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.


103 Replies to “Self-Editing Explained: How To Edit A Book Yourself [Guide]”

  1. Nearly every post on self-editing by a proper author-editor is worth its weight in gold. Thank you. I have a few quibbles, particularly on missing out past as in ‘He went past the window.’ But for commas, I find it helps to have an expert beta reader with a different comma attitude from your own!
    Added to my reference list!
    And I agree on Self-editing for Fiction Writers, too – it’s my bible.

  2. In case the date of the comments confuses anyone: this article was originally published in 2012 as a multi-part post and this weekend I combined them into one super post, and gave it a quick update and general polish.

    I will be refreshing a lot of the evergreen posts on this blog in a similar way as there are some really valuable posts like this that are a quite buried right now. It’s part of an overall overhaul of this blog in 2021 to make the best content easier to find. Just FYI.

    Comments are still open though (scroll all the way down for the box), so feel free to share your thoughts!

  3. I’m both an editor and an author and I think this is a good, practical post in terms of identifying common problems to watch out for when editing your own work.
    I also find it useful to look at self-editing from the standpoint of specific *techniques* that can help you spot errors and issues in your own writing. For anyone who’s interested, I’ve written a fairly detailed three-part post that approaches the topic mostly from this angle. You can find part one (and links to the other parts) at http://www.indiebooklauncher.com/resources-diy/self-editing-part-1-self-editing-fundamentals.php. I hope people find it helpful.
    Nas

  4. I am obviously too late for this conversation and as usual any profundity likely to evaporate for want of attention…so just here to add my plaudits for the best Editor I ever had…and luckily found before too late.

  5. WH Dean, dispassionately has several meanings. The Macquarie Dictionary, which is what I go by (as an Australian, and is also why I spell dialogue the “proper” way) gives the first meaning as “free from or unaffected by passion”, variant meanings are “impartial” or without bias. Unpassionate is an awkward alternative that has largely fallen out of use. The one to really avoid here is impassionate, which can actually mean filled with passion. Most dictionaries have removed impassionate, but it is still sometimes seen in newspapers. The distinction does remain between disinterested and uninterested, however.

    1. Karin,

      According to Gage, my Canadian dictionary, “dispassionate” means “free from emotion or prejudice; calm; impartial,” and the exemplary sentence is “To a dispassionate observer, the drivers of both cars seemed equally at fault.” Since the population of Canada is 34 million and Australia 22 million, and since meaning is based largely on usage, I’m about 50% more correct so far (depending on how you work the numbers). Now I won’t recommend an invasion over this, but I’ll be informing the PM that we should send a strongly worded letter and be decidedly cold in our relations until you fix your dictionary.

      All the same, we are both bit players in this lexical drama, since most e-books are sold in the US market. And Merriam-Webster agrees with me: “not influenced by strong feeling; especially: not affected by personal or emotional involvement / a dispassionate critic / a dispassionate approach to an issue /.” The paradigm sentences include “Journalists aim to be dispassionate observers,” and “He spoke in a dispassionate tone about the accident.” Of course, the second sentence is ambiguous because it doesn’t specify whether the agent was involved in the accident.

      Anyway, the more important rule from an editor’s standpoint is that many people (like me) recognize only one proper usage of the word. Even if many more people don’t register a difference, I suggest that you have to choose the safest course because, as the Psalmist says, “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

      By the way, “dialogue” is the proper way because it preserves the etymology of the word, which is part of its meaning. The word comes from the Greek, roughly “dia + logos,” which literally means “around- [or through-] speaking.” Once you remove the “-ue” from the word, it’s easily confused with “log,” as in a “ship’s log” or “logbook,” which comes from Middle English. I believe writers and editors have an obligation to preserve such things for the sake of general understanding.

  6. Thanks for spelling “dialogue” properly. American English has come to accept the barbarism “dialog” as a variant spelling—which is wrong for a whole host of reasons.

    I would argue that the biggest problem with “said bookisms” is that writers disregard (or don’t know) the meanings of the words they’re using. There’s nothing wrong with “advised,” for example, so long as the bit of dialogue is actually advice: “Be sure to bring your best game,” John advised.
    I’d even argue that “said” is out of place when the grammatical (or rhetorical) form of the utterance is obvious. Using “said” after questions and declarations, for example, sounds downright awkward.

    “Got the time?” he said. Or: “Got the time?” he asked.

    “After all these years, I’ve finally made it,” he said. Or: “After all these years, I’ve finally made it,” he declared (or a similar verb).

