How to Format Numbers in Your Fiction Novels

by | Apr 27, 2020

You’re sitting at your desk doing your favorite thing ever: writing. Your characters are coming alive and going on their adventures.

Your amateur sleuth is following your cleverly laid out clues (and those tricky red herrings) to figure out whodunit. Maybe she had to drive seventy-five miles (75 miles?) to interview a witness.

Maybe the male love interest in the romance novel you’re writing is staring at your female protagonist with his piercing blue eyes. She’s staring right back and admiring his 6-pack (six-pack?) abs, and things are about to get… spicy. [wink]

How do you format numbers in your fiction books? Is it seventy-five miles or 75 miles? Six-pack or 6-pack?

Well, it depends.

It depends on the type of document you’re writing and where in the world you live. These two factors tell you which style guide to use when writing your books.

In this post, I’ll explain what a style guide is, the main style guide used by fiction writers/editors in the USA, the importance of consistency, and where to go if you want to format style elements in your book. I also share a list of seven helpful tips for formatting numbers in your fiction books.

The Style Guide: Your New Best Friend

In a nutshell, a style guide is a big book of rules that tells writers and editors how to style certain elements in written work.

There are lots of style guides out there, and the one you use depends on what kind of content you’re writing (or editing) and where you live. All style guides cover hyphens, punctuation, capitalization, job titles, geographic terms, places, titles of works, and more, with additional specializations for the type of document.

For most fiction books in the United States, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is used. Other English-speaking countries, such as the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, have different style guides.

In addition to copyediting fiction, I edit a lot of scientific content. I use the American Medical Association (AMA) style guide and Scientific Style and Format by the Council of Science Editors (CSE) because they focus on scientific information, such as units, how to format gene and protein names, and medical terms.

Newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets use the Associated Press (AP) style guide. This style guide includes formatting for specific terms used in the media.

In addition to the official style guides mentioned here, there’s also something called “house style.” House style is the specific style guide a company or individual comes up with that has their own customized guidelines.

House style guides are usually based on one of the established guides, with additional tweaks based on the company’s content and commonly used terms.

For example, on this website, I use CMOS when I format my blog posts. However, I write about a lot of scientific content, so I use a blend of CMOS and AMA for formatting numbers, and I choose not to format titles of works (books, TV shows, etc.) in italics the way CMOS recommends.

Consistency is King

As the writer, you get final say in how things are formatted in your book. As an editor, I recommend that you follow the style guide appropriate for your genre of writing, but if there’s a small style issue that you’d like to change, that’s okay (within reason; if you have questions, ask a copy editor).

For example, I had a freelance editing client who had one of her characters stay at a B and B. “B and B” is the official spelling according to Merriam Webster. But if she thought “B&B” looked better, she could use that. The important thing is that it’s consistent throughout the entire book.

Where Do I Find Out How to Style Elements in My Book?

If you need to look up how to format something when you’re writing or editing your book, you can Google the term + “CMOS” or “Chicago Manual of Style.” This can be any term, not just those related to numbers.

For example, searching “formatting fractions” + “CMOS” should return the CMOS website with an answer to your question, plus some other sources. Another example is “how to format book titles” + “CMOS.” If you want more details, you may have to pay for access. As a professional copy editor, I have paid subscriptions to the style guides that I specialize in, plus the actual books. (I still like to look up stuff in books.)

The best approach for styling your book is to hire a professional editor. Editors that specialize in styling books for publication (and making sure everything is consistent) are called copy editors. Copy editors are trained to make sure everything is formatted correctly and consistent throughout the document. They also focus on phrasing and word choice.

You can get a more comprehensive idea of what a copy editor does by checking out my copyediting services page, which lists everything that’s included in my copyediting service and how everything works. What’s included in copyediting will vary from editor to editor, however, so make sure to do your due diligence.

Top 7 Tips for Formatting Numbers in Fiction Books in the USA

The following is a list of number formatting rules based on the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. I see these issues come up a lot when I am editing, or writers have asked about them a lot in writing forums and groups.

  1. The number at the beginning of a sentence should always be written out. Example: Sixty-five years is a long time to be married.
  2. Numbers 0-99 are spelled out, with hyphens for 21-99. Example: Her bakery operation expanded, and she now has twenty-six employees.
  3. Simple fractions use hyphens and are spelled out. Example: Three-fourths of the students couldn’t eat gluten.
  4. When abbreviating years in your books, the first two digits are replaced with an apostrophe. Example: 1999 becomes ’99.
  5. Decades do not need an apostrophe. Example: I was born in the 1980s. Hybrid example of this rule and Rule #4: I was born in the ‘80s.
  6. Most physical quantities are written out in non-technical documents. Example: The airport is sixty-eight miles from here. There are exceptions to this rule for commonly used terms in certain instances.
  7. Percents are written using numerals, but the word “percent” is spelled out. Example: I read that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce.

To recap, I’ve explained what a style guide is and that CMOS is the main style guide used by most fiction writers in the USA, explained the importance of consistency, and shown you how to do an internet search to find out how to format elements of your book. I’ve also listed my top seven tips for formatting numbers in fiction books.

Do you have any more questions about formatting numbers in books or other style guide questions? Let me know in the comments below!


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