Basic (self) editing

Welcome to my monthly editor’s guest column.

To edit or not to edit?

Well that isn’t the question.

The question is whether to pay for an editor, and if so, who to pay?

But let’s look at self-editing for this post and leave the ££££/$$$$ for a later post. Because self-editing comes first.

If you are useless at spelling and punctuation, you might as well admit it and hand your baby over to a skilled proofreader.

As for self-editing. One golden rule. Please, please leave your work for a while before you go back to it.

Self-imposed impossible deadlines are crazy when you are self-publishing.

There are lots of tips about how to self-edit: read it out loud, read it backwards (that so does not work for me), change the font/font size (that’s a good one, well recommended), and print it out. I would recommend printing it out but oh! the paper and cost of ink cartridges has me tearing my hair out. In Ye Olden Days reading print proofs was a lot easier. But times change and I honestly can’t justify print proofs.

You can over edit. How many times have I written something only to rewrite it and change it back or write something later on when I’d already said it previously.

In journalism, our stories went through a number of people: chief reporter/news editor, sub editor, chief sub editor, deputy editor, editor. Not all of them all of the time, but a goodly combination.

For example, someone might take the intro and use it as a headline. Then I had to write a new intro. Then someone would rewrite the intro back to my original and choose a different headline. And so on. Aaagh!

Sometimes, what you initially write is best.

Because I am incapable of reading past a misspelt word, wrong quotation mark, non-existent full stop, I’ll start with these small but noticeable errors as basics. They do matter. Please please please check for them.

There are basically two ways of writing fiction in the English language: English and American English. If you don’t know about style guides then I suggest you may wish to buy one. Hart’s for British, Chicago for American. I have and use both. Canadian style tends towards American, Aussie/Kiwi is more British, as are India and Pakistan. South Africa technically goes British, but informally leans US centric.

One of the small but main differences between UK and US is quotation marks. UK preferred style in fiction is ‘single marks’. Americans use “double ones”.

I had a ridiculous exchange with someone on a forum who asked me for my sources about quotation marks and quoted wiki at me. While wiki has (IMO) improved it is hardly the first resource for editing fiction. Talk about telling granny how to suck eggs.

I don’t care what quotation marks people use, but I do tell authors of the differences so they can decide for themselves.

One of the biggies I notice in most books is the misuse of compound words. Again, there is often a difference on the two sides of the pond. Brits wear make-up, Americans wear makeup. Well, some of us do, or don’t, as the case may be.

Americans put punctuation marks inside quotations. Brits vary it, depending on the sentence.

Numbers in fiction should be spelled out up to a hundred (in journalism and many text books it’s 1–10 or 12 that are spelled out).

One of my pet peeves is repetitive words. Especially distinctive ones. Do we really need to hear about someone’s obsidian eyes in every other paragraph?

And on the same repetitive theme, starting consecutive sentences/paragraphs with a subordinate clause is just dire.

If your writing looks like this:

Rushing out of the door, Jamie tripped on a banana skin …

On his way to school, he stopped to speak to the old tramp …

Turning up late for class, he was embarrassed to see Miranda laughing at him …

Edit. Big time.

Technically, it’s regarded as weak writing. More importantly, it is actually jarring to read. What we need is smooth prose for an easy read. This type of construction holds up the reading experience.

I read a draft query letter to an agent and virtually every paragraph started with a subordinate clause. My first thought was that an agent wouldn’t even consider the book based on the poor writing of the letter. What on earth would the book be like?

Dialogue tags

Authors love dramatic tags and adverbs. Purists prefer ‘said’, or nothing, if the exchange is clear. I despair when I read about characters hissing (snakes do that), barking and growling (my Podencos do that), laughing, chuckling and chortling (you can’t do that while speaking).

Trans and intrans

I’ll end with one of the most frequent mistakes I see. Lay and lie. We lay the table, we lie down. That’s not too difficult. But, what happens is, we get constructions like, ‘she went to lay down’. No, she went to lie down. The confusion often arises, because, in the past tense, she lay down. Aaaagh! again. But not she laid down.

Lay ALWAYS takes an object, eg the hen laid an egg. Lie does not have a direct object. Remember the hens if this one confuses you. The hen lays an egg, the hen laid an egg. The person lies down, or did lay down (but doesn’t lay an egg!).

With which, I will lay me down to sleep 😉

Next month I’ll be looking in more detail at the differences in transatlantic writing and discuss pros and cons of sticking to a specific national style, or morphing into one globalspeak.

Happy editing authors!



  1. On my way to getting a snack, I stopped to read this piece . . . never did get my snack because I waited to see if a fix would be forthcoming for the subordinate clauses used as examples of weak writing.

