How to self-edit your book [pre-edit checklist]
As a professional editor, one question I get asked a lot is – ‘how do I edit my own book?’
If you are going to successfully self-edit your own novel then it is essential that you take one important step: stop thinking like a writer.
Or, to be more accurate: if you are going to self-edit your own novel with any level of success, then you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like an editor.
I am not suggesting this is easy (or even enjoyable) but it is the first important step in the process of becoming a self-editor.
OK, so how to move from ‘how do I edit my own book?’ to becoming a self-editor?
The best place to begin is with your manuscript.
You need to stop seeing your Word doc as a magical spell that creates wonderful stories but instead see it as a ‘technical’ document that can be formatted in a certain way that creates the maximum possible engagement with the writer.
Less romance, more reality.
The result of seeing your manuscript as a collection of formats, systems and ‘rules’ is that you can start to enforce some best practices and consistency to your writing.
In this article, you will discover the checklist that we use at BubbleCow to help prepare a manuscript for editing.
It contains a number of repeatable steps that can be used to help lift your novel to a higher standard.
If you follow these steps your book will not only read better and contain fewer errors, but will also be easier to convert to ebook format.
Why Listen To Me?
I run a busy professional editing company called BubbleCow which deals with hundreds of edits per year.
We’ve been running since 2007 and over the years I have discovered that the key to consistent high-quality editing is good training, good communication, and clear systems.
One problem that we have identified is that not all manuscripts come to us at the same technical standard.
This means that editing can be difficult since you need to start at a different point for each book.
I realized that we needed a way to make sure that all manuscripts were at the same editorial point when editing started.
This way editors would not need to worry about missing vital steps.
The solution was to create a system (in this case a checklist) that allowed all of the essential-yet-routine parts of the pre-edit to be completed with the minimum amount of hassle. Before each edit begins in earnest, the editor follows the checklist and applies each step to the manuscript on which they are working.
The result is a consistent, high-quality service.
What Does The List Look Like?
Our Pre-Edit Checklist (that’s what we call it) is nothing too exciting; it is just a list of tasks that must be completed before an edit can start.
However, don’t be fooled by the simplicity – this little list is more powerful than it seems.
The list has been designed to ensure that each manuscript receives the same careful attention and that nothing is missed.
There’s nothing more comforting for an editor to know that if they follow a simple list of tasks they will be able to start editing in the confidence that they have removed many of the simple problems.
Why This Helps You
In a recent conversation with a writer whose book I was editing, I talked about our Pre-Edit Checklist and explained that it helped prepare each manuscript for editing.
I talked about how it had transformed the way we edit, making the process smoother and more accurate.
They were excited to hear what I was saying but was surprised that we hadn’t published the list, allowing writers to benefit from our knowledge and expertise.
This seemed like a great idea and this article is the result.
The aim of the article is to give you a solid base from which you can self-edit your own writing.
The W Word
Before we get onto the list, there’s just a little word of warning.
I get that there’s a debate over the ‘best’ word processor for writers and, to be honest, I am not really for weighing in on this argument.
What I do want to say is that, at BubbleCow, we use Word for all of the editing we carry out.
The reason is simple.
We have found that Word is by far the best word processing software when it comes to editing tools. It tends to be fast and easy to use once you have a grasp of the tools. As a result, this list assumes that you are using Word.
This said all of the items in the checklist will still work with most word processing packages.
The Pre-Edit Checklist
1. Check you have a backup copy – Before you start editing, make sure that you have created a backup copy of your manuscript. This way you will end up with an unedited and edited version. As a side note, we use Dropbox to backup all of our edits. They not only have a free option, but they also have ‘version control’, which means you can often rescue text you’ve accidentally deleted.
2. Turn tracked changes off – This is a point aimed more at professional editors, but I know many writers that like to edit using tracked changes. However, even if you do intend to use tracked changes, it is important that you ensure that they are turned off at this point. The reason is that If you leave them, the next steps in this list will potentially produce thousands of changes you’ll have to manually accept or reject.
3. Turn nonprinting characters on – The ability to turn non-printing symbols on or off is still not common knowledge. If you click the ‘Home’ ribbon in Word you will see in the center the symbol for nonprinting characters. You need to ensure this is on. Once clicked you will be able to see loads of formatting symbols in your text that are there to help editors but that won’t show in the final manuscript. These include paragraph breaks, manual line breaks, spaces and page breaks.
