by Meredith Tennant
I took an informal poll to get an idea of what my clients really, really, deep down want when they hire me.
“I don’t want to feel humiliated,” is what one said. She doesn’t want to feel humiliated by finding out her published work is full of mistakes that could have been avoided. She’s a very creative person who describes having an abundance of ideas that she just has to get down on the page as fast as she can. She understands that there are rules to do with grammar and punctuation, but to her, the ideas are what matter. And, after all, she has me to find and fix what she doesn’t care to.
You may feel the same way. You don’t want to publish something that’s full of mistakes, but you’d really rather be writing than bothering with things that are boring or not entirely clear to you.
That’s okay. That’s what editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders do. That’s the stuff that we like doing.
My advice to all you writers is to use an editor. Editing isn’t about talent. No matter how talented an author you are, editing will always improve your work.
Having said that, many writers don’t have a whole lot of extra cash lying around to spend on editing. You may be one of them. And even if you’re not, there are things you can do to get your manuscript into better shape before you fork out any money for an editor. Look through the tips below; you’re bound to find at least a few things you can fix yourself. Your manuscript will be cleaner and there will be less for the editor to do. Which makes me feel a little sad (see the point above about what we editors like doing), but will definitely save you money, whether you’re paying your editor an hourly rate or a fixed price.
Some of these tips may seem blindingly obvious, but it’s amazing what can get missed when you’re so close to your own work. Remember that saying ‘Can’t see the forest for the trees’? It’s similar to what happens when you’ve written something. It’s nearly impossible for you to do a good job editing your own work because when you read it, you’re reading what was in your head, which is not always what makes it onto the page.
Okay, in no particular order, here you go:
1. Read it aloud. If you’re not quite ready to read it to someone else, read it to yourself, in a soundproof room if necessary. Pay attention to where you want to take a breath, and make sure there’s some punctuation there to signal that. Conversely, any punctuation that interrupts the flow needs to go away, unless doing that will change the meaning of the sentence.
Reading aloud will also help you find missing periods, phrases that clunk rather than sing, and other howlers you’d rather the general public never knew about.
2. Check for consistency in style and tone. Is your work light, heavy, dark, funny, eccentric, formal? Make sure it’s that way the whole way through. Are there passages where you suddenly veer away from your normal style?
3. Consistency of facts. Does your main (or minor) character change eye color/birthdate/name somewhere in the book? Believe me, it’s easy to do. You decide that you prefer brown eyes/an older character/an unusual name, but you forget to go back and change all mentions of the old detail.
The same thing goes for dates, places, who said what when, etc. Word’s search and replace function is really useful at times like these, but run it a couple of times. Sometimes it skips a mention.
4. Accuracy of facts. Names, titles, dates, and other facts need to be correct. When you check these, you’re saving time that a copyeditor would otherwise spend on it. If you’re writing non-fiction, creating a document with these sorts of detail on it (known as a style sheet) will save you heaps of time/money as the copyeditor will know that you’ve checked whatever is on the style sheet. Even with fiction, preparing a style sheet with pertinent information will save some copyediting time.
5. Punctuation. This one really is a bear for lots of people, not least my aforementioned client. The point of punctuation is to make the intended meaning clear, and the writing flow.
There are way too many rules to mention in this article (and, honestly, it’s pretty dry stuff), but there are countless sources out there where you can brush up on your skills, or even fill in the gaps caused by too much staring out of the window during class. I have some short articles about some of the rules that can get you started.
6. Homonyms. Those words that sound alike, but are spelled differently or have different meanings. You wouldn’t believe how many times I see incorrect use of bread/bred, complement/compliment, there/their/they’re, bear/bare, capital/capitol, affect/effect, board/bored, principle/principal, and so on and on.
The spelling and grammar check function in Word won’t flag these as they’re perfectly good words, just not necessarily in the right place.
7. Here are some commonly confused words:
· Lay and lie. Use ‘lay’ when you could equally well say ‘put’ or ‘place,’ otherwise use ‘lie.’
· Who and whom. In a nutshell, use ‘who’ if you could substitute ‘he,’ ‘she,’ ‘it,’ ‘we,’ or ‘they’; use ‘whom’ if you could substitute ‘him,’ ‘her,’ or ‘them.’
· Which or that. Use ‘which’ if the phrase isn’t essential, and use ‘that’ if it is. Simple, right? Hah, not so much. Here are a couple of examples: I only eat fruit that is in season. I only eat fruit, which happens to be why my pet elephant loves me.
· Continual or continuous. ‘Continual’ is always going on, but takes breaks, while ‘continuous’ goes on without a break. My elephant continually eats fruit. She thinks about her next meal continuously.
· Fewer and less. If you can count individual whatever-they-are, use ‘fewer.’ If it’s uncountable, use ‘less.’ There are fewer elephants in the room now. There’s less time in which to get the remaining elephants out of the room.
· Affect and effect. To ‘affect’ something is to have an impact on it. The ‘effect’ is the result of something else. Having so many elephants in the room will affect [have an impact on] the air quality. The number of elephants is having an effect [causing a result] on the air quality.
8. Watch out for the passive voice. Using the active voice keeps your work vibrant. Here’s an example of the passive voice, followed by an active version: The windows were opened by my guests. My guests opened the windows.
9. Consider reworking sentences or paragraphs that ramble on and on. Keep your sentences and paragraphs a reasonable length, unless it’s your chosen style. Even then, bear in mind how easy or hard it’s going to be for your reader to follow.
On the subject of sentences, look for awkward or confusing structure. I recently edited a book where the author frequently added phrases to the end of a sentence that completely confused the meaning. Wait, what? Was the bishop in a hurry, or was it the cook?
10. Take a look at the ends of your chapters. Do they make you want to keep the light on, turn the page to the next chapter, and keep reading through the night, or do they tend to come to a stop? You might want to enlist help from a friend with this one because, as said earlier, it’s hard to edit your own work.
11. Parentheses and quotation marks come in pairs, and dashes normally do. Check that they all have their partners; they’re often accidentally forgotten. And while we’re talking about dashes, if you use a lot of them, try to switch some out for other punctuation marks. Commas, semicolons, and sometimes parentheses are useful substitutes.
12. Apostrophes. Use to signal possession, as in ‘Joe’s camera,’ and for contraction (two words into one), as in ‘That’s [that is] Joe’s camera.’ And something I see all the time: you don’t need to use an apostrophe with decades. It’s the 1990s, not the 1990’s. With abbreviated decades, make sure that the apostrophe is pointing the right way: ‘the ’90s.’
And now that you’ve dipped into this list and maybe made some changes, it’s probably time to find an editor to help you with the rest.
About Me: "I’ve been freelance editing for self-publishing authors and mainstream publishers for years, although I started by working for a major publishing house in London. A lot of the people I work with now are first-time authors; often, they’re not sure what to expect, how to choose an editor, or which to go for. Well, I’m here to help them, and you, through the process so your book is as perfect and professional as possible."