The Indie Author’s Bookshelf: 20 Best Titles for Self-Editing

Book shelf

By Corina Koch MacLeod & Carla Douglas
@CKmacleodwriter  @CarlaJDouglas

This post appeared first at, December 24, 2014.

Below is a list of 20 self-editing books that we believe every indie author should have on his or her bookshelf. These books will arm you with valuable writing tips and insights so that you can tackle your writing with new resolve.

We’ve divided the books into levels of editing, so you’ll know which book to refer to when you need to. Keep in mind that a book may not fit neatly into an editing category. Some books will address more than one level of editing. The key is to be systematic when you self-edit, and often, addressing one level of editing at a time can make the editing process more manageable.

To remind you, how you’ll revise and polish your book will depend on how you tend to work as a writer, and where your strengths and weakness lie.

Self-Editing Workflow

If you’re not sure where to begin your revisions, start with big-picture items. When assessing a manuscript, editors begin with big-picture items and slowly work through all the stages of editing, ending with word-level details. If you’ve nailed your plot (big picture), for example, begin with the next area that you know needs work. If you’re not sure what needs work, run your manuscript past a couple of betareaders.

Criteria for Self-Editing

It wasn’t easy narrowing our choice to 20 titles for self-editing. Many excellent books have been written on various aspects of the subject. We’ve chosen books that are

  • short(er) and to the point
  • helpful (some of them are personal favourites)
  • easy to understand, without too much editorial jargon
  • less than $15, with one exception (Jim Taylor’s Quick Fixes)

As a result, books commonly used by editors didn’t show up on this list. Why? Writers are not editors. Many books directed to editors are also written by editors, and they’re heavy on theory and discussion. Writers want accessible books that provide clear explanations, examples and instructions. (Editors like these books too—but we like to read everything and think about it, first.) So you’ll see some writers’ craft books on this list—our choices address revision and self-editing directly.

Finally, we’ve also picked a couple of titles specifically for nonfiction authors (they’re marked with an asterisk). When it comes to writing and self-editing guides, nonfiction often gets short shrift. The two we’ve selected complement each other well, and provide sound advice for focusing and delivering your message to the reader.

Beyond Paper Picks

Big Picture

  • Making Shapely Fiction, by Jerome Stern
  • *On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser
  • Revision and Self-Editing for Publication: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft into a Novel that Sells,  by James Scott Bell
  • Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing, by Larry Brooks
  • This Year You Write Your Novel, by Walter Mosley
  • The Ebook Style Guide: Creating Ebooks That Work for Readers, by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

Paragraph Level

  • How Not to Write  Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide, by Howard Mittlemark and Sandra Newman
  • The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman
  • *Quick Fixes for Business Writing: An Easy Eight-Step Editing Process to Find and Correct Common Readability Problems, by Jim Taylor
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King

Sentence Level

  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White
  • Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner
  • You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Publishing Authors, by Carla Douglas and Corina Koch MacLeod

Word Level

  • The best punctuation book, period. by June Casagrande
  • Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies, by Suzanne Gilad
  • Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares: How to Avoid Unplanned and Unwanted Writing Errors, by Jenny Baranick

5 Books that Will Inspire You to Write

You may not always feel like writing. These books will light a fire under you:

  • The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
  • Juicy Pens, Thirsty Paper, by SARK
  • The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg

Self-Editing is a Process

Don’t try to do it all at once, and don’t try to do it only once.

Each of the books we’ve recommended offers a different voice and a different approach. Some are straight “how-to” and some are more “what” and “why.” What works for one writer might not be right for another. So take time to explore a few of these titles to find an approach you can work with.

If you haven’t already, over time you’ll develop your own self-editing style. This may mean working to a detailed plan or, as it does for some writers, simply reading, re-reading and re-keying your draft multiple times.

And, as we’ve said before, how you self-edit depends on how you wrote your first draft. It will also depend on your manuscript and what it requires—your second, third and fourth books will present different issues than your first. All the more reason to have our 20 titles at the ready, lined up on your shelf.

Image by Brett Jordan

4 Levels of Editing Explained: Which Service Does Your Book Need?



This post originally appeared on April 23, 2014 at The Book Designer.

In a previous post, we discussed how you can work with beta readers to enhance the self-editing process. Self-editing, or revision, as we call it, is the furthest you can take your manuscript on your own, with feedback from others, but without professional editing help. This is a great first step towards polishing your manuscript.

Let’s suppose that you’ve gotten feedback from your beta readers and made any necessary adjustments to your manuscript. What else can you do find out what your book needs?

Why, hire an editor, of course! (If you’re on the fence about hiring an editor, see this article on what editors know about readers).

In this article, we’ll talk about your first contact with an editor — and what happens to your manuscript when it lands in an editor’s inbox.

Finding an Editor

Your first step in connecting with an editor is to find the right editor for you and the book you’ve written. There is an editor for every book and author. To find the perfect fit, consult editors’ profiles at these professional editing organizations:

  • Editorial Freelancers Association
  • Editors’ Association of Canada
  • Institute for Professional Editors (Australia)
  • Society for Editors and Proofreaders

One of our clients told us that he combed through 60 profiles before he decided to hire us to work on his book. Do your homework. You can learn a lot about an editor’s expertise and manner by reading his or her profile. It’s reasonable to contact more than one editor before settling on the one who’s right for you. By reviewing editors’ online profiles, you should be able to narrow the field to two or three.

