Happy holidays! This post on how to self-edit a manuscript for language will be the last one of this year. The next Word Bank newsletter will go about on December 30, and the first post of 2019 will appear on January 14. I’d like to thank everyone for their continued readership and support over the years. Changes are in store, but change is, after all, the one constant in life! Also, if you are on the mailing list, remember to periodically check your email to see if your name has been drawn to win the monthly giveaway for a manuscript critique or copyedit up to 5,000 words!
How to Self-Edit a Manuscript for Language
Self-editing cannot take the place of professional editing, but it is a necessary step on the way toward getting your manuscript ready for publication. It goes without saying that it’s always best to let a manuscript rest before various passes, and the previous post How to Self-Edit a Manuscript for Content covers plenty of pointers for dealing with a book in its earlier stages. Whether you write clean, or whether you write dirty, always do yourself a favor and take the time to self-edit. Next, do yourself an even bigger favor, and get as many eyes as possible on your words for additional feedback before sending them out into the world.
Apply Standard Formatting
The first and easiest step to take when it comes to how to self-edit a manuscript for language is to format the text according to industry standards. Even if you intend to self-publish this is a must. If you’re fond of typing in Google docs or programs like Scrivener, most of the world is accustomed to working with Word files. Besides, the capabilities of the software’s commenting and tracking features are beyond compare and worth learning how to properly use. Text should be double-spaced without any extra spacing between paragraphs, and the first line of each new chapter or section should be aligned with the left margin.
Beyond that, the text should be in black, 12-point Times New Roman font. If you haven’t been able to break the habit of placing two spaces after punctuation marks, the search and replace feature can be used to change such instances to one space. Also, avoid inserting a hard tab by hitting the indent key for every paragraph, and insert page breaks between chapters rather than hitting the enter key to start a chapter on the next page (text will shift as the book is revised!). It is also helpful to familiarize yourself with the headings feature, which will allow for the creation of an active table of contents. Finally, center text using the center command rather than spacing or tabbing over. I see this done often in manuscripts I work on, and it can wreak havoc on a document.
If any of the above seems overwhelming, just remind yourself there is never any better time than the present to start to learn. Numerous Word tutorials can be found online.
Utilize Reference Resources
Running an obligatory spelling and grammar check is just the first step in self-editing for language. The more you avail yourself to the nuances of language, the stronger writer you will become. A fabulous plot can only be made stronger by mastery of language. The capabilities of editing software continue to grow, but such programs will never be able to replace the human brain’s language sensibilities. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to explore what’s out there and add one or two programs to your self-editing arsenal. It’s also a good idea to follow a handful of respected writing blogs.
Also, avail yourself to a number of writing reference sources. If writing fiction or creative nonfiction is your focus, familiarize yourself with The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s also available online. Style guides can seem daunting at first, but they are an essential tool to anyone who considers themselves a professional. Beyond that, numerous books on language usage are available. Why not set a goal of reading at least a couple such titles every year?
Search for Troublesome Words and Punctuation
Utilizing Word’s search feature to find troublesome words and punctuation is an essential step in how to self-edit a manuscript for language. Maybe you like to string clause after clause together, so focus on breaking those long sentences into two or three more manageable bites. Strong verbs often make a better impact than a peppering of exclamation marks, which can make it feel like the author is trying too hard. A handful of such words to be on the lookout for include:
- a lot/alot
- into/ in to
Replace Crutch Words
Crutch words are the words that any given writer tends to use over and over in their writing. One author I’ve edited a lot of books for likes to use guffaw quite often. It’s a great word, but overuse can dilute the effect of any word and make its appearance wear thin. Are you aware of the crutch words you gravitate toward in your own writing? If not, a variety of simple tools are available that can help pinpoint the frequency of various words in a manuscript. Such tools can also help pinpoint filler words. A few common crutch words include:
- adverbs, prepositions, personal pronouns, and weak verbs
- empty emphasis words like quite, really, actually, literally, etc.
- fillers like um, ah, well, er, and so
- hedging phrases like I suppose, I guess, or maybe
- in fact that, the fact that, the fact of the matter
- memories (playing in the mind, came flooding back, thought back on)
- POV filter words like saw, heard, looked, and felt
- suddenly/all of a sudden
- there is, there are, there were at the beginning of a sentence
Read Aloud Backward, Paragraph by Paragraph
Authors become so habituated to the pages that they are working on that it’s quite common for their eyes to not catch glaring errors. One way to get over this hurdle is to break up the monotonous flow of the page by reading aloud backward, paragraph by paragraph. Doing so will slow the reader down enough so that more errors can be caught and corrected. Some people will catch more errors by reading a printout rather than on the screen. If reading on the screen, zooming in on the text to enlarge it can be beneficial.
