Self-Editing for Self Publishers

I’m apt to exhaust my editing budget long before my book goes to press. I want the developmental and structural advice my editor can provide, and that advice generally comes midway in the process and necessitates revisions to plot and character and substantial rewrites.

The trouble is, once I’ve executed the recommended changes, I’d like another edit, but at that point the cupboard is generally bare. I can’t touch my cover or promo budgets, so I have to make do. Beta readers can be helpful in pointing out glaring errors, but mostly it’s up to me.

As a former editor, I’ve got a few tricks that help me to simulate the objective eye of an independent editor, and the easiest is the one I use very late in the game, just before publishing. It involves a bit of expense, but nothing compared to the cost of an editor. It’s simply this: I run the manuscript out several times, each in a different font, size and layout.

First, however, I do a little spadework on the computer, using my cast list and style sheet to check for consistency in names, ages, descriptions, and in use of numbers.

Using a style sheet

I build a stylesheet for each book from the preceding one. Here’s the style sheet for The Money Tree. It holds words or phrases I often trip up on, plus anything else I may forget during the course of the book. Double-barrelled words like noisemaker, drydock, shopkeeper (and stylesheet) are troublesome. I’ll search for both versions of these words, changing the wrong ones. Proper names (Lego, Truvia, Febreze) are checked for consistency.

Number are harder. My second book, Ang Tak, was about golf, and numbers drove me up the wall. I favour the spell-out-up-to-ninety-nine rule (rather than one to nine only), but as the sample shows, I like to get other opinions.

Minor copyediting matters can drive you nuts, but because they can be so glaring, they’re also a red flag to a prospective reader that your book hasn’t been edited, so they’re worth hunting down.

On to the next stage: the read-through. Now you want to pretend you’re looking at your book for the first time. Here’s where you start using up paper.

The standard submission look

I generally start with a standard manuscript layout: one-inch margins all round, text double-spaced in 12pt Times. This is the format required by agents and publishers. Since I never use it when writing my drafts it has the merit of being completely fresh to my eye. I’ll read the entire story carefully, and edit freely. I’m looking for logical errors, redundancies, infelicitous phrases—anything that holds up the story’s flow.

Depending on how marked up the manuscript is, I may go back through again, keeping an eye out for common clunkers (common to me, that is). I tend to use “grinned” a lot and if I see that or other words appearing again and again, I’ll mark them once or twice then do a global find when I’m back on the computer.

After correcting the manuscript, I’ll reformat. This time, I’ll make the margins very wide: say 1¾ and 1½, and use a different type face and size. It’s surprising how altered some words look in different typefaces, and in this rendition, more errors and oddities will crop up: overused ellipses or exclamation marks, for example.

I’ll often run a finger along the line as I read: it’s a proofreader’s trick that can help you catch things like “the the.” Having different paragraph indents or page endings can also help you to see fresh the words you’ve been living with for months.

I continue to run out drafts with different formats until I’ve reduced the errors to a tolerable level—say, no more than one or two per chapter. Then it’s on to final formatting.

I do my own interior design for both books and e-books, so this time, I run out the book format, with facing pages, folios and running heads.

One thing at a time

In the production stage, focus on one thing at a time. Go through separately for chapter numbers, then back through for folios and running heads, and again for hyphen-ending lines or hyphens on the last line of right-hand pages, and again for unbalanced pages.

My last job is to read the story through as though I were a buyer (that elusive creature). I simply sit back and browse, trying to relax and enjoy it.

You may end up running your manuscript out many times in the course of preparing it for publication, but you’ll find errors every time. I learned very early in my editing career that there’s no such thing as an error-free book. But the foregoing technique should help you to remove the most obvious of them.

We’d all like to have a captive editor available to us at every stage of the process from conception through to publication. Failing that, use your budget at the best point for you, and pick up the slack as best you can using the above techniques.