Self-Editing Explained: How To Edit A Book Yourself [Guide]

The topic of self-editing can spark confusion so I’ve invited along a professional editor — one I’ve worked with on multiple books — who will show you how to edit a book yourself. And this is exactly where we run into the first misconception about self-editing because it’s not a replacement for proper editing, but one of the stages of the editorial process.

Self-editing is a concept which can cause confusion but a professional editor is here to set you straight, and you can learn how to edit your own book, but also why it isn't a replacement for professional editing

What is self-editing?

Self-editing is the process an author goes through before they send their work to an editor; it is not a replacement for editing by a qualified, experienced, professional editor.

There is only so much work an editor can do to improve your manuscript in the allotted time, and self-editing enables authors to remove the more obvious errors so that a professional editor can really go to work on deeper issues.

If you want your work to really shine, you must make it as good as you possibly can before you hand it over to a professional editor.

And it’s a professional editor’s perspective that I think you will find most useful on this topic, so I have invited along Karin Cox to run through some of the ways that authors can self-edit their work and get it in better shape before they send it off to be copy edited.

As Karin says herself:

The more you polish your own work when self-editing, the less a professional editor will have to do, which will save them time and save you money.

Karin has a unique perspective: she has considerable experience working for a trade publisher in Australia and is also a freelance editor. On top of that, her own work — both fiction and non-fiction for children and adults, as well as poetry — has been published the traditional way and has been self-published; she really has seen all sides.

I also have first-hand experience of her impressive pleonasm-hunting skills as well as her uncanny ability to turn my sopa de letras into intelligible prose — which is no mean feat. Let’s just say that even after I spent considerable time self-editing, Karin earned her keep.

Here’s Karin with examples of some of the most common language issues she sees in manuscripts, just be aware that your own self-editing will need to encompass story problems as well.

Self-editing: Back to Basics by Karin Cox

Let me start off by stating that there is no such thing as self-editing to a publishable level (at least not without a team of skilled beta readers); I would say this even if my livelihood did not depend on editing.

I scour my own text for errors before I submit it to my publisher, but I am still always surprised at what my in-house colleagues pick up when they read through my manuscripts.

As much as writers attempt to edit their own work, and should for the purposes of enhancing their drafts, I firmly believe they are incapable of doing so as effectively as a professional editor because they lack the necessary objectivity to assess their own writing, even when self-editing with diligence.

The human brain also employs all kind of tricks to convince writers that what they put down on the page is correct (if not Man Booker Prize material).

Taht yuo cna raed tihs at lal is prcaticlaly a mriacle! But such is the power of the human brain. Read a whole paragraph of that and soon you’ll be able to wade through even the most atrocious, unedited drivel and make perfect sense of it.

It is little wonder that most authors — even those who are competent self-editors at a draft level — miss a few transposed letters, misspelled words, homonyms, or misplaced modifiers. It’s all thanks to the human brain’s excellent ability to decode and process what the eyes see.

However, knowing that some Indies cannot afford to employ a professional editor, and that any self-editing you undertake will streamline the editorial process and vastly improve your writing, what follows are five of the most common editorial issues I find in manuscripts that cross my desk.

Many professional Indies will scoff at this list, declaring it small fry — and much of it is — but you’d be surprised how often authors make these mistakes.

Wonderfully florid, flamboyant, descriptive and wordy verbiage

Some ambitious authors regularly find unnecessary cause to heartily and readily pepper their wordy prose with long-winded, superfluous, and exceedingly boring adjectives and adverbs, continually.

See what I did there?

This kind of writing constitutes an adjective and adverb overload. Adjective overload is usually found in descriptive passages, and adverb overload in dialogue. When most of us write, we are relaying a scene we have visualized in our minds.

As a result, we sometimes think that providing all of the rich detail we imagine will make the scene more vivid for the reader, who will feel almost as if they are watching a movie. Unfortunately, it rarely turns out that way.

Reading is a different exercise to watching a movie. Providing the reader’s brain with too much visual or sensory information too quickly can actually befuddle it. Rather than getting a clear picture of what is happening in a scene, the reader gets a fuzzy, out-of-focus mess.