What do I send my editor?

After you’ve found an editor who you think will be a good fit for you, you’ll need to make initial contact. In order to assess your manuscript, your editor will most likely ask you to send a sample:

10-Page Sample

For a quick initial assessment, we ask for 10 pages from the “messy middle.” Why? Because most authors understand the importance of starting well, and as a result, the first chapter of a book often gets a great deal more attention from the author than a chapter in the middle.

If we can see the middle, where many authors’ writing energy tends to flag (and understandably so), we’ll get a better sense of how much time it will truly take to help you with your book. You’ll want to know an editor’s assessment of the messy middle because it can directly affect how much editing services will cost. It’ll also help an editor to make some DIY recommendations that can reduce editing costs later in the process.

Table of Contents

If you’re writing a nonfiction book, include a table of contents (TOC) with your 10-page sample. A TOC can help your editor to see how you’ve arranged the major topics in your book, and whether you might need help with the book’s structure.

What does a book need?

When your book sample lands in your editor’s inbox, he or she will assess the “level” of editing that’s needed. There are four levels of editing, and each level builds on the next. Every successful book manuscript will have resolved issues at each of these levels:

Big-Picture Edit

Also called developmental, structural or substantive editing, this kind of editing involves moving large chunks of text around and possibly cutting some sections as well. It addresses the structure of a book — how everything hangs together.

This happens more often than you’d think: An editor receives a large fiction manuscript for copyediting. During an initial scan of the text, she notices a few trouble spots — for example, the plot is lost in large sections of background information and the characters are difficult to distinguish from one another.The editor knows the novel would be better if she could address these issues, but how? At more than 350 pages, it’s a large apparatus.

Her solution? And this happens more often than you’d think, too: She prints out the difficult sections of the novel. Then she gets her scissors. Yes, scissors, and begins to cut and re-assemble those parts of the story, so that they fall together more naturally and present the story in the arrangement that serves both the story and the reader’s expectations. (Note that by now the editor has taken off her copyeditor’s hat — she’s not quite ready for it!)

Needless to say, big picture editing can be very expensive if you need to address a book’s structure after it has been completely written.The cheapest way to address big-picture items is to get help structuring your book before you write it.

If you like to structure your book before you write it, send your editor a detailed outline, or a detailed 10-page plot summary to see if he or she can spot any potential holes.

If you’ve written your book, but you’d like feedback on your structure, you can still send it to an editor. But keep in mind that your editor will need to read an entire book instead of a 10-page plot summary, and this extra time will be reflected in the cost.

Paragraph-Level Edit

Also called stylistic or line editing, this kind of editing involves recasting sentences for clarity and flow. It can also involve moving sentences around so that your meaning is clear. Stylistic editing always aims to preserve the author’s voice, first and foremost.

Suppose you’ve finished your manuscript, and everything is where it’s supposed to be for best effect. What features of your finished book could indicate that it still might need a stylistic edit? Here are a few examples:

  • All your sentences are about the same length
  • You use a lot of adjectives
  • The vocabulary isn’t suited to the intended audience
  • Your meaning is lost in too many big words or jargon
  • Transitions from one paragraph to the next are awkward

Effective writing has a rhythm and pulse, and with practice, good writers learn to develop an ear for these qualities. A stylistic editor can help you hone these skills.

Sentence-Level Edit

Also called copyediting, this kind of editing addresses grammar, usage and consistency issues. It is entirely understandable that an author can lose track of many small details over the course of writing a book. From how a character’s name is spelled to the colour of her eyes to her mother-in-law’s hometown to how that’s spelled, the possibilities for small errors are many.

What’s more, sometimes these errors are introduced by the author himself during the revision phase. I once asked an author I was working with how it could be that her main character was entering high school that September when she had just had her 11th birthday the previous June. The author replied, “Oh, yeah. Hm. It’s because I cut a section out and reordered some events during one of my revisions. This is my fourth revision. I’d better take care of that detail!”

So in addition to consistencies in spelling and punctuation (colour or color? skateboard or skate-board?), a copyeditor will find issues of continuity that don’t add up. Sort of like quality control. This grid lists the kinds of things that editors attend to in a copyedit (Have a look! It’s like peeking over a copyeditor’s shoulder!). You can use a grid like this one to help you determine which copyediting issues you can confidently address yourself, and which ones you’d prefer to hire an editor to fix.

Word-Level Edit

Also called proofreading, this kind of editing addresses typos, repeated words (the the), spelling, punctuation and formatting issues (how things look on a page) as they occur in your book’s final environment. So, if you’re publishing an ebook, your editor will look at your book on an e-reader, or in an e-reading app to see how it looks and operates. If your book will be printed, your editor will proofread a PDF. Proofreading is the last pair of eyes on your book before it goes live: it’s the last chance to catch an error before a reader finds it and gleefully points it out.

What kind of editing will I need?

Typically, a manuscript will travel more or less through all four levels of editing before it’s deemed polished and ready for the reader. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll need to hire an editor for each kind of editing.