    I’m curious; what makes those weak writing? They are not “wrong” as least as far as my poor understanding of the rules (such as they are) goes. I’m also unclear as to why they are jarring.

    I ask because I wonder about the reaction of a typical reader as opposed to that of someone well versed — invested, even — in grammar. Meaning, are those universally jarring or only to certain people? Assuming one would not see the “before” version, would changing them make the reading experience noticeably better?

    Overall, a nice post, and that’s no lie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is nothing wrong with the grammar, if that’s what you are asking. However, by putting a subordinate clause first, an author is placing the direct action at one step removed from the reader, so this lessens the impact of the story/writing.

      Why is it jarring? Well because it is repetitive apart from anything else. And, it is regarded as lazy writing. Depending on what writing guides you read, it can be described as amateurish and hackish.

      Professionally, I would advise using them with extreme care/caution, ie very occasionally. It also depends on the style of book someone is writing, so it may fit better say, with contemp lit or historical fiction.

      They may not be universally consciously jarring, but if a reader thinks, hmmm, this book is sort of mediocre, this sort of writing may be one reason why.

      And thank you.


    • Hmm . . . this resembles the “because we say so” explanation.

      Purely from a speculative perspective, I would posit the “average” reader might not notice and without experimental data, I’m reluctant to accept the explanation that if a reader does not like a piece of fiction it’s because of subordinate clauses acting on their subconscious.

      I’m not just being argumentative (although I’m often accused of it); the fact is that I don’t find those jarring and would not notice them unless (as is now the case) someone made me aware of them. Once aware, I don’t have an opinion about them other than if someone — again, as is the case here — tells me that it’s bad writing.

      That’s the speculative argument.

      The reality is that if the gatekeepers think it’s bad and a sign of poor writing, my opinion — and that of other readers — is irrelevant. As a writer aspiring to be published, I’ll listen to someone telling me “Look, bud, we can both agree this is not wrong, but I’m telling you that the editors who might buy your work are not going to like it, so deep-six them leading subordinate clauses!” . . . “Oh, and one more thing; lose the exclamation point in the previous sentence.”

      On a side note, I wonder if the reason I don’t find the examples jarring — consciously or not — is because English is my second language and I often find myself preferring (or is it: I find myself often preferring? . . . often I find myself preferring? . . .) sentence structures that I’ve been told are “wrong” even when they “sound” better to me than the correct structure (or is it: they “sound” to me better than the correct structure? . . . to me they “sound” better than the correct structure?)

      Anyway, interesting discussion. Thanks.


      • I agree with you to a large extent – much as it grieves me. I think the biggest example of ‘because we say so’ is ‘show not tell’ which seems to be mandatory on every American creative writing course. Did you find it on your workshop? Anyway, the point is, that if someone writes well, it doesn’t matter if they tell and don’t show. I have read books full of showing that leave my head spinning they are so full of contrived prose, but, you know, the author has been on courses and therefore Can. Write. Ugh.

        I still disagree on subords. I do think they are jarring and weak. But, maybe that’s me and my years of training and writing. For example, no way in journalism, do you get: ‘Rushing out of the car, the police officers apprehended the suspected murderer.’ Or, ‘Fleeing the hotel on fire, the guests wandered around on the streets in pyjamas.’ Etc.

        I’m not saying fiction is journalism, but journalistic style is strong on action. It’s worth being aware of.

        Yeah. I’m not keen on exclamation points either. No surprise there?

        Let’s try it in Spanish, because my Italian is mediocre to crap these days.

        Dormiendo en su cama, Catalina estaba contenta

        Esperando por el autobus, José habló con Miguel

        Andando a las tiendas, Maria y Paco toman un café

        Or some such. You get the idea. It sounds the same whether it’s español or English.

        As for what sounds better … go with … what sounds better 🙂



      • As I sipped my coffee, I wondered: how would you write those?

        Just swap them around? How would you write those, I wondered as I sipped my coffee. I then wondered where I would put the question mark. Or is it that sipping the coffee is not important? Other than, you know, to anchor the scene and establish me as sophisticated and worldly?


        • Depends where you want the emphasis.

          I sipped my café solo/espresso laced with a shot of anís. And I wondered, how would you write those?

          So, it’s a good example, using ‘as’ to start off the sentence weakens it.

          Also, the coffee becomes irrelevant in the second version. As you suggest, it’s no longer important, unless it’s placed first. In which case, it needs more emphasis.

