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The Beginners Guide to Effective Editing

copyediting writers editing punctuation grammar

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” — Mark Twain

Every writer, from experienced authors to fresh bloggers, has to contend with editing. Editing is an invaluable and inseparable element of writing; it cannot be overlooked. And most writers don’t write for a large publishing house with a staff of editors at the ready to improve drafts and polish final versions. Then there’s the brave new world of self-publishing where more and more authors are going direct-to-customer with their books.

At the confluence of these forces, who is responsible to edit a work into shape? The writer, that’s who. And if you’re a writer, that means you.

Writers need to recognize that editing is a major difference-maker when it comes to the credibility of their work as well as the quality of their reputation. It’s easy to skimp on editing, sure. But really, that lackadaisical nature of many writers means that editing can become all that more advantageous to you. As writing and publishing continue to morph away from traditional processes and publishers, the greater the independent value of editing.

That premise may be straightforward. The practicality of it, however, is often less so. When writers first encroach into editing territory, many make the common mistake of perceiving all editing as grammar proofing and spellchecking. Those elements are vital to complete editing, but robust editing comprises much more than that. In fact, there are three distinct levels of editing that everyone who works with words should understand and appreciate.

1. Developmental Editing

Developmental editing can and should be your first step in the writing process. Developmental editing is strategic editing—it critiques the structure of a book, the basic arguments of an idea, the completeness of a plot, the integrity of characters, the context of the work, and more. Developmental editing is, in essence, the mapping out of a creative idea so that it may be vividly expressed. Some writers do this work in their head while others plot and consistently re-plot in sketch or outline form. Whatever your execution preference, your plan should always take your work’s purpose and audience into consideration.

I like to think of developmental editing as the “architecting” of a story or idea. First drafts always require an initial architecture that may or may not be complete, accurate, or appropriate for the subject matter and intended audience. That’s why developmental editing both before and after the first draft is valuable to an author—it prevents blind spots from persisting into the finished work.

2. Line Editing

Once developmental editing has finished—once the structure is intact and the gaps filled—it’s time to lean into line editing.

Line editing focuses on the language, tone, style, and flow of the writing. Do the words vividly express the story or idea? Is the narrative lean, free of gluttonous redundancy, hollow rhetoric, and generalizations? Does the writer’s voice—his or her attitude and personality—bleed through onto the page/screen? In layman’s terms, is the writing good?

Line edits come alive with the “red pen” edits—lots of strikethroughs and critiques in the margin. Good editors relish this part of the process. Writers should too because it’s the opportunity to really make their work sing. When line editing your own work, never do it in the same sitting as the writing. Give yourself distance from the work, a few days if you can. Then come back to the writing with fresh eyes and an editor’s mindset. That’s the best way to identify the line edits that your writing needs.

3. Copyediting / Proofreading

Ah, copyediting. This phase is what leaps to mind for most writers when they think about editing. Grammar proofing and spellchecking is a most. Don’t overly rely on your writing software’s built-in grammar and spellchecking capabilities, however. You need a human eye to inspect your work to ensure that the intended meaning of your words is accurate. Misused words (“in” for “on”, for example) always abound in early drafts of writing—mistakes that no computer is going to detect.

One way to approach copyediting (also referenced as proofreading) is to batch your review into groups. For example, review all of the numbers within the work at one time. When that’s complete, go back through and validate all punctuation, especially punctuation related to lists and other forms of special formatting. Consistency is the key; make sure that your usage of numbers, punctuation, spelling/diction choices, etc. are consistent throughout the work. For example, if you follow the Chicago Style of Manual’s approach to percentages (writing out percent as a word, not a symbol), make sure every instance of a percentage does not use a symbol.

Copyediting can be a tedious task, so don’t do too much in one stretch. And if you have access to independent editors, willing friends, and/or eager beta readers, ask them to proof read your work too. Combine all of their copy edits into the final draft.

Good Editing is an Author’s Best Friend

Truly, it is.

The most parroted consternation and belittling of self-publishing and other forms of independent publishing is the dreaded “amateurish” label. Despite great gains in technology as well as marquee authors making the switch away from traditional options, self/indie-publishing still suffers from this stereotype.

Thus, to place your writing beyond reproach, invest in serious editing. That’s what the pros do.