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.
Why are apostrophes such a problem?
If there's one thing that's guaranteed to enrage the Grammar Police (who, by the way, are definitely not cool), it's the misuse of apostrophes.
We really do seem to have a big problem with them – whether they're missed out or put in where they have no business being, lots of people just can't seem to get it right. For them, it's the punctuation equivalent of pin the tail on the donkey – a matter of luck more than judgement whether they hit the mark!
I think apostrophes are a problem for lots of people because:
What is an apostrophe used for?
Generally, there are only two main reasons for an apostrophe's existence. That's right, two. And if you can get those two reasons clear in your mind then you've a much higher chance of using one correctly.
1 In contractions, to show that a letter has been left out.
2 To show possession, i.e. that something belongs to someone.
How do I use an apostrophe in contractions?
Here the apostrophe is used to show that one or more letters has been left out when combining two words:
So far, so straightforward, yes?
Just be sure to note that the apostrophe goes where the missing letter is. You should never write is'nt or Iv'e.
How do I use an apostrophe to show possession?
So this is where things start to get a bit more complicated!
Let's start with the straightforward bit.
We use an apostrophe + s to show that something belongs to someone or something:
I think most people are OK with this. But what if the word already ends in s?
Most punctuation guides will now go with the 'if you say it then write it' rule.
Leaving off the s is pretty much a matter of style in this context these days – some publications stipulate their preference in their style guide.
My friend Ross is positively affronted if you write Ross' and leave off that second s. So be warned – some people feel strongly about this one!
However, when the end of the word is pronounced iz or ez, you can safely leave off that second s.
Now, when we come to possessive pronouns, this is where it gets a bit sticky.
A pronoun can be used in place of a noun in a sentence:
We can use the pronoun their in place of Sarah and Danny and write:
We can go further and rewrite this sentence using the possessive pronoun theirs:
There is never an apostrophe in a possessive pronoun!
This goes for all the possessive pronouns that end in s:
And I really hope you wouldn't try to shoehorn an apostrophe into his!
(The difficulty people have in using its and it's correctly is such a hot potato that I wrote a blog about it.)
So you would write:
I get that this must seem illogical and confusing, but I'm afraid there's no way around it – you just have to accept that there are lots of these inconsistencies in our language and try to do the right thing!
When can I leave out an apostrophe?
Short answer? In plurals.
When there is more than one of something, you don't need an apostrophe – the plural ending is quite enough, whether that's -s, -es, or -ies.
See? Not an apostrophe in sight!
But … but … what about possessive plurals? Ooh, meltdown alert! Don't be tempted to just give up at this point, though. You can work it out!
A plural never takes an apostrophe, but when you want to show that something belongs to that plural, then here comes that apostrophe, just to muddy the waters!
If you want to show that a plural is possessive, and it already ends in s, then you only need to add an apostrophe after the s:
And when you have a plural which is irregular (you haven't simply added s to make it plural), you add 's just like any other possessive:
IS THERE AN EXCEPTION TO NOT USING AN APOSTROPHE IN PLURALS?
Of course! This is English – we have exceptions for everything!
If not adding an apostrophe would make your plural unreadable or confusing, then it's OK to add an apostrophe.
This is why you might see:
There is no agreement on this approach, but Grammar Girl gives some nicely pragmatic advice about it:
'Unless your editor wishes otherwise, if you write books, spell it dos and don'ts; and if you write for newspapers, magazines, or the Web, spell it do's and don'ts. If you're writing for yourself, spell it any way you want.'
Phew, I think we got there!
I hope this has helped you to understand when you should and shouldn't use an apostrophe. I don't expect you to have had a Eureka! moment (if you did, I really want to hear about it!), but I hope I've shone some light on what, for many people, is a very fuzzy area.
A very useful reference book is The Penguin Guide to Punctuation, which I recommend to my clients.
Check out these posts for more from the Worry-free Writing series:
Worry-free writing: how to use hyphens & dashes
Worry-free writing: how to use a semicolon
Worry-free writing: how to use an ellipsis
Over to you!
What do you think? Has that helped you get a better picture of when to use an apostrophe?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and any suggestions you might have for other topics to include in my Worry-free Writing series.
If there's a grammar point you're not clear on, or a punctuation mark you're not sure about, drop in a comment below, or tweet me using the hashtag #WorryFreeWriting.
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.
What’s the difference between a hyphen and a dash?
Good question – did you even know there was a difference?
Hyphens and dashes are distinct characters on your keyboard and they have separate jobs.
They are also different widths, although depending on the typeface you are using that may not always be really obvious.
What is a hyphen?
OK, indulge me here for the sake of completeness. I know you know what a hyphen is, but let's just do a spot of revision here!
