Every writer needs an editor – so what do you do if you don’t have an editor?
Sometimes you do need to hire one. But there are also times when you need to edit your own work. Thank God I had professional editors scrutinizing my book The Editor’s Companion. However, I can’t turn to a professional editor every time I write a blog post, a letter to the editor, or a short article, but my writing needs scrutiny just the same.
As a writer, where do you turn when you need editing?
Even if your work—a book or a magazine article, for example—will be edited by the publisher, you will want it to be in good shape when you submit it. You can do some of the work yourself.
Here are some editorial tasks you can do on your own or with help; the results may not be professional, but your writing will be better.
Publishers routinely ask knowledgeable readers to evaluate submissions. For scientific journals, this is a formal process called peer review. The point is to get readers’ opinions. Do you have some people—maybe a writers’ group—who will bluntly but politely critique your work?
They can identify problems with structure, content, and vocabulary and suggest improvements. When I was writing freelance newspaper columns, my wife, an able writer herself, would kindly read my work before I submitted it.
Use your computer’s tools. Always run a spellcheck. If you’re using Microsoft Word, undo some of the default choices, such as ignoring words that contain numbers and ignoring words in all capital letters.
You do want the spellcheck to examine every last word in your writing. Include the grammar check when running a spellcheck; not all the suggestions will be good or even sensible, but it may catch things you didn’t notice. And make sure your whole document is set to U.S. English or whatever language you’re writing in.
Study. I repeatedly read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. It’s full of good advice. Some editors frown on it nowadays because it’s prescriptivist: it lays down rules and gives directions to writers. You can choose to break some of the rules, but it helps to know what the rules are and how they help communication.
Another great source is Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s online Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base (www.kokedit.com/ckb.php); it’s a tremendous resource for editors. On my own Editor’s Companion blog, I have a page listing my favorite blogs and websites for writing and editing. I think you’ll find it helpful.
Create a checklist. An editor can’t spot every error simply by reading text. There are just too many things that can go wrong. As Words Into Type puts it, “The editor has learned from experience that the possibilities of error are limitless.”
I have my own copyediting and proofreading checklist. It has grown over the years as I have identified the things I particularly need to check. It includes the head commands in HTML files, callouts, arithmetic, cross-references, and many more things that do not apply to every job I edit.
Other editing tasks on the checklist do apply to every piece of writing, and you can use them to start your own checklist: read everything twice; make sure all quotation marks and parentheses are paired; make sure all paragraphs have ending punctuation; carefully check all quotations against the original sources; search for common typos that a spellcheck may not flag.
For that last item, you’ll need to create another list. I tend to type theses instead of these, so part of my editing involves searching for theses where it doesn’t belong. Other words are typos that I’ve seen so often (and not noticed while reading) that now I always search for them: mange instead of manage, polices instead of policies, posses instead of possess, pubic instead of public, and many more.
All my suggestions involve work. I am continually tempted to skip them when writing. But the work is worth it. When I set out to communicate with others via my blog, a book, an article, a letter, or even an email, I owe it to the reader to do my job as a writer and editor.
About Steve Dunham
Steve Dunham is the author of The Editor’s Companion book and blog. He has also written magazine articles, freelance newspaper columns, and screenplays (none of which has been made into a movie—yet).
A lot of his writing is archived on his website, Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought. He has worked as a professional editor for 35 years.
He has been on the faculty at writers’ conferences and has taught short classes on topics such as copyediting, publications quality control, and, yes, editing your own writing. He lives in Virginia and works full time as a writer and editor for a government contractor.
The Editor’s Companion book was published in 2014 by Writer’s Digest Books and is available from the publisher at www.writersdigestshop.com the-editors-companion.
You can read the Editor’s Companion blog at editorscompanion.wordpress.com
Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought is at www.stevedunham.50megs.com
Check out Steve's book:
Excel at editing!
The editor's job encompasses much more than correcting commas and catching typos. Your chief mission is to help writers communicate effectively–which is no small feat.
Whether you edit books, magazines, newspapers, or online publications, your ability to develop clear, concise, and focused writing is the key to your success.
The Editor's Companion is an invaluable guide to honing your editing skills.
You'll learn about editing for:
- CONTENT: Analyze and develop writing that is appealing and appropriate for the intended audience.
- FOCUS: Ensure strong beginnings and satisfying endings, and stick with one subject at a time.
- PRECISE LANGUAGE: Choose the right words, the right voice, and the right tense for every piece.
- GRAMMAR: Recognize common mistakes in punctuation, parts of speech, and sentence structure–and learn how to avoid them.
You'll also find valuable editing resources and checklists, advice on editorial relationships and workflow, and real-life samples of editing with explanations of what was changed and why.
The Editor's Companion provides the tools you need to pursue high quality in editing, writing, and publishing–every piece, every time.
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