I love the editing part of the writing process. It's incredibly satisfying to take a somewhat messy manuscript and turn it into something that someone else might want to read – and hopefully, enjoy.
After self-editing, I always use a professional editor, but it's always best to do the most you can yourself before hiring someone else to help you to the next stage.
In today's article, Sarah Kolb-Williams, author of How to Hire an Editor, explains how to take your editing as far as you can by yourself.
Let’s face it: editing can be expensive.
For many authors, even just one round of professional editing can be hard to justify. And I get that. No one should put themselves at financial risk over editing a book.
But readers still expect books that look and feel professional. What happens if editing just isn’t in the cards for yours?
Whether or not you’re hiring an editor, someone’s got to check all those boxes—and if your main source of editing is self-directed, you’re the one who’ll be rolling up your sleeves and getting it done.
In this article, I’ll go over 10 self-editing steps any author can take to help boost their revisions, many of them straight from a professional editor’s toolkit. While a self-edit is no replacement for a professional copyedit, these tips should help get you some of the way there.
Even if you are hiring an editor, you might be surprised at how far you can take your own manuscript first. Focus your revisions where you’re most comfortable; any editorial heavy lifting you can do on your own will help your editor focus on what you need the most.
And if your budget just doesn’t include room for the professional editing you want, these 10 self-editing steps will help you fake a pro edit.
1. Put the manuscript away
In my experience, the single biggest problem standing in the way of successful self-editing is this:
Authors are simply too close to their own writing to see it objectively.
Even at our most attentive, after working for so long on one thing, repetitions, omissions, and contradictions can be hard to notice. And after reading and revising and copy-and-pasting a million times, even the most glaring of errors can slip right by you like Obi-Wan at a costume party.
So how can you clear up those blind spots that hamper your self-editing? How can you Jedi-mind-trick yourself into seeing your own manuscript as clearly as a new reader would?
It’s almost hard to believe something so simple can be so effective, but it can. As authors, giving ourselves this much-needed mental space before returning to our manuscripts with fresh eyes is an effective way to trick ourselves into looking past what we think we wrote and seeing what’s actually there.
Of course, just because something is simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. But as tempting as it may be to plow right ahead after finishing the first draft, try to wait at least a week. Without this time to reset, you may have trouble seeing what’s really on the page.
2. Make an outline
Whether you write romance, science fiction, self-help, or how-tos, an outline can and will help you avoid catastrophe.
You don’t have to make one of those Roman numeral things you learned in school. The important thing is writing down the main ideas in each section of the book, then looking carefully at how they relate (or don’t) to those around them.
Why bother? You want readers to reach the end of your book with a feeling of satisfaction, not lingering questions about what happened to the coworker who dropped out of the cast somewhere in chapter 3, or why chapter 6 references sections that don’t exist.
I like to write my main ideas on small pieces of paper and rearrange them on my desk to see how they fit together; adopt whatever method works for you. But without at least going through the motions of making an outline, you run the risk of forgetting where you’re going, having to backtrack, and failing to clean up after yourself.
3. Make a style sheet
If keeping a running list of words and terms in your book sounds like your worst nightmare, that’s fine; many authors don’t, and they get along just fine without it. But a style sheet plays a crucial role in copyediting, and if you’re into that kind of thing, it can play an important role in your revisions as well.
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!
(You may have built a “Story Bible,” a guide to all the twists and turns and characters and relationships in your WIP. Think of your style guide as the copyeditor’s version of that document: it keeps important information available for future reference, by you or anyone else involved in your book.)
Write down everything you think might be worth keeping track of, and you’ll have a nice little resource to help you keep your spelling consistent.
4. Read your manuscript aloud
This is another simple trick where the difference is hard to imagine if you haven’t tried it yourself. But oh, what a difference it makes.
Reading your writing aloud can have a crucial effect on the flow of your writing. (I may not be able to tell when an author has read their manuscript aloud—but I can absolutely tell when they have not.)
