How do you self-edit your books before submitting or publishing?


Oh dear. Unless it’s 2 a.m. or something, I self-edit even email messages and stuff. So, by the time it comes to publication of my writing, I’ve been over and over it at least 20 times, looking for the slightest fault. Obsessives of the world, unite!

Mind you, I can be approximately 100% accurate when line editing someone else’s words, but still miss slips of the keyboard in my own. This is the reason that everyone needs an external eye, who can be a paid editor, or you can use critique exchanges with other editors or writers you respect. I had such beta reads by eight people for my latest book, From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide.

Then my publisher had it edited again. I was pleased to note that while there were recommendations for change in things like chapter titles and order of content, there were few if any technical issues.

In order to make this post useful for others, so I can have the pleasure of being of service, I’ll list here a little of the advice I often give to my editing clients.

Let it get cold

When I re-read something of mine I haven’t looked at for months or even years, I DO spot the odd mis-spelling, or extra space that shouldn’t be there, or perhaps an Australian turn of phrase in a book otherwise written in American. So, unless a deadline is hanging over your shoulder, put the book away for a while, and get on with some other project. After a month or more, you should be able to read it as if it were someone else’s writing — and find the faults.

Read it aloud

Different aspects of attention are involved in reading silently and reading aloud. All prose is poetry. You will pick up awkward, convoluted sentences, and those that are too long. You’ll think again about where to put commas, and find the sentences that need an exclamation or question mark. Sometimes, prose has unintended rhymes, which sound ridiculous.

While doing this, you should focus on homophones: words that sound similar but have different meanings, for example were-where, which-witch, s aid-said, saga-sage. I have files with tens of thousands of such amusing word confusions.

Divorce words from their meaning

There are various ways of doing this. I don’t need them, but often advise people to read their work from the end toward the front, one sentence at a time. The rationale of this trick is that we skip over our writing errors because we get immersed in the content. If what you read becomes a fairly meaningless sequence of sentences, it is easier to spot the mistakes.

Ensure you have relevant knowledge

None of this is any good if you don’t know what you are looking for. Writing is both an art and a craft or trade. A potter who needs someone else to decide on oven temperature is not much of a craftsperson. I wouldn’t trust a carpenter who uses a chisel to turn a screw.

Our tools as writers are grammar, punctuation, word meaning. Become competent in these aspects. There is no excuse for confusing lie with lay, safe with harmless, spit with spat. You shouldn’t have a comma between the subject and verb of a sentence. There is no excuse for dangling participles, or using a gerund where a verb is needed. And if you don’t know what I mean, start your relevant education by looking up these terms.


Please leave a comment below, and then visit these other writers willing to share their wisdom:

Rhobin L Courtright

Helena Fairfax

A.J. Maguire

Anne Stenhouse

Skye Taylor

Connie Vines

Diane Bator

Beverley Bateman

Victoria Chatham

Judith Copek

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About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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18 Responses to How do you self-edit your books before submitting or publishing?

  1. Great post, Bob. 20 read-throughs sounds like very careful editing but I know from my own experience how one goes on finding issues. Anne

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    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Hi Anne. 20 is only a guess. It may be 200!
      What I tend to do is to start a new scene, then put it in the back of my mind and do something else. And that something else may be to read earlier parts of the story, perhaps from the start. I usually pick up a few errors, or minor content changes, or decide to move things around, or perhaps introduce something somewhere. So, it is genuine editing, but it is also an excuse for deferring moving forward.
      But then, I can never make up my mind whether to procrastinate or not.
      🙂

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  2. J.Q. Rose says:

    Great advice on self-editing. I usually read my ms on my Kindle. I don’t know why, but a different format and screen allows me to catch errors easily. Sometimes, when I’m wide awake, I use the text to speech tool to read the ms to me. But only in short spurts or with a particularly difficult passage to work out.
    JQ Rose

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    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Janet. That’s another technique I should have added to my list: change format or appearance in some way. Going on a different device, changing background color or font, transforming to PDF or web page all help to catch those annoying mistakes, for both line and content editing.

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  3. okwriter says:

    I, too, had forgotten about reading your book backwards. I found it awkward and difficult to do.
    Editing twenty times – yikes! I guess I need to do it a few more times. Thanks for sharing your process, Bob. It sounds like a good one.
    Beverley

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    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Beverley. Well, I’ve never done the backward reading bit, but recommend it for people who repeatedly skip over the same mistakes, although they are otherwise competent self-editors.

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  4. Hi Bob, I edit all my emails, and my texts, as well. Sometimes I wish I could just let them go!
    I like the idea of reading the book backwards. I’ll try that with my next!

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  5. Connie Vines says:

    I’ve always read my short pieces back to front, but never my novels. I’ll give that a try next time.

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  6. Victoria Chatham says:

    I had forgotten about reading the book back to front. But I do tend to edit everything I write, even a one-line e-mail! God bless Grammarly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Thank you, Victoria. I’ve never tried Grammarly, because I find grammar rules intuitive, but it’s good to have tools that work for us. I do find the little red squiggly lines under words helpful.

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  7. Skye-writer says:

    A lot of good ideas here to clean up my own act. I never considered myself obsessive – one look at my house and at least everyone knows I’m not obsessive about everything, but I edit not just emails, but texts. Me and autocorrect have a love/hate relationship because it often makes a correction that isn’t right.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Oh those autocorrect things are auto-wrong! When I can, I switch them off. Who is that electronic gremlin to tell me what my intended word is?

      🙂

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  8. Rhobin says:

    Years ago I worked for a small paper publisher. He had two editors. First they read the text backwards and then one read it aloud while the other watched the text. Good techniques that remain relevant.

    Liked by 1 person

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