What your book needs depends on your strengths as a writer.

If you’re brilliant at outlining a book in a clear and logical way, or if you’re a master at crafting the perfect plot or story arc, you won’t necessarily need a big-picture edit. But if you struggle with explaining yourself clearly, or crafting realistic dialogue, your editor might recommend a paragraph-level edit.

At the very least, every manuscript will benefit from a sentence-level edit, or a copyedit. If your editing budget is limited, you can be strategic about the services you select.

Regardless of what your manuscript needs, working with an editor can help you improve your writing — particularly if you approach the process with a willingness to learn about your writing quirks (we all have them). With a positive and open attitude, you’ll not only get a better book, you’ll save money on your next editing project with what you’ve learned from this one.

A Quick Guide to Writing Short — Part 2: Nonfiction

by Carla Douglas

In my last post, I talked about the popularity of short fiction and the many forms it can take. Why is short so popular? A few reasons. We have little time for reading and our attention spans are short. It’s also become easier to produce an ebook, and in this format, length doesn’t matter.

Writing short offers as many—if not more—opportunities for nonfiction authors as it does for fiction authors. The ebook is a convenient container for many of the nonfiction pieces people have been writing for years and scattering about on blogs, in pdfs, on websites … and in drawers.

Some options for short nonfiction

Short nonfiction can take many forms—some are commercial, some are business or professional tools, and some are simply smart ways to organize the documents, both paper and digital, that accumulate over the years. Here are a few examples:

How-to: A more traditional kind of nonfiction book, but pared down to the bare essentials for time-starved readers. If you have a concept or process that you believe might benefit others, why not polish it and put it between ebook covers? Again, I’ll refer you to Corina Koch MacLeod’s Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast—it’s an example both of a concept developed into an ebook and a guide to how you can do the same. And a very quick read at about 15,000 words.

Blog-to-book: This is a route many nonfiction writers are taking. If you’ve blogged at length about a topic, you may well have the expertise to put it into a book. Keep in mind that you’ll need to revise your posts to shape them into a book.

Research or process notes: Have you published a novel? Readers are increasingly fascinated by the minutia of their favourite author’s writing process (and life!). Authors of historical fiction, for instance, might have a set of research notes that could be polished into a book extra, to keep readers interested. Glossaries, maps, field notes, family trees—all of these can be packaged into something to release when you’re between novels.

Summary book: Do you have a full-length book that could be summarized to highlight its key ideas? Readers appreciate this—a sort of longer version of the “look inside” feature on Amazon. Here’s one example: BusinessNews Publishing’s summary edition of Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. Watch out for copyright issues: consider this kind of publication only if you own the copyright to the work being summarized.

Course and classroom materials: Teachers and professors have been posting lecture notes and assignments on their websites for some time—this is convenient for students and it improves the learning experience. An even better idea is to reach students where they are: on their phones. Recent research from Pew shows that 58% of American adults own a smartphone; for the age group 18-29, that number is 83%.

Dissertations, monographs, essays: Work you’ve previously published but which you either don’t have a digital copy of or which you’d like to revise or update. Note that if you want to adapt these for publication and sale, you’ll need to spend some time and effort on revisions.

Academic papers, reports, speeches, lectures, talks: Conference papers, white papers, might include previously unpublished books and papers and might exist already as a pdf or Word doc. Whether or not you intend to publish these on Amazon or another platform, converting these documents to ebooks helps get this material organized. It might also help you to see future potential for older material that can now be repurposed for a contemporary readership.

Tips for writing short nonfiction

Nonfiction readers want information delivered quickly, and they have little patience for wading through weedy prose.

Take time to revise. If you’re converting unpublished or previously published academic work into an ebook, chances are it needs to be revised and updated. Be certain your ideas are clear. Does your writing say what you want it to? The academic writing blog Explorations of Style has a three-part series on how to use writing to clarify your thinking.

If you’re going to adapt existing material from a website or blog into an ebook, it will probably need more than a copyedit. Blogs have their own structure, and so do books. Before you turn your blog into a book, read Jane Friedman’s article, Please Don’t Blog Your Book: 4 Reasons Why.

Don’t skip the editing. More and more, academic articles are being published without any copyediting to speak of. Recently I enrolled in a MOOC that was sponsored and taught by three universities. The content was good, and so was the teaching. But the readings? Not so much. Tedious 30-plus-page academic papers full of rambling sentences, random use of punctuation and available only as pdf downloads. Distractions like these can stand between you and your reader, and many readers will bail.

Format for contemporary readers. Do your readers a favour, and guide them through your book with a linked TOC and meaningful chapter titles, headings and subheadings. Keep your paragraphs short—nonfiction on an e-reader is always better viewed in chunks. For more tips like this, watch for our forthcoming book, You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Publishing Authors.

Finally, keep your reader in mind always. As bestselling author Hugh Howey has observed, “It’s about the reader, stupid” and this is as true for nonfiction as it is for fiction.

Image by Johan Larsson

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Dear First-Time Author: How to Turn Your Dissertation into a Book, by Theresa MacPhail
Time to dig out that long-lost dissertation … by James Bridle

A Quick Guide to Writing Short—Part 1: Fiction


You don’t have to look far to realize that short is the current trend in writing and publishing — especially for digital. Online advice abounds: write a short story, write a novella, tweet your novel. The options are many. 

