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 TheBookDesigner.com, 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?

Edit

Edit

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.

How to Keep Track of Your Elements of Style*

by Carla Douglas
@CarlaJDouglas

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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