4. Check line spacing – As a rule we find it is best to edit at 1.5 line spacing. This is more to do with ease of reading. The way that the spacing is changed is to highlight the whole manuscript (ctrl A) and then right click and press ‘paragraph’. In the spacing section hit the ‘line spacing’ box and set to 1.5 lines. Once the edit is complete, feel free to change back to the line spacing of your choice.
5. Check indentation – The correct way to indent a manuscript is for the first paragraph of each new chapter to be flush and the remaining paragraphs to be indented. The way that the indentation is changed is to highlight the whole manuscript (ctrl A) and then right click and press ‘paragraph’. In the indentation section hit the ‘special’ box and set to ‘first line’. You can alter the indentation size in the next box. Please note that this will indent ALL paragraphs. You may need to go back and remove the indentations from chapter headings and the first paragraph of each chapter.
6. Remove double paragraph breaks – Paragraph breaks are what appear in your manuscript when you press Enter or Return. They indicate that a paragraph is complete. It is not uncommon for writers to separate paragraphs with two paragraph breaks (hitting return/enter twice). There’s no need to do this. If you are looking for space between paragraphs this can be added at the conversion stage. More importantly, many ebook conversion processes will strip out the extra ‘white space’ and using two breaks can cause potential problems.
7. Remove double spaces – In the days of typewriters it was often considered that adding double spaces between sentences was the best practice, but this is no longer the case. Single spaces are enough. At some point down the line, someone (a typesetter or person doing ebook conversion) will need to remove the extra white space, so it is best that you solve this problem now.
8. Replace exclamation marks with periods (full stops) – The overuse of exclamation marks is considered a sign of weak writing. You should use the context of the surrounding paragraphs to show the reader any ‘shock.’ The problem you face is that most exclamation marks will be in speech and in most cases it will be ok to replace the with a full stop. However, in some cases other punctuation will be more appropriate (comma, question mark etc.). Therefore you have two options. The first step for both options is to use the find/replace tool to find all exclamation marks. You then have two choices. You can either do a manual ‘find next’ and replace each with the correct punctuation. The second option is to just replace all with a full stop and then pick up the mistakes when you edit the manuscript.
9. Check chapter breaks – One essential element of the ebook conversion process is the ability to identify the start and end of chapters. The best way to do this is to use page breaks. To do this, first find the end of a chapter. You must then place the cursor at the end of the last sentence of the chapter. Once you are happy the cursor is correctly placed, click the ‘insert’ ribbon. On the left-hand side of the screen you will see a icon for ‘page break.’ Just hit this once.
10. Check ellipses – An ellipsis is the three dots that are used to indicate the omission of a word, or perhaps a pause. You need to make sure that these are three dots in length. The problem editors face is that the ‘correct’ way to present an ellipsis is . . . (dot space dot space dot). Now, the issue is that many ebook conversion tools will not recognise this format. The ebook language (html) already has its own symbol for an ellipsis and that’s … (dot dot dot – no spaces). Therefore, it is just better in the long run to make sure you are using the version with three dots and no spaces. To fix this run a find and replace that ‘finds’ . . . and ‘replaces’ with …
11. Turn tracked changes on – This is optional – naturally it is essential for our editors but less so for self-editing writers.
A Word Of Warning
It may not seem much, but these eleven items are deceptively powerful.
They will give you a framework from which you can start each edit, as well as providing you with the confidence that you are starting from the best possible point.
This all said it is not all unicorns and roses.
I just want to say a little about the dangers of using checklists.
You will find that, as you become familiar with the contents of the list, that it is easy to just assume you have followed all the steps.
This is dangerous and here’s why…
When we first introduced this list at BubbleCow it was given to our editors and they were asked to use it for each edit. We are only a small team and we were all in agreement that the checklist was a good thing. It worked great for the first couple of months. There was a noticeable drop in little errors being missed and editors reported that the initial phases of the editing process were now much more enjoyable.
However, this ‘honeymoon’ period didn’t last long and after a few months, we started to see little inconsistencies creeping back into edits.
These should have been picked up by the checklist.
I went back and chatted with our editors and it turned out that we were all making the same mistake. We were so aware of the list and had become so familiar with its content, that we were just assuming we had followed all the steps.
In our familiarity, we’d been missing steps.
The solution was simple. We decided to print out the list for each edit and then physically tick off the steps as they were completed.
Overnight the errors disappeared.
The moral of the story is that complacency is the killer.
If you are interested in using lists and want to find out more, I’d suggest you read Atul Gawande’s excellent book, The Checklist Manifesto.