This week I'm delighted to have a guest post for you, written by Louise Harnby.
Louise is a highly experienced fiction editor and proofreader, and she has just won the Judith Butcher Award from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) for 'highly visible contributions to the SfEP and its membership'.
As editing fiction is not my specialist area, I've gone straight to the top and got the best advice for you. If you're beavering away on your novel and wondering whether you need editing, or if proofreading will be enough, you need to read this.
Over to you, Louise.
Fiction writers have budgets. Deciding how best to invest that editorial budget can be tricky for the novice self-publisher, especially if they’re not familiar with publishing-industry conventions, reader expectations, and the editorial process.
Today, I’m exploring which levels of editing are required for the independent fiction writer preparing a novel for market – in particular whether proofreading is required and if it’s enough.
Here’s a speed guide to the different levels of fiction editing to help you make informed decisions about what you might need.
Stage 1: Developmental editing (also called structural, content and substantive editing). This is the big-picture stuff – plot, pace, characterization, narrative point of view, narrative flow, and audience relevance.
Stage 2: Line editing. This is sentence-level smoothing that focuses on clarity, readability, flow, structure, and phrasing that’s respectful of narrative and character voice.
Stage 3: Copy-editing. This is sentence-level correction that attends to consistent and correct spelling, punctuation and grammar, within a framework of accepted/preferred idiomatic and regional variations.
Stage 4: Proofreading. This is the final prepublication quality-control check that looks for minor omissions in the previous rounds of editing, and ensures that the various elements of the book are designed consistently and according to the brief and industry-standard conventions.
I believe it’s possible to do stages 2 and 3 together but that 1 and 4 are separate passes. I do know a few editors who offer 1, 2 and 3 simultaneously. However, I know of no editorial professional who states they can proofread at the same time as carrying out the other levels of editing and that the book will be ready for publication when they’re done.
Your plot pops, but your sentences suck and your punctuation poops. If that’s you, you’ve nailed the developmental work. So do you need a line editor, copyeditor or proofreader?
Hugh Howey is a great self-editor though even he now uses a pro to help polish his prose. In ‘A question about editing’ (The Wayfarer, 2015), he states, ‘[T]he primary onus is certainly on the writer. They should have respect for what they’re doing. But if I had to pick between a great storyteller who lacked precision of language and a perfect writer with no story to tell, I’d take the former every single time. We teach too much prose to writers and not enough plot. Plot is king. Prose is pawn.’
I genuinely love Howey’s support for the indie fiction author’s right to write. I respect the fact that he chooses ‘to fall in with a slightly different step and enjoy the diversity of experience’ and not get ‘hung up on discrepancies of spelling and punctuation (which used to abound), but allowing the words, in all their variability, to form pictures in our heads’.
Back to the question: even though you’ve nailed the plot, do you need a line editor, copyeditor or proofreader? I think it’s the wrong question. Instead, the self-publishing fiction writer needs to ask the following: How does your reader dance?
Howey acknowledges that many readers ‘expect perfection. Not a hiss or pop of static or a missed note’.
If your book is flailing at sentence level and your readers are Howey dancers, you’ll be okay. If they’re not dancing to his tune (‘No way!’) – and even he thinks most aren’t – you’ll need to make an informed choice about what you’ll get help with and what you’ll do yourself.
Imagine you’ve written your first novel. Remember: your plot pops, but your sentences suck and your punctuation poops.
Reader 1 buys it. They do the Howey dance. And because they love it, you haven’t just acquired a customer with that sale; you’ve acquired a fan who’s bought that book and is in the mindset to buy every book you will ever write.
Reader 2 buys it. They do the no-way dance. They’re frustrated because they’ve noticed problems – spelling, punctuation and grammar errors and inconsistencies; repetitive and awkward sentence structure; and inconsistent layout.
They loved the idea of your book and you nearly had them; they could have been a fan but now they’re a grumpy customer who leaves a crabby review and ditches you. One sale and then it’s crickets.
Even with your popping plot, the proofreader is tasked with an impossible job if they’re presented with a file that hasn’t been through stages 2 and 3 (line and copy-editing). If a paragraph needs work to make it readable, it’s not quality control that’s required but a deeper level of editing. Proofreading won’t fix the problems.
If you’re happy for your proofreader to do the best they can within the agreed budget and a proofreader’s remit, you’ll both come out of the experience satisfied. Your no-way readers still won’t be happy, but if that’s the way you’ve chosen to dance, so be it.
