The 9-Step Guide To Self-Editing Your Writing
The internet has made self-publishing possible when it was once unthinkable. It has never been easier to write a blog post or even an entire book and post it online for anyone to read, and all this in your total control, without any gatekeepers.
But what about self-editing? If we self-publish, can we also self-edit? Sure! I do it all the time for my own blogs. I don’t necessarily recommend it in all cases, but there are certainly times when we need to self-edit, and today I’d like to share my own process with you.
In this article, I am giving away all my secrets to copyediting and proofreading your own work! Why am I doing that? Isn’t that how I make a living? Well, yes. There can be no substitute for a second pair of eyes on your writing. But if you want to get your writing looking its best before you hit publish (or even just before you send it to your editor), try these tips first!
It might be helpful for your own sanity to start by saving a copy of your writing. You can call this “Version 2.” Do all your edits in this new file in case you need to compare or refer back to your original version. And you might have multiple rounds of edits—save a new copy for each one.
My self-editing tips below are general ones, and you need to think about which of them apply to your writing. For example, definitely consider each of these steps if you’re self-editing a book, but you don’t need all of them for a blog post, for example.
Here we go!
Step 1 : Use the spellcheck feature
The first self-editing step that comes to mind is the one that most people assume is a one-and-done effort to polish their writing: spellcheck.
We are so used to automatic spellcheck that we might rely on it more than we care to admit!
It’s a useful tool in any word processing software. Don’t forget it’s there. Even if it’s checking your writing automatically, go into the feature and tell it to check your entire text again. You might just find some typos to fix.
And these days, spellcheck looks for way more than just spelling! Capitalization, abbreviations, apostrophes, subject/verb agreement, noun/pronoun agreement, misused words, and dialect variations are sometimes solved by spellcheck…
Sometimes. You should not rely on spellcheck as a fail-safe, nor should it replace your own brain when it comes to perfecting your writing. Use it as a helpful tool, but don’t live and die by it.
Step 2: Check your paragraphs and indentation
I see a lot of writers struggle with their paragraphs and indentation as a problem with consistency. It’s so much easier for the reader to concentrate on your message when the text itself is represented in an orderly, organized fashion.
Do your paragraphs make sense for your argument? Put another way, does each new paragraph begin with a topic sentence that introduces the reader to the rest of the text in the paragraph? Most writers have this down pat, but it bears repeating.
Now for the indentation of the paragraphs: aim for consistency throughout your text. You might be using a hard return, like I am right now, with spaces above and below each paragraph, and no indentation, to distinguish them in this blog post.
Other mediums (particularly books) tend to use no spaces above and below and indent the beginning of each paragraph. If this is the case for you, make sure all the indentations are the same. Are you using 3 spaces to indent, or the tab key, or something else? Decide on your rule and stick to it.
Tip: If your text isn’t terribly long, and you could print it without destroying a rainforest, you might catch more indentation errors in the hard copy. Many writers have relied on this method by holding the hard copy upside down and looking at the text like that. It sounds silly, but it really does work! Your eyes are able to catch more errors this way simply by looking at things from a new perspective.
Step 3: Verify your page numbers and numbered lists, tables, etc.
I doubt that anyone is manually numbering their pages anymore. Even if you are using software for that, just check briefly that the page numbers look correct.
More importantly, have a look inside the body of your text for any numbered lists, tables, etc. Anyone who has used Microsoft Word knows that even automatic numbering can get screwed up sometimes. And if you reference any tables or graphs in your text, for example, with Figure 1 and Figure 2, make sure your text is referencing the correct Figure.
Step 4: Use the correct quotation marks
Here is another case in which automatic formatting sometimes doesn’t do its job. Some quotation marks resemble two straight vertical lines (ASCII quotation marks). Others are curved (typographic quotation marks). Your word processing software may automatically format quotation marks from one style to the other, but some may slip through the cracks.
It can be annoying to see two different formats together in the same text, so decide on which kind you want and pay attention if there are discrepancies.