Because they’re not sure what they will need to recall later, readers will be trying hard to process all of that information, which distracts them from the real task at hand — comprehending. The brain just isn’t able to hold all of that visual detail in there while you get to the “verbs” (action), so it just switches off.

Take for instance:

The girl walked into the long, dim, stone-floored corridor lit only by the softly glowing beams of candles in carved pewter candlestick holders that lined the grey stone walls where richly embroidered tapestries danced in the slight draught. The candlelight flickered off her beautiful emerald-green, floor-length dress made out of Chinese silk flecked through with gold, which left one of her pale shoulders bare, revealing the small scar where she had been nicked by Zhung-ze’s katana as a small girl. At the end of the gloomy hall stood a shadowy assassin wearing an ominous black robe and holding a giant, heavy bronze battle-axe engraved with the curious symbols of the Wey Tu Mutc clan.

Phew! There’s a lot going on in this scene, isn’t there? Short answer: not really. The only action is a girl with an interesting scar walking into a candlelit corridor with an assassin at the end — that’s it.

There is a lot of good sensory information in there, but it is obscured by all of the padding and setting. It could be more effectively written as:

The girl’s green silk gown swished on the stone floor as she entered the corridor. Flickering light from candelabras lining the walls made her pale skin glisten, illuminating the small scar on her shoulder where Zhung-ze’s Katana had nicked her as a child. At the end of the corridor, the assassin’s black robes billowed in the draught. He lifted his heavy axe in anticipation. On the bronze weapon, the engraved symbols of the Wey Tu Mutc clan shone in the candlelight.

Even with thirty-four words pruned off the original, I think you’ll agree that the second version provides a clearer visual image of the scene? Of course, the above is far from perfect, but it’s simply to illustrate my point about how self-editing can improve a passage.

Ninety per cent of the longer manuscripts I get sent are rife with adjective and adverb overload.

Some authors (such as Stephen King in On Writing) suggest ditching adverbs entirely and even go as far as insisting there is never any reason to use them. I disagree.

Sometimes adverbs can add spice to your writing while allowing you to remain succinct. Take the following example:

“Because I love her,” Dan said dispassionately.

The therapist said nothing. Removing her glasses, she carefully wiped the lenses with a tissue while waiting for him to continue. When he did not, after several seconds she asked, “Really?”

There are three adverbs in this passage (dispassionately, carefully and really). I believe all of them have some role to play.

If the author were to remove “dispassionately” when self-editing, the reader might well assume Dan’s statement were true, which would remove the subtext of this passage. As it is, the adverb provides a clue that Dan’s words and his feelings are not in accordance.

The therapist “carefully” wiping her lenses helps flesh out her character. Although this is the most dispensable adverb in this example, it underscores that she is a thorough, analytical person. She is not giving her glasses a cursory swipe with a tissue.

[Incidentally, the glasses also provide metonymy here. They represent her clarity of purpose and foresight, her ability to peer more closely into Dan’s thoughts and feelings to see the truth about his life.]

The final adverb here (really) demonstrates that she is aware Dan is not being truthful, even if he does not realise it. It could perhaps be replaced with “Do you?” But I think that “Do you?” would be slightly less accusatory. She is calling him on it, so “really” makes that more clear.

There is a way to recast this passage to remove all of these adverbs when self-editing and still keep some undercurrents in the conversation between Dan and his shrink, but it would require more words.

“Because I love her,” Dan said, knowing he did not mean it.

The therapist said nothing. Removing her glasses, she wiped the lenses with a tissue, careful to cleanse them of even the smallest smear, while waiting for him to continue. When he did not, after several seconds she asked, “Do you?”