If, however, you want the no-ways on side, you’ll need a magician proofreader – someone who can pull line and copy-editing skills out of a hat along with the rabbit.
You might get lucky. Your proofreader might well have those additional skills. But even if they have, they won’t be able to complete those extra levels of editing simultaneously. Even if they could, it would take much, much longer and would cost a great deal more.
Most importantly, if they were to do those three editorial passes at the same time under the rubric of proofreading, they would NOT catch everything. I guarantee it. That’s why the mainstream publishing industry takes its books through different stages of editing – publishers know that just a proofread will not be enough to achieve the desired quality.
If you decide not to commission professional sentence-level editing for your novel, that’s your choice. I believe you still have the absolute right to publish; there’s something rather wonderful about Howey’s approach of the storyteller trumping the stickler. The important thing to remember is that not all your readers will be Howeys.
If you decide to tackle the sentence-level work but hire only a proofreader, be sure to go in with your eyes open and with respectful expectations of what’s achievable in one pass.
Whether you choose to dance to the tune of the Howeys or the no-ways, I wish you the very best of luck on your self-publishing journey!
Louise Harnby is a fiction copyeditor and proofreader. She curates The Proofreader's Parlour, Louise’s Writing Library, and is the author of several books on business planning and marketing for editors and proofreaders.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader & Copyeditor, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
I hope you enjoyed Louise's valuable insights. Why not share your thoughts in the comments?
For my take on language and writing, and general musings on working for yourself, why not sign up to hear about updates to my blog?
As a thank you, you'll get a copy of my free ebook, Creating Your Style Sheet, to help you be more consistent in your writing.
Planning the group edit session
I think it’s fair to say that this was the session in my recent mastermind retreat that caused the most anxiety!
Having your work reviewed by an author or desk editor, or whoever commissioned you to edit or proofread, is a part of any job, of course.
But having other editors look at how you’ve edited? Wow! That’s opening yourself up to a whole different level of scrutiny and self-doubt!
At the planning stage of my retreat with six other editors, we brainstormed which areas we wanted to focus on. We all agreed that having our work looked at by others was an important exercise to include, and that it would be a safe and supportive environment to do so.
Related content: A mastermind group retreat: an overview
Our original plan was to have a single piece of text which we would each edit ‘live’, at the retreat. We would then review what we’d all done and discuss the similarities and differences in our edits.
One thing was for sure – this would have created plenty of discussion points, because no two editors will edit a text in the same way.
A better way for us
As we discussed the practicalities of doing a 'live' edit, we came to realise that, for us at least, it was putting too much pressure on ourselves.
Apart from the question of how long the piece would need to be to make the exercise meaningful, and whether we would have the time to accommodate it, there was the fundamental question of why we were doing it.
We wanted to look at the similarities and differences in our individual approaches to editing and learn from each other through examination and discussion of the edited text.
However, it soon emerged that a live edit wasn’t an ideal format for our group. There were concerns that the work we did – in what would essentially be a timed test – would not be a true reflection of how we approached our work or what we could actually do.
Some of us also had worries about exposing ourselves to direct comparisons with each other, as there are often many options when navigating the subtleties of editing. In a limited time how helpful would that be?
If you've ever visited an editors' forum online, you'll know just how detailed (or bogged down!) discussions can get over word usage and comma placement, and the outcome is usually that there is no consensus!
There was always the risk that would happen to us, and that, as a result, we wouldn't achieve much in the time allocated.
And, honestly? We wanted to enjoy the weekend, and there was a real danger that worrying about this particular session would overshadow all the others.
That's not to say that it would never be a suitable thing to do, just that at this stage of our group's development it wasn't the right thing for us.
Instead, we decided that each of us would provide an anonymised piece of edited work that we could discuss in more general terms as a group.
A cross-section of texts
Unintentionally, we each provided a very different type of text, which worked incredibly well because each piece generated a different discussion point.
I wish I could say we’d planned it that way!
The texts that we looked at were of the following types:
When we discussed this piece, what was evident was that even though the sample was fairly short in terms of word count, the time needed to address the artwork and layout, and the volume of queries exchanged with the author, was considerable.
This was a good reminder to factor this time in when quoting for this type of work.
This piece made our eyes boggle! The sheer volume of abbreviations and technical terms was, on the face of it, a barrier to anyone without subject knowledge editing it.