This isn’t about the audience, and it isn’t about the feedback. Even if you’re performing for an empty house, reading aloud forces you to slow down so your mouth can’t gloss over anything your eyes might miss.
And wait—there’s more. Reading aloud lets you listen to the cadence of your words, which is its own valuable form of feedback. If you find yourself stumbling over sentences or stopping to breathe in awkward places, you can address the problem now by breaking long sentences into smaller, more manageable pieces.
5. Note the notable words
This is a serious copyeditor’s secret: train yourself to be hyperaware of each individual word and how it works in the sentence, without focusing on story-level concerns. (It’s hard at first, but you’ll get the hang of it eventually!)
With your style sheet and dictionary at the ready, carefully go through the whole manuscript, word by word. As you go, write down anything you come across that might come up again, looking up anything you didn’t invent yourself.
Your style sheet might include the following:
- People, cities, and other proper nouns
- Anything you made up or altered the spelling of
- Words that can be spelled in different ways
- Compound words (open, closed, or hyphenated?)
- Anything else you want to keep track of
And just because spell-checker doesn’t flag something doesn’t mean you’re automatically in the clear. Pay extra attention to homophones—words that sound the same but are spelled differently—and make sure you’re using the right one in each case.
What about words with more than one accepted spelling? Which is “correct”? Check your dictionary! (For me, in the US, that’s Merriam-Webster; a quick internet search should help you find yours.)
If all else fails, here’s the simple, editor-approved option: pick the version you like best, put it in your style sheet, and use it every time.
6. Colons and semicolons
Colons and semicolons have a reputation for being showy or flowery, but I think they’re powerful pieces of punctuation when used sparingly (and correctly).
There are lots of nuances here, but here’s a quick guide to each mark.
A colon is used after a complete thought to introduce new information: a list, a thought, a question, or another complete thought (known as an “independent clause”—one that can stand alone as its own complete sentence).
Note that whatever happens after the colon, the clause before the colon should be a complete (or independent) thought, as in the bolded portion above. That’s why something like “The cupboard is filled with: crackers, peanut butter, and flour” wouldn’t work.
A semicolon is used to join two complete thoughts together; they imply a stronger relationship between independent clauses than a simple period would.
To test whether a semicolon is the right choice, try changing it to a period. If two complete sentences would work, but you want to show how the second part explains or relates directly to the first, a semicolon is what you’re looking for.
Now you know! Go forth and punctuate. May the syntax be with you.
7. Keep your dashes straight
There are three kinds of dashes: hyphen ( – ), en dash ( – ), and em dash ( — ). They may be confusing at first, but once you know what you’re doing, you can leverage all the nuance and meaning these tiny marks can pack.
(Not seeing a difference? Try changing fonts. Times New Roman is a good option.)
While the Chicago Manual of Style—the editorial resource for US copyeditors—devotes many worthy pages to the subject, here’s a quick crash course on dashes and how to use them.
(Of course, while this guide will get you some of the way there, there are special uses, exceptions, and contingencies that are way outside the scope of this blog post. If you’re interested in digging deeper, the “Hyphens and Dashes” section of CMOS chapter 6 or the comparable section of your own style guide is the rabbit hole you’re looking for.)
Hyphens connect words.
Hyphens are the dashes used in most compound adjectives that come before the noun they modify (“brand-new car,” “eagle-eyed observer”) and many compound nouns (“light-year”). When in doubt, check your dictionary; you’ll find many compound word listed, along with spaces and hyphens.
Hyphens are also used in double names. The name “Jean-Luc” gets a hyphen. My surname, “Kolb-Williams,” gets one as well.
Em dashes connect clauses.
Hyphens are to words what em dashes are to clauses. Em dashes can be used like semicolons, colons, commas, or even parentheses, making them some of the most versatile pieces of punctuation in non-formal writing.