Some writers who have bought into the “Adverbs are bad M’kay” school of writing advice will prefer the second example; others will prefer the first. In defense of adverb haters, in many cases adverbs are used as to prop up weak nouns, especially when it comes to dialogue attribution. It is true they can often be removed when self-editing to strengthen text. Following are some common culprits:

  • Get out!” he said loudly. (Substitute “he shouted” or remove the attribution as the exclamation mark and context make it clear he is shouting.)
  • “I love you,” she said softly. (Substitute “she whispered”).
  • “You complete me,” she said honestly. (This adverb is best removed unless there is a specific reason for doubting her honesty in the first place, e.g. she is a compulsive liar.)
  • She ran swiftly toward him. (She sprinted, she bolted, she pelted, she tore)
  • He walked slowly. (He ambled, he loped, he strolled)
  • He smiled happily. (He beamed or he grinned).

Note: Take care not to use “he/she smiled” after dialogue, e.g. “Whatcha doing,” he smiled. No one is capable of “smiling” words. However, you can insert it as an action following dialogue by using a full stop and capital letter in place of a comma, e.g. “Whatcha doing?” He smiled. Persistently using dialogue tags that are impossible is the mark of the amateur.]

“I hate you,” she said spitefully. Now, I know I’m going to cop some flak for this, but in my own writing I would use “she spat” here. But … but … You said you can’t smile words, so how can you spit them? I can hear you flak-throwers thinking.

My answer to that is: I’m sure all of us have been spat on accidentally at least once when someone we were chatting with was being over emphatic. Also, language doesn’t have to be literal all of the time.

Another option might be:

“I hate you,” she said, enunciating each word.

Or, if you really want to push boundaries:

“I. Hate. You.” She spat out each word.

A worthwhile exercise is to set aside one edit of your draft where you do nothing but go through your manuscript and pinpoint adjectives and adverbs. Assess whether each is necessary and identify the role it plays.

If an adverb is not enhancing meaning, aiding characterization or providing subtext, strike it out. Where an adjective follows a string of other adjectives (especially if you have three or more adjectives in a sentence) delete the weakest one.

Comma splices & other self-editing calamities

Not knowing, where to put commas, some authors believe, that the best way to avoid seeming as if they don’t know, is, just to, put them in, entirely randomly. Do not do this! I’ve read a lot of comments on forums suggesting that commas are entirely subjective. The rules are: there are no rules. Right? Wrong!

While “rule” is too strong a word, there are conventions regarding comma use. Just thwacking a comma down whenever you pause for breath, or whenever you freeze up momentarily when tapping away at the keyboard, is not going to cut it.

Some commas, however, are a matter of personal preference and are called “pausal” commas. Old-school grammarians mostly favor pausal commas; more modern grammarians tend to advocate using as few commas as necessary to achieve clarity.

For some good examples of where NOT to put commas, check out my blog post Don’t Put a Comma in your Ear. For some examples of where commas are necessary, this archived post from Purdue University is handy to peruse when self-editing: Extended Rules for Using Commas.

One regular error is the comma splice, which is also known as a run-on sentence. It occurs when a comma is incorrectly used to join two independent clauses in place of a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so) or in place of an appropriate punctuation mark (such as a semi-colon, colon, or em dash).

An example is:

He ran to the bus, it was running late.

Because both of these clauses constitute short sentences — that is, they both have a subject (a noun or pronoun, in this case he and it) and a predicate (a verb form, in this case ran and running) — this is incorrect. This sentence could be correctly written as:

  • He ran to the bus. It was running late.
  • He ran to the bus; it was running late.
  • He ran to the bus: it was running late.
  • He ran to the bus — it was running late.
  • He ran to the bus, which was running late. (Perhaps best of all.)

Any one of these is better than the original splice, although the first, second and last are the most standard.

Misplaced modifier madness: a self-editor’s bane

Poor comma usage can also lead to another editorial bugbear: the misplaced modifier. Modifiers are usually adverbial or participial phrases that cause problems when they unintentionally modify something other than what the writer intended.

Groucho Marx once quipped:

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.”

The problem with Marx’s joke (or at least part of the problem!) is that the modifying phrase (in my pajamas) is positioned close to the object of this sentence (elephant) rather than to the subject (I), which is what it should be modifying. To make it correct, it would require recasting:

One morning, while/whilst still in my pajamas, I shot an elephant.

