Tools of the Trade: Self-Editing

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

August 5, 2014

Tips for WritersThe fledgling barn swallow careens drunkenly, barely lifting off the ground higher than the dog chasing it. With fumbling feathers it flits to the top of the pasture-gate and clings with wiry bird toes as the dog sniffs from below. Later, it attempts flight again, swooping almost comically from side to side, crashing into a clump of tall pond reeds.

I cringe because I can relate.

As an emerging author–dare I say it too early–I feel as though I’m careening through process like I’ve a bottle of moonshine stashed in my desk drawer. Nip, nip on the bottle, snip, snip on the page. I take a deep breath. I don’t drink at my desk and I don’t randomly edit with scissors, but some days I feel as wet-behind-the-ears as that fledgling bird.

To counter doubt, I assemble tools important to my trade. I feel more like a carpenter when I wear a carpenter’s belt with hammer, nails and level tucked close to me.  I’ve talked about other tools employed in writing such as

When you write, write. But before you call it a book, edit.

Last week we discussed a few time management ideas and broke down editing into levels. When it is time to edit, edit with tools. This will help steady you if you feel like you’re careening when faced with the tower of pages in a project. Think of your tools as guides or training wheels. Even when you master this thing called writing a book, it is because you’ve mastered how to use your tools.

Self-editing requires knowledge and assistance: books, beta-readers and professional editors.

Self-Editing (2)

Books for Self Editing

Writers, know thy language. Before you can write brilliant prose, you need to know how to construct basic subject-verb-object sentences. You need references that remind you what it is to write clearly and correctly. Yes, brilliant authors break basic rules, but only because they wore the basics long enough to make them into comfortable, ragged jeans that they could retrofit into the latest-greatest fad.

This short-list of must-have books for self-editing is American-biased. I’d love to hear from writers outside the stars-and-stripes as to what would be comparable references.

  1. Strunk & White, “The Elements of Style.” Don’t let the thin book fool you–it is as dense as a slice of chocolate torte. Be clear. (That’s chapter 16, by the way.) But know your punctuation, your constructs of sentences. Strunk and White advise, “Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!” This book must grace your shelf and be your self-editing companion (well, if you are American).
  2. The Associated Press Stylebook. The caveat here is that this book is for media writers. However, most authors–established and emerging–blog these days and the AP Stylebook is the proper reference guide, referred to as the “journalist’s bible.” I use it as the foundational guide for client work, making notes for differing styles or words not included (such as, fair trade). It defines email (not e-mail), farmers market (not farmer’s market) and proper weather terms.
  3. Webster’s New World College Dictionary. This is the companion dictionary to the AP Stylebook. Before I got into editing, I relied on my Heritage New Dictionary, and if I want to geek-out on words I go to my beloved Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. What I love about my version of Webster’s is that the book came with a disk so I have loaded both the dictionary and companion thesaurus onto my computer. It makes checking words a breeze (even those occasional “chiefly British” words I hanker to learn). Point is, have a dictionary.
  4. Williams & Bizup “Style, Lessons in Clarity and Grace.” If you are serious about mastering language, get this book. If you are in college to study English (Lit or Writing) you will be required to get this book. So, if you are at home working on a DIY MFA, get this book. It’s $50 and worth the expense. If you don’t have the dough, go to your library and work on the lessons there. Bring a notebook.
  5. Eyes. Not a book, but a self-editing tool. Use your eyes to read other writers (good writers, masters, classics). Use your eyes to review your own work. Use your eyes to look up references, not problem areas and learn as you work on your craft.

Beta-Readers for Self-Editing

Why do I think somebody else reading your manuscript is a form of self-editing? Because you need to be in control of this process (unless you are a control freak and then maybe you just need to lighten up). Don’t just blindly say, “Hey–want to read my book? Yea! Great! Thanks!” Be mindful of why you want your beta-readers to read:

  1. Content. At this level of editing you are seeking feedback. Is the plot flowing, are the characters believable? While it is important to gauge a reader’s interest in your book you do need to go deeper than an opinion (“It was great!” or “It sucked!”). Ask specific questions for your beta-readers to answer.
  2. Clarity. It’s entirely possible to have a beta-reader review your book for clarity. This is a level at which you might ask an industry expert to read. For example, I wrote a climate-fiction project and I might send a few chapters to a climatologist or to someone who is familiar with Baffin Island. My sweet neighbor Bessie isn’t going to be the best beta-reader at this level unless she’s a retired book publisher who worked for NASA and visits Baffin Island.
  3. Correctness. I have more than a few Grammar Tyrants in my life who’d love to scan my sentences for errors and bleed red pen on the page. These are NOT the beta-readers I want at the content level as we will only frustrate each other. But they can be terrific proofers at the level of editing for correctness. However, be sure that they can manage focus for a project the size of a book. Most editors minimize their editing hours or else they overlook mistakes. Personally, I’d prefer a professional, but maybe you are lucky enough to have one volunteer or work out a trade of sorts.

Working With a Professional Editor

One valid reason yet for traditional publishing is to work with industry professionals. However, the conundrum is how do you get the professionals to even glance at your emerging book project? Often, you will need a professional to work with you on the editing. Again, you, the writer, are a part of this process.

