Tips for Editing Your Own Writing

There’s no substitute for a professional editor. But, at some point you will sit down to “edit” your own book.  It may be your final read-through after your editor or beta reader has finished, or it may be that you have set the book aside for a few weeks (a good idea) and now you’re ready to put the finishing touches on it before uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing.  No matter what the circumstances, you’re ready to edit.  Here are a few tips to help you do it as well as possible.

Kevin G. Chapman
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                The best advice I can give to an indie author about how to edit one’s own writing is – don’t.  Hire an editor. It’s worth every penny you spend to have an independent set of eyes looking at your writing to tell you where you have missed the forest for the trees (or missed a dead tree because of the surrounding forest).  An independent set of eyes will also see grammar, word usage, punctuation, and other copy editing errors that you gloss right by without seeing because you know what you’re writing and what the characters are saying and somehow your brain fails to detect things that a new reader will catch.  There’s no substitute for a professional editor.  There are great freelance editors who will give you a reasonable price.  Reedsy has listings for them, among other places.

                The next best advice is to get somebody you know and trust who has not read the book to read it and to specifically flag for you any instances of unclear sentences, ambiguity in who’s speaking, tense agreement, punctuation, and other copy editing issues.  The “beta” reader can also tell you if there are big plot holes that you missed, or logic problems in the flow of the story, or characters who behave inconsistently or whose “voices” change from the beginning to the end.  Again, these are things that a fresh set of eyes can pick up on, even if they are not a professional editor. And, of course, using Critique Circle to find other authors who will point out ways to improve the writing is also a great idea -- a crowd-sourced beta read, one chapter at a time.

                But, at some point you will sit down to “edit” your own book.  It may be your final read-through after your editor or beta reader has finished, or it may be that you have set the book aside for a few weeks (a good idea) and now you’re ready to put the finishing touches on it before uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing.  No matter what the circumstances, you’re ready to edit.  Here are a few tips to help you do it as well as possible.

                1.            Run the text through an automated grammar/spelling checker program.  They are not perfect, but they will catch a lot of things that you can easily fix and that will create less distraction to you when you read it yourself.  The Grammarly program is very good, and the Microsoft Word built-in spelling & grammar checker is not bad.  The psychological reality is that when you are reading yourself, if you have caught a few mistakes on a page or in a chapter, you will mentally relax and may not catch the next one. So, by eliminating the low-hanging fruit early, you will be able to concentrate on the more difficult-to-detect errors when you are marking up your text.

                2.            Run a series of other electronic searches to clean up the text.  Again, before reading yourself, try to have as clean a text as you can get.  So, search for these things and fix them:

  • Double spaces.  If you are writing with a single space between sentences, search the document for instances of back-to-back space characters and delete one.
  • EM dashes.  Many times the spacing and formatting for an EM dash will get messed up.  Make sure there is a space before and after every one, and that the dash is solid.  In WORD, if you use two dash characters back-to-back, they will merge into an EM dash, but only if there is then another character after the two dash characters.  Sometimes, if you end a sentence, or put in the dashes during editing, you’ll end up with two dashes “--“  Rather than a single EM dash “—“
  • Periods and commas after quotation marks.  In most cases, the punctuation of a sentence will come inside the quotation marks – “I’m not going to do it,” he said.  If you find a period of comma inverted outside the quotation mark, fix it.  (E.g., “He set the book down”.  Then he walked to the window.]
  • Page breaks.  Make sure there are page breaks where you want them to be.
  • Paragraph at the end of each chapter, before the page break.  Sometimes the formatting of justified text gets messed up on the last line of the page if there is a page break without an end-of-paragraph symbol, so make sure that the last line of each chapter if followed by an “[enter]paragraph mark” before the page break.
  • Intra-chapter section markers.  If you have some chapters that include breaks in time or location that are indicated by three asterisks “***” or some other symbol, search for them to make sure they are formatted as you want them to be and that the spacing before and after is correct.
  • Period at end of every paragraph.  There’s no way to search for the period at the end of every sentence, but it is possible to search for the absence of a period at the end of a paragraph by searching for a Universal character “*” followed by a paragraph symbol.
  • Get a list of adjectives and dialogue queues (e.g., exclaimed, shouted, yelled, whispered, etc.) – there are a lot of good lists out there on the internet [insert links?]  Then search your document for each of them to see how many occurrences there are, and write down the numbers.  You don’t need to view every one, but note how many.  Then look at your list and think about whether you are over-using any of them.  If you have 1468 instances of the word “said,” that’s fine.  The default in dialogue should be “said” rather than anything else.  But, if you have 139 instances of “bellowed,” well, that’s probably too many.  You might not notice it while proofreading, but your readers may notice that you seem to overuse certain descriptive terms.

