Make Line Editing Easy – A Helpful Guide for Indies

Make Line Editing Easy – A Helpful Guide for Indies

The top piece of feedback I note in reviews of self-published fiction is lack of proper editing. We’re talking about line edits here; basic spelling, grammar and structure. This tends to be the first thing most readers notice, because it breaks up the flow and makes the story difficult to read. A high number of formatting errors makes readers assume the book hasn’t received attention from an editor.

But many indie authors hire several editors for each of their novels and still receive this kind of feedback.

It used to be the main difference between self-published and traditionally published work was the quality of editing and presentation. But that’s no longer the case. The more trust a writer gains with a publishing house, the less treatment their work receives from editing staff. This may seem like a boon because it allows the author to create without hindrance, but it actually has a major impact on the quality of their work. The most famous case may be Anne Rice’s decision to essentially fire her editor.

It seems most writers – no matter how their work is published – don’t have an in depth knowledge of the rules governing grammar, structure and formatting. Which is fine. This post is in no way meant to judge, especially since no one can catch all their mistakes on their own, no matter how meticulous they may be. But this does present a problem; it’s hard to make sure your work is getting the best treatment if you don’t know whether the editor is giving you good advice or not.

Step One: Tools that ease the editing process.

The most important lesson imparted to me by my creative writing teacher in college was that all stories require editing from the author. We tend to write in a free flowing stream of consciousness that doesn’t lend itself to coherency or precision.

Luckily, the digital age has provided us with plenty of tools to ease the editing process. I’ll admit, I live by my spell checker. Especially since I can set it to catch all my weird fantasy names and automatically correct them when I inevitably spell them wrong. Every word processor has a built-in spelling and grammar check that can help you locate word confusion and passive voice. ‘Training’ your word processor to pick up your most common mistakes is the fastest and easiest way to eliminate them.

But every word processor’s automated tools are flawed. To improve your digital editor’s performance, use a program designed specifically to improve writing quality. Grammarly is a good place to start. It integrates with most of the programs writers use on a regular basis, and it’s free (with an option to upgrade if you like it). Grammarly specifically targets repetition, comma usage and weak phrases; a step up from your generic word processor.

The downside? Grammarly’s scope is limited, and optimized for business communications. If you want to turn it up a notch, try ProWritingAid. It points out repetition, over-used words, and even notes awkward or difficult to read passages. Unfortunately, it doesn’t offer useful suggestions for how to fix those issues. And it’s expensive ($175 for unlimited use).

EditMinion may serve as a free alternative. It also catches adverb use and clichés. Unfortunately, you can only check a chapter of text at a time, or it will simply stop offering results.

Step Two: Expand your editing knowledge.

The major downside of every automated program is that it’s going to make mistakes. At the end of the day, there’s just no complete substitute for a human editor.

That means that we have to learn the rules, whether we like it or not.

Here are some basic punctuation rules I often see people confuse:
-In North America, punctuation for dialogue goes inside the quotation marks: “This seems odd.”
-If there’s a dialogue tag after the quotation, you use a comma inside the quotation marks and a lower case letter outside, because the dialogue tag is part of the same sentence: “I assure you, this is correct,” she said.
-Action beats are not dialogue tags. They should be their own sentences: “But it seems so awkward.” She shook her head.
-If dialogue is broken up by an action, it’s all one sentence. Use a coma at the end of the first spoken part, a comma at the end of the beat and lower case letters throughout: “Here, I’ll offer you proof,” she reached for the dictionary, “but I need you to trust me.”

-The ellipsis is used to indicate an unfinished thought. “I don’t know…” In modern times, it seems to be used for dramatic pauses; but you should do this sparingly.
-A dash is used to indicate interruption. “But-” She started, but I cut her off.

-Commas cannot be used to connect two independent clauses. If both sides of a sentence can stand alone, they require a semicolon: “The sun shone bright in the sky; light poured through a break in the clouds to glitter on the grass.”
-Be careful of stringing a three or more sentence fragments together with commas; these turn into run on sentences.

-If a title is followed by a person’s name, capitalize it: Captain Barrows.
-If a title replaces a person’s name, capitalize it: “Hello, Captain.”
-When using a generic title not followed by a name, don’t capitalize it: “The captain is inside.”

-Every time the actor or speaker changes, change paragraphs.

There are many more, of course, but these make a good foundation.

Step Three: What to do when you don’t know the answer.

As soon as you move beyond the basics, editing gets tricky. No one knows all the rules off the top of their head; not even my high school English teacher husband. So what do you do when you don’t know the answer? How do you build your knowledge base in the first place?

The internet has you covered; just make sure you’re looking for an authorative answer.

-Start with a style guide. There is no definitive style guide for publishing fiction. However, you can probably find the answer to your question in the MLA Style Manual or, failing that, the Chicago Manual of Style. If one of these publications has an answer to your question, you can trust it.

-Fiction is sometimes harder to find resources for than research papers, journalism or academic papers. If you need information that you can’t find in a style guide, try a trusted website. For grammar I recommend starting with Grammarist. This site has articles for most grammar and structural rules of the English language laid out with clear and easy to follow examples.

-For word choices and clearing up common word mix-ups, including memory conventions to help you keep things straight in the future, check out Grammar Girl. She has a fantastic list of resources including history and research that leads to her recommendations.

-Wikipedia actually has tons of resources on proper grammar, punctuation, style and formatting. However, it’s harder to search for what you want.

-When you can’t find an answer anywhere else, trust Google. Somewhere out there, someone has asked the same question you’re searching for an answer to. Google can usually give you a consensus, if not an authoritative answer.

Step Four: Choosing a good editor.

No matter how carefully you edit your own work, you’ll eventually need a second set of eyes to assist. If you’re going to pay an editor, you want to make sure you’re getting quality for the price. Armed with the information in this post, it should be easy to determine the best editor to approach, especially if you follow the advice below.

-Every editor will lest testimonials on their site. Look up some of the novels they mention having edited and check the reviews both bad and good. Do people consistently mention that the book needed another editing pass? If they do, choose a different editor.

-If the reviews show no sign of editing woes, check the look inside feature on Amazon. Read the first few pages and gauge how smooth you think it reads. Scan for formatting and editing errors. If it seems relatively free of them, you’re on the right track.

-Choose a book you read recently that seems well-edited and check the title page to see if the author has credited their editor. If they haven’t, send a message and ask whose editing services they use. Most authors won’t mind telling you, and most editors are always looking for more clients!

-When you’re ready to start working with an editor for the first time, contact them and ask for a sample. Most editors are willing to do a chapter or two for free so that you can get a sense of their work. But this is when knowing is important; if you don’t know what kind of red flags to look for, they might easily slip past your notice!

Editing is my least favorite part of the writing process. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most critical. I’ve spent hours brushing up on the rules both by talking to people in the know (English teachers mostly) and searching for answers on Google. You don’t have to be as meticulous as me, but for sure don’t waste your money on poor quality editing services!

Incidentally, I’m going to be accepting editing clients in the near future. So if you’re interested in hiring my services, send me a message!

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