    Or how about: “Never, ever surrender!” he said. And: “I hate you!” she said. Does either sound right to anyone?

    All the same, I agree that one should almost always avoid uncommon polysyllabic words like “pontificated,” “asseverated” and, yes, “ejaculated” in such cases.

    A note regarding “said dispassionately” from the earlier post. I’d argue that the word “dispassionately” is the wrong one in that context because its usual meaning isn’t “lacking passion” but “impartial” or “objective.” The distinction between “un-passionate” and “dispassionate” mirrors that between “uninterested” and “disinterested.” An uninterested person doesn’t care, a disinterested one has no stake (e.g., a judge in a lawsuit is a “disinterested party”). And the opposite of “dispassionate” is not “passionate” but “undispassionate.”

  7. ‘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 should read: ‘Then he turned and fell over his trousers,’ since they were only dropped, not removed. Yeah, I know it’s pedantic, but it’s funny.

    Thank you once again for an excellent article, Karin.

    JD

  8. ‘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 should read: ‘Then he turned and fell over his trousers,’ since they were only dropped, not removed. Yeah, I know it’s pedantic, but it’s funny.

    Thank you once again for an excellent article, Karin.

    JD

  9. Karin,
    Thanks for the great post. I’m glad to see someone actually reasoning out the adverb thing. I get sick to death of hearing that all adverbs must go, because Stephen King says so. They have their place in our language they just have to be used correctly.
    Also thanks for reiterating what I am always telling new authors, you must have an editor before you publish, find a way to get your book edited so you put out the best work possible.
    I can’t wait for part two.

  10. In journalism we learn (that) you can leave out the conjunction almost 100% of the time. I do some amateur editing and I usually leave other people’s thats alone.though I probably use it fewer times than most in my own fiction. I can see your pain as the Golden Rule of consistency cannot be applied without always using or never using “that”. Interesting to hear Karin and David’s takes on that probloem.

  11. Great stuff on dialogue, Karin. The other thing is adding a modifier can undercut or distract from what is being said. Dialogue can often be constructed so the reader knows how it is being said. “I’m gonna kill you,” she said, does not require a “violently or a `she spat’ or a “she exploded”. By the way, how long does it take you to edit a 400-pager which has been self-edited to a high standard.

  12. my biggest problem is too many words. I use voice recognition software to write and I discovered that I tend to blather on when I speak more than when I write. It’s one of the reasons I’ve adopted reading my writing out loud to myself – if I run out of breath halfway through a sentence, it’s too long. Reading out loud to myself has had the unfortunate side effect of improving my lung capacity, which complicates the problem. 😉

  13. Yes, it always makes me titter. Lol.

    There are some words best avoided if you are trying to write a serious work and not a parody.

    “Ejaculating words and tittering are probably two of them,” she tittered.

  14. I tend to avoid using names ( of characters) when I believe/hope that the reader is sufficiently absorbed not to need to define them ( except by their own idiosynchratic speech, manners etc) This often leads me to use pronouns without realising that I have introduced another ‘he, she or it’ since the character was in prime focus. Therefore the use of the pronoun fails to refer to whom it should! The balance between realism and clarity is sometimes a fine line! Because I am almost allergic to ‘said’ labels I tend to hope that the dialogue defines the speaker, and sometimes wonder whether (in the interests of dramatic narrative), it really matters who says what at every moment? I wonder what others feel on this? Philippa

    P.S. Really helpful post and likely to produce fruitful exchanges.

    1. As a reader, one of my pet peeves is when I lose the thread of who is saying what (which can dramatically alter the meaning of a scene). Anything that breaks the spell – i.e. pulls the reader out of the flow of the story – is bad. So if I have to go back up half a page to figure out who is speaking, then work forward again, that’s not good.

      You should aim to be clear on that score, and there are a number of ways of doing so without resorting to dialogue tags (but I don’t think they need to be avoided altogether, particularly not he said/she said, which is largely invisible to the reader).

      1. This is my problem with some writing. I always had problems reading Fitzgerald because of this. I think the younger your audience the less savvy they are of figuring out who is speaking without the right tags.

        My biggest writing mix up is with lay and lie which can be exasperating when writing romance. Talk about your inner editor killing a scene as you internally argue whether your heroine laying on the chaise or lying. Let’s just say it forces me to find many alternative words.