Why write shorter?

Well, there are a few reasons. For self-published authors, there’s pressure to write faster, and obviously shorter lends itself well to this process. Books like Write. Publish. Repeat. recommend that writers should produce several books a year to get a foothold and to find and retain an audience. 

Authors are also told to write a short story or two while working on a novel to keep readers interested and to keep the production line moving. Similar advice tells beginning writers to publish some short pieces early, to get themselves out there.

There’s also a new place to publish your shorter work. Amazon has recently launched Short Reads: Great Stories in One Sitting, where you can browse by your desired reading time. 

There’s the theory, too, that because of their splintered attention spans, readers are looking for shorter pieces — especially for reading on small screens. We also have less time for reading, and with shorter books we can experience the satisfaction of actually finishing one.

Finally, some topics naturally lend themselves to shorter forms, but in traditional publishing they haven’t worked well, because (at least in part) a published book needs to have enough of a spine on which to print a title and author. Not so in digital — length doesn’t matter, because ebooks are spineless.

Some options for short fiction 

Regardless of the reasons, a whole range of short writing options is available. Here’s a breakdown of some of the typical forms of short fiction and a suggested word count. I’ve listed the novel first because, although it’s not short fiction, its length is often what we measure the others against. 

Novel: length varies widely — from 40,000 (Wikipedia), 50,000 (NaNoWriMo) to 100,00 —175,000 words according to Jane Smiley (13 Ways of Looking at the Novel).      

Novella: 17,500—40,000 words (Wikipedia)

Novelette: 7,500—17,500 words (Wikipedia)

Short story: under 7,500 words (Wikipedia)

Short short story: 2,000—7,500 words (Writer’s Digest forum)

Flash fiction (micro-fiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction): usually under 1,000 words, but length varies wildly depending on what it’s called and where it’s being featured. For example, on the site, you get — you guessed it — 100 words.

Serial fiction is making a comeback, too, and I wouldn’t want to leave it off this list. Jane Friedman has written extensively about it — Serial Fiction: How It’s Changing Publishing is a good article to begin with if you want to learn more.

These suggested guidelines have been around for a long time and they’re just that — guidelines. Digital publishing is changing the way we define books, literature, genre and form.   

Tips for writing short(er) fiction

Study the form. Don’t fall into the “how hard can this be?” trap. If the novelette is new to you, for instance, find out who excels at it and start reading their work. Identify the distinguishing features of the form you want to try. Differences between these various forms of short fiction go beyond word count. 

It better be good. Especially if you’re writing a shorter piece to self-publish for the first time or to find new readers. This will be the first thing they’ve ever read by you — and it could be the last, if you rush to publish it. For all you need to know about writing a quality book fast, look no further than Corina Koch MacLeod’s Idea to Ebook: How to Write a Quality Book Fast

Think of these as exercises. Experimenting with a new form is a great way to stretch your limits and develop your style. You’re probably familiar with the famous six-word story attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Some of the very short forms can be especially challenging — can you keep cutting and cutting and still communicate a meaningful story?

Further reading

There’s a wealth of information available about writing short fiction and where to publish it. This article at TheReviewReview is a good place to begin if you’d like to try your hand at micro-fiction. And in his article at, Jason Gurley provides a nice description of and list of resources for flash fiction. On his blog, what a lot of birds, Paul M.M. Cooper has posted short story writing tips from four leading writers. And finally, if you’re interested in the history of very short fiction, this 1989 piece from the New York Times describes postcard fiction as “a new vogue from Canada.” How about that?

Image: Counselman Collection

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Do’s and Don’ts for Choosing a Title—Tips, and a Free Tool, Too


by Carla Douglas

The Internet is no place to be clever.

And nowhere is this truer than when it comes to choosing a title—for a book, a chapter or a blog post. Particularly for nonfiction.

Corina covered titles in detail on this blog in the fall of 2012. Below are some of the main points she gleaned from her survey, with a few new observations and tips thrown in.

Do’s and Don’ts 



  • choose a title that is keyword-rich. It must say concisely—in a sentence or less—what the book will deliver. 
  • try to mimic the exact terms and phrases your reader will enter in a search window.
  • make it brief enough to show up clearly in a thumbnail.
  • allow yourself some creative leeway—either in the title or the subtitle, but not both.


  • make your reader think. He’s looking for specific information, and wants to know quickly if you have it or not.
  • become so enamoured of keywords that your title sounds awkward. 
  • try to trick your reader. Don’t, for example, put the word Scrivener in the title to make it click-worthy.
  • exaggerate your message and risk treading into click bait territory. Readers will stop trusting you. See above.

Of course there are always exceptions—good nonfiction titles that don’t convey a book’s thesis in a way that’s easily understood. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is one example—and what a great title it is—but unless you’re Oliver Sacks or you have his stature in the publishing world, then you should probably stick to the prosaic. Keep in mind, too, that his book was first published in 1985, long before metadata became the god we bow to.



