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.


Editing Nonfiction Prose, part 1

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.

Dense Language

Sometimes it seems scholars are trying to prevent communication with their long words and lengthy, convoluted sentences. Textbooks and journal articles can be very specialized and sometimes quite esoteric.

  • Relax, take a deep breath, loosen your brain, and read. Try reading a few paragraphs before jumping in to edit. You’ll get “in the zone” with the author’s style and start to get feel for his or her rhythm. Then you’ll start to see where you can make changes.
  • Look for subjects, verbs, and objects, even if you don’t understand the text. You can grammatically follow a sentence, even if it is peppered with lots of big words or goes on and on.
  • Think of the audience and whether they will understand. Reader-centered editing is becoming more accepted as a valid approach, and it can really serve you when working on dense material.
  • Scholars like paragraph-long sentences sometimes. Look for ways to break it up without intruding too much on the author’s voice. Sometimes a simple period and removal of a conjunction can do wonders for clarification.
  • Keep a really good style sheet. I put things on the style sheet I want to be sure to remember later, and anything I want the client and eventual proofreader to know about. A good style sheet can save you when you’re in the thick of a long, difficult edit.
  • Know when you’re in over your head, and be willing to send back a project that you can’t do. (I once tried to edit highly technical materials and immediately found I couldn’t do it.)

Specialty Terms

Every domain of knowledge has its own set of lingo, jargon, and specialty terms. If you have a topic specialty—science, medical, economics, music, and so on—you can do a good job appropriately editing these materials (plus, you can market yourself better and charge more).

  • Be ready to look up frequent terms and phrases if you aren’t familiar with them. Example: the phrase “always already” is common literature critique and postmodernism, but I’ve seen editors unfamiliar with this phrase delete one of the words, which really changes the meaning.
  • If you cultivate a niche, invest in some specific style guides and specialty dictionaries, and bookmark relevant websites where appropriate.
  • When editing for a journal, keep a couple of copies of the journal handy for looking up quick style issues. You’ll have a master style guide for the journal, and it doesn’t hurt to keep a list of common terms handy. For example, in an economics journal should the correct phrase be Pareto optimal, pareto optimal, or pareto-optimal (or something else)?

Bias-Free Language

Scholarly publishers definitely want to avoid biased language, and major issues should be fixed by the time it comes to the copyediting stage. However, you should be alert for terms that have inherent gender bias that don’t need to be that way.

  •  “he or she” and “him or her” is perfectly acceptable, even if they appear a lot. S/he is generally not acceptable. Neither is him/her or he/she (basically, don’t use the slash).
  • The singular “they” is growing in use and is grammatically correct (even if it sounds awkward to my ears).
  • Replace gender-based words with gender-free words, like “fireman” with “fire fighter” and “mailman” with “letter carrier,” and so on. A few words are not really replaceable (one-upmanship).
  • Some authors will alternate, using “he” and “him” in one paragraph (or section, or example, or chapter) and “she” and “her” in the next one. This is fine, as long as it is consistent.
  • Latino often generally incorporates men and women, so you don’t need Latino/a (or Chicano/a). Do use Latina when specifically referring to women; but you can safely use “Latino culture” for instance.

(This blog is certainly not a definitive source on inclusive language. For that, I strongly recommend you check out the work of Sarah Grey at Grey Editing. She has an excellent set of Resources on inclusive language and you can find a Storify of a Twitter chat on inclusive language. Also check out Karen Yin’s excellent Conscious Style Guide.)

Next in the series: editing quoted material.

Like what you see? This post is pulled from my Advanced Copyediting webinar, which will soon be available for purchase and download!