      2. Josephine,

        Some people will hate me for saying this, but I’ve always had trouble reading Fitzgerald for a lot of reasons. That is just one of them. 🙂

        Often, it is just a case of popping in an action after the speech to remind the reader who is speaking. There doesn’t need to be a lot. You certainly should avoid having an action after every line of dialogue, for instance. Dave’s right, mix it up a bit.

      3. Oh, snap. Never got into Gatsby. (Couldn’t stand it actually.) I got a collection of his shorter work, “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz and Other Stories.” I remember liking one short, somewhat. The title story was actually a novella, and I hated it. Really hated it. I wasn’t crazy about the rest, and I don’t think I finished it (which is very rare for me).

  15. This is really, really useful. Especially the list of homonyms. I am currently on the third edit of my book and will be sure to look out for any of these! Thank you very much for your informative blog.

    1. You’re welcome, Fluffypen (love the name by the way).

      It’s a good quick list to do a “search” on in MSWord. Searching for all instances of “their” or “they’re” or “there”, or for “loose” when you mean “lose”, should help you pinpoint any used incorrectly.

      Best of luck with your edit. Self-editing can be draining, but it is a necessary part of the process.

      Cheers
      Karin

  16. I seem to have gone from a mostly descriptive phase to a much more dialog phase. I think that’s a reflection on how well I’ve been coming out of my shell (that’s my theory at least). Looking at some of my more recent dialogs I’ve been keeping everything Karen mentioned in mind (woot!). I’ve also been conciously trying to weave in description with the dialog, but not too much. Nice to see I’m trying to do something right. Whether I’m suceeding or not is another question.

    :} Cathryn

    1. If you read the first drafts of A Storm Hits Valparaiso back in 2006, you would have seen all the above errors (and more). Too many dialogue tags was my first stage. Then it was characters mentioning each other’s names every second line. Then it was: Character X grunted. “Dialogue.” Character Y smiled. “Dialogue.” Character X raised an eyebrow. “Dialogue.”

      Now, that technique is fine – in isolation (like so many things) – but when you have fifteen lines like that in a row it gets tiresome fast. You need to switch things up: Character X action, with some description/setting. “Dialogue.” “Dialogue,” said Character Y. “Dialogue” (nothing else necessary as it’s obvious who is speaking.” — and so on. Some writers dispense with dialogue tags altogether. I don’t think that’s necessary, but varying up the structure and rhythm certainly is.

    2. As an exercise, you can take a scene you have written already with two characters talking – say 10 lines of dialogue or more.

      Try and rewrite it with no dialogue tags and neither character mentioning each other’s name. (It’s not necessary to do that all the time but it’s good practice.)

      Another thing I always have to remind myself of is that characters don’t always stand facing each other motionless while talking. People move around the room. They take things from cupboards. They turn their backs and put the kettle on. Actions like this can add a little dynamism to what is otherwise a stilted conversation with two talking heads, and stops you resorting to characters grimacing, smiling, grunting, or raising eyebrows, which is generally overused.

      1. Very good advice, Dave. Most authors seem to progress through these stages as they learn the craft. I cringe at some of the things I thought were great in my first attempt, which may just remain in the drawer for life.

      2. One end of that spectrum is characters who bounce all over the place and twitch as though they have a nervous disorder. That was my earliest fault in dialogue. I wasn’t trying to avoid dialogue tags; it just came natural to me. Poor dears were taken off to an editing hospital until they recovered.

    3. One final thing I always slip into when putting these actions around dialogue: telling instead of showing. Instead of saying “Carlos felt nervous” you should *show* it, i.e. “Carlos picked at a loose stitch in his sleeve.”

    4. Wow… thank you for all your thoughts (and after thoughts). I need to start bookmarking these pages as I get ready to do some really serious editing on the novel I first wrote in 2005 (I did edit it in 2008, so it’s probably not as horrible as it was, but I”ve been doing a lot of writing since then…)

      Anyway I think I’m prety good at remembering people do things as they talk. But I’ll ave to try some of those exercises you spoke of. :}

  17. That v Which. Grrrr.
    I think the problem got worse when other budding writers told me to look out for too many ‘that’s, so I scoured my work and took them out. Then Karen pointed out I needed to include ‘that’ in a about ever other sentence, or it made no sense!

    1. “That” is used for necessary dependent clauses; “which” is used for unnecessary dependent clauses.

      An even easier shorthand: “which” uses a comma, but “that” doesn’t.