However, as its editor explained, there was a comprehensive style sheet for her to follow, and the text was from a repeat client. Because of this regular work she understands their needs and style and can work through the texts quite quickly.
Working more efficiently by developing a more streamlined approach to the work may include, for example, using macros and customised style sheets in PerfectIt.
It was good to have confirmation that subject-specific knowledge isn’t always needed. It’s entirely possible to read a sentence and know that it’s not punctuated correctly, for example, without knowing what some of the words mean!
This text was much more conversational in tone, which generated an interesting discussion about how much we intervene – what do we correct and what do we leave? We agreed that keeping the author’s tone of voice was essential with this type of text, and that we would be more forgiving of grammatical ‘errors’ and less rigid about some rules or style conventions.
It also highlighted that the audience is a major consideration when editing – who is going to be reading this and, in this case, will they care about a more informal style? The answer here is the general public, and probably not – its informality and chatty style will be far more appealing to them than some rigidly grammatical but lifeless prose!
Related content: Seven problems when starting a blog and how to solve them
These texts were heavily referenced so, unsurprisingly, the focus of our conversation was on how we would manage this.
We discussed checking references with software such as the now sadly unavailable ReferenceChecker (which still works if you already have it, but is no longer supported or available to buy), and the processes we use to check in-text citations and reference lists.
Related content: How to proofread your dissertation: 12 essential tips
We also discussed our individual approaches to editing a piece of work:
• the order we do tasks in
• our use of clean-up macros at the pre-editing stage to do the routine tidying up before dealing with the language
• when and how we tackle references
• how we handle author queries
Although we had been quite apprehensive about sharing examples of our work with each other, we all agreed that it was an incredibly useful session.
It was less about ooh, I wouldn’t have put a comma there! and more about sharing our working practices. I think we were all relieved when our way of doing something was validated by another editor doing the same thing in the same way!
We all took away little nuggets of information to try out ourselves, whether that was a macro to experiment with (yes, some of us have yet to bite the macro bullet in any significant way!) or a slightly different approach to a common issue.
This session demonstrated that, even within a small group of editors, the variety in the work we edit is considerable, and each area requires different skills and a different focus.
What was also evident was the value of repeat work in getting to know a client’s needs and preferences, as well as understanding their style and quirks.
Would we willingly do it again? Definitely!
Over to you
Are you a sole business owner or freelancer who has participated in a similar activity?
What was your experience?
I'd love to hear your ideas for exercises in a mastermind retreat.
If you're not in a group, has this inspired you to start one? Let me know if it has!
And if you're going to the SfEP annual conference at Wyboston Lakes in September, I'm running a session on setting up an accountability group. Let me know if I'll see you there, and be sure to come and say hello if we haven't already met!
For my take on language and writing, and general musings on working for yourself, why not sign up to hear about updates to my blog?
I'm in a 'mastermind group'. Sounds cool, doesn't it?
Admit it – you're imagining me in a secret island lair, plotting world domination with my shadowy colleagues, from the comfort of my black swivel chair. Am I stroking an extravagantly coiffed white cat, too?
Err, no. I'm allergic to cats. They flare up my asthma something terrible ...
Back to reality. No island retreat, more's the pity, but I have been doing some serious reflection and planning. And my colleagues were definitely not shadowy.
I recently took part in an editors’ retreat with six colleagues. It was an inspiring, exhausting, thought-provoking and uplifting weekend. If you’re wondering why anyone would choose to do that, let me explain.
What is a mastermind group?
The purpose of a mastermind group is to provide support to members in achieving self-identified goals; members share their knowledge and experiences to help each other.
There are different ways of constructing a mastermind group. It can be formed by people from different but related business areas, or by people from within a specific sector.
I think it's worth mentioning that diversity is a good thing in a mastermind group - it helps if people have a variety of backgrounds and experiences, as this provides the opportunity for cross-fertilisation of ideas and we benefit from others' experiences and perspectives.
In my group we are all professional freelance editors, running our own businesses, but we all have different backgrounds, with different routes to where we are now. We work with widely varying client bases, although some of us do overlap.
How did my mastermind group get started?
I’d seen that some North American colleagues had organised a retreat, which piqued my curiosity, and on asking around on Facebook it was soon apparent that several other editors were interested in doing something similar in the UK.
