Nas Hedron, IndieBookLauncher.com—Posted 11 July 2014
When you’re editing you’ll want to have at least two things handy, possibly three. A dictionary and a style guide are essential; a grammar reference is often handy.
Here are some tips for each of the three, followed by some other resources that will help improve your editing skills.
- Style Manual
- Grammar Reference
- Books About Self-Editing
- Free and Inexpensive Online Courses
Some dictionaries are now available online, either free or with a paid subscription. Some people prefer to use a hard copy dictionary, especially if they’re editing on the page rather than on the computer screen, so you might want to try both and see which works best for you.
Which dictionary you use will be dictated both by your intended audience and your personal preferences. If you’re writing primarily for a U.S. audience, for instance, you might use the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, while for a U.K. audience you might prefer the Oxford English Dictionary (although full access requires a subscription). The Cambridge Dictionaries Online offers a drop down menu that allows you to choose either U.S. or U.K. references. If you want access to a range of dictionaries all at once, the One Look Dictionary Search allows you to look up a word in multiple online dictionaries using a single search. Also useful is Dictionary.net, which lists idioms for a given word in addition to basic definitions.
As we’ve seen in previous articles, though, you may not be writing for any single territory, and you’re not likely to create separate editions of your book for different English-speaking audiences, so you may have to choose a resource that’s traditionally been used for one particular territory and use it for a worldwide audience.
This applies not only to dictionaries but to your other resources as well. And note that some dictionaries are recommended for use with particular style guides, for instance the Chicago Manual of Style recommends using Merriam-Webster. (In my own writing, which is intended for a global audience, I use these two together.)
When an editor does copy editing, they fix mistakes in your text, but when we talk about “correcting mistakes” it seems to imply that each language has a single, unified, set of rules that’s consistent from place to place and from one time period to another, and that just isn’t true. Languages evolve over time, and they change and mutate as they spread from place to place.
How do editors deal with the absence of a single, unified set of rules? We use a style guide. This is a book that gives an editor a consistent set of rules and choices to go by when editing a piece of writing. No one style guide contains the “right” way to write, but the most widely used style guides use clear, recognizable rules that most readers will accept.
The Chicago Manual of Style is the most commonly used manual in the U.S. for books and other non-journalistic writing. The Associated Press Stylebook is the most frequently used guide in the U.S. for journalism. There are also style guides for particular countries (I often use The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing, which is also available online at www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/tcdnstyl/index-eng.html?lang=eng) and for individual disciplines or professions (for instance, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which is widely used in the social sciences).
So what is an indie author to do when they aren’t a trained editor and they’re editing their own work? Do what the professionals do: choose a style guide and use it.
If you’re writing a book (rather than a piece of journalism), whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, the Chicago Manual of Style is a fairly safe bet. Yes, it’s American, and not all your prospective readers are Americans (even if you are), but you’re going to have to choose a style guide from somewhere. The U.S. and the U.K. have the two most widely used sets of conventions, and the U.S. is simply a far larger market than the U.K., so even as a Canadian I tend to favor the Chicago Manual of Style except when I’m editing for a specifically Canadian audience.
Style guides aren’t cheap, but one good thing about them for the indie author with a limited budget is that they regularly publish new editions. This means that you can find a used copy of one of the major guides that’s current enough to use for most purposes. A quick look at the Chicago Manual of Style on Amazon illustrates what I mean:
|16th edition (current edition from August 2010)||$40.90||$31.50|
|15th edition (September 2006)||$17.99||$0.98|
|14th edition (September 1993)||$7.44||$0.23|
With prices under a dollar (not counting delivery), there’s not much of an excuse for not owning a style guide.
Once you’ve got your style guide, spend some time going through it. A big part of the job of editing is making yourself aware of what issues to look for, so get to know what sorts of issues the guide deals with. The more you use your style guide, the more familiar you’ll get with it and the better you’ll get at using it.
The content of an English Grammar Reference may well overlap with the content of a style manual to some extent. Even so, it’s always a good idea to have a grammar on hand.