      1. Yeah, I think I’ve just about got my head around it. I blame poor advice from other amateurs for my overzealous culling of ‘thats’. Now I have to go through the whole thing and correct them (along with half a million other things 😉 )

      2. Tom, your betas are right that “that” is unnecessary in a lot of places, but it IS necessary in other places. That is the problem with overly proscriptive or black and white punctuation or grammatical advice. While a comma usually precedes a “which” clause. There are some cases (where a clause in opposition intervenes between the subject and the “that” of a relative clause) where a comma will precede a “that “too. Although they are rare and JA is right that the presence or absence of a comma usually a good way to determine whether you have a relative or non-relative clause.

  18. Great tips, Karin, and thank you very much sharing. Can we get a ruling on character dialogue that emphasizes the accent or dialect with lots of apostrophes? You know, the kind with lots of apostrophes replacing where letters should go. I think it’s god-awful and annoying, but I’ve seen some of the better authors pull it off.

    1. I would also love to hear about the use of accents in dialog! I’d love to use them in my current WIP, but I’m not sure of the most effective way *quick check on that homonym, and she’s still confused on if she used it right, sigh*… I don’t want it to detract, but I’ve got a couple of classes and nations, none of whom sound like the Protagonist. :} I want to get the idea across, but not make it annoying!

      Thanks!
      :} Cathryn

    2. There is no ruling, Paul. Technically, an apostrophe is required whenever letters have been omitted, but I agree with you that it is often unnecessary and can be distracting when you have a lot of text in that accent. In British or Australian English texts, too, where the standard is to use single quotation marks to enclose direct speech, it can be obfuscating.

      My personal preference would be to leave an apostrophe out where a single omitted letter comes at the start or end of a word, e.g. nothin, somethin, anythin, but to include them where it comes between letters, as you would for the contractions don’t, won’t, can’t, ain’t etc or when a good part of the word is omitted or the word could be confused with another. E.g. you would also need to have an exception for ’cause (to avoid it reading as “cause”) unless you used the slang coz. However, I can see where that might seem inconsistent. I’ve mostly gone with convention in my own work, but that is really because of my profession. As a reader, I can see you point.

      Remember that there are no hard and fast rulings on style. Some authors omit quotation marks for speech entirely (Roddy Doyle used an em dash before speech in his award-winning Paddy Clarke Ha ha Ha! and Cormac McCarthy routinely omits apostrophes and quotation marks). The rule is to use a consistent approach across your book (no need necessarily to be consistent across all your works, unless you feel strongly about it). Some readers will be annoyed no end by less orthodox use of punctuation; others will find it liberating. It is your call. I would suggest that if you do decide to do it and you intend submitting to a trade publisher, you briefly mention your decision in your cover letter to avoid it seeming as though you simply don’t know any better.

      1. I just wanted to say that I loved “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha!” and everyone should read it. That and “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.” Brilliant stuff. But if you want a really radical approach to punctuation, try Jose Saramago. He doesn’t break out dialogue at all. He rarely capitalizes anything, even proper nouns like “lisbon”. He capitalizes the start of sentences, but can run several sentences into each other, and can even have back-and-forth between characters in the same sentence.

        It’s not as awful as it sounds, and you get used to the style quite quickly. He chooses words so smartly, that there is rarely confusion about what is going on, or who is saying what, nor is it any work to read (after the initial adjustment). And when it really works (like in “The Double” or “Blindness”), a dense claustrophobic gloom settles over the reader. I think it’s less successful in books like “The Elephant’s Journey”, but in that otherworldly stuff, it’s fantastic.

  19. Thank you for your article, Karin. I particularly agree with your viewpoint regarding adverbs. The modern tendency to remove all adverbs, even when sentence comprehension or impact is weakened as a result, make me think of babies and bathwater. The sparing use of an adverb or two can enhance the depth of a reader’s experience, but overuse can confuse and stifle meaning.

    I used to tutor a screenwriting class and they were all concerned about formatting, visual language, character/plot arc and all that Sid Field schemozzle. My advice to them was simple: just write the damn thing. Everything else can be fixed, but if you never write it because you are concerned about form or even content then you never write it.

    Maybe it’s my age, but I struggle with the idea that all prose has to be sparse; I still read Dickens with a sense of awe, even though his novels are littered with adjectives. Florid? Perhaps. But I ain’t gonna argue with Charlie.

    My dog is my current editor although lacking the skill to discriminate which pages he needs to chew up and which he could leave alone, so I wish I could afford you. Sadly, the barbaric prose in my debut novel – due out in February – will have to enter the world without the armour provided by a skilled editor.

