Think Like an Editor: How to self-edit

Of course I'm biased because of my profession, but when I hear people saying you don't need an editor before you publish, I cringe. Writing has to be edited, and if you haven't spent time learning how to properly edit (e.g., studying your style manual), you can't really edit your own material.

But what about editing software? Editing software can't replace a human editor, and that's just fact. There is simply too much nuance to our language that editing software will not pick up on.

While I firmly believe everyone should use an editor (and you can find a relatively inexpensive copy editor easily), perhaps you have no money. It's not fair to have a bar to entry for people who don't have enough money to pay others to work on their books. (Just please prioritize this once you start making money off your books!)

So the only good option here, if you're stuck in a financial hard place, is to pay with your time and learn how to edit.

First off: You're going to need a Chicago Manual of Style to reference for everything, and you should be reading the sections. Seriously. Anytime you're not sure of something, look it up. If you have time to dive into this, I'd recommend doing editing exercises so you can determine what your weaknesses are. (This is the book we used in my copyediting certification program, which is a good place to start.)

Before you dive fully into learning proper copyediting, though, I figured I'd give you my fast and dirty list of the most common mistakes I see as an editor. Read on!

Extraneous words. Remove them in your read-through. Here’s a list of commonly overused words and phrases:

  • really

  • very

  • just

  • however

  • thus

  • any and all (choose one, ditch the other)

  • quite

Don’t use a colon, semicolon*, or comma where you could use a period.

Read your work aloud. If you stumble over words, or parts sound clunky, vague, or wrong, mark and rework them.

Who when you’re referring to a person. That when you’re referring to a thing.

Ex: The man who called last night didn’t leave a message. NOT The man that called last night didn’t leave a message.

Would you naturally pause there when you say the sentence aloud? If not, there shouldn’t be a comma.

Be weary of list sentences. Space them out, and try not to overuse them. They can be great used sparingly, but when every sentence is a long list, your writing will read as repetitive and monotonous.

While we’re on the topic of lists, make sure the sentence structure is parallel*. This means all items listed must be formatted the same way.

(ex: We have a long to do list before we leave: Pack our suitcases, water the plants, clean the refrigerator, and feed the pets. NOT We have a long to do list before we leave: packing our suitcases, water the plants, cleaning the refrigerator, and feeding the pets.)

Know your dashes! N dash for spanning between numeric values (e.g., 1997–2002, 10%–20%), hyphen* for adjective + word (e.g., sustainability-themed), M dash for pause with similar use to a colon (ex: I liked visiting the beach in December—it was always empty that time of year).

One space after punctuation.* No two spaces after a colon. No two spaces after a period. Just. One. Space.

Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks. Question and exclamation marks go outside.

And those are my quick tips for DIY editing! I'd like to reiterate that you should prioritize hiring an editor as you start to make money off your writing. I take on manuscripts (contact me for a quote), and there are plenty of other wonderful editors out there who can be found through ACES, Bay Area Editors Forum, and even places like Fiverr, Craigslist, and LinkedIn.

Did this help you learn more about editing? Are there other elements of grammar you're always unsure of? Something editing-related you'd like me to explain? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me @estochen!


*Semicolon is a weird one, because it separates two related independent clauses--they could technically stand on their own, but contextually, they don't.

*A more in-depth description of parallel structure can be found here.

*I highly recommend bookmarking the Chicago Manual of Style's hyphen table.

*Grammar Girl wrote an interesting deep-dive into the history of the two spaces here.

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