  • be clever if your genre expects and celebrates it. Think of some of mystery writer Elizabeth Spann Craig’s quilting series titles: Quilt Trip, Knot What It Seams. Go ahead and be clever if you can do clever well.
  • be familiar with the conventions of your genre. 
  • choose a title that fits your genre. If you’re unsure, have a closer look at the top 100 paid titles in your book’s category.
  • know your readers, and know what they’re expecting or looking for when they search for a new book to read.
  • read your title aloud for a sound check. 
  • be poetic and evocative—take readers somewhere, conjure an image, be visceral.


  • try to trick your reader. Don’t, for instance, intentionally use a title that readers will find familiar. For example, in the Kindle Romance section, I found these titles: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Heart’s Lonely Hunter and Lonely the Heart of the Hunter. Really? Be respectful. This is cleverness tipping over into poor taste. 

Fiction and Nonfiction


  • check your punctuation. A missing comma or question mark can change your meaning; an exclamation mark can turn a reader away. Be judicious.
  • check your titles at Google and Amazon and see what comes up. As Corina has pointed out, “you may not be thrilled to discover that your book surfaces alongside erotica sites and titles.”  
  • find out if others have used the title you have in mind. How the Light Gets In is the title of a novel by well-known mystery writer Louise Penny. It’s also the title of a book on writer’s craft by Pat Schneider. Both were published in 2013. Other examples abound: Jack London and Cormac McCarthy both published books titled The Road, nearly 100 years apart. That’s fine—there’s no copyrighting a title, and these duplications are coincidental. But wouldn’t you rather know than not know if your title’s out there working for someone else?   
  • read Corina’s posts from 2012 (Related Posts, below), which include a survey and reader comments about book titles.
  • read Sam Jordison’s wonderfully titled 2007 piece from The Guardian, “The name of the prose: what makes a great title?” in which he asks, “What curious alchemy is it that makes a title work?”

Free Tool for Titles

Which Words Do I Capitalize?

Finally, when you’re putting your title together, you might wonder which letters are capitalized and which aren’t. Does it irritate you (as it does many editors) when the first letter of every word in a title is capped? OR THE ENTIRE TITLE IS CAPPED? Fear not. There are many places you can look for help with this, or you can use this handy title capitalization tool. Gets it right every time, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, rules included, if you want to read them.


Image by zhouxuan12345678

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How to Keep Track of Your Elements of Style*


by Carla Douglas

Image by Mike Licht (CC BY 2.0)
Do you use a style sheet to keep track of details as you’re writing? Almost any writing project will benefit if you do — books, essays, instruction manuals, even blogs.
A style sheet is the organizational tool copyeditors use to record specific details about a piece of writing — things like spelling, capitalization and hyphenation — in order to make sure that these features appear the same way throughout. Basically, it’s a list of decisions you make about how you want the text to appear when it’s finished.
For example, in the paragraph above, I’ve written copyeditors. It would also be correct to write copy-editors or copy editors. By recording my decision, I’m telling others — an editor, for instance — that this is the format I’ve chosen. Keeping track of these details is an important step in ensuring that the finished product will be uniform and consistent.
An easy way to make decisions about capitalization and spelling is to choose a default dictionary — usually one that’s considered authoritative, such as Merriam-Webster’s, the Oxford English Dictionary or the Canadian Oxford. At the same time, because your style sheet is customized to your project, if you have a spelling preference that isn’t in line with your chosen dictionary, you can simply specify this difference on your style sheet. For instance, if you prefer skepticover sceptic, or vice-versa, just state this preference on the style sheet.
You can track any of your preferences on a style sheet. Typically, it addresses
  • which dictionary is referenced
  • how dates and numbers should appear (10 Dec 2013 or December 10, 2013?)
  • spelling, including British/American differences and how names and places should be spelled throughout (Jon or John?)
  • how specific words should be hyphenated
  • how to handle possessives (Douglas’s or Douglas’?)
  • how references and citations should appear

Below is a sample style sheet. It doesn’t have to be complex, but yours should include all the elements that could correctly be written more than one way and could thus cause confusion. Also include the names of characters and places, street names, etc., that could be misspelled or that have alternative spellings.
Click to enlarge

If a style sheet is a tool for editors, why should writers use one?
Short answer? You want to be taken seriously. Even if you hire a copyeditor to polish your book — and especially if you don’t — you want to provide as few opportunities as possible for readers to trip. Readers perceive inconsistencies as errors, and the more of these they encounter, the more likely they are to question your trustworthiness as a storyteller or an authority on a subject.
Most of all, using a style sheet helps you to stay organized. Any piece of writing can generate an unwieldy mass of ideas and information. Recording stylistic preferences gives you a tool both to tame some of this information and to retain control of your writing.

*The real Elements of Style, of course, is the renowned guide to writing style by William Strunk (and later, E.B. White). The Elements of Style does not really refer to the same elements you’d include on a style sheet. Rather, Strunk and White (as it’s often called) is more a guide to writing style and usage, and it has recently fallen out of favour for being prescriptivist and even bossy. For many people, however, it is a sentimental favourite and a classic, too. Case in point: The Elements of Style has been re-issued as an illustrated volume and adapted and performed at the NY Public Library as a cantata (take that, Chicago Manual of Style!). Of even more interest to contemporary readers and writers, William Strunk was a self-pub! It’s true — find the details in the introduction to the 3rdedition (maybe other editions, too) or in the Wikipedia article in the above link.

