Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 13, 2023

Why You Want to Become a Better Self-Editor

by Dr. Diana Stout

The photo is a cloud of words with editor and writer the largest words in the grouping.

Over the years, I’ve heard writers say, “I don’t need to learn grammar and punctuation. That’s why I have an editor.” When one student discovered he’d be editing his writing, he said, “I’ll be handing my correspondence to my secretary. She can fix my mistakes.” While he got a laugh from his peers, the problem with these kinds of responses is that these individuals don’t understand how they’re handicapping themselves by having to rely on others for a skill they could easily learn.

Before the internet and indie publishing, publishing houses had staff editors who would perform both developmental and line-editing, then submit galley (printed typeset) pages to the author who would perform a last read and approve the pages.

Today, the publishing landscape is entirely different. Because of rising costs, publishing houses are reducing staff numbers. Consequently, publishers want polished manuscripts, not drafts that require a hefty fix.

Publishing houses want polished manuscripts.

Recently, I heard an agent tell a group of writers that writers need to learn how to become self-editors or hire someone to do their editing before submitting to an agent or publisher. The explanation was that publishing houses don’t have editors to do the line editing anymore; they’re hiring it out. That a book could be rejected based on how much editing is required before it becomes publishable—meaning how much money will the house have to invest?

Should a writer go the indie route of self-publishing, they will still want to learn self-editing skills or hire the editing out. Many readers won't read books that have errors throughout.

Self-editing is a skill that today’s authors should want to master.

So, why do writers balk at learning how to become better self-editors? The reasons I’ve heard are:

  • There are too many rules. I can’t remember them all.
  • I didn’t learn how in high school. How is it going to be any different now?
  • It’s too hard.

First, you want to know the why behind these rules. If you don't know the why, the rules will make little sense and won't be remembered.

Second, the rules don’t apply to all writings, something we were not taught in high school. In school, we learned basic grammar and punctuation rules, which prepared us for business writing in the workforce and for academic writing in college.

Third, the rules for any writing depend on its genre, point of view, style, audience, and author voice. While some definitive rules cross all these thresholds, there aren't that many, truthfully.

Rules for Business writing VS Nonfiction and Fiction writing

Business writing is as different from nonfiction as is from fiction, where rules are frequently broken. The problem is that those broken rules shouldn't be applied to most nonfiction and not in business writing to agents, editors, and publishers.

Business writing is about query letters, résumés, business letters, and other business correspondence, such as synopses, proposals, and treatments. Often, these documents can receive a yes or no based on how polished they are.

Nonfiction rules depend on the genre: memoir, how-to, newspaper, white paper, academic paper… Each type of nonfiction has its own rules, style, and standards.

In fiction, rules are broken all the time. Some authors don’t use quotation marks. Others use short, choppy sentences. Others use long, flowery paragraphs without commas that can be a page long. In fiction, it’s about the author’s style choice and their voice. That said, if the author is being traditionally published, they are obligated to follow the publishing house’s style standard, even if the house is incorrect regarding a traditionally known rule.

You don't have to learn hard-to-remember terminology.

It isn’t necessary to recite the terminology as you did in high school; it’s more important to know the why behind the rules. To be honest, I’ve forgotten some of the terminology, but I know where to find the correct term if needed: in my old high school English book or any pocket-style handbook assigned to most college freshman composition classes.

My favorite handbook was authored by Diana Hacker. If there’s a local college near you, check out its bookstore. You don’t have to be a student to buy books there. If you buy used online, be sure to get a recent edition. While most grammar and punctuation rules haven't changed over time, the style guides (APA, MLA, and Chicago) do.

Two important punctuation changes that have occurred:

  • Periods and commas always go inside the quotation marks. ALWAYS.
  • There are no longer two spaces after end punctuation (period, question mark, exclamation). There is only one space.

One of the best online sites is Purdue's OWL's online writing center. Here's their site map: https://owl.purdue.edu/site_map.html

If you're interested in self-editing, you'll want to understand basic grammar and punctuation, which includes helping verbs, the timeline of tenses, the difference between telling and showing, the difference between passive and active writing, how to eliminate wordiness, and a few other key elements.

You should know, for example:

  • the 7 basic commas, when to use and how to use them
  • when and how to use a colon versus a semicolon
  • how to clean up wordiness easily
  • tenses and when to use which tense
  • when you need to use helping verbs
  • the difference between active and passive writing, and how to fix it with a simple rewrite
  • how to easily turn telling into showing
  • when to use italics instead of quote marks
  • how to fix dangling modifiers

I discovered the more tricks I created for various rules, the easier it became to apply them. I’m all about sharing and teaching these tricks and shortcuts with other writers.

Learning how to become a better self-editor is a key element in learning the craft of writing. I used to tell my students that if they could master just those few rules I listed above, they'd become better writers. By mid-semester, they were amazed at what a difference learning a few self-editing rules made in their writing.

Yes, learning and applying the rules will feel hard at first. Writing is hard, just like when one first learns how to play ball or play a musical instrument. Over time and with practiced learning, self-editing skills become easy and automatic.