We set up a private community using Slack and began the process of getting to know each other via this and a few face-to-face calls using Zoom.
The important thing to say here is that we didn't rush into any big commitments. We took time to get to know each other and what we wanted to get out of a group.
Slack gave us the space to explore a few different topics and see where we had similar goals and stumbling blocks regarding our professional development and business practices.
Once it became clear that we were all compatible and felt comfortable sharing and discussing honestly and openly, we set about organising and coordinating our weekend retreat.
Why have a mastermind group 'retreat'?
For editors who run their business from home, there are clear benefits to investing time and money in a retreat weekend.
We spent a good while on all the set-up details to make sure everyone was comfortable with what was proposed; from accommodation to travel to the schedule, it was essential that everyone felt involved and catered for.
And eventually the time came. And it was the hottest weekend in London for the past forty years. Of course it was.
To make the most of the UK’s labyrinthine rail pricing system, I’d travelled down to London on the Thursday and stayed with friends, so I only had a straightforward trip across London. (No, really, it was straightforward! I may be one of the few people who loves the London Underground, but then, it is a novelty to me.)
One by one our fellow editors arrived – Liz, Melanie and Abi – and we found a democratic way of allocating rooms. The important issue of which takeaway to order was settled; I drew the short straw and phoned in the order (we all hate making phone calls, it transpired).
What's covered in an editorial retreat?
The only ‘official’ session the first evening was the ice-breaker, expertly organised by Julia. Our trans-Atlantic group member Janet, in Toronto, joined us via Skype. It was a fun way of getting to know a bit more ( at times rather unexpected and hilarious information) about each other, and I think it was the perfect way for us all to feel a bit more relaxed in each other’s company.
DAY ONE: MORNING SESSION
Some of us (naming no names, but not me!) ventured out for an early morning walk / jog / run around the Common.
Then it was down to the serious retreat business!
We had a packed timetable from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and each session had a facilitator, a note taker and a blogger. (So expect to see more detailed reports on the sessions.)
We also discussed how we share our skills now and how we could do more of that in the future. Our experiences of providing (and receiving) formal and informal skill sharing include mentoring, structured training courses and via online groups, e.g. the Society for Editors and Proofreaders' members forum, and in open and closed Facebook groups.
Unsurprisingly, the always-relevant topic of what our skills are worth and how we monetise them provoked a lot of discussion.
After a welcome break (more cold water was drunk than tea – the temperature was climbing steadily), we moved on to the session which was anticipated with some trepidation: the group edit.
When did you last have a piece of your work looked at closely by one of your peers?
Editors almost never experience this. We return work to our clients and may occasionally get feedback from them, but probably not. Having another editor look at your work makes you feel very exposed: Do they do things the same way as you? Will they think your edits are heavy handed, too light, or plain wrong? What if I'm a terrible editor?
Despite our natural concerns, this session worked extremely well. We each supplied an anonymised piece of our work and talked through the main features of the edit. We discussed how the timescale, budget and client type all influence where we focus our editing and how much time we spend on it.
An unplanned bonus in this session was that we all provided very different samples from a variety of sectors and client types, which allowed for a wide-ranging discussion on many factors including managing references, editing technical documents and preserving the author's voice.
After such an intense session, lunch was very welcome, and we ventured out into the blistering heat (seriously!) to a local deli for some serious refuelling.
DAY ONE: AFTERNOON SESSION
After lunch our next session focused on the skills we need to keep working on: continuing professional development, communication, networking, staying focused, and being efficient and effective.
In the final session of the day we took time to examine work-life balance and came to the conclusion that there may in fact be no such thing as the perfect balance; it's a constant see-sawing between the two.
We also debated the future of publishing and how freelance editing might fit in this sector and others. These are uncertain times for the publishing industry, and for editorial professionals. But with uncertainty comes opportunity, and it's up to us to be proactive and position our businesses. Whether that is to focus on publishers, or on other sectors, or both, is for each of us to decide.
After some welcome down time, we went out for dinner. Some cocktails may have been involved, but I couldn't possibly comment.
Is a mastermind retreat worthwhile?
There's no doubt in my mind that we all got something out of the retreat, even if it wasn't what we expected. Some of us realised that much of what we are doing is right for us, and that we don't have to conform to how others run their businesses.
There were several lightbulb moments during and after the event, and we all agreed that the next week was spent mulling over the issues that struck home with us.