[I say while/whilst because it depends on which side of that debate you squat on. Old school is to use whilst; new school would be to go with while, which is now commonly used in both British and American English.]

Participial verb forms regularly create an insidious type of misplaced modifier known as a “dangling participle.” Participle verbs are -ing form verbs, e.g. Running, smiling, dancing, glancing.

When a subject does not immediately follow a participle phrase at the start of a sentence, a dangling participle can occur. Take, for instance:

Glancing up at the clock, the photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye.

The subject in this sentence is unintentionally the photograph, which is accidentally performing both of the actions — glancing and “catching” (in “caught”, the past participle of catch). To make this sentence correct, it would need to be reworded:

As I glanced up at the clock, the photograph on the mantelpiece caught my eye.

Or:

Glancing up at the clock, I noticed the photograph on the mantelpiece.

You could also rewrite it as:

Glancing up at the clock, my eye was caught by the photograph on the mantelpiece.

But that sounds awkward because even though the subject is now “my eye” the photograph is still performing the action of the verb “caught.”

You might also try:

Glancing up at the clock, my eyes were drawn to the photograph on the mantelpiece.

Or even just:

I glanced up at the clock, but my eyes were drawn to the photograph on the mantelpiece.

The good thing about misplaced modifiers and dangling participles is that, once you have identified them, there are several easy fixes when self-editing. Spotting them in the first place is usually the tricky part! For more on misplaced modifiers, visit this page.

Some adverbs also need careful consideration when it comes to their role as modifiers. Mostly, adverbs are freewheeling. They are the only words that can move around a sentence without throwing too much into disarray. Take:

  • The cat climbed quickly up the wall.
  • Quickly, the cat climbed up the wall.
  • The cat climbed up the wall quickly.
  • The cat quickly climbed up the wall.

We’ve no issues there; they all make perfect sense, although some are slightly more euphonious. But some adverbs “limit” or constrain the words they are close to. An example is the adverb “only,” which should be placed just before the word it modifies. For example:

Go to school only if you are well.

Not:

Only go to school if you are well

The latter implies that if you are well, you should do nothing else but go to school.

Dialogue dilemmas when self-editing

Dialogue and action scenes are the make-or-break elements of any story. Writing evocative prose is great, but without action and dialogue to drive the plot forward and make the reader feel invested in your tale (and your characters) all you will have is pretty words on a page.

Get dialogue right, and your characters’ voices will ring in your readers’ heads; get it wrong, and your characters will seem flat and, frankly, fictional.

All too often new authors get it wrong.

There are a lot of ways to go wrong when it comes to dialogue. The first is to hardly include any at all! Without dialogue you will likely have an awful lot of “telling” and very little “showing.” I often see narrative passages that tell me how the characters have been interacting.

For example:

When Joe called Nathan into the conference room and told him that Wordsmith Industries could no longer afford to keep him on, Nathan, understandably upset, called him a bastard. Nathan had worked for Joe for fifteen years and angrily told his boss that the company had taken the best years of his life in exchange for a meagre wage and minimum superannuation contributions. Joe, affronted by his employee’s response, immediately told him to get out. As a final indignity, he gestured to Nathan’s uniform and explained that he would need that back, too: it belonged to the company. Nathan stripped off and tossed the clothes on the floor, then called Joe a bastard again, and a coward.

In rare cases, a few brief sentences of this type of exposition can summarize an earlier, “off-screen” conversation (especially if you already have a lot of dialogue, or if it would make for a short, choppy scene). However, it is usually far more interesting to show the reader using dialogue and action, even if it requires more words. Keep this in mind when self-editing your work.

“Have a seat.” Joe gestured towards the conference table.

Nathan, looking worried, took the seat closest to the door.

“I’m afraid it is bad news,” Joe said, sitting at the opposite end of the table. “As you know, Wordsmith Industries has had some financial difficulties this year.” He cleared his throat and smoothed down his greasy comb-over. “You see, we’re going to have to let you go.”