 

3.            OK, you’ve cleaned up your text as much as you can electronically. Now it’s time to do your human proof read.  The first thing to do is print out your text.  It is tempting to proofread on the screen of your computer, but the reality is that there are things your eye will see on the printed page that you will gloss over on the screen.  It just happens.  Find a place where you can print your text.  Use double-sided printing to save paper if you need to.  Use a font big enough to read easily.  If you have already formatted the text for book printing, it’s fine to proof it in the book format (facing pages, using the printing font and size).  You will be able to proof for things like missing headers, page numbers, and drop caps if you do this, so that’s a good idea.

4.            Read from front to back for substance (plot) and details.  The next step is to read the whole book – don’t skip anything.  Pay attention to the plot flow.  Pay attention to dates and times to makes sure that everything makes sense.  Make notes about the time line – if you said in one place that an event happened on a Monday, is there a reference later that the same event happened on a Sunday?  I once did a final read and realized that I had changed the sequence of certain events and so now the internal cross-references were off.  I also noted that I had a scene were it was dark at 6:45 p.m., but it was mid-April, when the sun doesn’t set in New York until 7:30!  Pay attention to the details and the internal consistency of events.  If you happen to notice copy editing errors during this read, that’s great, but it’s not the focus.  Use this as your last “viewing of the movie” that is the story and see if there is anything off about the plot sequence or the details.  [Another example, I had a story where at one point there was a cart of clothing in a room.  In another scene, a character removed the cart from the room.  Later, a character grabbed a piece of clothing from the cart (which should not have been there).]

                If you have guns and shooting, count your shots – make sure that the magazine for that gun has enough bullets to handle the number of shots fired (otherwise, just have a re-loading reference).

5.            Proofread from the back.  Now it’s time to do the real final proofread.  This time, start from the back.  That’s right.  Start with the last paragraph of the book.  Read it forwards (not backwards from the last word in the paragraph), but read it as one free-standing paragraph, unconnected to any other paragraph in the book.  By reading each paragraph back-to-front, you are forced to look at each block of text without any context of what came immediately before it, and there is no “flow” of the story to blind you to issues that are unique to that single paragraph.  You may find that by reading backwards you notice plot/continuity issues that you didn’t notice while reading forwards, but that’s not the focus here – you’re focused on the copy editing of each sentence and each paragraph.  Look for:

  • Is the paragraph too long?  Does it go on for more than 4-5 sentences?  If so, think about whether to break it up.  If the paragraph spans a page break, lay out the two pages vertically so that you can see visually how many lines of text are inside this one paragraph.
  • Is there one idea, and one perspective?  If there are more than one, think about breaking them up.
  • Is there proper punctuation of each sentence?  Is there a close quote mark for every open quote park (where required)?  If it’s dialogue, is it clear who’s speaking?
  • Is there anything in this paragraph that can be cut?  Is there repetition in the paragraph, or unnecessary filler?  Sometimes when drafting you will write elegant descriptions of the setting, the room, the trees, the cars, the other people, etc. because it sounds nice and you want your writing to be sufficiently detailed and descriptive.  But, is this paragraph a scene that requires that kind of detail?  Maybe this room was already described earlier in the book, so it’s not really necessary to describe it again (and maybe you drafted the later scene first in your writing process and never noticed that you described the same room twice).  Normally, if there is a way to cut words without losing meaning, it’s a good idea to think about doing it.
  • Are there multiple adverbs or adjectives in the same sentence?  If so, why?  Think about cutting down to one – or none.
  • Are there multiple instances of the same word or phrase in the paragraph?  If so, try rephrasing one of them to be different (if the second instance can’t be entirely cut).

Once you are satisfied that the paragraph has no errors and you are happy with the text – move to the next (earlier) paragraph and repeat the process.

After repeating the process 1500 times or so, you’ll be done.  You will have marked up the pages with all the corrections and revisions that you want to make, and now you can go and make them.