Taking time out from your daily routine to reflect, review and plan can never be a bad thing.
Doing that in a pleasant environment, far removed from your daily routine and all the distractions it brings allows you to focus fully and deeply on the topics you've chosen.
Like most things in life, you get out of a mastermind group what you put in. I'm thankful that my group members gave 100 per cent in the preparation of and participation in our retreat.
Over to you
Are you in a mastermind group? Does it function in a similar way to this one? I'd love to hear others' experiences and ideas of what makes a successful group.
If you're not in a group, has this inspired you to start one? Let me know if it has!
If you're going to the SfEP annual conference at Wyboston Lakes in September, I'm running a session on setting up an accountability group. Let me know if I'll see you there, and be sure to come and say hello if we haven't already met!
For my take on language and writing, and general musings on working for yourself, why not sign up to hear about updates to my blog?
I looked at the first half of the alphabet, from Apostrophes to Method, in Part One of this article – if you missed it, why not hop over and take a look?
Here I run through the second half, from Numbers to Zzz, so come on – join me in my alphabetical journey!
N is for …
Numbers. Check that you have been consistent in how you treat numbers across all your written copy. This includes dates, times and percentages. A common convention is to write out numbers one to ten, and then use figures for 11 upwards, except at the beginning of a sentence, when it's always advisable to spell them out.
As there are no hard and fast rules about dates and times, the important thing is to be consistent; for example, you might decide to always write dates with the day first, then the month and full year: 12 June 2017. It's more common nowadays to write the day without the -st, -nd, -rd or -th.
The same consistency applies to time: Have you used 12-hour or 24-hour clock? Are you using a.m. and p.m., or not?
This is when you should be checking what you've written against your style sheet. Don't know what a style sheet is? Look below, under S, for an explanation and how to get my free guide to creating your own.
O is for …
Out loud. It's always helpful to read out what you've written – it's surprising what you will pick up. Not only will you discover missing or repeated words, you'll pick up bigger issues, such as where a sentence is too long or convoluted (or isn't actually a sentence at all), or where you've started a train of thought but somehow lost the thread halfway through a paragraph.
Just be considerate if you share an office! You could always use a text-to-speech program, such as the Speak feature in Word, and wear headphones.
Outside help. There are several reasons why you might benefit from bringing in someone to edit your writing. It may be that spelling and grammar aren't your strengths, or that you don't have time to do more than get down the bare bones of an article. My article Why your business needs an editor or proofreader, goes into more detail about the different types of help you can get.
P is for …
Punctuation. It's easy to skip the nitty gritty of correct punctuation when you're in the zone and the words are flowing. Which is absolutely fine. Just don't forget to check it carefully once you're done.
Have you started each sentence with a capital letter and finished with a full stop? It sounds too basic to mention, and I wouldn't if it wasn't something that I find myself correcting regularly. Do your questions actually have question marks? You'd be surprised how often they get left off.
If you're hazy on the correct use of colons, semicolons, apostrophes and ellipses, there is plenty of online help available, such as Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips, and I also recommend The Penguin Guide to Punctuation as being particularly user friendly.
Point size. If you increase the point size of the text you're checking, this will force some words onto the next line and reflow the text, giving it a different look, making it feel 'fresh' to your brain. Because the words are in a different position on the page, your brain sees it as a new text and you'll be more likely to catch errors.
Once you're happy that you've caught everything, you can change the text back to your preferred point size. Altering the font has a similar effect – why not try changing both for a double whammy of freshness?
Q is for …
Quotes. If you have quoted someone, check that you've got the wording correct – don't rely on your memory – and make sure you've put it inside quote marks. In British English, the convention is to use single quote marks, and double quote marks for quotes inside quotes: Denise said, 'Overusing "scare quotes" is very annoying.'
Longer quotations which are displayed as a separate feature don't need quote marks, and don't forget to credit the source immediately beneath it.
R is for …
Ruler. Using a ruler below the line you're reading when proofreading on hard copy is a useful way of forcing you to slow down and not skim through too quickly. It blocks what is coming next, so your brain can't anticipate what words will follow and trick you into assuming that all the words are there and in the correct order!
References. If you've written a report or article which has references, checking them should be done as a completely separate task. You need to make sure that every reference cited in the text is in the reference list and, conversely, that everything in the reference list has actually been mentioned in the text. It's surprising how often this doesn't happen, usually because of sections being cut, or added later.
