Five Quick Self-edit Tips

by CJ McDaniel // October 11  
This guest post was written by Rebecca M. Lyles. Rebecca M. Lyles is a writer, editor, and humorist who has edited everything from romances and mystery/thrillers to technical manuals and college texts. She has developed a uniquely practical approach to writing and editing.

Do you know someone who cleans their house before the cleaning service comes? You might laugh, but there is a bit of logic in it. If you want a thorough, back-into-the-corners cleaning job, don’t make your house cleaner spend time dealing with clutter or dirty dishes in the sink.

Editors are only human, and they have their limits. If you think your readers won’t notice a little mistake here and there, remember that the trolls will find them.

In editing scores of fiction novels (romances, mysteries, and spy thrillers), I’ve encountered many of the same mistakes over and over again. If you want your editor to concentrate on the important things, don’t submit a manuscript that’s cluttered with unimportant ones. The more time editors spend on predictable and preventable errors, the more likely they are to miss something major. Here are a few techniques you can use to make sure you’re ready for the editor.

1. Format

Whatever formatting guidelines your publisher has provided, don’t make the editor apply them for you. Use the features of MS Word to properly indent paragraphs, set line spacing, and use curly quotes (for example). If you submit a manuscript with a carriage return at the end of every line or paragraphs indented with five spaces, you invite ridicule or irritation. The editor will either reject the submission or hate you inwardly throughout the entire editing process.

2. Spell-check, but don’t depend on it.

Spell-check leaves no excuse for a typo or misspelled word, but remember that it can’t protect you from using the wrong (correctly spelled) word. I recently read – in a published, professionally edited book – a scene about a dying woman being given the “last rights” (instead of last rites). I imagined the priest saying, “You have the right to remain silent …” The death scene was not supposed to be funny.

3. Search is your friend.

A quick pass through a document, even a long one, takes only seconds. You’ve spent hours (days, months, years?) writing your masterpiece, so a few more minutes couldn’t hurt. Make several search passes, each for a different potential problem. Here are some examples of some common mistakes you can find and correct before the editor sees them.

Quotation marks – they come in pairs. Search on “ and look for missing close-quote marks.

  • Parentheses – like quotation marks, it takes two. Search for every ( and make sure there’s a close-parenthesis to go with it.
  • Common mistakes – these are easy to make when you’re typing, and deceptively easy to overlook when you’re editing. Search and confirm what you meant to say:

• where or were
• than or then
• you or your
• its or it’s
• lose or loose

4. Character descriptions

If you don’t make a complete list of main characters and their descriptions before you begin to write, you’re just asking for trouble. Sharp-eyed editors might find continuity mistakes, but impatient proofreaders will not. And remember the trolls, who find everything and have no mercy. Before you even start to write, construct a chart describing your main characters with their correctly spelled names, physical attributes, ages, relationships, and quirks. Over the time it takes to write a book, authors easily forget what they intended in the beginning. Alexandra, the green-eyed, 28-year-old heroine on the first page is suddenly Alexandre (age 24) on page 52, and the hero is gazing into her deep blue eyes. A quotation attributed to her father George is now her Uncle George’s favorite saying, and the hero who was in her high school class is now 31 (three years older than she is? seven years older?).

5. Foreign words or phrases

It’s great to add a little international flair or sophistication by dropping, for example, a French or Italian expression into the conversation. But get it right, because some reader will know what’s correct. I’ve edited out all of these (really!):

bon appetite (bon appetit)
boo-coo (beaucoup)
expresso (espresso)
joy de vive (joie de vivre)

Nothing comes off as less sophisticated than a pretender, so look them up or check with a reliable source.

The editor can sometimes seem like a villain (corrections sting), but most of them sincerely want to help you make your writing the best it can be. Often they’re rushed, overworked, and under time pressure. So don’t be afraid to take a little extra time to straighten up before the cleaning service arrives.


Rebecca’s corporate career spanned thirty years, first as a technical writer and editor, and then as a manager, for companies including AT&T and IBM.

She now consults independently, as Text CPR, with authors and business clients. When not writing song parodies for an annual community theater comedy show, she gives workshops and lectures on writing forbusiness and writing organizations. Her book,
“From the Errors of Others,” is a collection of short and funny (but informative) pieces on common writing and speaking mistakes. Drawing on years of working in business, observing all kinds of people, and finding humor in unlikely places, she provides sensible solutions to irritating language bugaboos.

From the Errors of Others

About the Author

CJ grew up admiring books. His family owned a small bookstore throughout his early childhood, and he would spend weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. Not much has changed since then, except now some of those interesting books he picks off the shelf were designed by his company!