The Fine Art of Being Your Own Editor and Proofreader

The Fine Art of Being Your Own Editor and Proofreader

picture of pen writing“If you plan to self-publish your book, you should budget for a good copy editor. If you’re a beginning writer, you may need some content editing too. Any errors you can find by using my tips will save you money when you hire a professional to copy edit your manuscript.” – Barbara

Beginning the Content Editing Process
Creating a Visual Aid
Refining Your Book’s Content
The Copy Editing Process
Make Your Own “Personal Editing Checklist”
A few Words about Proofreading
Proofing in the Typesetting Stage

In communicating via the written word, whether you’re writing an article, blog post, business document, newsletter, or a book, you will be judged not only by what you say, but how well you say it—from your general use of language and specific choice of words to your spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style of presentation.

More important, what you write must make sense and be presented in an order that seems logical to your particular audience. Like humor that is funny to some and not to others, what seems logical to you may seem totally illogical to others. Even small typographical or punctuation errors—which even the best writers make from time to time—can cause confusion or leave one’s audience with the impression that you’re either careless or unprofessional.

Robert Frost once said that “You can be a little ungrammatical if you come from the right part of the country,” which may be true if you’re writing dialogue in fiction. But where self-published books are concerned, being “a little ungrammatical” could prove not only embarrassing to you, but might tarnish your professional image and result in lost sales and profits. Can you afford that?

Beginning the Content Editing Process

You should strive to improve your book’s content while it’s still in draft mode and then continue to refine it as you rewrite as necessary. Understand that rewriting is essential to making a good book a great book (see related reading at end). Focus on the book’s structure as a whole and how it is divided in chapters and then in sections within each chapter. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, you need to create a Table of Contents that seems logical to you at the time, one that will naturally change as the book progresses. That’s because books have a mind of their own, and once started, they will tell you when something is amiss.

If you’re writing fiction, your chapters will focus on who is doing what and where. Generally one starts a new chapter when the scene changes or different characters enter a scene. If you’re writing nonfiction, you’ll need a comprehensive Table of Contents with a list of all the subheadings needed to break your content into sections that naturally flow from one to another. In either case, you should be editing for clarity, continuity, and flow.

As one of my editing clients told me during the editing process, “It’s amazing how moving a few words around improves the content so much.” As you proceed in this part of the self-editing process, ask yourself how you might clarify a particular point, and whether you see any inconsistencies or details that should be double-checked to ensure accuracy.

Creating a Visual Aid

As I write the early drafts of a book, I start a document that details the book’s content by chapters and subheadings or sections in each chapter. Even though most novels don’t have a Contents page, you need one to keep yourself on track as you write. This will help you think about how to start and end each chapter to keep the reader turning pages.

I pay particular attention to the word count of each chapter, because chapters of a book should always be similar in length. That is, you don’t want one chapter with 3,000 words and the next one 10,000 words. (As a guideline for nonfiction books, the chapters in my home-business books usually had around 5,000 words per chapter, with several subheadings, tips, and sidebars to break up the content.)

When I began to write memoirs, I started keeping a document titled “Beginnings and Endings.” As I write each chapter, I copy and paste both the opening and closing paragraphs of that chapter, which gives me a bird’s eye view of how the book is flowing and literally tells me how the next chapter must begin. After I get going on a book, I often find it necessary to change some of the opening or closing paragraphs to make the story flow better and keep a reader’s interest. By reading various articles on the internet, I gained skill in writing closing paragraphs designed to pique readers’ curiosity and prompt a page turn. (See Recommended Reading below for the article I found most helpful. You might want to follow this successful author.)

As you continue the rewriting process, you may find you must be relentless in revising chapters or certain sections of a chapter to make sure the story line continues on whatever timeline path you decide to use. (It does not have to be chronological. It’s okay to jump back and forth in time, as long as you don’t lose the continuity of the story line.) I have found in both my nonfiction books and memoirs that sometimes a chapter is badly positioned and should be moved forward or back to improve the continuity and flow of the book.

Refining Your Book’s Content

While doing all this content editing, I’m also looking for ways to add color to my writing through the use of better descriptions, similes, metaphors, analogies, or figurative language. (See link to helpful article below.)