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What Makes a Good Title? Survey Participants Speak Up

Speak up, make your voice heard
Image by Howard Lake (CC BY-SA 2.0)
by Corina Koch MacLeod

Last week, I posted the results of the What Makes a Good Title survey and I listed several important considerations when choosing a title. This week I’d like to discuss the comments that emerged from the survey and begin to tease out what these comments can tell authors about creating good book titles.

As a writer and editor, I’m fascinated by how people use words, and for what purposes. So it should come as no surprise that what fascinated me most about this survey were the words participants chose in order to express their thoughts about the 10 book titles listed in the survey.
“Good” titles were described this way:
  • clear, intriguing
  • play on words
  • evokes images, evocative
  • short and catchy
  • surprises
  • piques curiosity
  • funny
  • cute
  • good assonance
  • mellifluous
  • poetic
  • to the point
  • makes sense
  • descriptive
  • interesting
  • good
  • tells it like it is
And “bad” titles were described this way:
  • Tritesville, trite
  • too similar to existing titles
  • hackneyed, a bit cliché
  • unoriginal
  • ambiguous, vague, unclear, too general
  • requires too much though to figure it out
  • weak play on words
  • impossible (blades don’t whisper), makes no sense, confusing
  • trying too hard (to be cute)
  • too clever
  • obnoxious
  • Don’t insult your readers!
  • melodramatic
  • hard to remember
  • boring, meh
  • redundant
  • grammatically weird/ off, confusing word order, Grammar, anyone?
  • pedestrian
  • just dumb
  • Punctuation!!! Capitalization!!! What the heck???
What do these comments tell you? To me, they give hints of what to do and what not to do when choosing a title for your book. I’d like to expand on a few themes that emerged from these comments:
Be Clear
Clarity in a title is a difficult thing to pin down, because clarity often relies on context. However, as I discussed in last week’s post, there isn’t a great deal of room for context when your title appears as one of many titles on a search list. Your cover art can help to provide some context, but aside from that, the words you choose need to either send a clear message about your book, or entice prospective readers to investigate further.
To create a clear title, one that gets to the point, you need to be intimately familiar with what your book is about. To do that, give yourself the “thesis test.” When I was in grad school, my supervisor told me that when someone asks me what my thesis is about, I should be able to sum it up clearly in one sentence – and the listener should be able to understand what I’m talking about, no matter how technical my topic might be. I’ve used the thesis test to title several books, papers, and articles, and I find that it helps me to maintain a clear focus on what a book or article is about, so I have a fighting chance of sharing that focus with the intended reader.
Author tip: Sum up your book in a sentence. Try the sentence out on others to gauge their reactions. Adjust your sentence until the listener understands what your book is about. When you have a sentence that works, see if you can trim it down to a title.
Do a Sound Test
For some participants (those who praised titles for use of assonance, and for being mellifluous and poetic), how your title sounds matters. Remember, words on a page are speech written down, so it matters how a title sounds when spoken aloud.
Author tip: Read your title aloud and listen to how it sounds. Try reading your title without the articles a, and or the. Does it sound better? Sometimes removing an article reduces any “bumpiness”  (and sometimes, adding an article can sound better, too).

Check your Grammar and Punctuation
If I’d just given you the list of words that characterized good titles in this survey, you might not know that your grammar and punctuation need to be invisible. The good titles in this survey didn’t have grammar and punctuation issues, so participants perhaps didn’t feel the need to comment on grammar and punctuation. They could have praised titles for perfect punctuation and grammar, but they didn’t. And that’s the thing about grammar and punctuation: people only notice them when they’re not working. Don’t believe me? Browse some of the reviews on Amazon, and you’ll discover that poorly punctuated and grammatically incorrect writing illicits comments authors would rather not have on their book pages.
Author tip: An awkwardly worded title with misplaced punctuation could lead a prospective reader to conclude that the same lack of attention to detail exists in your book—certainly not a message you want to send. If you’re only to follow one of the suggestions in this post, follow this one: Grab thee a grammar guide to brush up on the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain Englishby Patricia O’Conner is a concise, accessible and laugh-out-loud funny guide, and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast is a practical solution for audiofiles. And don’t feel bad about having to look things up: editors (nope, we don’t always have it all figured out) consult grammar guides all the time. Getting your head around English language conventions is hard, but know enough to remove any obstacles that can get in the way of reader enjoyment.
There are more themes that I can pull out of participants’ comments, but I’ll hold my thoughts for now. Based on the survey comments listed above, what do you think participants are saying about good and bad titles? Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section of this blog.

Related Posts
What Makes a Good Title?
What Makes a Good Title? Survey Results 
Getting By With a Good Enough Cover

What Makes a Good Title? Survey Results

Things I Like Book
Image by edenpictures (CC BY 2.0)

by Corina Koch MacLeod

A very special thank you to those of you who participated in the What Makes a Good Title survey.