Writing is All About the Rewriting

Writing that first draft is like throwing clay (words) on the wheel (page). It’s the spinning (rewriting) of the wheel as the potter’s (writer’s) hands turn the clay (manuscript) into a worthy finished product where craft shines.

So, the earlier statement of Why you should want to become a self-editor becomes a question of Why wouldn’t you want to become a better writer?

The best way to learn self-editing skills is to:

  • Read how-to books
  • Take a class
  • Apply what you learn
  • Apply, apply, apply… practice, practice, practice

Do you struggle with self-editing, especially with grammar and punctuation? If not, how did you learn that skill?


About Diana

Diana Stout, MFA, PhD

Dr. Stout is teaching a Master Class, Punctuation and Grammar Made Easy, in January 2024, with limited seating. If interested, sign up now!

She's an award-winning writer in multiple genres as a screenwriter and author. Also, she's a blogger, writing coach, and former English professor of writing classes who enjoys helping other writers. Learn more about Dr. Stout via her website, Sharpened Pencils Productions.

Top Image from Diana Stout, purchased via Depositphotos.

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13 comments on “Why You Want to Become a Better Self-Editor”

  1. I don't struggle with self editing.

    I learned grammar at school more decades ago than I care to remember. In those days we learned all about punctuation and did endless exercises punctuating paragraphs. We did syntax exercises, parsed sentences, wrote précis, learned about use of apostrophes, wrote sentences containing homonyms, learned about the various tenses of verbs (even the subjunctive), the difference between amount and number, and less and fewer. etc

    At primary school we had a spelling test every Friday of words we had been set to learn in the week, as well as vocabulary.

    This thorough grounding has stood me in good stead, and not only in my writing life. I'm fed up with people who don't know about the participle of irregular verbs. (Saying things like 'He has went')

    And I don't remember resenting it and being bored, either.

    When I started teaching English, formal grammar lessons were frowned on, as was correcting spelling and grammar, especially in creative writing.

    Now we are reaping the results in some self published books being unreadable.

    1. V.M, everything you said! When I was teaching, I had students emailing me, starting with "Dude," and it went down from there.

      In my research, I discovered that teachers taught what they had learned, and if they hadn't learned it incorrectly...

      Thanks for your reply! Happy writing!

  2. Hi Diana,

    I am a big believer in reading one's work aloud. It's helpful for finding errors.

    Also, I like to have other people read over my work. Lots of eyes-on makes a positive difference.

    Then there's practice. Lots and lots of practice.

    1. Ellen, I discovered that Word can read my book back to me! Way better than my having to read it aloud. It's amazing how hearing it read can identify awkwardness and unclear meanings, not to mention missing words!

      Thanks for adding another way to edit!

  3. I did very well in high school grammar classes. Unfortunately, that did me no good as a nurse in the hospital. At the time I practiced, you didn't use full sentences or much punctuation. Patient notes needed to be short, terse, and fast to write (in order to keep up with all your patients). Years of writing patient notes led to un-learning some punctuation rules. Re-learning them has been painfully slow. But I made the effort because I wanted to and because it would save this independently published author money in the long run. I self-edit thoroughly so that my editor and proofreader don't have as many words and errors to correct which saves them time and me money. It's a win-win!

    1. I love your story, Lynnette, and how you were determined to change one habit for another. Your nursing experience is a perfect example of a different style need for a particular job. Good for you! Most certainly a win-win. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I learned it and I retained it. Diagramming sentences in Language Arts and conjugating verbs in Spanish class in middle school reinforced it, too.

    When I edit for others, I tell them the grammar rule when the same mistake is made repetitively.

    1. Good for you, Denise! I wish schools would bring back diagramming as a requirement. With so many visual learners, it's an excellent way to visualize sentences! Thanks for sharing!

  5. As someone who edits business content for a living, I love every word of this from beginning to end, Diana. Especially this: "Many readers won't read books that have errors throughout." It makes me sad that a lot of writers don't understand—or care—how important good editing is for a book.

    That's why I always flip through a hard-copy book or check out the samples on Amazon. If I see errors (and it's discouraging how often that happens), I'm done and will probably never check out that author again. As I said, I edit for a living; I don't need to get twitchy over things I read for enjoyment.

    Thanks for the great article!

    1. Thanks for visiting and for commenting, Linda! I share your sentiments about not reading books ladened with errors. They jerk me out of the story every time. The occasional error, I get that. I know I have them, too. But, repeated errors throughout--so avoidable. Happy reading!

  6. Excellent advice, Diana. I enjoy editing and get a lot of satisfaction from tightening and embellishing. The Gregg Reference Manual and Chicago Manual of Style are my first-line resources, as well as Grammarly and others online. I'm not a professional editor but have done editing and technical writing throughout my varied career. I've shared this on my social media pages and followed you on Facebook.

  7. “I don’t need to learn grammar and punctuation. That’s why I have an editor.”

    I've seen people say this online and just shake my head. How can you be a good writer if you have no command of basics? Someone who reads learns these things by example, even if they sleep through English class.

    I've never seen anyone who says this go on to get published.

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