Self-editing is a common challenge for writers. How are you supposed to erase or replace the precious words and sentences you’ve slaved over?
Though it’s only been a few months since I’ve gone full-time freelance as an editor and writer, I’ve already witnessed dozens of simple mistakes all writers (including this one) can fix on their own.
While self-editing is often creativity-destroying when writing your first draft, wise writers would do well to work through the following suggestions before sending their manuscript to a professional editor or to their beta readers.
In addition to making you more aware of your grammatical blind spots, self-editing may save you money if your editor works on a per-hour basis. And though editors love to display their knowledge, they also like reading grammatically correct manuscripts.
When you show that you’re a capable and confident writer who makes few mistakes, you may just endear yourself to an editor, and having one already lined up means one less task on your publishing to-do list the next time around. Furthermore, your beta readers and advanced review copy (ARC) reviewers will be grateful for the care you took in creating a readable early draft.
Ready to give your book a solid self-edit? Here’s what to do.
1. Rest your manuscript
When you’ve finished typing the last word of your masterpiece, set it aside for a few days. If you can stand it, set it aside for a week or more.
Why? You want to try to forget everything you’ve written so that when you do come back to self-edit, the book almost seems as if someone else wrote it. You want fresh eyes, and the best way to do that is to rid your mind of what’s been filling it for so long.
2. Print your manuscript or read it out loud
For some writers, seeing words on paper helps them catch errors they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. For others, hearing the text spoken aloud makes mistakes obvious.
You can enlist a (very patient) friend to read it to you, or you can go the friendship-saving route and use one of a number of apps to have your book read to you in a semi-robotic voice.
I’ve heard Voice Dream Reader touted as a great option for iOS users. iOS users can also turn on VoiceOver (go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver), though this affects all actions on the device (like email and web browsing) until you disable it. Amazon offers a feature for Kindle devices called Read Aloud with Voice Over. For other alternatives, search for “text to speech” or “read to me” on any of the app stores or check out the options in this post.
3. Search for troubling words
All writers have specific words and phrases that (which?) always cause them to (too?) second-guess whether (weather?) they’re (their?) using them correctly. If you know what your (you’re?) troubling words are, use your word processor’s search function to locate every possible variant of that word or phrase.
To help you consider what your troubling words might be, here’s a good starting list, excerpted from the first chapter of Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:
- a lot/alot
- into/in to
If you’re unsure of how to properly use these words, there’s no shame in looking them up. Grammar Girl likely has the answer, or check The Write Life’s post on 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy for invaluable tips.
4. Remove or replace your crutch words
Do you know the Top 10 words you use most frequently in your manuscript? Outside of necessary articles and prepositions, you may be surprised at what words you tend to use over and over. One client of mine used “suddenly” too often, making every action seem unnecessarily rushed. Personally, my crutch words tend to fly in the face of the age-old encouragement for all writers to “eschew obfuscation.” In other words, I tend to cash in ten-dollar words when five-cent words suffice.
Scrivener makes it simple to discover your crutch words, and is available for both Mac and Windows users. In Scrivener’s top menu, go to “Project > Text Statistics,” then click on the arrow next to “Word frequency.” If necessary, click the “Frequency” header twice to sort your words by frequency. You’ll then be presented with what could be a jarring list of the words you might be overusing. (To include your entire manuscript in the frequency count, be sure to have your entire manuscript selected in Scrivener’s Binder.)
For Microsoft Word users, there’s a free Word Usage and Frequency add-in, but other, less technical online solutions may also help, like TextFixer.com’s Online Word Counter or WriteWords’ Word Frequency Counter.
No matter how you determine your crutch words, go back through your manuscript and see where you can remove or replace them.
5. Remove all double spaces at the end of sentences
If tapping two spaces following your sentences is an age-old habit ingrained into you since before the dawn of modern digital typography, may I suggest ingraining another practice?
Conduct a find-and-replace search after you’re done writing. In Word, type two spaces in “find” and one space in “replace” and hit enter. Voila! You just time-traveled your manuscript into the 21st Century. (If you’re interested in why you should only use one space, read Slate’s Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period.)
6. Search for problematic punctuation
Are you a comma chameleon, adapting that otherwise innocent punctuation mark to do work it was never meant to do? Or does your manuscript need a semicolonoscopy — a thorough checkup on proper semicolon and colon placement?
If you know you have trouble with certain punctuation marks, conduct a search for that mark and figure out whether you’re using it correctly. If you’re still unsure, let your editor fix it, but make a note to ask him why.
7. Run spell check
I think writers become too accustomed to the colorful squiggles under words and sentences on their digital pages; I know I do. In an effort to get ideas on the page, we might run rampant over grammar and usage.
Yet those squiggles mean something. At the very, very least, run spell check before sending your manuscript to an editor or beta reader. It’s a built-in editor that I’m not sure every writer uses to their advantage. You may not accept every recommendation, but at least you’ll save your editor some time correcting basic errors.
8. Subscribe to The Chicago Manual of Style
When an editor returns your manuscript, they may cite particular sections of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you’re unfamiliar with this Bible of the publishing industry, you may not be aware of precisely why the editor made a certain change.
By subscribing to CMOS (it’s only $35 a year), you’ll be able to look up issues on your own before sending your manuscript off to an editor or beta reader. Sure, you shouldn’t get too hung up on some of the issues (editors have their jobs for a reason), but learning more about the mechanics of writing can only help you become a better writer.
You can also buy the hardcopy version of The Chicago Manual of Style, but I recommend the online version for its ease of use.
9. Format accordingly
While preferred styles may differ from one editor to the next, you can show your professionalism by formatting your manuscript to conform to industry standards.
Such formatting makes it easier for beta readers to consume, and editors prefer industry-standard formatting, which allows them more time to edit your actual words instead of tweaking your formatting. Here are some basic formatting tips:
- Send your manuscript as a Word document (.doc or .docx).
- Use double-spaced line spacing. If you’ve already written your book with different line spacing, select all of your text in Word, click Format > Paragraph, then select “Double” in the drop down box under “Line spacing.”
- Use a single space following periods.
- Use black, 12-point, Times New Roman as the font.
- Don’t hit tab to indent paragraphs. In Word, select all of your text, then set indentation using Format > Paragraph. Under “Indentation” and by “Left,” type .5. Under “Special,” choose “First line” from the drop down menu.
- The first paragraph of any chapter, after a subheader, or following a bulleted or numbered list shouldn’t be indented.
- Use page breaks between chapters. In Word, place the cursor at the end of a chapter, then click “Insert > Break > Page Break” in Word’s menu.
10. Don’t over-edit
Set aside an hour or two to go through this list with your manuscript, but be careful about over-editing. You may start seeing unnecessary trees within your forest of words, but you don’t want to raze to the ground what you’ve toiled so hard to grow.
There’s a middle path between exhausting yourself in a vain attempt for perfection and being too lazy to run spell check. Do yourself and your book a favor and self-edit, but be careful to not go overboard.
If you’re creating a professional product, your self-edits shouldn’t be your last line of defense against grammatical errors. In other words, I don’t offer this post to write myself out of a job. Even in going through the self-editing steps above, you’ll still need an editor to ensure that your manuscript is as polished as possible. You will still miss errors. Plus, going through the editing process with a professional editor will help you become a better self-editor the next time you write a book.
Do you self-edit? Why or why not? What else do you look for when going through your manuscript before sharing it with others?
Photo by Tammy Strobel under Creative Commons