A hyphen is a horizontal line that is used to join two words, or parts of words, together, e.g. well-known, co-ordinate, fat-free.
Using a hyphen can be a matter of preference. I used co-ordinate as an example above, but some style guides I work with prefer it to be closed up, without a hyphen: coordinate. Whichever style you prefer, make sure you use it consistently.
How do I make a hyphen?
The hyphen is on the top right of your keyboard, to the right of the number 0. You can also use the minus sign on the numeric keypad, if your keyboard has one.
When do I use a hyphen?
A hyphen is used:
1. A hyphen is used to join a prefix – such as re, de, anti or non – to its word:
re-apply, de-ice, anti-clockwise, non-negotiable.
It's worth remembering that, generally, the trend is for prefixes to lose their hyphens, except where it would be confusing.
This is why most people will now write email rather than e-mail (or electronic-mail!), but we would still write re-apply rather than reapply and re-refer rather than rerefer.
2. A hyphen is also used in compound words – such as well-known, part-time or dark-blue – which are used to describe a noun:
a well-known speaker; a part-time worker; a dark-blue uniform.
We don't need to go into all the ins and outs of using hyphens in compound words here, but note that when the modifier comes after the word it's describing, you don't use a hyphen:
the speaker is well known; he works part time; the uniform is dark blue.
If you're interested in learning more about this, I recommend The Penguin Guide to Punctuation – an excellent, easy-to-read book.
What is a dash?
There are two types of dash:
How do I make a dash?
The quickest way to make an en dash on a PC is to use the keyboard shortcut:
CTRL + the minus sign on the numeric keypad.
This won't work using the hyphen key - you'll probably just succeed in shrinking the text size on your screen!
To make an em dash on a PC, use the keyboard shortcut:
CTRL + ALT + the minus sign on the numeric keypad.
If you don't have a numeric keypad, you can use the insert symbol command in Word:
Insert | Symbol | More Symbols | Special Characters
You can see from the screenshot that there are other useful characters there, such as the ellipsis, and you can also see the assigned shortcut key for each.
If you're a Mac user, the keyboard shortcut for an en dash is:
Option + Hyphen
And for an em dash it's:
Option+ Shift + Hyphen
OK, so you've got your dashes, but what do you do with them now?
When do I use a dash?
The en dash
In British English, an en dash is commonly used:
1. In a range, the dash represents to or and:
8.30–12.30 | 2010–17 | Monday–Friday | Glasgow–London | pp.68–92
When used in a range, the en dash is always closed, i.e. there is no space either side of it.
2. A pair of en-dashes can be used to set off additional information, or an interruption, in a sentence.
This is called parenthetical use. It works in the same way as a pair of commas or parentheses do in a sentence. Parentheses (plural; the singular is parenthesis) is another word for brackets.
Our parent company – which was founded in 1955 – is based in San Francisco.
Note that if you remove the information inside the dashes, what is left will still make a complete sentence.
If the additional information comes at the end of the sentence, only the first dash is used:
Visit our show area to see our huge range of sheds – you won’t be disappointed!
When used to set off information, the en dash is always open, i.e. there is a space on either side of it.
The em dash
The em dash is is used much less often in British English (although it is dictated by the Oxford style guide), but it is the norm in American English, where it is used parenthetically.
In this use, the em dash is closed – there is no space between it and the words either side.
Our parent company— which was founded in 1955— is based in San Francisco.
The em dash is also used in dialogue to indicate interrupted speech:
'They couldn't hit an elephant at this dist—'
But, really, does it matter which one I use?
You might wonder if the distinction between a hyphen and a dash really matters. Does it make any difference?
Well, the world won't end if you carry on using hyphens for everything, that's for sure.
But I think a correctly used en dash improves your writing; it creates space and makes the text easier to read.
I think they're elegant.
I always get a twinge of disappointment when I see a hyphen where an en dash should be. And of course I never fail to be pleased by someone using an en dash.
This isn't snobbery or a case of 'I know how to use them and you don't'.
Before I trained as an editor I had no idea about these differences. We were certainly never taught about them at school.
But now I do know, and I understand how a text is improved by using hyphens and dashes correctly, I want to convert the world, one person (and one hyphen) at a time!
And now you know about them, why wouldn't you use them too? Have the satisfaction of knowing that not only is your text easier to read, it also looks more polished.
You'll prompt an approving nod of recognition from all the other en dash users out there. Who knows, it could be the tipping point that shifts them from prospects to customers!
Over to you!
What do you think? Do we editors get too worried about subtle differences like this, or do you see their value?
If this is all new information to you, do you think you'll make an effort to use hyphens and en dashes in the right place now, or is it really not that important to you?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - drop me a comment below, or tweet me.
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 my free ebook, Creating Your Style Sheet, with information about hyphens, dashes, and much, much more.
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!