Last week, I asked blog readers if they could tell a “good” book title from a “bad” one. Participants responded to a survey where they were given a list of 10 titles and asked to vote on whether a title was good or bad (see my rationale for choosing these terms). The survey incorporated spaces for comments, if participants wanted to justify their decisions or raise any issues.
Admittedly, this survey required participants to make a snap judgment on a title based on very little information: just the title itself. There’s generally more to consider when choosing a title, and I discuss some of these items below.

My Rationale
Here’s why I decided to design the survey as I did: My intent was to ask writers and editors (this blog’s readership) to respond to titles in a knee-jerk way, in much the same way prospective readers might.

After reading a book’s title on an Amazon list, say, would prospective readers want to investigate the book further? Would they click through to the book page and read the book description if they’ve had a negative reaction to the title? Would they explore the Look Inside feature?

Not sure what I mean? Try this: Go to the top 100 free list on Amazon and quickly peruse the top 100 titles. Which titles do you click on in order to investigate them further? Why? Which titles don’t get a click-through?

Survey Suggestions
I want to point out that I received two very thoughtful responses outside of the survey from editing colleagues. One colleague suggested that I might provide a book description with the title of each book so participants would have more information with which to make their decision. Good thinking.

In order to retain authenticity, I would need to get excerpts of the books’ descriptions from the authors’ book pages, instead of writing my own descriptions (I can be very persuasive). However, I have recently learned that book pages don’t necessarily contain book descriptions or book summaries anymore, so I decided not to include book descriptions on my survey. There are a number of other things included on book pages nowadays and those items can influence readers’ purchasing decisions. I’ll discuss those items in a future blog post.

Survey, Take Two
Because a title is often embedded in a book’s cover, and because a thumbnail image of a cover often shows up on top 100 lists, should I have included cover images in the survey? Images sometimes suggest the book’s genre (helpful, right?). But would the cover art have distracted you from assessing the title on its own merit?
Here are the cover images from the current survey. Do they change your initial response to the books’ titles?

* You may have noticed that some of the cover images have resolution problems, and/or are a nonstandard size. We’ll discuss these issues in a future post on cover design.

Survey Results

The survey had 33 participants. Here are the results:
The Bloodletter’s Daughter (Good title: 75.8%)
Death Has a Name (Good title: 63.6%)
Wool: The Stranded (Bad title: 81.8%)
The Blade That Whispers Hate (Bad title: 54.5%)
Unraveling Anne (Good title: 69.7%)
The Healthy Quinoa Cookbook (Good title: 63.6%)
Sell Your Work (Bad title: 81.8%)
It’s the Economy Stupid, Or is It? (Bad title: 81.8%)
Magic to the Rescue (Good title: 51.5%)
Kids Math Big Book (Bad title: 87.9%)
Participants comments gave a window into why they voted as they did. Their comments also raised a number of important considerations when choosing a title (as I hoped they might!). I’ll address the broader considerations in this week’s post and discuss some of the finer details of what makes a good title in next week’s post.

Consider the Genre
First, some participants wanted to know what genre a book belonged to, and stated that they might vote differently if they knew the genre. If, as a reader in search of a book, you’re scouring the top 100 list on Smashwords, you may not be able to confirm, at first, what genre a book belongs to (though the cover image may tip you off – more about cover design in a future post). However, if you’re scouring the top 100 list in your favourite genre, a title that doesn’t seem to match the genre may stop a prospective reader dead in his or her tracks.
For example, the title: Wool: The Stranded was not viewed as a “good” title by most of the participants of this survey. A couple of participants suggested that the title could be clever if it were a knitting book, while others found the title to be “too clever,” “too cute,” or “confusing.” In spite of participants’ lack of enthusiasm for Wool: The Stranded, this book, and the rest of the titles in this science fiction series (surprised?) has been a runaway success. This has led me to wonder if this author knew that knitting and other needle arts are currently quite popular, and that a title like this would get a bunch of do-it-yourselfers to at least click through to the book page (where you will see over a hundred five-star reviews of the book and an opportunity to read the first title in the series for free. I did.).
Author Tip: Peruse the top 100 paid titles in your book’s genre. Pay particular attention to books that have been traditionally published, to see what you can learn about how titles are crafted for your genre. Books that are put out by publishers have titles that have to get past editors, as well as the publisher’s marketing department.

Make Sure Your Title Fits Your Content
Readers come to a book with expectations. If your title promises something, do your best to deliver. If, after reading your book, readers come away feeling as though you’ve pulled the wool over their eyes (pun intended, see Wool: The Stranded, above), they may say so in a less than complimentary review of your book.

For example, if you write a book titled Knitting for Southpaws: A How-To Guide for the Left-handed, and your book is about the history of knitting and how left-handedness has been viewed over time, your reader will be disappointed. There’s nothing wrong with beginning the book with an introduction that addresses the aforementioned topics, but the title promises a how-to manual, preferably with visual tutorials, geared toward left-handed knitters who are hard-pressed to find left-handed teachers. 

Those who read knitting books will also expect the book to contain a complement of simple knitting patterns for beginning knitters. That’s typically what introductory knitting books include. You can lure a reader in with an informative or clever title, but just be sure you can deliver with your content.
Author Tip: Get to know your readership. Who will read your book? What does your readership expect of your genre?  Many readers are creatures of habit. They like an equal measure of familiarity, but just a bit of originality, though this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.