 Since I’ve been editing myself for decades, it was only natural for me to edit my first memoir, The Drummer Drives! Every body Else Rides—but only after getting some content editing feedback from my sister, Mollie, who knew my late husband well. I knew I was too close to some of the book’s sensitive content to see clearly and needed to know how she thought readers might respond to certain sections. I got more than I bargained for here, because she also pointed out other areas of the book where I’d said some things she believed would offend some readers. All it took here was the need to change a few words or sentences here and there.

Special Tip: If you’re writing a family memoir and don’t want to upset any family members who are mentioned in your book, you should speak with them before publication lest you offend them, or worse (depending on your family situation) prompt an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit. This wasn’t a problem for me, but memory was.

During the writing of Marcella’s Secret Dreams and Stories, I asked both of my sisters for help in remembering our growing-up years. Because we were born at five-year intervals, we saw our family life and history through entirely different eyes, and their feedback helped me write a much better book, one the whole family appreciated and recommended to others.

This was the second time I learned something about how we remember things. Sometimes our memory of a certain event or period of time might be quite different from that of another family member and may in fact be incorrect. Our memory can play tricks on us. While writing The Drummer Drives, I discovered that several years after something has happened, we may feel absolutely sure we are remembering it correctly until we go back to see what we or someone else documented at the time in a letter, journal, or scrapbook.

In the case of my second memoir, my sisters and I had saved every letter we’d ever written or received from our mother, and when I studied all those letters along with the ones other family members had written that were passed down to me, I ended up with a complete and accurate record of exactly when everything I was writing about in the book actually happened in three generations of my family.

In time, every writer finally decides the content is as good as it can be. When I reach this point, I put on my copy editor’s hat and start looking for errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and more.

The Copy Editing Process

Copy editing deals with the nitty-gritty stuff. This and other articles on my site will help you do a good job of catching most of your errors, but understand that every author who plans to self-publish needs some professional copy editing help to avoid personal embarrassment later.

If you’ve written and typed all the words, you’ll find it nearly impossible to see all your errors because your mind knows what you meant to say, and when you read what you’ve written, your eyes will see only what your mind tells them to see.

During my early learning years, I read countless books and periodicals to give myself something of a “crash course in writing like a pro.” But some of my best writing lessons came in the form of the corrections my trade book copy editors made in my book manuscripts.

Over the years, these books and their various editions were copy edited by no less than twenty different editors. My home-business books never needed content editing because I knew my topic and industries better than any editor I ever worked with, but I was always grateful to have a copy editor check my manuscripts.

Starting with my first book, I noted every change the copy editor made and kept a written record of those errors so I wouldn’t make them again (and that first book had a lot of them). By referring to this “personal editing checklist” as I wrote each new book and edited the manuscript to the best of my ability before submitting it to my publisher, I was able to find and correct all errors I’d made before. A few new errors always crept in, but the more books I wrote, the fewer things my copy editors could find to correct. I remember how happy I was the day I found an editor’s note in one of my last home-business manuscripts saying, “This is the cleanest manuscript I’ve ever edited.”

My study of grammar rules continued, and by 2004 I felt confident enough to announce my book manuscript editing services to writers interested in self-publishing. I ceased taking editing jobs in 2017 so I’d have more time for writing and publishing my own books and published my second memoir later that year.

Make Your Own “Personal Editing Checklist”

The personal editing checklist I began in 1979 was worth gold to me when I published my first memoir in 2010. Later that I created a couple of additional editing checklists. I encourage you to create your own “personal editing checklist” based on what you’ll find this article and the Related Articles I’m linking you to below. Just remember that any editing checklist you might make from my copyrighted articles on this site is for your personal use only and may not be published anywhere else. To help other authors, simply refer them to this article and let them create their own checklist based on their particular needs.

One thing not discussed in other articles on this site is how I strive to make my writing less passive (a lifelong problem for me). In particular, I look for:

 Weak sentence beginnings, such as “It was” and “There were”;

 How I’m using “to be” and “to have”; “is being” and “will be” (weak);

 Weak verbs, which include are, am, is, was, were, being (all passive);

 Every “that” that doesn’t need to be there and should be deleted;

 Every “had” (which signifies past tense when maybe everything else is in present tense)

 Unnecessary words such as really, very, actually, truly, completely, and probably. (You may be stunned to see how many times each of these words appears in your writing.) For better word choices, look for synonyms for these unnecessary words.

