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.
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.
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