Editing your manuscript

Whether you’re a self published indie author or a traditionally published author, your readers will judge you by the quality of your writing. Not only must you produce an amazing story, with characters that connect emotionally with you readers, but the finished product must be professionally finished and error free (or virtually error free). For an indie author, this can represent a considerable challenge. He/she can outsource the artwork, e-book production, copy edit and proof editing, but these can be expensive processes; particularly as e-book prices seem to be constantly under pressure from 99 cent and free promotions from other authors. Unless you’re one of the few mega-sales indie authors who have made it, then you’re budget is going to be restricted.

In my case, the one activity I do outsource is cover artwork (I am no artist). Most of the other activities (e-book production, editing etc.), I can handle myself, with a little help from family and beta readers.

Self-editing is, however, a very difficult process and can take as long as the writing process itself. It is always easier to edit someone else’s work than it is to edit your own. This is because you see what you expect to see and not what is necessarily written down. Sometimes simply putting down the manuscript for a few weeks before starting to edit it can help refresh the mind. Another trick is to tap each word with a pencil — it slows down your reading and forces you to read each word. Also reading out aloud can help. Some authors have suggested reading sentences from the back of the manuscript to the front as a way of looking at the construction of each sentence separately. It sounds as though it might work, but I have never tried it. Others have advocated using voice readers to listen to the text played back to them. I can see how this might work, but I haven’t got the patience to listen to Dalek’s voice for two days.

It goes without saying that all work should be spell-checked and grammar-checked, although the grammar-check function of these programs is usually pretty limited. I use both my Apple Mac spell-checker and my Word 2010 spell-checker on my windows based system, and then I run both again when I have finished checking. However, don’t use the spell-checker as you write — the predictive function in the program may well choose a word that is correctly spelt, but not the right word for the context. Note that spell-checkers will only pick up spelling errors, so they won’t pick up words that are spelt correctly, but are used wrongly.

Here is a list of some homonyms (words that sound the same with different meanings) that can be particularly troublesome:
– Its and it’s
– To and too
– No and know
– They’re, their and there
– Affect and effect
– Principle and principal
– Compliment and complement

Getting these wrong can show you up as complete novice. You need to get them right. There are many more like this. I find it useful to keep a list of words that are particularly troublesome for me and then use the ‘find’ function in the word processor to find each one so I can individually check it. For some reason my brain works differently when I’m typing from when I’m checking.

If you find one mistake in the text (a spelling or inconsistency) it’s worth while checking for other occurrence of the same error. If you’ve made the mistake once, you have probably done it again. One of my favourites is ‘fro’ it is a straight mistype of ‘for’, but ‘fro’ is a genuine word which the spell checker will not pick up. Another one of my examples is ‘sue’ — a mistyping of ‘use’. I also seem to have a maddening habit of typing ‘Amercian’, but at least the spell checker finds those for me.

Another problem can be words that might be one word, two words or a hyphenated word. If you’re not sure — check. I use both the Oxford and Cambridge online Dictionaries. When they both say the same thing, it’s reasonable to assume they’re right. But they don’t always agree!

It can also be useful to use a style manual to ensure consistent use of the way words are presented (caps abbreviation etc.). I use the Oxford Style Manual, but that’s because I’m British and stick with British English usage. My spell checkers are similarly set to British English rather than American English.

It’s always useful to have reference sources to turn to turn to when you’re editing. Stephen King once said that the only grammar source you will need is William Shrunk and EB White’s “The Elements of Style”. It is great little book to refer to and well worth the read. I also like Claire Kehrwald Cook “Line by Line”, Grammar Girl’s “Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing”, and Gary Lutz and Diane Stevenson “Grammar Desk reference”. It might seem strange to have so many US publications on grammar, so to restore balance I also refer to John Seely’s “Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctation” alongside the “New Oxford Style Manual’.

One famous writer once said that writing is all about re-writing. Certainly to become a good writer you need to be able to edit effectively. In this blog I’ve tried to share some of my tips. What’s your experience of editing: loath it or love it? Do you have any tips I might have missed?