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.
- Put the writing aside for a bit. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll be better able to spot errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as clunky style issues.
- Read widely when you’re not writing — and choose your material well. If you read professionally edited books and top newspapers and magazines, for the most part you’ll be getting good examples of what well-written, grammatically proper, and well-punctuated sentences should look like. If you read the work of prize-winning authors, you’ll be getting good examples of how to turn a phrase and how to construct a lovely sentence.
- If you’re not comfortable with grammar and punctuation as you’d like to be, take a class and/or read a few books. Even experienced writers will often put a comma in a sentence where they’d like to have a pause — yet if it’s not grammatically correct, this will make an editor’s hair stand on end. I love Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English — and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is another great resource. And The Bugaboo Review: A Lighthearted Guide to Exterminating Confusion about Words, Spelling, and Grammar by Sue Sommer is a good resource for all those evil word twins and other spelling and grammatical confusions.
- Read your work aloud. This is among the best ways to ferret out clunky sentences. If it sounds odd to your ears, there’s probably something going on grammatically or stylistically; rework and re-read until it sounds great out loud. Also, speaking the words helps you avoid some of the misspellings that spell check doesn’t catch: One writer I know submitted a piece to a critique group in which she’d used the word “pubic” instead of “public” (a mistake that was quite hilarious in the context of the story) — and while we’d all read the scene in question beforehand, not one of us noticed this typo until she read it aloud.
- Read every word. Go through your piece sentence by sentence, word by word. This helps you check for misspellings that you might otherwise skim past, and it also helps you find missing words or repeated words. (I’m always amazed at how many of these show up in my own work…it’s embarrassing, really. But if you catch them all, no one else has to know.)
- Ask a trusted reader to take a look. This isn’t exactly “self-editing,” but if you have someone who’s willing and able to read your work, ask. Even a casual reader might find a missing word or an odd spelling that is all to easy for you to miss because you’ve read the piece dozens of times.
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.