“You bastard! I’ve given fifteen years to this company — fifteen of my best working years — and all for what? A meagre wage and minimum superannuation contributions?”

Affronted, Joe stood. “I was going to suggest you stay on a week to clear things up. But if that’s how you feel, I think you should just get out. Now!” He pointed a trembling index finger toward the door.

Nathan raked the chair back from the table and leaped to his feet.

“One more thing.” Joe pointed to the uniform Nathan wore. “You’ll need to leave that here: it’s company property.”

Scowling, Nathan dropped his trousers and wrenched off his shirt. A button pinged off the conference table, hitting the wall just below the framed print of a mountain peak with the word “Courage” printed underneath. “You really are a bastard!” Nathan spat. “And a coward.” Then he turned and strode out.

(This second example is longer but note that this actually tells us a lot more about both characters than the original “telling” narrative did.)

Expository dialogue

Another dialogue no-no is expository dialogue and you must watch out for it when self-editing. Expository dialogue uses the characters as mouthpieces to relay essential elements of the plot, or information about other characters, which the author wants the reader to know but didn’t want to write as exposition. Let’s use Joe and his wife Gloria as an example.

“Joe, you know that our company Wordsmith Industries is in financial trouble and if we don’t get rid of some employees we’re not going to be able to make the repayment this month and the bank will foreclose on us,” Gloria said as she filled the sink with hot water and squirted in a stream of detergent. “I think you should sack Nathan.”

“Yes, my wife,” Joe answered, “but it’s only because of my gambling problem. If I hadn’t bet that ten grand on that stupid horse named Expository Dialogue we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Exactly!” Gloria pulled on rubber gloves and began scrubbing furiously at a saucepan. “And your brother Tim, who lives in London and has four children, should never have asked you for that loan to add on another bedroom. Now look where it has got us.” She pushed a frizzy curl out of her face and huffed in consternation.

Joe sighed.

“And tell Nathan that he needs to leave his green and white uniform, because we paid for it and had it embroidered with the company slogan “We do it better” in yellow cotton thread last year when we sent it out to Carol Bigby’s seamstress services in Castlemaine.”

Of course, there are other issues with this passage, including wordiness and Gloria’s tendency to divulge inconsequential information. But my point is that there is no need for Gloria to tell Joe things he already knows, such as that their business is in trouble (he would know that), or that his brother lives in London and has four kids (he would know that also).

There is no need for her to tell him that the uniform is green and white and embroidered with the company slogan in yellow cotton. There is even no need for Joe to use “my wife” in talking to Gloria, or to tell her about his gambling problem — no doubt poor Gloria already knows about that, too.

What is happening here is that the author thinks she is cleverly slipping in description or backstory without passages of exposition. However, this is equally as expository, and it reeks of authorial interference. It also makes the characters seem contrived and the dialogue seem pointless.

For more about expository characters, check out this page on TV Tropes, but I warn you in advance that clicking on links can result in you being trapped in this very addictive site for hours on end!

Um, err, how’s the weather?

Sometimes, writers do their dialogue a disservice by trying to be too realistic. Wait! Did you say “too realistic”? Why wouldn’t we want our dialogue to be realistic? I can imagine some of you thinking.

The answer is that you do want a level of realism. But rather than making dialogue slavishly realistic by adding all of the ifs, ums, wells, buts, hellos, how are yous and trivial social pleasantries that pepper real conversation, the aim is to create an illusion of realism.

In real life, we chat about the weather, or work, or how we’re doing, before launching into the nitty gritty of a conversation, but in a book, all of that is filler. Omit filler wherever possible; your readers will thank you for it. They won’t sit there thinking, Gee it was rude that Cassandra didn’t ask Ben how his weekend was first thing on a Monday morning before she blurted out that Sarah was having an affair; at least, they won’t if you “hook” them on your story by writing gripping, authentic dialogue and making your characters credible.

Throw the “said book” at them

One of the biggest problems with adverbs is that they can hinder dialogue, especially if used a lot. I’m all for adverbs in moderation, or where they add meaning while keeping writing concise. But try to avoid using adverbs after every dialogue tag.