Once you've established that everything is present, check the actual references themselves to make sure they are all presented in the same way. There are many different referencing styles and conventions, depending on which field you are writing in, so make sure you know what is appropriate. If you have a lot of references and aren't sure how to handle them, this is definitely an area where I would recommend you get professional help.
Remember, the purpose of a reference is to provide all the information the reader needs to find the source easily.
S is for …
Style sheet. A style sheet is your best friend for maintaining consistency across all your written content, whether that's your website, your marketing copy or your annual report.
Decisions about how you capitalise, spell and hyphenate specific words, how you use numbers, and even which words are preferred or to be avoided, are all recorded on your style sheet.
Everyone who writes for your company should be using your style sheet – have you created one yet? If not, grab a copy of my free guide, Creating Your Style Sheet.
Spell checkers. Don't forget to run your spell checker, but please don't take everything it suggests as gospel. There are plenty of occasions when Word simply gets it wrong. However, it is useful for picking up typos and some grammatical errors, but it won't catch everything.
For example, remember that it won't know whether a word has been used correctly, only that it's been spelled correctly, regardless of the context.
T is for …
Time. Wherever possible, give yourself enough time to write without the pressure of staring down a deadline, enough time to leave what you've written to give yourself some distance from it, and enough time to do a thorough check before publishing.
Of course, this is the real world that we live in, and time often feels like a luxury that's in short supply. However, giving yourself enough time at each step in the process will greatly improve the quality of your writing. When we are rushed and under pressure we can be blind to the most obvious of errors, which unfortunately can be blindingly obvious to the first person who reads your text after it has been published.
U is for …
Underlining. Avoid using underlining in headings, or for emphasis. This is an old-fashioned style which is a hangover from the days when typewriters didn't have an italic or bold function. It makes the text harder to read and can also be confusing in digital formats, as underlining is generally reserved for indicating hyperlinks. Butterick's Practical Typography's entry for underlining has the subtitle 'Absolutely not'.
V is for …
Voice. Does what you've written sound like you? If you lack confidence in your writing, or you aren't clear about who your audience is, you can fall into an overly formal, stilted tone. This can be – whisper it – deadly dull. Boring. Bland. And guaranteed to have your reader clicking away to another website or dropping your brochure in the recycling bin.
It's OK to sound like a real person when you write. Think about who you're writing for, and when you're reviewing be ruthless in getting rid of puffy, overblown, unnecessary wordiness.
W is for …
Worry. However much I want you to have perfect prose, I don't want you to worry about it so much that you end up not publishing. Fear of making mistakes, or having them pointed out in public, is a big barrier to so many people who want to write, which I cover in my article Seven problems when starting a blog and how to solve them.
Write, review and publish. Be brave. Don't worry about any typos you may have overlooked –everyone does it and it's not the end of the world. I'd rather read your interesting, funny, entertaining or thought-provoking article complete with a couple of typos or grammatical errors than anything which is grammatically correct but dull as dishwater.
And the Grammar Police? Ignore them. They're often wrong, anyway. Nice people draw your attention to errors in private, not in public, as my article Why the Grammar Police aren't cool explains.
X is for …
X-rated. Oh, my! Is that a sweary word I see? Think very hard before using potentially offensive language in your writing. For some brands, and some demographics, it can be OK to sprinkle your copy with varying degrees of sweariness, and even drop the occasional f-bomb, but you have to judge that one extremely carefully, because you will offend people. Does it fit with your or your company's image? More importantly, are you doing it to grab attention (a really bad idea), or because it's who you are and you want to be authentic in how you present yourself to the world?
I wrote about editing swearing earlier this year. I don't generally swear in my own writing, but I've no problem editing other people's – what do you think about it?
Y is for …
Yellow highlighting. OK so this is a bit of a stretch for Y! (if you have a better idea I'd love to hear it!)
Here's an example for you. You're taking a pass through your writing to check the headings and captions, and you notice a clumsy sentence or a fact you want to double check. Rather than stopping to deal with that issue, quickly highlight the text and move on. Of course, you don't have to use yellow!
It's important to stay in the zone for the type of check you're doing at that point and not be distracted by things you should check on another pass.
Highlighting saves you from dealing with it now, or trying to remember to go back to it later. You can do a separate pass to deal with all the highlights at the end, tying up all the loose ends.