    JD

    1. JD, I agree. What a boring literary landscape it would be if all writers wrote the same! However, I do think that all of the words should have a purpose. Writing should be deliberate (to a degree), although you are right that such deliberation often comes at the editing stage and rarely at the writing stage, when the objective is to GET IT ON PAPER (or on screen nowadays).

      I don’t like wordiness if it arises because an author lacked clarity of thought, or was unable to be economical with language, but when the character is deliberately wordy or waffly, that is a different story.

      Most people find that a particular writing style appeals to them. Some like lyrical, descriptive prose that, to another reader, might border on purple. That is why I also think it is important for writers to understand their unique authorial voice, to foster it, and to try to resist copying another author. Part of an editor’s job is respecting authorial voice, but I think a good editor will also read widely across many genres, so they have an understanding of style and genre and learn to appreciate many different writing styles, from florid to sparse.

  20. Thanks for the Karin

    Some good tips here. Grammar in general is something I NEED to improve drastically in the coming months. I’ve done a lot of self editing, now trying to send it to some beta readers and hopefully pick up some tips and good practices that i can use myself for another self edit. Getting a pro editor involved at some point is a must though. This is something i’ve discovered in recent months

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

    1. Matt, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with some style guides, too. Depending on where you’re based, the following guides are very helpful:

      US —Chicago Manual of Style (available as an online subscription from http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org) and Garner’s Modern American Usage.
      UK — The Oxford Guide to Style and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage
      Australia— Wiley 6th Edition (sometimes also known as Snooks & Co.) and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage.

      Of course, there are plenty of other excellent reference texts on grammar. Some, however, such as Fower’s Modern Usage (which is not really very modern, despite updated editions) and Strunk & White, are useful in part but are sometimes a too stringent for modern fiction editing, at least in my opinion.

      1. I wouldn’t count out Strunk & White as a fiction writer (E.B. White is probably the most accomplished fiction writer who has lent his name to a book on grammar, after all). In my experience anyway, the Elements of Style is a great little book to have on hand when revising your work. I’ve read it cover to cover a few times, although that’s something I’d hesitate to admit to in certain circles. 🙂

        That does bring up a point that I’ve often wondered about … is it other people’s experience that those who who work in non-English languages seem much less grammar-phobic than English speakers and writers? And, perhaps as a consequence, non-English speakers and writers seem to have a much better and more conscious grasp of their language’s rules? With English-language writers (including myself), good grammar seems to be more unconscious, something you “feel your way through” rather than strictly “think your way through.” Not sure yet if that’s a good or bad thing for a writer.

    1. I hope it helped, Edwin.
      As others have mentioned, reading aloud or using the text-to-speech facility in Word or Adobe Acrobat will also help you weed out a lot of these errors. Another trick is to isolate words in a sentence that reads a little awkwardly, and then make sure that your subject and the verb it is performing are close to each other. Reading tricky sentences backwards also helps you isolate each word and is a useful way of picking up spelling errors or transposed letters.

  21. Oh I know I’ll be investing in thatprofesional editor, after I’ve edited the heck out of my book.. heh. Sadly I’m definately a noob writer. I’m quite certain the modifiers are running rampant, mad as it were, throught my manuscript. ActuallY I’m not even sure I could call it that yet *giggles*

    Post like these defiantley deserve a book mark in my toolbar, that’s for sure.

    But I have one question that I hope you can help me with: How do I find the editor that’s right for me? Is it trial and error? or are there questions you can ask that can help you?

    :} Cathryn

    1. You should always get a sample edit. That should give you an idea of the editor’s style, and whether you will work well together. Plus, you can get a sense of the person from your email communications.

      I’ve only strayed from my current editor’s clutches once, near the start of our working relationship, when I wanted specific advice on something and received a recommendation from a fellow author who had faced the exact same problem. I didn’t get a sample edit, and if I had done so, I would have known that working with that other editor was a complete waste of time (and money). Lesson learned, and I returned to my current editor with my tail between my legs (and she sorted it all out for me anyway). Two lessons learned 🙂

    2. Cathryn,

      Another thing to think about when searching for an editor is to be sure in your own mind what level of edit you want. Some authors want the whole shebang (structural and developmental editing as well as copy-editing), but not all editors are willing or able to provide that. Some editors will focus solely on grammar, spelling and punctuation, and let you deal with issues like plot arcs, internal consistency or character development. Some authors want me to insert suggestions or improvements into their manuscript using track changes; others prefer I don’t try to “improve” anything but only mark suggestions where they might be able to reword things themselves.

