A Helping Hand…Self-editing

editingI’m not going to suggest that self-editing should substitute a proper independent edit, but I have lost count of the number of times, after handing back a manuscript, post-edit, I have been told, “I can’t believe I didn’t spot that” or “I’m so embarrassed I missed that”. So, I wonder if I might be so bold as to offer one or two hints and tips for self-editing to help save a few red faces.

  • Leave yourself time to self-edit – it’s no good thinking about it the day before your deadline.
  • Try and resist the urge to look over your work until you have completely finished. Then, walk away from it for as long as you can. Take a complete break so that you can go back to it completely refreshed. I’m not talking a few hours here – I mean days. You would be surprised at how different everything looks after you and your creation have been separated for a while.
  • Take off your author hat, and put on your reader hat. Don’t try and correct all the mistakes at this point – just read and make sure that, as a reader, it’s all making sense, there’s continuity and no inconsistencies.
  • Read your work out loud. This is a multi-faceted function. Firstly, one speaks more slowly than one reads, so you are more likely to spot spelling errors and typos. Secondly, you will find yourself pausing for breath in appropriate places – the chances are that where you stop for breath you probably need some punctuation. Thirdly, reading out loud makes you more aware of any words and phrases that you may have repeated, overused or even misused.
  • If any words or phrases do stick out as occurring to the point of overkill, use the ‘Find’ feature in Word. It will tell you how many times something has been used and where. If you have used ‘he paused’ 164 times, you’ve overdone it. There aren’t 164 synonyms for ‘he paused’. Go back and determine whether the phrase was actually necessary.
  • And/but are conjunctions – they join two independent clauses. Try not to start sentences with them (in narrative). You don’t need to other than in short sharp sentences for a little extra dramatic effect. Either delete them or join the sentences.
  • Remember – less is more.  Look out for unnecessary emphasis (exclamation marks, italics etc), adjectives (possibly, practically, really, seemingly, quite, etc), modifying phrases and tautology, eg the reason why. The reason IS why, so incorrect would be ‘The reason why I took the shortcut to the shops was to avoid the muddy path’. Correct would be ‘The reason I took the shortcut……’
  • Find an online version of your favourite dictionary and pin the tab so that you always have it open. Check and recheck any word you are not sure of – not specifically for spelling but for meaning. Pin tab an online thesaurus – thesauri are rich and overflowing with lovely, lovely words and synonyms – use and use and use it.
  • If you find yourself tearing your hair out over a word, phrase, sentence or even a whole paragraph for too long, there’s a little key on your keyboard with ‘Delete’ on it. Use it. Chances are those words were redundant in any case.
  • Do a search for semicolons. Do your utmost to avoid them. “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” (Kurt Vonnegut).
  • Do a search for apostrophes and check that you have used them only to assign possession or for contractions.  Apostrophes are not used in plurals (it’s chairs, not chair’s, 1950s or 50s not 1950’s or 50’s).
  • Walk away from your work again. Reread it, and this time check for punctuation/spelling and grammar. Try and avoid using software to do this for you. More often than not they make irrelevant, incongruous and incorrect suggestions.

Now your work is ready to hand over to your editor/proofreader (who is not your mother, your wife or your best friend). You haven’t done his/her job here – he/she won’t be earning money for old rope. What you are doing is making it easier for your editor to see the wood for the trees to put yet more gloss, more sparkle, more glitter into your valuable masterpiece.

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

32 thoughts on “A Helping Hand…Self-editing”

  1. Cathy, this is excellent, thank you! So many great tips. I want to defend the semicolon, though. It has its uses. Many people don't use them correctly, which is why I think editors, agents, and publishers have been so averse to them.

    1. Laurie – indeed, if you know how to use the semicolon it does have its uses, but it seems to cause confusion. Bill Gates certainly doesn't know how to use it ;-), and I'm advocating when in doubt, leave it out!!

  2. Great post.

    I am doing the last rewrite on a draft before it goes to an editor.

    I've had two beta readers, and they've been immensely helpful. Not best friend or family. Lots of good info.

  3. I love to read editors' blogs – but this is better than most. And yes, doing this avoids tears later, even if you do use a publisher.

    Mind you – readers often cannot tell the difference.

  4. Brilliant list, thank you. Timely, as I'm editing after almost a year of 'walking away'. I'm so glad you mentioned reading it out loud, the one most useful thing I've ever been advised to do.

  5. Great advice Cathy, thanks!

    My greatest headache was dealing with errors made by the layout designer when the printed edition was "poured" into "In Design" which resulted in my needing to re-edit the MS several more times. The same problem occurred when the eBook edition proof was sent to me containing entirely different, new errors.

    I've been told that "In Design" has this maddening glitch (drops quotation marks, does not recognize italics, and alters paragraph formatting.)

    Has anyone else experience this?

  6. Certainly reading aloud has been my best method of self-editing. All good advice. I have used most of it (except for starting sentences with and/but – but I do it deliberately)As a consequence my editor told me she had never seen such a clean manuscript. So – it works. 🙂

    Thank you. Good stuff!

