Whether you’re writing a blog post, a magazine article, a
short story, an assignment, a novel, or a nonfiction book, it’s
important to go over your work several times to make sure it’s polished
and flows well. No matter what
your you’re writing, you’re your
credibility will be eroded if readers find mispelled misspelled
words, misused words, missing or duplicate words, or other typos.
If you plan to enter your short story or novel into a contest or query an agent, your credibility will be eroded and your reputation tarnished if the judge/reader/agent finds awkward sentences, boring word choices, missing words, extra words, or grammatical or spelling errors.
And if you're publishing your own novel or nonfiction and want to avoid annoyed readers and negative reviews, it's essential to submit a clean, polished, properly formatted book.writing guides and my many blog posts here and elsewhere. Writers find my to-the-point Fire up Your Fiction, with lots of bullet points and before-and-after examples, very helpful.
After you’ve resolved any big-picture content problems and any style issues, such as slow pacing, awkward sentence structure, or overly wordy phrasing, it’s time to go through the manuscript again for typos, spelling, and grammatical errors, including punctuation.
My tips below will help you with the final editing and proofreading steps, smoothing out clunky sentences, cutting excess wordiness and repetition, and improving your word choices, as well as ferreting out those tiny little gremlins that escape your notice when you’re concentrating on content issues. At the bottom are links to more articles on specific topics related to revision and self-editing.
When we read our own work, we’re so familiar with what we want to say that we fill in words that aren’t actually on the page and skip over words that shouldn’t be there.
Of course, getting detail-oriented, eagle-eyed friends who are great at spelling to read your work carefully is a great option, if you know any.
Here are some tips for fooling your brain into thinking your story is something new, something you need to read critically and revise ruthlessly before it reaches the demanding eyes of a literary agent, acquiring editor, contest judge, or picky reader and reviewer.
1. Set it aside for a while. First, if you can, put your article, blog post, or short story away for a day or two before revising and editing it, and your book manuscript away for a few weeks or more, if possible, so you can come back to it with fresh eyes and a bit of emotional distance. If you’re on a tight deadline, start at #2.
2. Start with Word’s Spell-check Editor and check those squiggly red and blue lines under words. Don’t rely entirely on spell-check, though, as it misses a lot (like the well-known laughable gaffe, “pubic” for “public”), and often flags words that will actually change something from correct to incorrect. For example, in a manuscript I edited, MS Word suggested that “I like your thinking” (as in “I like how you think”) should be “I like you’re thinking.” (Blatantly wrong for the context.) And it often suggests the wrong its/it’s, and misses all kinds of typos in manuscripts I edit, like “crowed” for “crowded,” “father” for “farther,” “county” for “country,” and “manger” for “manager.” So definitely don’t trust spell-check blindly.
4. Do a search (“Find”) for words you know how to spell but tend to spell wrong when you’re in a hurry, especially ones spell-check often won’t flag, like “you” for “your,” “the” for “their,” “your” for “you’re,” and “there” for “they’re” or “their.”
5. Maybe invest in grammar and spelling software, such as Grammarly, ProWritingAid, or AutoCrit. Here's a recent (2021) article on the Best Grammar Checkers and Editing Tools.
Then choose some of the following strategies, which are also excellent for picking up on clunky sentences, awkward phrasing, repetition, and wordiness.
~ Increase the size of the type to 140% -180%, by clicking on the + sign at the bottom right of the document.
~ Change the font to one that looks quite different to fool your eyes and brain into thinking this is new material you’ve never read (or thought of) before, so you need to pay close attention. Try Comic Sans or Franklin Gothic Book or Book Antiqua.
~ Format your novel to book size, like 6″ x 9″ with half-inch margins, a font like Georgia or Cambria, and single-spaced, maybe format it to two-column landscape so it looks like an open book, then, if you can afford the paper and ink, print it up and read it in a different location, somewhere you don’t write, preferably out of your home.
~ Send your book manuscript to your Kindle or other e-reader, then read it in a different location, preferably not at home. If you already have an e-reader, this is of course much cheaper and less wasteful than making a print copy of a whole book. Format it to book size first (6"x9", 0.5" margins, indents of 0.2" or 0.3"), then send it to your Kindle email account as an attachment.
~ Send your story to yourself and read it on your tablet or phone. Or use Word's OneDrive or another cloud option.
~ In a print version, place a ruler or piece of paper under the line you’re reading to keep from skipping ahead. Or keep your finger under each word as you read.
~ Read it out loud. Wherever you stumble, your readers will, too. This will also help with punctuation. If you pause briefly, put in a comma. If you pause for longer, put in a period.
~ Get your computer to read passages aloud to you, while you follow along. This will help you hear errors you may not catch otherwise. To enable text-to-speech in Word: First, add “Speak” to the Quick Access Toolbar: Along the very top above “File,” the blue line that starts with W for Word (or “Autosave” or the “Save” icon), go to the far right to find the small down arrow. Click that. It will say “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.” Click “More Commands.” In the “Choose Commands” from the list, select “All Commands.” Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.” Click “OK.” When you want to use the text-to-speech command, you’ll use the icon on the Quick Access Toolbar, which looks like a square speech bubble on a cartoon. To hear some text read aloud, turn on your speaker, highlight the paragraph or chapter you want to hear aloud, then click the Speak icon on the toolbar. To stop it, click the icon again.
Follow along the text while listening to the text being read aloud. Stop it whenever you need to add, delete, fix, or change a word or smooth out awkward phrasing.
~ For final proofreading for little typos, you could try this: Read the whole thing backwards or upside down (!). I’ve heard these suggestions, but haven’t actually done this myself, and probably won’t.
~ If you’re self-publishing, get a pre-publication sample book printed by Amazon or Ingram Spark and read it somewhere else, preferably away from your home, like in a coffee shop, a park, or the beach. This makes a huge difference – you're approaching the book as a reader, not the writer. I read all three of my writing guides in book form, pen in hand, while away on vacations, and I caught all kinds of repetitions, sentences that didn’t flow as well as they could, were too wordy, or generally needed polishing, etc., as well as the odd typo.
QUICK CLICKS: SPELLING LIST – Commonly Misspelled Words at Your Fingertips, and QUICK CLICKS: WORD USAGE – Precise Word Choices at Your Fingertips. Click on the titles to check them out. These handy resources will save you tons of time looking up words in the dictionary, and every word is verified as correct. (They're perfect for viewing on computers, laptops, tablets, or e-readers but don't work on small screens like phones.)
Writers – do you have any questions or other strategies to add for catching all those little typos lurking in your manuscript? Let us know what works for you in the comments below. (Your comment will not appear instantly – it will need to be approved first.)Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in herFIRE UP YOUR FICTION, CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized and edited two anthologies. Website: https://www.jodierenner.com/, Facebook, Amazon Author Page