OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Investing in professional editing (and cover design) is generally my #1 tip when it comes to self-publishing.
The more eyes on your work before it goes out there, the better it will be. In this article, Sarah Kolb-Williams explains how to improve your own self-editing before you engage a professional.
Before you scan this post looking for a sanction to skip editing, let me save you some time:
A self-edit is not a replacement for a professional copyedit
Authors are simply too close to their own writing to see it objectively.
Even with your attention dialed up to 11, there’s always the possibility that you moved a section and forgot to erase the original. And after reading that section 7,213 times, the 7,214th can slip right by you like Obi-Wan at a costume party.
Your own mind can Jedi-mind-trick you. This post is not the excuse you’re looking for.
But if you like getting your hands dirty . . .
Your book has to meet readers’ expectations, both in broader developmental issues like story and content, and in the smaller details. And there are steps you can take to get your manuscript into the best shape possible, both organizationally and typographically.
Some of my suggestions are developmental; others deal with common sentence-level issues that I’ve encountered. You certainly don’t have to take every step—that’s what editors are for—but here are 10 editing secrets that can help you fake a pro edit before an editor enters the picture.
1. Put the manuscript away
Separating yourself from your manuscript and coming back to it with fresh eyes enables you to finally see what’s on the page, rather than superimposing what was in your mind when you wrote it.
In nonfiction, you might catch yourself introducing terms without defining them or scattering topics around your book; in fiction, you may notice that your living, breathing characters don’t have quite the vibrancy you thought you’d given them, or that your storyline rambles.
In any case, you’ll be better able to catch those sneaky copied-and-pasted sections if you can go through the book as a reader, forgetting what it felt like to actually write it.
2. Make an outline
It doesn’t matter if you write romance, science fiction, or how-to guides—an outline can and will help you avoid catastrophe.
You don’t have to use Scrivener or make one of those Roman numeral things you learned to make in school. The important part is writing down the main ideas in each section of the book, then looking carefully at how they relate (or don’t) to the ideas around them.
I like to write on small pieces of paper, then rearrange them on my desk to see how they best fit; adopt whatever method works for you. But without an outline, you run the risk of forgetting where you’re going, and then forgetting to clean up after it.
You want readers to reach the end of the book with a feeling of satisfaction, not niggling questions about whatever happened to the gorgeous babe from the stables who dropped out of the cast somewhere in chapter 3, or why chapter 6 refers to future subject matter that doesn’t actually appear in the book.
3. Make a style sheet
If you don’t already keep a style sheet as you draft, that’s fine—many authors don’t—but a style sheet is an important part of editorial review. Editing is not just about correctness; it’s also about consistency, and a good style sheet ensures that a document is internally consistent.
Divide a sheet of paper into a grid and alphabetize the cells, or simply open a new Word document, and bam—you have yourself a style sheet!
Now, carefully go through the whole manuscript, word by word. As you come across them, list out:
- Proper nouns (characters, cities, organizations, etc.), both real and made up
- Anything you had to look up
The scope of that second point is the difference between a tight style sheet and a floppy one (and, for that matter, between an experienced and inexperienced copyeditor). If you don’t know to look something up, you won’t write it down—and you may not notice that you treat the issue differently the next time it comes up.
4. Read aloud
You may think this sounds silly, but I assure you, it is not. I may not be able to tell instantly that an author has read a manuscript aloud—but I can absolutely tell you when an author has not.
Even if you’re reading to an empty room, reading aloud makes you slow down so your eyes can’t gloss over anything, and it forces you to listen to the cadence of your writing. I’m all for long, eloquent, beautifully written constructions (see #7), but if you find yourself pausing three times to breathe before you get through a sentence, consider breaking it into smaller, more manageable pieces.
5. Keep an eye out for compound words
This is a copyeditor’s secret: train yourself to be hyperaware of each individual word, and know that just because spell-checker doesn’t flag something doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Any time two separate words are crunched together, ask yourself: hyphen, space, or closed?
An example: Is it “collarbone,” “collar bone,” or “collar-bone”? Look it up, and add it to your style sheet so you don’t have to look it up again.
6. Untangle your dashes
There are three kinds of dashes: hyphen ( – ), en dash ( – ), and em dash ( — ). Short, medium, long. But let’s forget about the middle dash for the moment; you’re much more likely to need one of the two extremes.
Chicago devotes many pages to dashes, but here’s the quick and dirty: Hyphens join words, while em dashes join clauses.
My name, “Kolb-Williams,” gets a hyphen—but I used an em dash to separate this clause.
Some authors use hyphens as a catch-all dash-but as you can see here, the hyphen confounds. There’s no such thing as a “dash-but,” and it takes a few runs through the previous sentence to catch the syntax.
(Incidentally, en dashes can stand for “to” in ranges: the Seattle–Vancouver line, 8:00–12:30. For more exciting punctuation, see CMOS.)
Ahh, the semicolon. It seems to be going the way of the dinosaur. Personally, I miss this “outdated” writing style in which semicolons are frequently employed to join two separate sentences together in unity, if they feel sufficiently attracted to each other to make the commitment.
One way the semicolon continues to stand proudly is in the “however” construction, however more than one excellent writer has stumbled over it.
See what I did there? Here’s the right way:
A semicolon feeds my nostalgia; however, in this case, it is a necessary punctuation.
Now you know! Go forth and punctuate. (You could also break this into two sentences.)
8. Move the awkward abbreviations
Abbreviations like “etc.,” “e.g.,” and “i.e.” have their uses, but I believe (and Chicago agrees with me) that these awkward-looking words should not appear in regular text.
Instead, keep those abbreviations set off in parenthesis and footnotes—places that function as an aside—leaving the main text free for those words we can hear spoken in our minds (like “and so on,” “for example,” and “in other words”).
9. Write out your numbers
Digits tend to stick out aesthetically. For example, soften your gaze and look gently at your screen as you scan the following sentences:
She collected 4 carrots, 5 apples, and 11 monkeys.
He produced twelve pens, one paperclip, and three notebooks.
If one of them doesn’t stick out over the other to you, it’s only because you’re determined to prove me wrong. (Probably because of a deep-seated attachment to AP style. It’s okay. We can still be friends.)
Sticking with the idea of words we can hear in our minds, spell out more numbers than you might think. Readers don’t hear digits, they hear words. (I’m not sure, but I like to think this is why Chicago’s convention is to spell out most numbers from 1 to 100.)
There are exceptions. Spelling out long and complex numbers is patently ridiculous (“1,298,525” would require way too many words), and decimals and fractions are a different story entirely. But for your nice, plain numbers, your twos and fifties and eleven hundreds, use words.
10. Share it with beta readers
No, this isn’t “self-editing” per se—but it’s more important than everything else on this list combined.
Even if you have no desire to do any further critical thinking about your book whatsoever, give it to beta readers and let them do the work for you. Collect feedback from a handful of readers, and whenever two or three of them suggest the same thing, seriously consider doing that thing.
True, your beta readers might not care about your dashes, semicolons, or compound words. That’s fine; your copyeditor can clean that up. But they’ll be able to give you a new reader’s perspective, and that feedback will be worth its weight in gold.
What are your questions about editing, or do you have editing tips to share? Please add them in the comments below and join the conversation.