Editing Nonfiction Prose, part 2

Editing Prose Series

In the world of scholarly nonfiction, prose can get very dense and specialized. You need to (1) have a sharp eye for details and language, (2) balance consistency with flexibility, and (3) keep a great style sheet. It helps (sometimes a lot) to have a topic familiarity, but this is not strictly necessary. This two-part series covers some key concepts for editing nonfiction: dealing with dense language, specialty terms/jargon, bias-free language, and different kinds of quoted material. The previous post talked about all but editing quoted material, which is covered here.

Quoted Material

A lot of prose, especially scholarly nonfiction, includes quite a bit of quoted material, in the form of epigraphs, extracts (block quotes, sometimes quite lengthy), interviews, and smaller quotes. Authors also frequently cite their own source materials and archival materials that aren’t published widely.


(CMS 1.38–39) Epigraphs are quotations that are pertinent or enlightening, but not necessarily related to the text. They can appear at the beginning of a book (as part of the front matter), at the beginning of a chapter (under the title, before any of the text), or even under a header. The quoted material is usually followed by a source citation, often on a separate line, frequently preceded by an em dash, often set flush right. Epigraphs generally do not need quotation marks around them (CMS 11.40), and generally do not need a note callout. The source line, however it appears, should have the author’s name and usually, the title of the work quoted (if available). Here is an example:

Ending a sentence with a preposition is a habit up with I will not put.

—Winston Churchill

Editing an epigraph doesn’t require a lot of work. If you remove outside quotation marks, make sure any interior quotation marks are still in place and are doubled (and not single). If it’s a short, pithy quote like the foregoing and doesn’t appear in a particular work (i.e., “Hungarian proverb” or “Confucian saying”), you might have to check it on a website. For instance, the Churchill quote I used is not quite correct. When I checked it on www.brainyquote.com (searching for the key terms “ending sentence preposition”), I found that the quote actually reads: “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.” I might then confirm this wording on a few other sites, then change the wording, adding a query that this is how the original quote reads according to my research.

If the epigraph has a footnote at the end of it, you will have to remove it, add the citation line as appropriate, and renumber the following notes (easiest if notes are embedded and will automatically renumber).


An extract or block quotation is a quote that is set apart from the regular text. Usually it’s a good bit longer than a run-in quotation. Individual clients have their own guidelines on how many lines long a quote must be to be extracted from running text: more than 100 words, at least four printed lines, sometimes as many as ten, or more than one paragraph (even if they are short paragraphs). When working in an online manuscript, you generally want to set an extract at half-inch indent, regular right margin. Do not indent the first line; if there is more than on paragraph, you may indent those.

Some quick guidelines:

Extracts do not have quotation marks around them (unless they’re a quote within a quote). Delete any quotation marks at the beginning or end.

  • Extracts should not have an ellipsis in front of them or at the end of them. It’s implied. Within them, there may be several.
  • You may change the capitalization of the first word of the quote if necessary. There is no need to put it in brackets or otherwise set it off. (Unless you are following the rigorous method or editing legal materials)
  • Source citation for an extract, if not in a note callout, goes in parentheses, outside the final punctuation.
  • Sometimes bracketed material indicates the meaning of a pronoun that would be confusing if not explained:

John said, “They [the students] are grade-grubbing opportunists.”


(CMS 11.49–50) Editing quoted material of dialogue (e.g., drama, discussion, interviews) takes a special format. Long quotations of drama or interviews (frequently cited as source material in scholarly work) often appear as a new style, with perhaps a hanging indent and special appearance of the speaker’s name (say, in bold or small caps).

Interjections or comments are usually italicized and within parentheses (coughs) (turns to panelist). I use a hanging indent on dialogue so I can clearly spot when new speakers begin talking.

Sometimes the author will have kept “um’s” and “uh’s” as well as pauses (indicated by ellipsis) in the dialogue. If the author is quoting source material and transcripts, it’s best to leave these as they appear.

Source Material

If you do a lot of dissertations, theses, or other scholarly work, you will deal with authors who have done a lot of fieldwork and research and present their own materials. This might be data, which are often presented in tables and then are discussed at length in the text. For many kinds of research, the author might cite lengthy interviews, transcripts of oral statements, and more. Source materials are often minimally cited, sometimes simply “interview, 2002.” Lengthy quotes may be set as extracts, dialogue if necessary. You may have to make a judgment call on whether to “clean up” the text (remove ums and uhs, etc.). If the text is about linguistics, you should not make any changes to transcripts or quotes.


More Resources

  • Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 3rd edition, chapter 8 on editing quotations.
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., chapter 13 on quotations and dialogue.


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