4 February 2015

Editing your own work – Non-fiction

By nonfictioness

Personally I love editing – which is good because aside from being a writer I am also a freelance copy-editor – but it took me a while to be able to edit my own work with the same confidence I have editing other people’s.scissors-lots-x600

You spend hours researching your subject, crafting every sentence and agonising over every word, so to then have to go back through and refine and finesse can seem impossibly daunting. But one thing I soon realised is that I rarely regret cutting sections out.

There are two aspects of editing – the first is to polish your work, the second is to ensure consistency of style. The first requires a creative approach, the second a methodical approach. I would not recommend trying to do both at once because they involve completely different ways of thinking.

Polishing your work

I suggest tackling the polish edit first, as there is no point editing text for consistency when that text is going to change.

Editing can be done at any time, some find it easiest to write a couple of paragraphs then straight away go back through tidying them up. Others prefer to write a whole chapter or book before beginning the editing process.

The problem with editing can be knowing when to stop, because when it comes to your own work it always feels like there is another tweak to make.

The temptation when editing is to add more words when actually taking them away is often a lot more effective. An idea can be lost in a forest of text, but by pruning the superfluous the light can get in.

I am quite a cavalier editor of my own work and so I generally just wade in and starting cutting and substituting words. But for some this is too final and it may be better to create a new version of your document to edit as this can give you the safety net to be bold in your edit, because you know you will not lose anything as you still have the original version.

Another approach is to use Track Changes so that you can, at a later date, come back and review your edits and decide whether to accept or reject them.

When I am editing my own work I try and make sure I am streamlining my work and not crowding it with yet another sentence saying the same thing as the one before but in a slightly different fashion.

The thesaurus is your friend. When writing on a specific subject (especially in non-fiction) it can be hard to avoid using certain keywords repeatedly. For example, if you are writing a book about horses you are inevitably going to use ‘horse’ a lot, but you could throw in a few mounts, steeds, fillys and equines to avoid becoming overly repetitive.

Copy-editing your work

Once you have been through your work a number of times and feel like you have now crafted something which flows beautifully and imparts exactly your meaning then it is time to move onto the copy-edit.

The key to copy-editing is to be a pedant. Spellings, capitalisations, use of italics and grammar must all be consistent so before you begin you might want to think about a style guide.

If you have a publisher already ask them for a copy of their style guide then you can ensure you stick to it. If you have yet to find a publisher choose one of the standard style guides such as the Oxford Style Manual or, if you are in the US, the Chicago Manual of Style.

Once you have read and absorbed the style guide, read through your work and make the appropriate edits, such as changing all –ize spellings to –ise, or italicising every book title mentioned. By sticking to a consistent style your work will become more coherent and your manuscript more polished.

With any edit half the skill is knowing when to stop. I find the best way is to pass through the book a number of times editing and then have a break of a few days before going back and reading it again. If niggles and errors are still cropping up you haven’t finished. But if when you come back and read your manuscript again you are pleasantly surprised at how well it reads, then you are done!