Find some titles in your book’s genre on Amazon or Smashwords. Read people’s reviews. These reviews will offer clues about what people expect from your genre. Also, remember to read lots of books in the genre in which you’re writing, so you’re clear on how this genre is typically structured.

Match Your Metadata With Your Book Title
Some survey participants suggested that a good subtitle could give the reader more information about what a book is about. A few of the book titles had subtitles that the authors didn’t originally include in the metadata (the information that shows up in the top 100 list and on the book page), but they did include subtitles on their book covers. For example, The Bloodletter’s Daughter: A Novel of Old Bohemia and the Kids Maths Big Book: Subtractions. Does this new information change your assessment of these titles? Metadata is quick and easy to fix. By the time you read this post, the authors could reasonably have that problem solved.
Author Tip: Be sure that your metadata (the book title in the book distributor’s listing, for example) is the same as the title of your book. Be sure to include your subtitle, if you have one. Your readers will notice the title in your metadata before they notice it on the thumbnail image of your cover.

Do a Google Search
One editing colleague suggested that authors do a Google search on a prospective book title to see what other books and topics come up with the title key words. If you’ve written a children’s book, you may not be thrilled to discover that your book surfaces alongside erotica sites and titles. Enough said.
Next week I’ll discuss some of the finer details of what makes a good title, as they emerged from the comments on the survey. Stay posted…

What Makes a Good Title?

Things I Like Book
Image by edenpictures (CC BY 2.0)

by Corina Koch MacLeod

You want readers to buy your book, right? So be sure to lure them in with a solid book title. Much has been written on the importance of having a good book title from a marketing perspective — it is, after all, an essential component to marketing your book, next to well-designed cover art.

But what makes a “good” book title and what are the hallmarks of a “bad” one? How can you fix a title to make it more professional?
Can you tell a good title from a bad title? Try our survey.
In this week’s post, I’ll provide you with a list of book titles and ask you to decide which titles are “good” and which ones are “bad.” At the risk of sounding judgmental, I’ve decided to use the terms “good” and “bad” instead of “sound” and “work in progress” because readers are less likely to to think “Well, this title is a work in progress. Maybe the book is better.” More realistically, and quite brutally, readers will judge your book by its cover, of which your title is an important part (we’ll discuss cover design in a future post). Your title is the reader’s first taste of your writing, so it’s important to give it a great deal of consideration.
Book Titles
Some of the book titles below are actual (and exact) book titles gleaned from major ebook distributors. I haven’t included author’s names because my intent is not to hurt anyone’s feelings. My goal, here, is to help authors discover the secrets of good book titles. Later, we’ll be looking at ways to improve titles, so if certain titles don’t get favourable reviews, those authors need not despair – they’ll pick up some great hints that will help them polish those titles.
The Bloodletter’s Daughter
Death Has a Name
Wool: The Stranded
The Blade That Whispers Hate
Unraveling Anne
The Healthy Quinoa Cookbook
Sell Your Work
It’s the Economy Stupid, Or is It?
Magic to the Rescue
Kids Math Big Book
How to Participate
Weigh in on the book titles by commenting on this blog post, or by participating in this survey. I’ve given you two ways to respond because some of you may want to comment in a free-form manner, while others will prefer the structure of a questionnaire.
Next week, we’ll unpack the results of the survey in an effort to determine the secrets of good book titles.

Better than I, or me?

Grammar Police
Image by Kate Coleman (CC BY 2.0)

by Corina Koch MacLeod

For my birthday last year, I received a robot vacuum from my husband. Shortly thereafter, we attended a party, where Edna, as we came to call our floor-cleaning marvel, became a topic of conversation. Of course, everyone wanted to know how she worked, whether she would drop off the edge of the stairs, and whether she could do a good enough job.

“It’s embarrassing to admit, but Edna does a better job than me!” I exclaimed.

“Don’t you mean, Edna does a better job than I?” announced J, perhaps a bit too smugly.

After the initial surprise of being publicly “corrected,” I told J that I really did mean better than me.

“That’s not what I learned in high school English,” she retorted. “I learned that the word do is implied, so you say, better than I (do).”

My reply? “Me is the object of the preposition than. The I form is commonly reserved for the subject of a sentence.” A technical answer, I know, but as she was clearly a stickler for grammar, I figured she could appreciate it.

As it turns out, we were both technically right, but one thing hadn’t been considered by my critic…
Language changes with time and context. If it didn’t, we’d still be speaking like William Shakespeare.

Some grammar mavens argue that certain language constructions are antiquated. In the past, saying better than I in conversation was considered the norm. It was common usage. Nowadays, using better than I in a casual conversation can make the speaker seem a little stuffy. According to Patricia O’Conner, author of Woe is I, “it’s OK to use me… in all but the most formal of circumstances.” 

Because I wasn’t writing a formal essay, but engaging in an informal conversation, better than me was defensible: publicly correcting a person’s use of grammatical structures? Perhaps not so much.

Writing tip: Writing a novel? It just might be okay to use “better than I,” depending on your character and the time period in which you are writing. How characters speak can say a lot about who they are.