Editing Tips #2: Personal Style Guide

I’ve been asked to post some editing tips for people in the process of revising their own work. Most editing notes are universal — applying equally to people editing a short story or those revising their novel. You don’t have to follow every one of my suggestions, but if you at least consider them, your work will be much better than it was as a first draft.

Today’s suggestion is a foundation for a lot of the later tips to build on: create your own style sheet.

A style guide is a set of guidelines an editing house follows. It allows an organization to maintain uniformity across multiple publications. Editors are often given a style guide to work from, and while they average around 5 pages, I’ve worked from guides that were 20 pages long. It’s different for each publisher, and often changes depending on the field.

I’m suggesting something less comprehensive: a single-page style sheet. You can skip a lot of the formatting notes because you’ll be using a standard manuscript format for your submission, or tailoring it to a publishers specific request, and that means you won’t need to have those rules in front of you when you edit the first time. (I always put my ms. in standard formatting from the beginning, and then double-check a house’s rules right before submitting.) What you need is a handy go-to guide that reminds you of all the little mistakes you commonly make but might not be thinking about.

Your personal style sheet will evolve as you go along, and it should. Maybe you’ll learn you were using a word or type of punctuation wrong; you might successfully teach yourself to stop making one mistake only to develop another. It happens. What matters is that you update your style sheet whenever you need to, and refer back to as you edit.

At the beginning you can write down three types of rules, and feel confident it will cover a lot of the errors you might make. If you can’t think of any off the top of your head, go back to the last piece of writing you had edited (by a beta-reader, or the editor at the magazine who bought your story) and base your sheet on the notes you got there. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive to start.

First, make a list of the grammar rules you usually get wrong. Some examples are:

  • Use the Oxford (serial) comma when making lists or using multiple adjectives.
    • INCORRECT: She ordered a pizza with extra cheese, pepperoni and black olives.
    • CORRECT: Bob bought milk, eggs, licorice, and butter at the store.
    • CORRECT: His hair was dark brown, soft, and shiny.
  • Use the appropriate male or female adjective spellings when using gendered pronouns.
    • INCORRECT: He had a blonde mustache but brunette hair.
    • CORRECT: He had a blond mustache but brunet hair.

Next, list punctuation rules you often forget. Some examples are:

  • Names of songs, short stories, and short films should be in quotation marks; films, books,magazines, newspapers, albums, and other long works should be italicized.
    • My story, “Bob and Sue Go To War”, was published in the Spring issue of A Children’s Guide to Field Tactics.
  • Scare quotes should be used around sarcasm, lies, or other sections of narration when the author means to emphasize that something is not meant the way that it is said.
    • We all knew Bob was an “expert” but we didn’t agree on what.
  • Don’t use two spaces after the end of a sentence. One is enough.

Finally, list words you commonly overuse, or use incorrectly. Many people don’t realize how often words like took, got, still, stood, oh, sure, or then are repeated in a text. If you read three paragraphs of your writing and find a word used more than four times (with the obvious exception of words like a, the, or and) you should change some of those instances to another word.

Using the style guide

I find the hardest part of editing your own work is looking at it as if it isn’t yours. Working from a style sheet, and using the “track changes” and “find” functions in your document can help with that. First, turn on “track changes”. That way you’ll see each of the changes you make, and your document will begin to be peppered with differently-colored notes, just the way it is when someone else edits you. That will confuse your brain a little, making it harder for you to glaze over your original mistakes.

Then, run a spell check. Make sure you’ve got it set to either US or UK settings, depending on your target audience.

Next, use the “find” function to root out all of those overused words. Change them as you go along. You can use it to find certain other errors too, such as whether you put a comma after an interjection like “Oh” or “Hey” when it begins a sentence. Find all of those double spaces too, and replace them with a single space.

Now that your document is partially marked-up, go back to the beginning and read over it. Keep that style sheet at hand so you can double check your rules as you edit. Once you’re all done, you can go through and accept your changes, and your document will be in much better shape than it was before you edited it.

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