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Basic Editing Tips for Beginning Writers

beginning editingEveryone starts somewhere, as they say, and editing constitutes one of the biggest jobs for a writer. The actual writing process might be more fun, but editing is what polishes a first draft into a finished product.

Whether you’re editing a novel, short story, article or screenplay, the basics of editing are the same. You’re looking for mistakes and areas that will benefit from improvement. Editing might take just thirty minutes, but often it takes much longer and several read-throughs before the draft is ready for publication.

So where does editing begin? And how can you become a more efficient and productive editor?

1- Spell- and Grammar-Check First

Many modern writers scoff at the idea of built-in grammar- and spell-check functions on their word processing programs. It doesn’t catch all mistakes, they say. You shouldn’t need a computer if you’re a good writer..

Hogwash. That’s like saying a mathematician isn’t doing his job if he uses a calculator to check his figures.

Computers will always be more efficient than the human brain, even if they sometimes make mistakes. I don’t advocate spell-checking a document and subsequently submitting it to an editor; grammar- and spell-check functions should be used as a complement to your overall editing process.

Unfortunately, writers have a tendency to “correct” mistakes in their own minds without even registering the mistake consciously. I do this all the time when I read my work, switching “ie” for “ei” where appropriate and mentally adding forgotten letters. The computer will catch any misspelled word that isn’t spelled correctly for another meaning.

The grammar-check function is less reliable, but I still turn it on. Sometimes it will catch sentence fragments, for example, when I’m supposed to be writing a formal document. Since I use fragments in blogging and fiction, I’m liable to mess up sometimes.

2- Break It Up

It is impossible to edit a document or story for every possible mistake at the same time. Your brain will overload and it’s quite possible that steam will start emanating from your ears.

Pick one common mistake and edit for that first, then move on to another mistake. For example, you might start with general spelling, then move on to punctuation, and so on. This compartmentalizes your editing process and increases the likelihood you’ll catch mistakes.

This does mean that you’ll require several read-throughs to complete the editing process, but isn’t it worth the extra effort to ensure the best possible product? Not only does this make you look like a better writer, but it avoids embarrassment over those simple mistakes we often make.

3- Pay Special Attention to Accented Fonts

I’ve found, over my career as a writer, that most of my mistakes go unnoticed when they are written in accented fonts. When editing, you are more likely to skip over text that is emphasized with bold or italics because your brain doesn’t see them the same way.

You should also double-check fonts that are larger than regular text, such as headings, and any text that is surrounded by strange punctuation. For example, em-dashes—like these—can distort your view of the text itself. The same goes for (parentheses), [brackets] and “quotation marks”.

Another area where you might found multiple mistakes is in the little words. I’ll often type “of” when I meant to say “or”, completely distorting the meaning of the sentence. You would think that we could type two-letter words with more accuracy than five-dollar words, but it doesn’t always work out that way.

4- Know Your Weaknesses

Every writer makes the same mistakes over and over again, and these are the traps you need to avoid. For example, I always used to misspell the words “ventilation” and “sophisticated”, so I knew that I needed to be on the look-out for those words to ensure I spelled them correctly.

Your weaknesses might have nothing to with spelling, and be related to punctuation or grammar instead. Just be honest with yourself and keep a list of those mistakes on-hand for the editing process.

5- When in Doubt, Spell Out

I often get questions from clients about whether to spell out numbers or simply type the digits. The general rule is that numbers under ten should be written in numerical form, while all others should be spelled. Of course, exceptions exist—dates, for example, should be numerical.

The best thing to do is spell out numbers and symbols whenever you have a question. Use “percent” rather than the % sign, for instance, especially in formal writing. This will steer you clear of any mistakes.

6- Go Left

Even if your final document will be justified in the margins, it is best to left-justify documents for editing purposes. This ensures that the spaces between each word will be the same, which speeds up editing and reduces mistakes.

You can also increase the likelihood of finding errors by increasing font sizes and line spacing. Some writers prefer to edit on paper, while others like the screen, but make sure you are comfortable with whichever option you choose. The point is to make editing an enjoyable, efficient experience.

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