Said Bookisms” can also make for amateurish dialogue. Some editors and authors insist that writers should only ever use “said” when attributing dialogue; I don’t. However, I do suggest removing extraneous tags and attributions when self-editing.

If you feel the need to use growled, whispered, screamed, goaded, taunted, muttered, or mumbled on occasion, I say go right ahead, but remember that less is more. If your character is mumbling, muttering, shouting, exclaiming, querying or propounding all of the time, chances are he or she is not distinct or dimensional enough.

When you have just two people involved in a conversation, you can usually get away with just letting them speak, using only their actions to remind the reader which character is speaking.

“What are you doing?” Cassandra leaned over Ben for a closer look. 

“Deactivating the power source.” Ben flipped the switch on the control panel and slipped the back off the unit.

“Why?”

“Why do you think?” He frowned as he poked a screwdriver into the mass of electrical wires.

“I hope you disconnected it from the grid first.”

“From the grid? Now why would I want to do that?” Ben said sarcastically.

If you have a lot of characters involved in a conversation, I’d recommend using actions or “said” in at least 75% of cases, but using other appropriate tags when — and only when — they add meaning and make sense. Also, do avoid some of the more inane Said Bookisms, e.g.

“What are you doing?” he ejaculated.

“I hope you disconnected it from the grid first,” she snorted.

“Let’s go,” she propositioned.

Name dropping

There is rarely a need to have your characters use other characters’ names in dialogue, but authors often do this purely to remind the reader who is speaking to whom.

In conversation, especially in person, we rarely use each other’s names (although we might in some cases, such as if we are angry, emotional or frustrated).

When characters are on the telephone, addressing each other by name, at least to begin with, is standard, but when you are self-editing remember that using names constantly in face-to-face dialogue is distracting for the reader and unrealistic.

All of the above!

An example of some flawed dialogue that incorporates all of these no-nos might be:

“What are you doing, Ben?” Cassandra queried curiously, leaning over Ben for a closer look.

“I’m deactivating the power source, Cassandra,” Ben expounded patiently.

“Why, Ben?” Cassandra questioned.

“Why do you think, Cassandra,” Ben grimaced, as he poked a screwdriver into the mass of electrical wires. “If I don’t, it might go off and blow us all to smithereens. But it’s okay. You and I both know I’ve done this before during the Gulf War, although I am colour blind.”

“Ben, I hope you disconnected it from the grid first,” said Cassandra patronisingly.

“From the grid, Cassandra?” Ben ejaculated forcefully. [Yes, I know! Bad, huh?]

See how artificial and stilted this dialogue has become? There is way too much padding around it, which bogs the reader down. If you recognise some of this padding in your dialogue, it is time to revise.

For action sequences or fast-paced sections of your tale, try to streamline your dialogue as much as possible, keeping tags, attributions and actions to a minimum.

Writing edgy, minimalist dialogue in small chunks — with brief descriptive or action elements in between to avoid dialogue going on for pages without referencing the setting (which is known as writing “talking heads”) — will pick up the pace and keep your readers invested in the action.

Whoops, wrong word

It is very easy to overlook a homonym used incorrectly when self-editing or even a word that is similar to another but has a different meaning. Some of the most common mix-ups I encounter are:

