Proof Marks, Sexist Language, and Getting Published


by Bobbie Christmas

Q: I just received my edited manuscript, but in a few places I see a # (hash) mark. I don’t know what to do. Adding a number wouldn’t make sense, so I’m stuck.

A: Ah, your manuscript was edited in its printed form. More editors today edit the electronic file, instead. If the editor had edited the electronic file, he or she would have fixed the issue for you, and you would not have to try to decipher proof marks. You would only have to accept or reject the editor’s changes.

Nevertheless, many writers and even editors prefer the old-fashioned way of editing, in which case editors work on the printed copy, often called hard-copy editing. When editors edit hard copy, they use proof marks that can mystify writers.

In hard-copy editing, the # (hash) mark means to add space, often as a transition between subjects or scenes.

To show a scene transition in fiction, we add an extra line between the paragraphs, but we can also write a transition from one subject or scene to the next. For example: Although those events took place three years earlier, on this day Harry had to face his opponent in the courtroom.

In nonfiction we can not only add space between subjects to show a transition but we can also add a subhead detailing the new subject. For example:

In this paragraph we finish talking about one subject.

Next Subject Subhead

Now let’s talk about the next subject…

Because extra space between paragraphs indicates a transition, book manuscripts should not have extra space between every paragraph. Most Word documents default to extra space between paragraphs, perhaps because letters (and even this column) employ a block format. Block format does not indent the first line of each paragraph, so a space indicates a paragraph shift. In standard manuscript format for books, however, each paragraph begins with a five-space indent, and the only time extra space should appear between paragraphs is when there is a transition from one scene or subject to the next. Writers must learn how to format a manuscript correctly.

Q: Are there any statistics on whether women are offended by sexist terms such as “policemen”? What is your opinion?

A: I can answer this question only from the perspective of writing and editing; I don’t specialize in psychology or statistics.

Regardless of whether we insult anyone, writers have an obligation to avoid sexist terminology. In so doing, though, writers must still apply good grammar. I hate seeing sentences like the following, written in an effort to avoid sexist language: A school-age child should pack their own lunch.

In such a case, the writer is trying to avoid an awkward use such as this: A school-age child should pack his or her own lunch. To keep the sentence simple, nonsexist, yet still grammatical, writers can make the noun plural: School-age children should pack their own lunches.

The seventeenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style notes that in informal writing the use of “their” to refer to a singular noun is gaining in popularity; however, it does not endorse such use, and it discourages such use in formal writing.

Occasionally no clear alternative exists for words that appear sexist. In such a case, writers should not create new words or use awkward terminology. One word that comes to mind is manmade. Don’t try to use person-made. Use manmade, if necessary, and move on. On the other hand, writers can often find a gender-neutral term. For example, instead of this: We had difficulty manning our booth at the trade show, use this: We had difficulty staffing our booth at the trade show.

Q: [The following question is written verbatim, as received.] Hi. Im fifteen and i just finished writing a short story. I really have no experience whatsoever in the publishing business, and i’m wondering what the best way is to get myself out there, and find a publisher, and all that.

A: This question is far too broad for me to answer in a simple way. Entire books have been written on the subject of how to get published. Please find a book on how to get published. Be sure it addresses your type of writing, whether short stories, essays, novels, or nonfiction books.

Before getting published, though, writers must learn the basics of grammar, punctuation, and capitalization, or their manuscripts will be rejected. The email I received had major flaws that made me suspect the short story needs careful editing as well. You may need to pay a professional editor to repair the flaws before you submit the manuscript anywhere for potential publication.

Some publishers think that fifteen-year-olds do not yet have enough experience to be publishable writers; most writers practice and polish their craft for many years before they are able to sell their work. Do not let such a fact stop you. First of all, once you have polished your work and follow the advice in one of the books on publishing, you may focus on finding publishers that specialize in the writings of young adults. Secondly, if your writing is excellent, your age won’t matter. If you do try to sell to an adult market, though, my advice would be not to reveal your age.

Here are other valuable things you can do to increase your knowledge about writing and publishing:

  • Join a writers association that has regular meetings and speakers. Network with those writers and learn how they found publishers for their writing (there are many ways).
  • Join a critique circle that meets regularly to get feedback on your work and give feedback to others. You will not only learn much more about writing but also help other writers.
  • Attend conferences and seminars for writers. Listen to the speakers and chat with attendees to learn their methods for successful publishing.
  • Read magazines about writing, such as Writer’s Digest. Read books on writing, such as The Elements of Style by Strunk and White; Stein on Writing by Sol Stein; On Writing by Stephen King; and my book, Write In Style.
  • Never stop honing your skills. Keep writing, reading about writing, and reading the writings of authors you like.

Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at


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