      For that reason, you’re best off trying to assess what your manuscript needs before you choose an editor. “The works” editing will be more expensive, and a proofread will be the cheapest. Some editors prefer to have a manuscript appraisal to work on developing their manuscript, and then a copy-edit. Also, make sure you ask about other books the editor has edited and about their experience. In most cases, I’d trust an editor with on-the-job training more than one who has finished a diploma but has no direct trade experience. But that’s not to say some of those don’t have the aptitude to be great editors and we all had to start somewhere.

      Cheers
      Karin

      1. There’s a big contradiction in there, Karin. Unfortunately, most inexperienced writers (me included) are incapable of assessing the editing needs of their own work. This is why so many indie books are published with terrible plots or gaping plot holes or no plots at all. Many are far long and need an editor to remove several (tens of) thousands of words. My way of getting over this problem is to hand the ms to my editor and ask her to assess what it needs. With the book I’m writing now, I gave her my outline to read and she told me why the plot wouldn’t work, where I had put unnecessary stuff and how to improve it. It took a couple of weeks and about 5 iterations before I had the outline of a storyline that will make for a strong plot.

      2. JJ, I know that is true, and I’ve experienced some clients who believe that all they need is a proofread when in truth they need an awful lot more than that. One thing is certain: ego is a terrible editor.

        Having said that, I have also had clients who preferred me to point out their foibles but not to try to provide solutions for them. Their reasoning was that they didn’t want to just have some other writer tell them how to fix their book’s issues, they wanted to teach themselves how to do it. It makes an editor’s job a lot easier to know what a client *thinks* they need, although a competent editor will also tactfully let the client know if they require something more extensive. Unfortunately, some authors see this as “upselling” and some are seeking a cheap, quick fix. Some are simply unable to see their book’s faults.

      3. Thank you so much for answering my question. Theres certainly a lot of information for me to digest here. I’m looking forward to the next post.

        As an inexperienced writer, I’m going on the assumption my book needs both types of edits. But not until I’ve shook my manuscript throughly.

        :} Cathryn

  22. I think this is great information to learn even if you have an editor waiting in the wings. As I see it, your beta readers and crit partners will have an easier time focusing on your story. Hopefully, they return the favor and self-edit before sending their work to you.

  23. Thanks, Karin. I like self-editing posts. I find that a lot of plot problems are actually grammar problems. Muddied wording makes it difficult to see what is actually happening in a scene.
    Looking forward to your other post.

  24. I find myself in total agreement with Cheryl Shireman. I HATE self-published garbage (that’s all it is) that hasn’t seen the color of a professional editor’s pencil. Karin, you say: 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) How I wish you had left out the clause in parentheses. No team of beta readers, skilled or otherwise, can replace a professional editor. Having said that, there are so many different types of edit that a book must go through before making the grade. All that stuff about adverbs and adjectives does nothing to repair a faulty plot. And so many self-published books have hopeless plots.

    1. While I certainly agree with your sentiments, I think Karin might have been referring to *very* experienced authors, and that those “skilled beta readers” probably include a bunch of professional editors and writers. I know some very experienced authors who work this way and can do so effectively. A minority, it should be said, and I should point out that I’m referring to people with very long careers behind them.

      1. I would add to that, David, by stating that there are a few writers whose natural tendencies (or experiences, or both) will help them put out professional quality work without the assistance of a dedicated professional editor.

        Some people are more careful and have better instincts than others. That should be obvious to anyone who has ever read a batch of papers written by a diverse group in a brief period of time. (Such as those works written within an hour or two in a classroom or workshop setting.)

        Some people are capable of writing “to-the-point” and others are not. Which does not mean the latter cannot be good writers. They simply need more assistance getting there.

        I could, as an example, use Harlan Ellison. His plethora of short stories written on a typewriter situated in a random bookstore’s window were not perfect, but they were much closer to it than the efforts of many other writers. There’s a saying that goes something like: “every writer’s first drafts are crap.” I, of course, find this to be true. But, like in the real world, some crap smells less than other crap. 🙂

        Two major factors come into play here.

        The first: natural ability. This is simply how capable someone is of internalizing style and writing techniques; how shallow their learning curve is for matters of language. (It is something innate, and for those who rank highly here the term “gifted” is appropriate. Consider how this compares with the term “skilled” for a better understanding of what I mean.)

        The second: the individual’s depth of experience. This accounts for how much time they have been able to spend actually applying these principles. (Note that this is not how many words or novels they have written, but how much attention they have paid to becoming a better writer in a technical sense. The two are absolutely not the same.)