  7. Totally agree with reading aloud and a great deal of what you've said. Though I'd like to defend the semi-colon too! I think most things in punctuation have a place.

    I'm at the penultimate proof stage with my debut novel and the whole thing from start to finish has been an amazing learning curve. So many things I will do differently next time round.

    The attributing for a year thing is a funny one. My proofreader, a professional, says '50s for 1950s if you abbreviate.

    Thanks for this blogpost, it was really timely for me : )

    1. I do have to agree with you about the semicolon, but it seems to cause so many problems, I'm advocating avoiding it unless you really know how to use it. Your proofreader is quite correct about '50s – but I was trying to focus on where so many people put the pesky little apostrophe incorrectly. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  8. Thanks for the great editing advice. I almost always read my ms aloud and find it is beneficial. I couldn't write without my Thesaurus – if fact I have several though one is a favorite and at times I use the online ones. I have a number of dictionaries, too. I agree with Yvonne re the "but" and "and" as a sentence starter, though I don't do it frequently. I asked an editor about that a while ago after being told it was a no-no, and she said it was definitely OK. I'm also not sure why the exclamation mark is taboo today. I don't advocate over-use of it, and in one edit realized I had overdone it and removed most of them, but I can't imagine anyone just saying, "Wow." It sounds rather pathetic. "Wow!" conveys emotion and force of speech.

    1. I quite agree,Diane about the question mark. It sometimes obviates the need for an adjective, especially when tagging. But, as you found, it can be overdone sometimes. Moderation is the key.

      1. And/But do have their places at the beginning of a sentence. I have had a manuscript where every other sentence started with And/But it really interrupted the flow. Reading aloud again highlights the unnaturalness of it. However, in some instances, the sentence does cry out for it. Again, I'm just advocating moderation in all things!

        1. Oh, just to emphasise too, I'm excluding dialogue when it comes to the And/But – we all speak in Ands and Buts. We don't, however, speak in semicolons, 😉

  9. Dear Cathy Speight,

    That is an excellent article and I'd like your permission to pass it on in our thanks-but-not-thanks letters to those who submitted fiction manuscripts to our Washington Writers' Publishing House. Perhaps it would work even better for next year's guidelines. I will try it this week on some of my fellow writers/readers.

    The collections of short stories we receive (no ID on manuscripts) are mostly in good shape, as many of the stories have already been published individually in journals which gave them word counts and good editing, or they edited well themselves.

    This year's winner is David Ebenbach's INTO THE WILDERNESS, and most of his individual stories have already seen print in some journal, hence are tight.

    The novel submissions, on the other hand, tend to be so ambitious that the author goes on and on too quickly to check himself en route, which is okay for the early drafts, but the final work grows too long for the author to face self-editing, and he has gotten bogged down in the plot as well. And the reader as well gets bored.

    One exception is Nubia Kai's tight short novel RISE AND SHINE LIKE THE MORNING STAR, a finalist. Another finalist is Kathleen Wheaton ALIENS & OTHER STORIES. Both are excellent manuscripts but alas, we can only afford to publish one book a year of fiction, one of poetry.

    David Edenbach's winning INTO THE WILDERNESS will see print this summer.

    Meanwhile, Cathy, I would like to print out and pass around your piece on self-editing, and would of course credit your piece in INDIES.

    Re my own novel manuscripts–they quickly became too daunting to try to edit them, hence they remain in forgotten cartons. Poetry and short stories, however, demand that every word counts, every word needs challenging, hence some pieces I cut from thousands of words into haiku–

  10. I add to above that when my first collection, TIGHTENING THE CIRCLE OVER EEL COUNTRY, was ready to go to press, 12 friends with PhDs read the galleys. Of course I had edited and edited myself first. When the book came out, I found 12 typos. I was mortified.

    In the years since, however, I have made little changes on almost every poem in the book.

    Nonetheless, (since this is an age of self puffery), despite the dozen typos, that book won the Great Lakes Colleges' Association's "New Writer's Award for a First Book of Poetry, 1976-1977.

    You can be sure that my later books have had several pairs of eyes reading both manuscript and galley–and finding places to tweak.

    Though not in spirit vengeful, I do plenty of editing of other's work.

  11. Fascinating comments Elisavietta. By all mean use the content – but you don't have to mention me – if you would, could you just link back to Indies? Thank you so much for taking the time to read the article.

  12. Excellent, Cathy, although I have to say I side with Laurie on the semicolons thing. Oh, and as an editor myself, I can't resist: 1950s or '50s. 😉

    1. The semicolon is really ok if you know what you're doing, but all too often I've had to correct MSs when it's obvious grammar-check has been relied on to place the semicolons – incorrectly in just about every case. They're best left for editors who are au fait with the whole kaboodle! Yes, it is '50s, but I just wanted to clarify that the apostrophe didn't come between the 0 and the s, 🙂

Comments are closed.