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January 14, 2010

YourBookBiz - Editing Your Own Book

Editing your own book is comparable to giving yourself a good spanking. Most of us are not anatomically or emotionally suited to carry out the job. On Writing Well

Our goal is getting the manuscript to the stage that a real editor can concentrate on the professional nuances of their task without getting bogged down, knee deep in our stupid. Obvious mistakes in voice, grammar, tense, and narrative consistency stand out like rat turds in a tapioca pudding. Here are a few suggestions to avoid the most obvious errors we all make.

Be consistent – It’s called voice… 

Watch for changes in Point of View (POV) of the characters. Restrain from bouncing from first person to third person. Take full control of those possessive little blunders in time perception by our imaginary friends.

Edit for a consistent mood. You might want your narrator to be chatty and casual, or reserved and dour, or confused and frustrated. They all work; but, aside from high drama or action parts, stay with a recognizable tone.

Watch for long bouts with heavy handed paragraphs of text. Backstory and detailed explanations can be done creatively in the fewest words possible, often with dialogue. A spritely conversation can do the heavy lifting of content in non-fiction books as well.

Keep sentences short and direct. Search for passive voice and root it out like cancer.

Keep the cast of characters minimal and make them all polar opposites. Names are important and relevant; be creative carefully.

Don’t use dialect unless you’re Tom Wolfe.

"Leave out the parts readers usually skip," says Elmore Leonard, "and never qualify the verb said with any other word."

Use simple grammar 

Keep it simple. William Zinsser cautions us to get to the period as quickly as possible. Big words delay the journey. It is ditto for strings of adjectives and colorful, disruptive, qualifying, pandering adverbs.

Study the correct use of the period (full stop) and comma (a yield). They will get you out of most dangerous word-slides. Learning the rules for the correct use of the apostrophe is crucial. Words and punctuations must fit together like middle puzzle pieces.

Don’t rely on the computer’s word processing dictionary and grammar functions to review your work. Go to and check it there. Never run a grammar checker when writing fiction.

Remove inadvertent rhyme.

Delete redundancies. A cold chill, hung down, past history, he slowed down, she whispered softly, a little baby, etc, etc.

Very is the weakest of all adverbs. Drop every very and change the verb to one that doesn’t need help.

Watch it. "It" should replace the noun immediately preceding it. Not "He took a cherry from the bowl and ate it" but "His hand went to the bowl found a cherry and ate it."

Watch for misplaced modifiers. "She lay on the bed beside him" is different from "She lay beside him on the bed."

Avoid the introductory participle that doesn’t modify the subject of the sentence. "Leaving the village, the mountains glowed red in the sun."

There is no sentence except "I am" that can’t be made crisper with a diet plan and a change of scene.

Tense usage 

Readers notice tense shifts from past to present and present to past.

Most people write instinctively in the past tense.

All dialogue is happening now.

Staying in the first person, present tense is hard as hell.

Pronouns must remain consistent with the narrative’s chosen tense and the character’s place in the story’s evolution.

Use the past tense rather than the word "would" to show habitual action. "Each morning he would walk the dog" should be "Each morning he walked the dog."

Only Hemingway got away with using the second tense. Refrain from addressing the reader as "you."


Pay attention to the format of your manuscript. It is a big part of preparing your book for the upcoming stages in editing.

Use Arial or Courier Font. 12 point size.

Set left and right margins at one and one-quarter inches. Set top and bottom at one-half inch.

Double space all text.

Never use bold, other type faces, or sizes. Justify to left margin. Always indent paragraphs.

Only one space after a period.

In the upper left hand corner of each page, against the top and left margin, type a "slugline": your last name in uppercase and lowercase letters, a slash, then your novel’s title in all capital letters. On the top right hand margin number your pages consecutively. Don’t write "page" before the number.

Narrative consistency 

Your story needs to have a clear start, middle and end. If you can’t find the exact page numbers that start and finish of each of these sections you are lost and better ask a professional for directions.

Unity is the anchor of all writing. The reader wants to have his or her need for order and sequence pandered to. This does not mean surprises are forbidden. It means they must be expected.

Use character sheets to keep the physical, emotional, motivational, and physical descriptions of your characters from changing and confusing the reader.

Use a Query letter format to plot the "spine" of your book. Refer to this marketing tool constantly and revise as needed if the storyline deviates from your main point of the book.

Read your book aloud. Print the section and read it to yourself. It is amazing how our mouths find awkward connections and word usage that look so wonderful on the computer screen.


For more resources on self editing check out our Editing page at Community Publishing 101 on the Sirius Publications website. Our next blog will deal with the process of finding peer readers and a guide to copy editing.



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