Z is for …
Zzz. Is what you've written actually interesting? Does it hold your attention? Are you excited to read it? If not, why are you publishing it? If it doesn't do any of these things, and you're the author, how can you expect it to grab your reader's attention, never mind inspire them to act on what they've read?
You're writing doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be good enough. And not good enough in a Meh, that'll do, it's kinda OK and at least I've written something way. But good enough in an I know it's not perfect but I've got this great idea and I want to share it way.
And finally, my favourite keyboard shortcut, the editor's friend:
CTRL+Z. This lifesaver is the shortcut for 'undo'. If you meant to delete a word but accidentally deleted an entire paragraph – or the entire document (Oh yes, I've done that before now) – then this two-keystroke move makes everything OK again. Crisis averted. Sanity restored. Although maybe you need some chocolate. You know, for the shock of the near miss. Never a bad idea.
So there you have it. Part Two of my alphabetical journey through editing and proofreading. Have you found it useful? Did you learn something new that you plan on trying out? Let me know in the comments – I'd love to hear what works for you.
How to proofread your own writing: ten tips to clean up your writing
How to proofread your dissertation or thesis - 12 essential tips
Do I need a proofreader or a copy-editor?
Why your business needs an editor or proofreader
Seven spelling errors and how to fix them
There's a lot to think about when you edit your own writing — much more than just looking for typos. So here's a run-down of some of the key things to think about when you're editing and techniques to help you take a methodical approach to proofreading your writing.
We're going in alphabetical order, and in this part we'll cover Apostrophes to Method.
A is for …
Be aware that Word and some social media platforms 'helpfully' use their autocorrect and predictive text capabilities to alter what you type to what they think is correct. Believe me, they are often wrong, especially with apostrophes. So check carefully!
Acronyms. If you use acronyms, abbreviations or initialisms in your writing (see How to proofread your dissertation or thesis for more detail on the differences), will your reader know what you mean? It's always a good idea to write out the term in full with the acronym in brackets on first use, e.g. Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Of course, this isn't necessary with everyday acronyms which people will recognise, for example BBC, or if you're writing for your peers or colleagues and you can be confident everyone understands them, as they can be a useful shorthand.
Audience. Who is your audience? Have you got the right tone for them in your writing? Be helpful without being patronising. You're not writing to show off how much you know, you're writing to be helpful and engaging.
B is for …
Bullet points . If you have long lists of information, consider setting them as bulleted lists, which are a great way to break up the text and make it easier to read. They also add variety and interest to the page. Just make sure you punctuate them consistently.
Bad breaks. When a word can't fit at the end of a line, your word processing program may create a break using a hyphen. This can lead to splits which are misleading or unfortunate, e.g. deci-sion, coop-erate, physiothe-rapist. You can either switch off hyphenation altogether or you can leave it on (to avoid big gaps in the text if you're using a justified layout) and check each one carefully. Manually change the hyphenation of an individual word if needed.
Backwards. Reading your copy from the end to the beginning makes you focus at word level to pick up typos and missing or extra words. It's a handy technique that stops you skimming ahead and reading what you 'think' is there rather than what is actually on the page.
C is for …
Capitals. Overuse of capitals for job titles, products and services makes your writing look fussy and self-important. If you are a sales and marketing manager selling useful widgets, there's no need to write Sales and Marketing Manager Selling Useful Widgets.
Commas. These little marks are the cause of much debate, as often their use can come down to preference rather than hard and fast rules. Using too many can break up the flow of your writing. If you think you need all those commas then your sentence is probably too long and should be broken down into easier-to-digest shorter sentences.
For a very readable reference on punctuation in general, and a clear explanation of comma use in particular, The Penguin Guide to Punctuation by R L Trask is never far from my side.
Copyright/credit. If you use images please check whether they are subject to copyright and credit them accordingly. Artists deserve to be paid and credited for their work. If you can't afford to pay there are plenty of sites which offer free images. My friend Col Gray, a brand designer at Pixels Ink, lists 35 free stock photography websites on his blog.
D is for …
Dashes. Learn the difference between a hyphen and a dash. Hyphens are short (-) and join words or prefixes together, such as non-negotiable or light-blue dress. Dashes (—) are longer and are used in pairs for interruptions in a sentence — like this — or in ranges. For example, pp. 25—35, meaning 'from page 25 to page 35' or Glasgow—London train service, meaning 'between Glasgow and London'.