  • Adverse (hostile or unfavorable) Averse (reluctant)
  • Affect (verb: to influence) Effect (mostly used as a noun, meaning a result or consequence, e.g. a side effect or a special effect. When used as a verb, it means to result in, e.g. to effect an escape.)
  • A lot (many or often) Alot (no such word!)
  • Allusion (an indirect reference) Illusion (a false impression or perception of reality)
  • Altogether (total) All together (many things close together)
  • Assure (promise) Ensure (make certain) Insure (take out an insurance premium on)
  • Breath (noun: inhalation or exhalation) Breathe (verb: the act of inhaling or exhaling)
  • Continual (recurring constantly) Continuous (never-ending or unceasing)
  • Dam (a manmade body of water) Damn (profanity)
  • Discrete (separate/distinct) Discreet (tactful or modest)
  • Every day (every day) Everyday (adjective: occurring every day or mundane, e.g. everyday clothes)
  • Fewer (refers to individual objects that can be counted) Less (refers to quantities, e.g.  Fewer people will mean less mess)
  • Imply (to signify, an action performed by a speaker or writer) Infer (to reason or conclude, an action performed by the listener or reader)
  • Its (pronoun: belonging to it) It’s (contraction of it is)
  • Lay (to place something somewhere) Lie (to recline or to fib)
  • Libel (written form of defamation) Liable (obligated)
  • Literally (100% true) Figuratively (involving a figure of speech such as a metaphor)
  • Loath (reluctant) Loathe (detest)
  • Loose (adjective or adverb: not tight) Lose (verb: misplace) I see this one used incorrectly a lot!
  • Stationary (adjective: not moving, still) Stationery (noun: writing paper)
  • Their (pronoun: belonging to them) They’re (contraction of they are) There (adverb: location)
  • On to (e.g. before I move on to the next point) Onto (preposition: we climbed onto the table)
  • Passed (past tense verb of pass: to have moved) Past (adjective: relating to a former time or place)
  • Principle (belief) Principal (adjective: most important; noun, authoritative person)
  • That (for defining clauses, e.g. words that cannot be omitted in a sentence) Which (for non-defining clauses that provide additional information)
  • Who (subject of a sentence, e.g. The boy who lived) Whom (object of a sentence, e.g. To whom should I direct my enquiry?)
  • Whose (interrogative pronoun, e.g. Whose book is that?) Who’s (contraction of who is)

For a more complete list, check out Alan Cooper’s list.

As I mentioned in Part I, these are basic errors and are easily fixed. Issues with plot, plausibility, pacing, and characterisation are more time-consuming to correct.

I hope you have found my guest posts useful as a quick introduction to some of the errors to watch out for when you self-edit. Going through your manuscript several times to check each of these things in isolation will help, as will reading your work aloud, using text-to-speech to listen to the computer read it back to you, reading passages backwards, and deconstructing sentences that sound a little “off” to your ear.

About Karin Cox

Karin Cox is an Australian editor, poet and author and, like many women, is doing her best to be a modern Wonder Woman (minus the cape and the gold lasso). Trained as a professional editor, and with more than fourteen years in the trade publishing industry under her belt, she edits and writes in her “spare time” while being a fulltime mum to her infant daughter and to a black cat with the improbable name of “Ping Pong.”

Final note from Dave on self-editing:

A big thank you to Karin Cox for this comprehensive post. If you are interested in hiring Karin to edit your own book, you can check out her editor site here.

And if you are interested in checking out her written work, she has self-published several books, including the paranormal fantasy Dark Guardians series, and you can check out the first book on Amazon here. Karin also has 50+ traditionally published titles, and you can get more details on those on her site.

As for me, there’s not much I can add to such a comprehensive post, and I hope you all learned more about how to edit a book.

Don’t forget to check out my post on the editorial process, which will explain where self-editing fits in overall, along with beta readers, story editing (aka developmental or content editing), copy editing, and proofing.

Out of all the things Karin covered above — apart from loath/loathe which I can never get to stick plus a worrying tendency towards unintended double entendres which I always seem to slip in (oops) — I think the most common error I make from the above is “talking heads” dialogue.

I’m generally averse to overly florid writing, and have quite a spare style myself, but I can often go too far in the first draft and each successive draft then needs a little more setting and detail to be layered in when self-editing.

I write dialogue much quicker than narrative, and, as I have the whole scene pictured in my head, I rarely notice when I fail to include the necessary minimum of detail/setting to “anchor” the conversation for the reader. Of course, I usually catch that myself when self-editing but often too my editor’s red pen gets busy.

I’ve gotten a little better at self-editing over the years, and one resource that really helped me was Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King; it’s excellent.

What about you? What’s your most common flub? Do you enjoy self-editing or is it a case of gritting your teeth and getting on with it?

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.