It can also be helpful to use Word’s Speak feature to have the text on the screen read aloud to you. It might feel alien at first, but it might be just the trick that works for you. Various settings can be tweaked to make the voice more to your liking. Experiment and find what approach works best for you. If you commit to editing a set number of pages per day, all those pages will add up. Slow and steady certainly wins the editing race!
Finally, don’t overdo it! Pace yourself, and once again, remind yourself that a self-edit is not a professional edit. Authors are too close to their work to be able to edit it to perfection, but it’s fully possible to edit one’s work to whip it into shape for the next set(s) of eyes.
What other advice or examples from personal experience would you add when it comes to how to self-edit your manuscript for language?
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like reading 25 Editing Tips for Tightening Your Copy or Narrative Distance and Filter Words.
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2018. Image credit: Red Christmas Decorations.
I took so many notes of this post for my notebook that I might have been better off just coping the entire thing.
Glynis, that’s what I like to hear!
These are all great reminders. I started using Word’s Speak feature this year, but I didn’t know you can tweak it to your liking. Thanks for the advice.
Have a wonderful holiday season and Happy New Year!
Denise, I’ve only used the Speak feature a handful of times. It’s gradually growing on me. Happy holidays to you as well!
Such good tips! I haven’t tried the backwards paragraph-by-paragraph. I did find that exporting it from Scrivener to mobi format and reading it on my Kindle as if it were a “real” book, is a helpful way of self-editing. And because I can’t edit while on the Kindle, I stay in the story more easily than reading it on the computer.
You’ve seen my list of problem words. I write my draft using all of them, but as soon as the editing starts–zap, zap, zap!
Have a good break!
RoseMary, loading a manuscript onto a Kindle is a great idea as well, especially when reading for content. You could still highlight grammatical errors, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of not being able to edit text on the device.
I hate self-editing. But my blog posts would be a hot mess if I didn’t. I imagine self-editing a book is a labor-filled process. But I love how you’ve broken down the process. It’s nice to have structure when this isn’t something you do every day.
Erica, and as with all structures that help us at first, the more more a writer repeats the process, the more like second-nature it will become.
The two spaces after a period always gets me. My brain says no but my fingers just keep doing it.
Ken, it took me a goo chunk of time to unlearn the habit of leaving those two spaces!
I recently tried the speak feature for my blog post, and it really helped! I actually love editing for language so these tasks tend to be fun for me. I love looking up words to ensure meanings are correct or see if there isn’t a better word to express my character’s POV.
Thanks for this wonderful post full of tips, Jeri. And the links! Such a great resource.
Happy holidays to you and I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around the web this month. 🙂
Lisa, I hope you find all of the links helpful. Happy New Year!
Excellent tips Jeri. I will share this in my next issue of writer’s tips. <3
Thanks as always DG! I’ve been online less lately, but teaching calls 😉
Crutch words go unnoticed till your editor points them out but they are the favorite words too and difficult to replace 🙂 Thank you Jeri for this detailed post, with helpful tips. I agree with you, it’s never too late to start learning.
Wishing you Happy Holidays and a wonderful New Year.
Balroop, there’s always so much to learn. It never stops!
Great tips as usual! I write in yWriter but export into Word. I also bought a lifetime subscription to Pro Writing Aid which helps highlight stuff such as sticky sentences or overused words. Reading aloud backwards is a new tip for me. I’ll have to give it a try.
Loni, Pro Writing Aid is on my list of tools to check out one of these days.
These are so good! I was wondering about the indent for paragraphs recently. Do we not do that anymore? It took me forever to get over double spacing after a period! Makes me question everything I learned in grade school!
Meredith, many informative nonfiction books tend to go without indentation for paragraphs and a space between paragraphs. However, in more traditionally formatted manuscripts for creative nonfiction and fiction, paragraphs should still be indented. I don’t like the look of self-pubbed manuscripts that leave an extra space between paragraphs. It’s a bit ont the amateur side. Also, the beginning of chapters and the starts of new sections shouldn’t be indented.
Read aloud backward – well that’s a new tip for me! Do you mean sentence by sentence or that it would be reading paragraph 3 then paragraph 2 and… ?
Christy, by reading aloud backward I mean by paragraph 3 then paragraph 2 than paragraph one. It’s a handy trick many people come to like once they try it!