Congratulations! You’ve finished the initial drafts of your manuscript. Maybe you even went through developmental edits or critique partners already. Now, you think you’re ready for content editing or line editing.
Not so fast. You want everything to be as clean as possible—you want to save yourself the time and money of making editors do extra work.
Here’s a handy checklist you can use to guide your final self-edit before you send it off to be marked up.
While the big five publishers typically follow the guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style, most independent book publishers have an in-house guide; as a self-published writer, the rules of style are yours to choose from.
Be prepared to discuss with your editor some specifics like Oxford comma, when to use italics, and whether you prefer “ok” or “okay” or “OK” or “O.K.”, “T-shirt” or “tee shirt” or “t-shirt”.
My advice: Pick one and use it consistently during your self-edit. If you and the editor decide to make a change later, it will be a smoother process.
Self-Editing Checklist for Writers
- Chapter & section titles
- Fact checking
- Character & setting consistency
- Punctuation consistency
- Order of events /continuity
- Basic font/formatting
Let’s go through these in some more detail. Edit your writing with these in mind, and you’ll feel good passing it on to beta readers or your editor.
Editing Chapter & Section Titles
Every chapter should be marked. You might not title them, but they need to at least have numbers. Every chapter should start on a new page.
Create a new page by inserting a page break at the end of the previous chapter. Click your cursor after your last line of text, hit Ctrl + Enter (or Command+Enter on a Mac) and voila! Your cursor will be at the top of the next page. Now use your “Delete” key to move the next chapter title into place.
According to Chicago style, spell out the words (“two” and “twenty”) rather than using Arabic or Roman numerals. My rule of thumb is to be consistent. I don’t care if you like it spelled out or use numbers — just pick one and go through all your chapters and make them the same.
Lastly, you don’t need to center the chapter title. You can if you want, but your designer will likely remove it anyway.
Editing for Facts
Fact: it’s super-easy to Google a business, brand, or person’s name and make sure it’s spelled, capitalized, and punctuated correctly. You can do this simple research yourself or you can pay someone else to do it, but it should be done.
Pop quiz: Is it “Pop-Tart” or “PopTarts” or “Pop Tarts”? What about “cleanex”? Is that correct? Does Frederick Douglas’ last name have two “s”es?
Answers: Pop-Tarts, Kleenex, and yes.
I will never forget being younger and reading a book from a renowned author, and noticing that the spelling of “Arrowsmith” appeared in the printed book. This was in pre-Google days but still… It haunts me.
Fact: it’s pretty easy to check the history of most things, and if you’re writing a historical novel, you must.
Don’t have your characters using technology that is invited after their time, dressing in clothing that doesn’t match the period, or unaware of information that was common knowledge in their day.
I once edited a novel set in the 1800s where the richest character showed off how rich he was because he was the only guy in town with a certain type of car… or any car for that matter, because they hadn’t been invented yet.
Fact: it’s a little harder to check the science on something if you’re a sci-fi writer, but you’d better do it. Otherwise, science lovers won’t want to read your stuff. Take the time to learn the basics of the science you’re writing about. You don’t have to get your PhD, but you do have to know at least enough to pass a 101 class.
Editing for Character & Setting Consistency
I’m assuming you didn’t sit to write the whole novel at once. So I’ll give you leniency and predict that some details probably changed. Maybe a character starts off brunette and ends up with black hair. Maybe the house starts off blue but ends up yellow. Maybe the scene starts off midday and suddenly shifts to sunset.
If you’re a planner, you might have made a whole character description list and maps and who knows what else. They might come in handy at this point, but if you didn’t make one already, there’s no time like the present.
Start at the beginning. When a new character or setting is introduced, make a note of what details you included, including how you spelled the name that first time. If you spelled it wrong the first time, correct it and move on. But otherwise, I want you to read through and make sure every other use of that character’s name is spelled the same way as the first use.
Yes. This happens more than you would think. Writers change the spelling of character names. Sometimes the name itself will change or the character suddenly has a nickname—it happens all the time.
Your reader (and editor) will think: How was I supposed to know Kate and Katie were the same person?
Some writers might find it helpful to note the time of day or location at the beginning of each scene, then read through the entire scene and confirm consistency. After you know a certain scene, chapter, or section is consistent, you can remove the notes about it.
The trick is: Read through and note details that arise every time the character appears. Then, the next time the character is in the scene, check your notes. Make sure distinguishing features or idiomatic expressions remain true to the character you’ve already introduced.
This is another thing you can pay for if you want to, but with a little elbow grease, you can shape this up pretty good yourself. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.
The three biggest offenders here are probably dashes ( – vs. — ), use of parentheses, and punctuation in time.