  1. Find a professional. There are plenty who call themselves editors. I do, but I would never edit anyone’s book. I have zippo experience in the book publishing industry. I’ve worked for daily newspapers, magazines and businesses. I do volunteer to edit as a beta-reader for friends working on their masters or books only if I know that they are also working with advisers, professors or a final proof-reader. I want an editor who has worked in the industry, read books in the slush pile and honed a knowledge based on experience.
  2. Have your manuscript assessed. For me, revision was paralyzing. I knew I needed to make changes but i doubted each one. So I hired a professional who listened to my desire to write a hero’s journey. Not only did she point out where it was working, she also pointed out where it needed bolstering. She also brought things to my attention such as a persistent slip on point-of-view. I would never have caught that and my early beta-readers hadn’t noticed. I felt confident revising my novel project after her assessment and it cost less than two nights out for dinner.
  3. Have your final revision proofed or copy-edited. Again, you need to be involved with making this decision. If you had an editorial friend go over your book as a beta-reader, maybe all you need is a final proof. If in doubt, send a few chapters and the professional can help you decide what you need to polish the pages until it shines like the star you want it to be. Stay actively engaged in your edits and complete the suggested changes. Always be using your eyes (unless you are writing, then use your imagination to get into that flow).

What tools do you have in your writer’s belt? Have you used beta-readers or editors? Let me leave you with a testimonial for my editor in case you are in search of one or want to check out her company.

Testimonial: Write Divas

When I experienced trouble with revision, I sought the help of Write Divas. I chose this organization out of my list of editors because they had a strong and vibrant brand backed by expert posts on craft and industry. They were punctual in responding to my inquiry; affordable and accurate in their quote; and they saved the day with my manuscript, pointing out weak places that needed attention. Before you can copy edit, you first need to make sure that your story is clear, your structure sound and your characters believable. That’s what an assessment can accomplish. I feel more confident as a writer with the feedback from Write Divas, and I’m able to revise without second guessing my changes. They will help me each step of the way to achieve my publishing goals. Every writer needs an editor, so why not a Diva?

5 Reasons to Hire Write Divas:

  1. Because you get to tell your tweeps that you have your own Diva.
  2. Just look at their brand. Don’t you want to go hang out with them? Write Divas are hip!
  3. It sounds impressive to say, I’m a writer and I have an editor who is not my grandmother.
  4. Because now you have deadlines and no one wants to miss a deadline to a Diva.
  5. Besides all the fun, you have now committed to being professional in your writing pursuit.

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  1. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Great informative post. We too use Strunk and White as a bible. The other must have book is the Style Manual which is now in its 6th edition put out by the government and is essential reading no matter what sort of publishing you are wishing to undertake. For us we would probably use the Macquarie or Oxford Dictionary although I have a 1934 2nd edition Websters unabridged dictionary that I just love to wander through. All your advice was spot on for Australia as well but here it is extremely difficult to get a literary agent to take you on and the money to do so is huge. I sat down one day and worked out how many books I would have to sell to cover the cost and decided it was prohibitive. A professional editor though is something well worthwhile and nowhere near as expensive. I wonder however if you took your manuscript to an editor made the changes they suggested then went to a different editor that more changes would be requested and it would continue until perhaps full circle it would return to where you were to start with possibly due to being a matter of taste. By saying this I’m not saying you don’t need an editor because I think it is essential I just wonder…..

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for sharing the style books of AU! I’m surprised but delighted that Strunk and White traveled so far. Oh, I bet that dictionary is lovely, just because of its age.

      Traditional publishing seems to get harder. The strategy is to start; the goal is to see it thru.

      Interesting point you bring up about getting into an endless merry-go-round of editors. I think this is why you need to actively participate and communicate. First, don’t fool around with someone who has no experience with your genre or book publishing in general. You won’t benefit from divergent opinions that are born of divergent backgrounds.

      Wouldn’t it be somewhat like graduate work? You have a committee and often each person gives you different feedback, but you discuss possible changes with your adviser before doing so or asking for clarification. Thanks for the discussion on this topic!

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        Yes we have that system of a number of independent examiners and I guess that is why I think that it would be the same with different editors. I also saw it in my writing group. The main thing is though that no matter how it is done editing is essential.

      • Charli Mills

        Working in groups can bog the process. Some writing groups adopt the “rule of three.” That is, if more than three people make a similar comment (say, that a scene is unclear) then the writer should take heed. But writers also need to have develop confidence for revision (me included) and the more one learns about craft, the more confidence one has within a group setting.

      • Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

        In the writing group someone else would read your piece. That was a great way of seeing where editing was needed as the reader did not know how it was expected to be read.

      • Charli Mills

        That’s great! Some people can deliver their stories as they hear it in their head, but it takes another reader to determine if that voice really is coming through.

  2. ruchira

    Priceless information, Charli.

    I have bookmarked this article to revert back in the need of the hour!

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Ruchira! It’s always the opportunity to improve our craft, yet tell the stories we want to tell.

  3. Lisa Reiter

    Strunk and White is the gospel here too Charli. It surely is the definitive text on grammar. I love that it is concise – makes it easy to flick through and find the right piece!

    • Charli Mills

      It is concise! Wow, that’s terrific to know it’s universally accepted in English-speaking regions. Be clear! 🙂

  4. TanGental

    Well, what’s not to like about this post? I will admit to never having heard of Strunk and White, and that is despite having done an MA in creative writing that is supposed to be on of the better ones. As anyone who has read any of my stuff knows I need HELP with grammar so I will procure said essential tool and be a new person forthwith. Thanks Charli and your other correspondents.

    • Annecdotist

      I haven’t heard of Strunk and White either, and haven’t come across a style guide since I was writing academic papers when it was really useful. Nowadays, knowing me, I’d probably argue with the style guide, just as I enjoy picking out bits of what I consider to be incorrect grammar in published books. If I’m unsure, I tend to consult my live-in pedant, though he isn’t always right either.

  5. Diane holcomb

    Good tips. Especially about clarifying what kind of feedback you want from your beta reader!

    • Charli Mills

      It will help you get useful feedback. Even having to think about framing the request to your beta reader is a good exercise. Thanks!


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