(And, like colons and semicolons, they can be easy to overdo. If you know you’re an—ahem—enthusiastic em dasher, keep an eye out for excessive dashes and revise accordingly.)
Em dashes are also used, especially in fiction, to indicate interruptions:
“Look, just let me—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” she snapped. Nothing he could say would change her mind.
Note that in some parts of the world, including the UK, spaced en dashes are used in place of the em dashes described here. Check the publishing style guide for your industry for updated guidelines.
En dashes are the wild cards.
In the US, en dashes are a little more specialized than hyphens and em dashes. These are their major uses:
En dashes can stand for “to” in ranges: “the Seattle–Vancouver line,” “8:00–12:30.” (Note that the sense of “from” is wrapped up in the en dash as well, so no need to type it out.)
And, in the case of compound words, they can act like slightly stronger hyphens, pulling more than just the two adjoining words into the relationship: “progressive rock–inspired jazz,” “post–World War II economy.”
8. Keep the abbreviations tucked away
I’m not saying abbreviations don’t have their uses. But these awkward-looking words can feel a little jarring when we come across them, especially in fiction, and Chicago agrees they should generally be kept out of regular text.
And it’s not just because they don’t look as nice. Instead of easily converting words into meaning, now readers have to take the extra step of replacing abbreviations with words. This is easy enough for abbreviations like “etc.” but takes slightly more work for those that bear no resemblance to their English counterparts (like “e.g.” and “i.e.”).
Instead, for a smoother read, try keeping those abbreviations set off in parenthesis and footnotes (places that function as asides from the main text) and rephrase the rest: “and so on,” “for example,” or “in other words.”
Abbreviations serve a purpose, and they’re nothing readers can’t handle. But if the goal is to eliminate unnecessary speed bumps, look at abbreviations as opportunities to rephrase in a more interesting way.
9. Write out your numbers
Digits, too, have their uses. But when they’re sprinkled into a sea of words—most of which consist of groups of characters—they can stand out.
Need proof? Scan the following sentences with your eyes:
- She collected 4 carrots, 5 apples, and 11 monkeys.
- He produced twelve pens, one paperclip, and three notebooks.
If one of these sentences 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 a different style guide. It’s okay. We can still be friends.)
In fact, many style guides recommend spelling out more numbers than you might expect. Chicago, for example, recommends spelling whole numbers from 1 to 100 in pretty much any nontechnical context you can think of: “three in the morning,” “fifteen students,” “thirty-seven motorcycles.”
Not all numbers work well as words. Spelling out a number like “1,298,525” would be patently ridiculous, 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. Collect feedback from beta readers
This final point may not strictly qualify as a self-editing step—but it can help you gain tons of new perspective, which will help you focus your own revisions even further.
When you think there’s nothing else you can possibly squeeze out of your revisions, send it to your beta readers and give them a chance to weigh in. You may be surprised how much they come up with that you’ve never even considered.
Of course, your beta readers might not care about dashes, semicolons, compound words, or any of the other self-editing steps I’ve outlined here. That’s a good thing: depending on their background and experience, your beta readers will have their own diverse set of observations to bring to the table.
You don’t have to listen to every suggestion you receive; this is informal feedback from your friends and family. It’s not a professional editorial assessment, and it’s still your book. That said, if two or three of your readers suggest the same fix or are stuck on the same issue, seriously consider how you might prevent future readers from getting hung up in the same places.
The best thing beta readers can offer is a new perspective—a real one, no Jedi-mind-tricking required. And their feedback could be just what you need to step back and see your manuscript’s potential in exciting new ways.
Have you applied some of these editing hacks to your manuscripts? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
Sarah Kolb-Williams is an editor, author, and serial comma enthusiast from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her book, How to Hire an Editor, helps independent authors find the right editing and make informed decisions about their manuscripts.
In 2019, Sarah will be launching an e-learning center for authors, editors, and freelancers. Sign up now for early access and other exclusive opportunities at kolbwilliams.com/writers-gone-rogue.