where are you driving so fast?” “All the better to get to the drive-in early, my granddaughter.” Note that when you put “my” in front of “granddaughter,” you are no longer exactly replacing that person’s name. You wouldn’t say, “My Tina” or “My Laurie” to address someone, unless you’re an Interregnum twit. Nicknames do the same thing. Angel but my angel. If you have to stop to think about which to use, add it to the list.
Capitalize days, months, and periods of time like the Sixties or the Meiji era. No need to go into title case (The Meiji Era) unless it’s a title.
Capitalize places but not cardinal directions: the West; we’re heading west.
The first letter of a direct quotation (rather than just a “funny” word that you put in quotes) should be capitalized, unless it’s “an integral part of the sentence and can’t stand alone,” as said by, well, me.
The capitalization of titles (a.k.a. Title Case) isn’t truly standardized. Look it up in your style guide and do it consistently. Write titles on your style sheet so you don’t have to do it twice.
Is it french fries or French fries? Is it guinea pigs or Guinea pigs? Look it up in the dictionary, which is for more than just spelling. If you look it up, put it on your style sheet.
Keep an ear open to the possibility that different groups of people will handle capitalization differently, and this might be reflected in your fiction. For example, when I worked as a technical editor for the government, I had to write “Government.” Now I don’t.
Ah, the favorite subject of my life as a technical editor for the government. We had a list of over 5000 acronyms, and we used it on a daily basis to look things up.
Pick a method for defining acronyms and stick to it. Decide whether to formally define acronyms or not. “FDA,” he asked. “What’s that?” “Food and drug administration,” Bets answered. = not formal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be on your ass quicker than you can say, “Chicken snot.” = formal.
Find out what, truly and exactly, an acronym means if you’re going to use it. Yes, sometimes your characters will misuse them. However, for the most part, it’s better to know that it’s Daylight Saving Time, not Daylight Savings Time.
Find out exactly how the acronym is capitalized. Some acronyms have lower-case letters within them; some don’t. SoHo in New York has mixed case. POTUS does not. There is no rhyme or reason to this; just look it up.
Find out whether your acronyms need to be punctuated, like Ph.D. (which might also be PhD).
Again, if you have to look it up, put it on your style sheet.
Look it up! Assume that your readers will verify any verifiable fact. This is one case where being consistent will not save you.
Do not trust your spell checker further than you can throw the OED. It’s a blessing in that it saves time and helps keep you from getting burned out
If you think you’re going to use a word more than once in a document, add it to your computer’s dictionary as well as to your style sheet.
Keep in mind that the spelling of words is no more immutable than grammar; if dictionary lists several versions, use the first listed one (generally). However, if your setting requires a different usage, do that.
Plurals, possessives, and tenses are listed in the dictionary; if you’re not sure, look it up. Is it burnt or burned?
I would, unless it’s vital to your world, avoid using variant spellings from other countries, e.g., colour instead of color. If it’s vital, do your research on how to use spellings (and read up on how to do punctuation, too, because it’ll be an issue). Readers are more likely to accept a book where a British guy wants to know the color of a woman’s undergarments than they are to buy a similar gent who can’t make up his mind whether he’s following British or American spellings half the time. In the gray areas of editing, consistent is better than right.
If anyone knows of a good guide to explaining the differences between American/UK/Australian usage, let me know. I don’t bother with them, but it might be useful to list here.
Should a word have a space in it or not? Nevermind or never mind? Ah, the dictionary knows, even if spell check sometimes looks the other way.
Should a word be hyphenated or not? I’ll cover that later, in punctuation…mostly. However, some words are hyphenated for reasons having nothing to do with punctuation: orang-utan (sometimes); hurly-burly. Look them up!