Midge Raymond's Blog

How to be your own editor

I was recently editing a document online for which my client had already done a spell check, and just to be safe, I checked the spelling one more time (the automated way). According to the spell check, all was well — but later, as I read through the document, I discovered that neither of these spell checks had caught the word improeved.  (I actually looked it up, thinking perhaps I was missing something, but no: improeved is not a word. Not in the English language, anyway, according to Merriam-Webster’s.)

In the same document, I found the word particilarly — also not a word, also not caught by spell check.

Which brings me to Lesson #1: Do not rely on spell check.

Many of us writers rely on ourselves to edit our own work; after all, good editing is expensive. We may have friends, or a writing buddy or group, to read over our stories or novels — and while we hope that these folks can recognize that words like improeved and particilarly need fixing, they may not have the eagle eyes that experts have. And I’m guessing that most average readers may not know (or care) how to properly use a semi-colon, or what a serial comma is, or when The Chicago Manual of Style calls for an open compound versus a closed one. Not every writer can be an editor — but every writer who wants to be published will eventually put his or her work in front of an acquisitions editor, and part of making a good impression is having a cleanly edited manuscript.

So what is a writer to do? If you can afford to hire an editor, go for it. (There are a great many resources out there, too many to outline here — but visit your local community writing center if you have one, see this post for more on how to hire an editor, and check out this list of editing rates to be sure you pay a fair rate.)

There are a few shortcuts when it comes to self-editing — like spell check (which clearly isn’t entirely reliable) and this free software that apparently targets cliches and overused words — but this leads me to Lesson #2: Writers who hope to be in the game for the long term would be wise to learn how to be their own best editors (even though we all, at some point before publication, need a pro).

Below are a few tips for self-editing — not a comprehensive list, by any means, but a few things to keep in mind so that you can make your manuscript as polished it can be before sending it out, as well as avoid the errors most likely to irritate agents and acquisitions editors.

And, finally, Lesson #3: Embrace grammar, style, and punctuation. Don’t make the mistake of being one of those writers who says, “I don’t need to know how to spell; that’s what editors are for.” These are the writers who very rarely make it to the point of having an editor because sloppy work doesn’t pass muster, especially in these days when getting published is more challenging than ever. So if there’s anything about grammar or punctuation that you don’t know, learn it. If you want to be a better stylist, study the authors you love and learn from them. As a writer your job is not only to tell the story and tell it well, but to hide all the strings (i.e., the grammar and punctuation and everything else that makes the story work on a mechanical level), so that readers can see only the story itself — or, better yet, disappear into the story altogether.