But that’s the nitty gritty. You also need to be careful with usage. Different style guides have different rules for using quotation marks. For example, where CMOS would use italics for titles of works, AP Style uses quotation marks.
Even if you are not using a standard style guide, take a minute to see whether your usage is consistent throughout your text. Don’t use quotation marks in one area and italics in another, for example, to express the same thing (titles of works and internal dialogue are the most common).
Last, consider whether you need double quotation marks or single ones. Again, the usage can vary with your style guide. Aim for consistency, and when in doubt, research the usage that pertains to your text.
Step 5: Double-check your links
It’s more and more common to include links these days—certainly in blog posts, but in ebooks too and even in paperback books.
It’s a no-brainer to double check your links. Go through your text (including front and back matter, and table of contents) and check that each hyperlink follows correctly and is not broken.
You might have hyperlinks that follow to a website, or you might have hyperlinks that follow to a certain chapter or page number within your text. Be certain that they all follow properly! It’s one of the easiest things you can do to self-edit your work.
In a paperback version, your readers are obviously not clicking on the links you include, so you will need to write out the URLs. Still make sure that there are no typos so your readers can access the correct site.
Step 6: Pay attention to dashes vs bullets
Similar to numbered lists, make sure your bulleted lists are all formatted consistently. Check the symbols you are using. It might be best to stick to either bullets or dashes, but in some cases you might want to use both. Just make sure it looks consistent and is easy for your readers to follow.
While you’re at it, check that the indentations are consistent, and consider whether you need a capital or lowercase letter to begin each item in a list and whether to use punctuation at the end of each item. Standard style guides have rules for these.
Step 7: Check your capitalization
Some capitalization errors will be corrected for you (proper nouns, for example) if you followed my first tip by using spellcheck.
But did you ever think about your headings? It might not be so important to you in a blog post, but in an ebook or paperback, some sections are delineated by a (sub)heading, and their capitalization should be consistent.
My secret weapon? This website: www.capitalizemytitle.com.
In much the same way as spellcheck, this is a handy tool to check your own work, but it shouldn’t replace your own brain. If necessary, refer back to your style guide about specific capitalization rules.
Step 8: Make sure chapters are correctly referenced
Like numbered tables and hyperlinks, you need to make sure that any chapters or headings referenced in your text are correct.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you’re writing a book about marketing strategies. Your first chapter is about push marketing, and your second chapter is about pull marketing. Later on in Chapter 3, you need to use pull marketing in context and you refer the reader back to Chapter 1—but you should have written Chapter 2.
Make sure you get those errors corrected because they will lead to confusion on the part of your readers.
Step 9: Check your numbers. Again.
One of the most common issues with consistency I see in other people’s writing is how they use numbers. I mean: do you write them out as words, or do you use the numerals? One or 1?
Style guides have their own ridiculously complicated rules for numbers. And the rules are stupid sometimes. If you’re stuck with a specific style guide, you’re just going to have to play by their rules.
But if you’ve got more freedom with your style, make up your own rules for how you express numbers. Simplify your life. Come up with an easy-to-remember guide of your own, and then stick to it. Check that your entire text matches.
It may not seem important, but sticking to rules when it comes to numbers is another one of those things that’s going to make things easier on your readers.
You’re done self-editing!
If any of the above tips seem like a faff, it’s because to a lot of people they definitely are! Your job as a writer is to get your point across, but beware of the above issues too because they can seriously interfere with your message getting across to your readers. The name of the game is consistency, and you just might find perfection along the way.
I’m fully aware that many (or even all) of the above self-editing tips might seem like torture to some writers. I get it. We can’t all love to do that stuff. But that’s what professional editors are for!
If you don’t have the time to edit your work, or if you simply don’t want to, then don’t force yourself to do it. Outsource this essential step to someone who actually loves to do it! I’m a nerd for this stuff, and I love to help writers pick up the slack of editing so that they can find more time in their day to get to the business of writing.