          And, café solo or espresso sound more sophis and worldly than latte/cappuchino or just plain coffee. Just for future reference 🙂


        • Cafe solo or espresso makes it seem as if the act of having a coffee was more deliberate, more the focus of the moment. Coffee indicates more of a prop to the moment, something one might have out of habit while attending to something else. Plus, not worldly be I.


          • To me, it’s of no interest if you sipped your coffee as a secondary point. Might as well not be there. I like the idea of someone musing, thinking, pondering, over their morning coffee. Depends what image you want to create.

            Liked by 1 person

        • While it wasn’t a post about blogging and search engines, one of my blog posts, previously at first for some years on google, dropped to seventh or eighth recently so I was confused, it has gone down the page rankings. Very sad face there 😦

          I don’t think that’s what you meant though. You mean, how come blogging is in seventh place? Too high or too low? Simple. Blogging may generate income but it isn’t actually paid for. It’s been a busy month so my blogging commitments not just on here, but on my own blogs have been, well, tardy, for which I apologise.

          I’ve done my partner’s books for 30 plus years, his paperwork, ie estimates and bills, I answer the office phone. I manage the block, chair the committee, produce the paperwork, er, do the books. Pay the bills.

          I guest post on here so I have a commitment. That has to be considered.

          And I write and edit. I’m sure that puts personal blogging at seventh?!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks for sharing. Listen, I hear you. My life is swamped too, even my bookwriting keeps getting pushed to last lately, and that’s bad. Blogging, reading, writing, commenting, does eat up so much time, so I’m always curious to learn how people micro manage their time, especially when it comes to blogging. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Learned some good stuff here, like the 1-100 written out, that there’s a difference to ‘ or ” in the U.S. or UK, changing the font or the size sounds good too. Never thought of that one. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that. If tips help, they are worth writing out. Changing fonts especially. I do a lot of editing and proofing and I usually a) change the size eg up to 14 pt, and then change from serif to sans. Doesn’t need to be complicated, just change from Times to Arial/Helvetica.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s great to start with the basics. I completely agree with leaving the manuscript for a while before starting one’s thorough edit. I edit as I write too… It’s a bad habit that slows down my writing, terribly. I know I didn’t pick it up in college ’cause I had too many tight deadlines for turning work in. It must have been when I started writing for myself. As for tricky words, I always end up having to double-check my lies and lays as well as others, but I do like the clarity you have placed upon it here.

    As you already know, I have the problem of my mix with English and American having had to appease both in the past. It’s not as easy as one may think. I used Chicago style for my English and Education classes, but had to use APA style in my Psychology/Counselling and related courses. I became quite adept at both despite the annual amendments. However, returning to England and realising I’d quite forgotten a lot of ‘our’ style… and the changes since then… Geez! I could use a proper refresher to be honest, but can’t be arsed with it. That’s why I have you. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do both. Edit as I write and then re-edit!

      We all need to know which style guides to use for what. Style guides were a big part of my training so it’s basic indoctrination for me (like religion?!)

      As you know, I value author independence and integrity, but I might argue about the odd wrong usage. Quotation marks, commas, semis, all that is overly the top precious.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s actually Roughseas’ post, Trisha. She does an editorial each month. Anything to do with writing, publishing, editing etc is usually written by her. Thanks for reading all the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wonderful article! There are a few hurdles that routinely trip me up, that I always have to stop and reason through. Lay and lie are one of them. Thanks for the tips!

    This is a great article! I’ll be sharing/linking it to the Curated Content post at tomorrow!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much Mae. What a lovely comment. I don’t think I ever thought about lay and lie very much in the past because no one got it wrong, but I seem to keep seeing both misused more and more.

      As I said to Annika, i don’t want to give too many don’ts all at once. But the other ones are: could of been, and affect/effect. Just headbang material. For later!

      And thanks for the proposed share on SE, which I really enjoy reading.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Affect/Effect is the WORST of all of them! I was just bemoaning that to another writer yesterday, LOL
        And I’m glad you’re enjoying SE 🙂


  5. This is a fascinating and comprehensive post and interesting to learn about the differences between UK and America regarding editing. I still worked on spelling out only up to ten as in journalism and hadn’t realised the difference for fiction – thank you for that tip and all the other excellent advice. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Annika. There are a lot of differences between UK and US which is why I run with the two style guides as a minimum. What’s interesting about journalism and fiction is that the principles are the same, just the styles are different. So, as an analogy, it’s like moving from one newspaper to another, but they use different style guides (assuming they have one!).

      I’ll do another post on other common errors later, but I don’t want to do overload. Plus I’m trying to avoid the its/it’s, their/there boringness. People must be sick of seeing that one 😀

      Liked by 2 people

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