7.            Re-Proof the changes.  After you have input the revisions based on your last proof-read, print out the text again.  (Yes, it’s a lot of paper.)  Lay out the marked-up text next to the clean text, and go through page by page to check that you correctly and accurately input all the changes (without any extraneous spaces, characters, line breaks, etc.).  Make sure that the changes you made did not mess up the page breaks, leaving you with one line of text on a page, or with a new paragraph that is now way too long.  Don’t think that you can’t mess something up when inputting corrections – you can.  Re-read the entire paragraph if it contains any revisions to make sure that it’s still solid.

 

Now, you’re done.  Well, you’re not really done.  You still have work to do before your book will be published, but you’re done revising and proofreading the text. For now.  You will always find more flaws (or your readers will find them) and you will kick yourself for missing them when you were doing your own proofread.  You’ll fix them later in the next edition.  One of the virtues of Kindle Direct Publishing is that you can upload a new text file anytime, and all future readers will get the revised text, both in electronic and print versions.  You’ll never be perfect, but by following the above tips, you will make your text as clean as it can be.

But, remember – hiring a professional editor is still the best idea of all.

13 Comments

Paramedicd

Excellent article. As an experienced self-editor, I saw myself as a Master Wordsmith. Wrong. This opened my eyes with new strategies and tactics. Kevin mentions Grammarly and Word for automated AI checking. He’s correct, they help pick the low hanging fruit. My strategy has been even more thorough: ProwritingAid, Grammarly, Hemingway (all apps), Word (or Pages), then have computer read text back to me one paragraph at a time. I also write in Scrivener, which has it’s own checker. I vary the order of the apps depending on long pieces or short.

I recommend using all the digital tools on every piece of writing. Each uses different algorithms and will pick up different items to consider for editing. Yes, this will sometimes get me into a loop, where one says add a comma, another says remove that same comma. That’s all right, because this shows me where writer’s choice is the arbiter, and it comes down to style, ear-pleasure, voice.

Kevin’s strategy of a final paragraph by paragraph editing from back to front is new to me, and sounds like a perfect idea. Thank you Kevin, and I’ll look for more tips from you.

Mar-13 at 13:50

Noellemac

This is a very useful, detailed explanation of how to self-edit. I appreciate it very much and will definitely use the methods described here.

May-23 at 03:24

Marisaw

My reservation about using programs is that you can end up using them slavishly and at the end, you’ll have no natural voice left

May-23 at 03:36

Stromberg

Seconded.

Also, don’t forget that the algorithm does not understand its own recommendations. The human in the room still needs to be in charge. If an algorithm says to make a change, and you don’t know why that would be better, research it before blindly accepting it

May-23 at 06:46

Zebracat

I have a little trick I’ve found useful. It’s a quick way to highlight every piece of dialog in a file.

  1. Dump a chapter or scene into a Word file. (This is just in case you make a mistake in Search and Replace)
  2. Make sure the [Text Highlight Color] is showing yellow (my personal preference).
  3. In Word Find and Replace, enable the option [Use wildcards]
  4. In [Find what], enter “?*” (including the left and right quotation marks. For British folks, I guess you enter the left and right single quotation marks. )
  5. In [Replace with], enter nothing but select [Format] and [Highlight].
  6. Click [Replace All].
    Every piece of quoted dialog in the file becomes highlighted.
    This really makes issues stand out when you’re reading through it, and it’s much easier to see beats and attributions. It also makes missing quotation marks obvious.
    It’s not perfect (it messes up when the second right parentheses is missing in continued dialog), but it takes about 10 sec to do.

May-23 at 09:23

Prophecies

Marisaw rose a good point. I have a personal story that’s relevant.

In mid 2018, I applied for an internship at an NGO. The supervisor / lead required a writing sample about a recent event. Excited, I wrote it up… and then doubt kicked in. What if my writing wasn’t… good? I had insecurities about grammar, style, etc. These were amplified in the application process. So I went on Hemingway online editor. I noticed all the lines beneath my words, and I ‘fixed’ them. Afterwards, I felt like my work ‘improved.’ And thus, I sent it to the supervisor. She was like… what? This writing doesn’t meet our standards. Try again, and resubmit. (Which, come to think of it, was really nice to have a second chance).

I stared at my computer screen, looking at my ‘improved’ words. Slowly, I saw the problems. My writing was mechanical and boring. The sentences were clumsy, and there was no effort to engage with the readers. There was no voice. What really irked me was the knowledge that I am much better than this. So I rewrote the whole thing (no Hemingway), and guess what? I got the internship! I could tell how relieved the supervisor was in her e-mails with me.