        A sufficient combination of these two factors will result in a professional quality piece assuming the author opens themselves up to criticism from beta readers of sufficient quality. (I do not agree that long time professional authors and editors are requisite in this mix assuming that the writer’s factor one and factor two combine at a high enough level.)

        While I admit that proofreading by an individual who is not the author is vital in a majority of cases, there are savants out there who do not make mistakes in that arena.

        Unquestionably, self-editing is a vital skill in any writer’s toolbox.

        I just don’t think it wise to make the assumption that because one person cannot do something others are going to be equally incapable. There are always exceptions to a rule. Frequently this results in those who cannot do a thing being dismissive of those who can. (Of course, some who cannot become convinced that they can. C’est la vie.)

        ***

        I am looking forward to the second part of the article. I didn’t learn anything new here, but I believe there is a power in reading things you already know as they have been written by a different person. The change in words used to get a point across serves to reinforce and strengthen your understanding of the subject matter. This is why being widely read is such an advantage in a career as a writer. 😉

    2. And – to clarify – I don’t think all unedited self-published work is garbage.
      If Steinbeck self-published today without editing, his work would not be garbage. Just unedited work that could be better.
      Any writer publishing without the use of an editor is at a disadvantage. An extreme disadvantage. But that doesn’t mean that all unedited books are garbage. I think there are probably many “diamonds in the rough” out there. Yes, lots of “garbage” too, but I wouldn’t make that blanket statement. Unedited does not equal garbage.

      1. Yes, Cheryl and David. You’re both right. I would say maybe 0.01% of unedited eBooks are not garbage. And of course 99.99% of self-published authors think their stuff is wonderful and doesn’t need any sort of edit.

    3. Yes, I felt it needed a qualifier, as I know some successful self-published authors who self-edit to a high standard. Mark Williams and Saffina Desforges spring to mind. However, there are two authors involved there, rather than just a single set of eyes.

      JJ, I added “skilled” betas for that reason. But you’re right, at least one professional edit is necessary if you’re serious about your writing. 🙂

  25. This is an informative post. One thing: I’m an editor and indie writer, and I have to say the “Removing her glasses, she wiped…” example is a pet peeve of mine. Is she wiping as she removes? No. Then the example should be “She removed her glasses and wiped….”

    I see this more and more. Maybe it’s acceptable now, but I avoid it.

    1. Hi Q.
      You’re quite right. I think the “after” is generally implied in some of these participle phrases, and often counteract that by adding “then” too. E.g. Removing her glasses, she then wiped them…

      It is best to avoid it when two things cannot happen simultaneously. When the can, it’s a different matter, e.g. Smiling, she considered the implications of telling him…

  26. One correction, David. Karin is MY editor. 😉
    Hands down, the very best money any indie writer can spend is on a professional editor. Forget the ads, forget paying for a cover, forget eating for a week if you have to – but, get yourself a great editor.
    All of the traditionally published writers you love have had their work edited. Don’t make the mistake of neglecting that step. If you do, your book, and your career, will suffer as result.
    David and I were discussing editing when I was first looking for an editor. I was balking a bit at the expense and he told me “consider it an investment.” He was right (shhh..don’t tell him I said that). Invest in yourself. Find a great editor.
    Happy writing! 🙂

  27. Not just great information, but well-written and easy to read. Boy, always a little nervous to leave a comment on a self-editing post — better make sure to get everything right…I mean, nervous I am always upon comment of a post, a post self-editing…or something like that.
    Tim
    scienceforfiction.com

    1. Lol. Try writing one, Tim! Editors are not infallible either, and as I mentioned, try as I might to self-edit my own work, I’m sure someone will weigh in with something I missed in the above post. In fact, I’ve already noticed that my capitalisation of headings is inconsistent.

      I am a firm believer that castigating other people’s grammar or spelling when they post comments, or facebook posts, is undignified (for an editor especially). Sure we’re writers and we should demonstrate proficiency with the written word, but it is all too easy to slip up on a casual post. I really enjoyed this blog post over on Shitty First Drafts about correcting people in conversation. http://writingishard.wordpress.com/2010/05/11/why-im-not-proud-of-you-for-correcting-other-peoples-grammar/

      An online conversation is still a conversation, so I’ll assist where someone asks for help, but otherwise I rarely point out boo-boos in grammar, punctuation or spelling. I will chip in if they are providing facts or advice that is incorrect.