One popular U.S. English grammar is the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. It has a corresponding web site at www.grammarbook.com/ where you can conveniently find the answers to many, if not most, common grammar questions.
Edufind, which is a private company offering language courses, also has a free online guide to English grammar at www.edufind.com/english/grammar/grammar_topics.php.
Books About Self-Editing
There is no single book that will teach you how to edit your own writing, but there are quite a few that will help you do a better job with one aspect or another of editing your work.
I recommend looking at several books and picking the ones that seem to be best suited to your own needs and preferences. (If you’re shopping online, you’ll often be able download or view a sample from each book so you can get an idea of its content.)
Here are a few popular books that might give you a good starting point. For convenience I’ve included links to each book on Amazon.com, but I’m not endorsing only these particular books—there are others out there just as good.
- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King.
- This book looks at aspects of writing style and story structure, such as showing versus telling, points of view, and the mechanics of dialogue. It includes samples from well-known books and from writing students, as well as exercises. Be sure to get the second edition (from 2004), which makes considerable use of the feedback the authors received in response to the first edition (published in 1993).
- Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft Into a Finished Novel, by James Scott Bell.
- This book addresses many of the same issues and techniques as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, but with a slightly different style, so it provides an alternative that some writers will prefer.
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing a Novel, by Thomas F. Monteleone
- If you’re someone who works well with a step-by-step approach to completing a task, this book might be a good one for you. There are no easy shortcuts to writing well, so don’t expect a list of rules you can follow to produce great work, but some people respond better to a schematic approach than a topical one, and this book provides it.
- Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, by Suzanne Gilad
- While the previous books focus on writing techniques and stylistic issues, this book deals with the nitty gritty of correct language use. It’s written primarily for people who intend to copy edit and proofread professionally, but if you’re a writer that’s part of what you do.
Podcasts are a great resource for learning a new skill or brushing up on an old one. You can listen to audio podcasts on any device that will play an MP3 audio file, and you can do it while you’re working out, taking the subway to work, or doing housework. Video podcasts are almost as convenient (you can’t watch one while driving, or at least you shouldn’t), and are great for topics that require visual aids like charts, graphs, or video.
There are any number of podcasts for writers, and I recommend you look into them, but what we want for the moment are podcasts that will help your editing skills. I’ve found two that are especially useful.
- Grammar Girl (www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl or on iTunes)
- This is my longstanding favorite podcast in relation to editing. Host Mignon Fogarty keeps the content entertaining while nonetheless focusing on practical information. Episodes are typically between 7 and 10 minutes long, with very professional production.
- Grammar Underground (www.grammarunderground.com or on iTunes)
- This podcast is a recent find for me. Its production isn’t as slick as Grammar Girl, but it’s perfectly listenable and the content is great. The shows are generally between 4 and 6 minutes long.
Free and Inexpensive Online Courses
There’s an increasing number of free and inexpensive online courses and other resources that can help you improve your editing skills. Here are a few you might want to consider.
- University College London (free course)
- UCL offers The Internet Grammar of English. This is an online course in English grammar intended for university undergraduates. You can also get it as an iPhone or Android app (in a free Lite version and a paid version). This course was developed in Britain, and therefore uses British English, but no matter where you are it’s an invaluable resource for making sure that you have a solid, basic grounding in all areas of grammar.
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab (free course)
- The Purdue OWL provides a variety of online writing resources, including three related to copy editing: Beginning Proofreading, Proofreading for Errors, and Proofreading Suggestions. These are presented in an academic context, but they’re designed to be used by anyone and for any type of writing. Each one is brief and practical.
- Poynter Institute News University (free course)
- The Poynter Institute’s News University offers numerous online courses. Most are fee-based, but some are free. The course Cleaning Your Copy: Grammar, Style and More is free, and while Poynter is intended for journalists this course is suitable for any writer. Note that the Associate Press style is used for some formatting (addresses, ages, money, and numbers).
In this article I’ve tried to provide practical resources you can apply directly to the editing of your own writing. If you discover a resource that you believe deserves to be added, or if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.
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