You can create a dash using the keyboard shortcut CTRL + numeric minus if you have a numeric pad on your keyboard. Otherwise you can use Insert | Symbol | More symbols | Special characters | En dash. Which is a bit of a pain, so best to create your own keyboard shortcut!
E is for …
Ellipsis. The ellipsis is a handy wee character indicating a trailing off or a gap. It only ever consists of three dots (…). Never four, or five … or twelve! (You may sometimes see what looks like a four dot ellipisis where a style guide dictates it is followed by a full stop.)
In Word you can use the keyboard shortcut CTRL + ALT + FULL STOP to create the character. There is more detail about the ellipsis in my blog What is an ellipsis?
So remember — three dots and no more!
F is for …
Fonts. Is your chosen font legible for the medium your content will be published in? If you're writing web copy or a blog, make sure it's easy to read on mobile devices — don't forget that much content is read on phones or tablets these days. The font should be clear and the point size should be big enough to read on a small screen. Remember that content in boxes or sidebars may look fine on your desktop but be impossible to make out on a smartphone.
Fresh eyes. Leave some time between writing your copy and revising it. When you come to look at it again you're much more likely to catch mistakes than if you try to edit immediately after writing.
G is for …
Grammar. Good grammar doesn't come easily to everyone, so if you know you struggle with grammar ask someone else to check what you've written. You want to avoid making obvious errors that will jump out at your readers.
For simple online help, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips has an answer for everything!
H is for …
Headings. If you've written a long article, have you used headings to break it up? A long, unbroken text can be off-putting to many readers, so use headings to help people navigate your content. Don't forget that they may not want to read everything you've written and might prefer to skim through until a relevant section catches their eye.
Check that your headings are all styled the same way, either sentence case, like the title of this blog, The A—Z of editing and proofreading your writing, or in title case: The A—Z of Editing and Proofreading Your Writing. Avoid all capitals because it's shouty, and no one likes a shouty person!
Hard copy. You might find that by printing out your writing and reading it on paper you can catch more errors. Some editors and proofreaders still prefer to work this way. Just don't forget to do something kind for the planet to make up for the trees you're using!
I is for …
Italics. It's preferable to use italics for emphasis rather than SHOUTY CAPITALS, but use them sparingly as large blocks of italic are difficult to read.
Images. Make sure that you've credited your images if required, that they're actually the correct pictures, and that they are relevant to the text. You may have chosen the perfect image initially but then cut the paragraph that it applied to, making it meaningless now.
J is for …
Jargon. If you are writing about a subject from a position of knowledge, it can be easy to casually pepper it with jargon, forgetting that your audience may not be familiar with the terms. Write for your audience, which may mean simplifying your language (without patronising, of course) and taking the time to explain concepts that seem obvious to you.
As Ann Handley, one of my favourite people and author of Everybody Writes says, 'No one will complain that you made something too simple to understand.'
K is for …
Kerning. This is a basic typography technique where the spacing between individual letters is adjusted to improve fit and legibility. It's not something you would necessarily need to do in Word, but if your copy is being designed and laid out before publication then it may come up in discussions with your designer. It's good to have some basic knowledge of these terms, so why not check out Col's video Typography Basics Explained, which explains body copy, display type, hierarchy, kerning and leading.
L is for …
Language change. It's a good idea to stay tuned in to current trends in language use. Language is fluid and meaning and usage can change, sometimes quite quickly. Be sensitive to your audience, particularly around gendered language; terms such as chairman, man hours and he/she are less favoured than chairperson, worker hours and they. Yes, singular they is acceptable, (see this article from The Washington Post) regardless of what you were taught at school, because, hey, things change.
M is for …
Method. I can't express strongly enough how important it is to be methodical in your approach to editing and proofreading your writing. Reading it through trying to catch typos, ensure consistency of style and check that it flows and makes sense all in one pass is a recipe for disaster, especially with longer articles. You will miss things.
Give yourself time to make more than one pass through the document, focusing on one aspect each time. This is far more efficient, as you'll be tuned in to, for example, checking all the headings and captions in one pass, then reading through for typos in the next. It may seem laborious, but it's actually much more effective.
So there we go — that was Part One of our A—Z. In Part Two we march on, from Numbers to Zzz. Why not take a look for some more tips and techniques? Let me know if you learned something new, or if you have your own super useful method!