I’m one of those rare creatures, a professional freelance editor as well as a professional writer. (Oddly enough, the two don’t usually coincide.) And I will tell you something right up front: I cannot edit my own writing.
In fact, it’s my strong conviction that no writer can edit their own work. You’re too close to it. You don’t see things that others will see. You may even have fallen in love with certain phrases or thoughts or expressions that really don’t belong in your manuscript. So no matter how well you write, and no matter how much you think you know about spelling, language, and usage, you cannot be your own editor.
Having said that, what you can do is make your manuscript the best that it can possibly be before it goes out to be edited.
I’m not talking here about developmental editing; that’s a completely different enterprise that involves looking hard at things like plot, characterizations, consistency, context, dialogue, and that sort of thing. This is, instead, about the basic nitty-gritty of copyediting.
And you can do the first and even the second round of copyediting yourself.
If at all possible, make sure you have some distance from the writing. Wait a week, or—even better—a month, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. What you’re going to be doing is checking and standardizing grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other mechanics of style. You’ll make a thorough inspection of the manuscript for consistency of style choices, mechanics, and facts.
The first thing you’ll want to do is create a style sheet for your manuscript. Your eventual editor will do one of their own, of course. You’ll soon find, however, that it’s one of your best resources—you just need the time and discipline to create one and use it. My guess is you’ll find it such a valuable aid that the next time you write, you’ll start your style sheet before you even start your novel, and use it as you go along. Your style sheet is your friend.
So what’s a style sheet?
Let’s take an example from my mystery series that takes place in Montreal. The subway there is called the métro, and I decided to use that word in my novels instead of “subway”: it was both obvious and added that little French je ne sais quoi to the ambiance of the stories. All well and good. But then I had to make a decision. All the French expressions were italicized; should I italicize métro, too? What about capitalizing it — it is, after all, what the subway is called, so could be considered a proper noun. What about the accent over the e? Should I include that, or not?
You’re probably getting an idea of what the style sheet does: it answers those questions and keeps you consistent. Like many of you, when I write, I write quickly, absorbed in the moment, in the character, in what is being thought or said or done. The last thing on my mind is stopping that flow to consider how a word should be styled. And so, naturally, as I wrote, I kept styling the word differently. I couldn’t make up my mind. I couldn’t remember what I’d decided three chapters ago. The obvious happened: at the end, I had to make the decision about how to do it, and then go back and make sure that every time it was written it followed the rule I’d made up for it. It might have been easier to do that at the outset, don’t you think?
Why bother? What does it matter if a word is capitalized in one place and not in another? I’ve written before about keeping the reader’s forward movement in fiction, and inconsistencies in spelling, styling, or other things are bound to stop that momentum, take the reader out of the story… and stop the reader moving through the story. Even if the reader doesn’t consciously identify what the issue is, they’ll know there’s an issue, and it will mar their appreciation of your story.
Not to mention that it simply makes you, the author, look bad.
At the end of the day, unless we’re talking about spelling or grammar, which have their own hard-and-fast rules, whatever rules you choose for styling your words will probably be fine. What’s really important is that you make a decision and stay consistent with that decision throughout your book.
What else should be included in your style sheet?
As a fiction writer, you need to go beyond just language. Broaden your style sheet and include anything that’s going to come up more than once. Is Jennifer’s hair blonde or is she a redhead? Was Peter born in 1970 or 1975? What street does the Vazquez family live on?
You will probably find it useful to divide your style sheet into sections. Consider including the following:
- General style sheet: This is a place to track the basics, like how you want to style numbers, abbreviations, punctuation, typography — that’s the use of italics and other font attributes — usage, and, of course, a general word list.
- Numbers: Most of the time in fiction, numbers will be spelled out, especially in dialogue, but as always there are exceptions. Phone numbers (particularly 911, the emergency number), years, decimals, vehicle designations (such as aircraft call signs), and weapon names (AK-47) and calibers are usually presented in digits. In general, use digits for numbers that would become unwieldy if spelled out.
- Abbreviations: Abbreviations used in a novel might be those used in the real world (GPS, FYI) as well as invented ones from the fictional world in the novel (names of organizations, slang terms).
- Punctuation: Decide whether you want to use the serial comma, and note it. Most authors will use the serial comma, but some prefer to omit it. Make a note! The same is true for ellipses (some authors use the 3-dot ellipse only). I’ve had a few authors who said, “No semicolons.” This section is also where I note general forms of punctuation, so I can find them easily, instead of putting a specific term in the alphabetical word list. For example, I put “fifth-grader (n)” here instead of under F in the general word list because I want to show how I’m treating this word form instead of the specific word. Another example of things you might track here is color terms (whether and when to hyphenate forms such as black-and-white, silver-gray, reddish orange, and sky blue).
- Typography: Direct thought, indirect thought, imagined dialogue, mouthed dialogue, remembered speech, telepathic dialogue, words as words or words as sounds, letters as letters or as shapes or as academic grades, signs, handwriting, text messages, emails, typed text, computer commands, foreign terms: these can be treated in many different ways. Italic? Small caps? Caps and small caps? A special character style in the client’s template? Roman, in quotation marks? All caps? Initial caps? Title case? Note it here.
- Usage: Note any firm usage preferences here. Usage varies depending upon the style manual that suits your work best, and upon the community you’re describing and living inside in your novel.
- Miscellaneous: This is primarily for terms that don’t fit in other places: fictional and real items such as organization names, publications, historical events, special terms such as magical commands, and so on. This is where you note the name of Jessica’s neighbor and the fact of her owning a cat.
- General word list: This is where you might note any British spellings and foreign terms, how you want to treat slang terms (dammit or damn it?) trademarks (real or fictional), sounds and interjections (uh-huh, uh-oh, for gosh sakes), and so on.
One example of a style sheet for novelists is here; you can find lots of others with a little Googling; I’ve just skimmed the surface here; read more before you create one of your own.
Keeping a style sheet will make your copyediting work easier, and your editor and publisher very happy indeed.