Dashes — first: they’re not hyphens. Hyphens join two words to make a new one and don’t have a space on either side. There are two types of dashes (but this blog is long enough, no?), and my general rule is: if you want to make the reader follow you across a little “pause” or “jump” then put a space for them to jump over, two short dashes to land on — like this — and a space to let them jump back into the main sentence.
Just make all your dashes between words consistent.
Parentheses: if you open it, you must close it. Don’t leave any parenthesis hanging. If you start it, finish it too.
Don’t leave a random parenthesis hanging at the end of a sentence or paragraph if there wasn’t one earlier in the sentence or paragraph. It’s technically just a typo, but these things happen. And your reader will go back and look for the other one and lose their train of thought. You never want the reader to lose their train of thought.
Punctuation in Time: I may be going against Chicago style here but I’ll say it anyway—minimize your use of colons, and use periods to your advantage. I suggest that if you’re mentioning an exact on-the-hour time, go ahead use the Arabic numeral without a :00 after it. If you’re using “a.m.” and “p.m.”, periods help make it clearer and are preferred by CMoS.
Don’t capitalize “AM” or “PM”, and I suggest that you never use “o’clock”, unless it’s accurate to the historical period or character’s voice. CMoS does allow for “o’clock.”
Editing for Event Continuity
We’d all like to think that our scenes don’t contain any holes. But, we’re wrong.
Continuity is easy to mess up—and even after you’ve edited for character and setting consistency, there’s one more type of consistency you should check for.
Re-read scenes with an eye for consistency of smaller actions inside each event. Do your characters repeat actions or lines of dialogue? Are there gaps between actions in the scene—for example, does a character take off his jacket, but then in a couple lines, it’s back on again?
This round of your consistency edits—specifically for continuity—is where you’re checking for internal consistency within scenes. Some editors will begin at the end of the book and work their way backward chapter by chapter, to make sure that the continuity within each scene is solid.
Editing for Basic Formatting
OK, you’re reaching the conclusion. You’ve edited and re-edited and revised and checked over everything. You might have even reached a point where you feel like your eyes will cross if you have to read it again.
This round of editing doesn’t really require reading. Just attention to detail.
The long and complicated explanation regarding formatting is that—oh boy—it largely depends on how you plan to publish. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll be sending your Word document to a professional designer for the internal formatting for your printed book.
Don’t argue, don’t think you can cut corners or save yourself money by “formatting” your printed book yourself. You’ve put so much hard work into your manuscript, and if you’re going to print physical copies, don’t sell yourself short. Hire a pro. That being said, you will want to do some basic formatting before you send it to a designer.
If you are planning to self-publish an ebook, there are specific formatting guidelines you will need to follow. But again, you’ll need to do some basics before you send it to an editor or your publishing team, or even before you convert the document into the appropriate file format. You can do this yourself, if you want to take the time to learn, or you can hire a pro. But either way, do the basic formatting.
So what do I mean by “basic formatting”?
- Make sure that all the body copy is in the same font and same spacing. Select all text, and make the font, font size, and paragraph spacing uniform. Don’t try to manipulate this stuff so that the MS Word document “looks right.” It’s more important to communicate to the designer how you want it to look than it is to make it look that way.
- Make sure each chapter starts on a new page (see earlier checklist item). If you want to be really fancy, make sure that each chapter title is in bold, to identify it at a glance.
- Search the document for any double spaces. Remove them. No double spaces at the beginning of a new sentence. No double spaces at all.
- Put in your “front matter.” This includes the Title page, acknowledgments page, and copyright page. You *can* include a Table of Contents page, but do NOT (repeat: do NOT) bother to include the page numbers here. The page numbers will change throughout the formatting, and this page is best finalized as one of the last things.
So four basic things that might take you an hour or so to complete. And if you don’t know how—ask! Whether you have an editor you can consult with, or if you check out some helpful tutorials on YouTube or Skillshare to improve your MS Word skills, there are plenty of places for you to find out what you need to know to make these simple formatting at home in your manuscript.
So that’s it! I know I said this wasn’t going to be a comprehensive self-editing checklist—and trust me, it isn’t—but hopefully, we’ve struck that balance between “that’s enough” and “too much”. This is definitely editing that most writers can manage themselves—no special training or extensive skills necessary—however, hopefully it’s not too advanced that you’ve gone cross-eyed.
My Favorite Editing Shortcuts
Editing can be a long process. Here’s a few of my favorite shortcuts. Of course, these are for a PC, but I think on a Mac you just use the “Command” key instead of the Ctrl key.
- Ctrl + A for select all
- Ctrl + F to find
- Ctrl + K to find and replace
- Ctrl + Z for undo