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Ask the Book Doctor

By Bobbie Christmas

Ask the Book Doctor: Ask the Book Doctor: About Capital Letters, Word Counts and Song Lyrics

Q: My mother wrote her first short story. I’m proud of her for writing, but I think she doesn’t get her capitals correct, and I don’t want to discourage her from writing by criticizing her. For my own knowledge, though, should she capitalize a person’s title or class titles? Here’s an example: Suzie spoke to the Teacher who taught Math.

A: Congratulations on encouraging your mother to write. When she’s ready to learn more about revising and editing her work, you can gently explain that titles are capitalized only if they are precede a name and are part of the name. It’s correct to write Judge John Smith, but it’s incorrect to write John Smith, Judge, or John was a Judge. Subjects in school are not capitalized unless they are a foreign language. For an example, the following sentence is correct: Suzie spoke to the teacher who taught both math and French.

Q: I have read through most of your web site and found Courier twelve-point type as the font to be used for my book. How about margins? Is one inch all around standard? If I use one-inch margins, then the word count per page is around 250. Most of the novels I've read have closer to 300-325 words a page. When I was using the New Times Roman font, the word count per page was around 340.

A: Be careful not to confuse a novel (printed book) with a manuscript (proposed book in manuscript form).

A manuscript is what an author prepares to present to an agent or publisher. It must follow a standard format (twelve-point Courier type double-spaced with one-inch margins on all sides, all paragraphs indented, new chapters beginning a third of the way down a fresh page, and the whole thing printed on standard letter-size white paper). Yes, once a manuscript is in standard manuscript format, it averages 250 words a page.

A book, however, is a printed and bound product ready for sale. It can have any number of words per page, because it can be designed any way a publisher wants and in any size a printer can handle. It can use ten-point, twelve-point, or fourteen-point type in Times, Goudy, Bookman or any other typeface appropriate for the material, and the type is single-spaced, never double-spaced (in a professionally produced book). or that reason a printed book usually does have more words per page than a manuscript has.

Q: Please be so kind as to define the rules and regulations for quoting song titles and lyrics in published works. I have always assumed that quotation marks covered the legalities, but I was just informed that if you quote lyrics in a published work, you need a mechanical license to do so. Have you encountered this situation before?

A: I haven’t encountered it, but a colleague of mine did, and it turned into many months of research and waiting for replies. In the end she was pleased that she has a signed contract with a well-known performer, but the process took a long time.

Before I explain further, let me clarify the terms. A mechanical license is necessary if you are publishing a songbook of copyrighted lyrics or producing a record using copyrighted lyrics. If you are writing a novel, not a songbook, and want to quote a lineor a few lines of a copyrighted song, you need a print license. To get a print license, you first have to find out who owns the copyright. You can search the ASCAP and BMI web sites to determine the owner of the lyrics, and then you have to contact the owner to get written permission to use the lyrics. You may also have to pay a small charge for each book you plan to print.

Yes, the process not only takes a long time, but is also a great deal of trouble. You can see why I advise writers to avoid using lyrics and instead simply refer to the title or titles of songs. You don’t have to get permission to refer to a song title.

– Bobbie Christmas, book doctor, author of Write In Style (Union Square Publishing), 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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