  28. Very good information., Karin. But you did commit one of my pet peaves. You used the ever-popular phrase “He said nothing.” Is that really necessary? If he says nothing…isn’t it obvious?

    Once you notice it, you’ll see it overused by many authors. My wife and I were on a recent car trip and she was reading a Lee Child book aloud so we could both enjoy it. He used that phrase so often it got to the point where my wife would stop, point to me, and I would fill in the gap. It was comical.

    Of course, there are times when it works, but should be used sparingly. Uh-oh, there’s one of those adverbs. 😉

    Merrill Heath

    1. Hi Merrill,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that “He said nothing” can be overused, but I’d have to disagree that it is always obvious if removed. “He said nothing” or “He/she paused” is a convention commonly used to slow the pace. The reader won’t necessary presume a pause. For that reason, it cannot be simply omitted in all cases without affecting pacing. It could be replaced, e.g. “She considered him for a moment.” I’ve even seen just the single word “Silence” used to good effect to add that pause necessary to signify a character’s silent reflection.

      It falls under the old adage, “Silence speaks volumes.” Sometimes, the things characters don’t say is as important as what they do say, and their unspoken words or thoughts can help create subtext. Having said that, you’re absolutely right that such phrases are overused by novelists. Another is “he turned to” or “she looked at”. The find and replace feature in MS Word is an excellent tool to use when self-editing to ensure that you’re not overusing some of these quick fixes.

      Cheers Karin

      1. Agreed, Karin. There are many ways to make the point. But even the most experienced authors get stuck on a phrase or a word and wear it out. I kid you not, in the example I mentioned, the author must have used the phrase “He said nothing” a hundred times. It was on every other page. So much so it became laughable. It’s the one phrase I see most used and abused.

        It’s interesting sometimes to use the find feature in Word to see how often you use a word. You may be surprised. Another good way to catch this is to have someone read your work aloud. You’ll hear a lot of things that can be improved.

      1. “;ooking” Really? See what can happen when you self-edit. 🙂 That slipped in as a whoopsie by my hitting a key with my little finger to replace the “l” accidentally just as I hit reply! Sigh. Sometimes the editing gods have a strange sense of humour.

  29. Thanks, Karin. We can never hear these rules and guidelines often enough.

    I especially like your take on the adverb issue; I have a little essay I wrote to myself called “Are Adverbs So Bad?” after reading an adverb-hater’s position and came to the conclusion you did: sometimes there *isn’t* a strong verb to use, sometimes an adverb *does* fit the bill perfectly (ahem). Would you really want to use five words when one would do, just to avoid a word that ends in -ly?

    When it comes to grammar and editing and many things writerly, I think C.J. Cherry’s advice is best: Never follow a rule over a cliff.

    1. I am one of those writers who took Stephen King’s adverb advice to heart and largely (see what I did there) stripped them from my MS. I went too far, of course, and Karin had to encourage me to sprinkle a few back in. Having said that, I would strongly recommend King’s book (On Writing). For me at least, it was the book that converted me from someone who just talked about writing… something… someday, to an actual writer.

      1. I often list On Writing as one of my top 10 writing books. It often gets disparaged as too autobiographical, but I found it to be just the right inspiration at the right time.

        I also took the “no adverb” advice too far; it was only after I found myself going through ridiculous verbal contortions to avoid using one little word that I realized you don’t have to follow any rule to the death if you’ve got a good reason for doing otherwise.

      2. Funny enough On Writing by Stephen King did the same to me. Well I’d written but his tale made me realize that I am a writer, so why the heck not share it with the world! (I didn’t take the adverb thing to heart. At least, I haven’t scoured any manuscript of them yet.)

      3. Dave, King’s advice is mostly spot on, and I do agree that adverbs need to be assessed and replaced in many cases. Some genres also lend themselves more readily to adverb use/abuse. Horror and thriller novels are mostly slick and economical when it comes to word use, and especially adverb use. Chick lit, children’s literature, romance, and commercial adult fiction tend to include more adverbs. It is all about writing for your audience and determining what is best for your authorial voice.

        For that reason, I don’t think I suggested adverbs in your shorts, which are Lovecraftian, but I did for your historical novel because it helped reduce wordiness in what was already a sweeping and carefully crafted authorial voice.

    2. I completely (ha!) agree, Matthew. Emerson said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…” and while consistency in a manuscript is usually a good thing, consistently weeding out all adverbs or slavishly following arbitrary “rules” can make writing stilted. I will check out your site for your Adverbs post, too. Cheers Karin

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