The whole experience taught me the importance of ‘voice.’ Software such as Grammarly and ProWritingAid may help sometimes, but do not rely on them.

May-23 at 10:55

Flicka

I entirely agree with Prophecies about writing. No amount of apps or programmes will turn you into a good writer if you’re not one to start with, and as she says, can make you worse! I once tried ProWritingAid and although it was fun for a week or two, I soon bored with it and gave up. Better to trust my own instincts. And my writing is none the worse for it, if not better.
I’ve just finished reading a lovely book called Wise Child, which abounds with things like ‘and then’ and filtering and missing commas and other small mistakes similar to the ones we all attempt to iron out on here. I’d never heard of it before. My son recommended it to me and I loved it. But I think it goes to show that it’s not the nitty gritty that’s important to an agent or publisher (they can sort that out for you) - it’s the story. If they love your story they’ll accept a few too many adverbs or filter words or the use of ‘and’ and ‘then’ together.
So I wouldn’t touch any of the apps.

May-23 at 11:35

Kgchapman

James Joyce would have been rejected by any editor or publishing house. Substance is more important that form – but you might as well make the form correct if you can, because editors and readers will assume that if you don’t know how to properly punctuate dialogue, it might not be worth sticking with your story to find out how brilliant it is. Be unique, but still make sure to close the quote. :slight_smile:

May-24 at 01:30

Salamisam

I think all this information is very helpful and wise. It feels like a lot of the steps are backwards though. Like, for example, it seems like a waste to do copy or line edits before correcting things like character or narrative voice, plot and pacing, and other developmental stuff. Also, this is the only place where I’ve heard someone actually say the EM dash should have spaces surrounding it. Every other professional editor, and every grammar book, that I’ve consulted stress no spaces with EM dash.

Aug-05 at 19:31

Flicka

I have to admit I always do the EM dash with spaces either side. I just don’t like the way it looks without the spaces. Too close to a hyphen for my liking.
I find I don’t really have to work on things like character, narrative voice etc so I tend to concentrate on line editing. I like to do my own thing mostly. Rules are there to be broken. Like someone said, most ‘classic’ writers would get their work ripped to bits by editors nowadays.

Aug-05 at 19:33

Leglessme

This was an article about editing your own work. I take that as a different process from revising my work. I do line editing absolutely last after my beta reads have been finished and all the changes made where they need to be. I’m not changing the spelling or grammar on anything that may be changed or cut later. This is just more work and I am lazy. :slight_smile:

The recommendation about a professional editor for indie publishers is a good bet. It’s also a good bet, as I’ve heard friends say, indie publishing authors may think their first drafts don’t stink. Beta reads are far more affordable than a pro editor. I’m on SSDI. I’m not making money yet from my writing. Pro editorial services are not in my budget. That’s why I joined CC. :slight_smile: But I do intend to get comments before I consider the work publishable.

Aug-06 at 01:05

Marisaw

True, as long as you know what they are, and you’re breaking them consciously. That’s a very different thing, with a very different outcome, compared to ignoring them.

Aug-06 at 01:11

Kgchapman

Nice discussion! To be clear, you should “finish” your manuscript before you sit down for your last round of copy editing (which is what my article was about). Definitely get beta readers, work on your development, get every element of your story done. Then, the last thing you do before you publish is the final copy editing – making sure that the text is as perfect as you can get it. Hiring a professional editor is a good idea – both at the developmental stage and at the copy editing stage. A good editor can help you with things like passive voice, dialogue tags, overuse of adverbs/adjectives, and general style and sentence construction as well as “mistakes.” I also highly recommend the “typokillers” at AuthorsXP, where you can get several “volunteer” copy editors (for a modest fee) to read your manuscript and point out all the little errors that you missed during your self-editing (and some that even your professional editor missed).

One note on EM dashes. This is totally style in my view. I prefer the appearance in the middle of a sentence where the EM dash is set off on both sides by a space. (Make sure to use a “non-breaking” space before the dash or you might find the dash drops down to the next line in a printed copy, which isn’t good.) At the end of a line of dialogue, “where the speaker is interrupted by some sudden–” the EM dash without a space is better, to indicate a sudden halt to to the speaker’s statement (better than an ellipse in many cases). But, in the middle of a sentence – when you are setting off something with dashes instead of commas – I prefer the appearance with the space. If you prefer no spaces, go with that. Just be consistent.

Aug-09 at 15:07
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