 Adjectives: Too few or too many? Mark Twain said we needed to kill most of our adjectives to make the rest more valuable: “They weaken when they are close together,” he said. “They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

A few Words about Proofreading

Hiring a profession proofreader will cost you a bundle, and I’ve yet to encounter a self-publisher who can justify the cost of this service. Most of us find proofreading help in our family, perhaps in a writer’s group, or from a fellow author who will trade services with you.

NOTE: I suspect that many authors use Grammarly’s free editing/proofreading service. But after reading their privacy policy and how they use information gathered from users, I decided I didn’t want to go this route. Call me old-fashioned and a skeptic to boot, but because this is a free attachment to the Chrome browser, I see this as just one more way for others to track my movements on the web.

To increase your proofreading power and ability to see your own errors, it helps to read something on your computer monitor and then print a copy. I always find things in the printed copy that I couldn’t see on the screen. For important writing, I lay the printed copy aside for a day or more and read it again. Every time I read it, I’ll see something I didn’t see the first time. In the process, I usually find some words I want to change, add, or delete, plus a few sentences in need of tweaking. (The reality is that you will be making content editing tweaks to the book until you’re ready to publish.)

Did you know that when you read the same material in a different format, your brain automatically reboots and your eyes can see what they couldn’t see before? Example: When I load content to this website, the article has been proofread and spell-checked with the only formatting being italics and a few symbols. I then load the Word document and format it on the site in that view mode. I read it again as I’m formatting each paragraph in desired fonts and colors and layout, previewing it often to see how it’s going to look when published. When I’m finished, I read the article again in the browser preview, and guess what? I always see something than that I couldn’t see before.

I might add that I’ve probably proofread every article and PDF document on this website a dozen times, and yet I’m fairly certain that I will have missed a few typos or other things that will be immediately obvious to some readers. Often we make new errors when we’re trying to fix one we’ve just found.

Proofing in the Typesetting Stage

I’ve learned that the self-publishing author needs to do at least two copy-editing runs through a manuscript before the typesetting process begins, and then another close read should be done after the book has been typeset.

You should print the PDF copy of the typeset book and look for all the errors that might show up then. I have a long list of things I normally check, but to keep this simple, the most common problems are wrong fonts or font sizes, bad line endings or rivers of white in justified text, two spaces between words instead of one, errors in the Table of Contents page numbers, etc. The benefit of doing my own typesetting is that I can fix rivers of white and bad line endings by either hyphenating a word or slightly modifying the text to get the result I want. Sometimes I have to do a little rewriting to avoid having two or three lines of text carry to another page.

The Publisher’s Proof Copy. When you finally get a copy of the publishers proof copy, you’ll be looking at your book with a new set of eyes, and you’re likely to see things then that you couldn’t see before. And here’s what’s likely to happen after you fix all the errors, give the order to publish, and sit down to read your published book in hand. It may not be long before you spot something that you and all your proofreading helpers didn’t see. You’ll cringe and ask how could this possibly happen, but it does. It’s happened to me and to several other authors I know. Since going through the republication process is costly and time-consuming—and will make your new book unavailable on Amazon for a while—it’s not practical to do this unless the error or problem is major. In the end the only practical thing to do is let it go and remember that no one is perfect.


Even after a lifetime of writing professionally with financial success, I’ve never stopped trying to improve my writing because I’ve always wanted to be the best writer I could possibly be. I strive to make each new article or book I write better than the one before it, which should be the goal of all writers who want to give their readers their best work.

My focus now is on writing and self-publishing more books while helping other authors publish their books too. If you need some assistance or encouragement, check out my telephone consults for writers and authors interested in self-publishing, and in particular note my book manuscript critiquing service. (In my experience, all first-time novelists and memoirists will end up with a much better book if they start with a book critique or evaluation before they even think about having their manuscript professionally edited. See all the benefits of a critique HERE.

Related Articles:

Barbara’s Editing Checklist of Common Writing Errors. There are many things you can do to “clean up” your book manuscript prior to hiring someone to edit it. To save money on your professional copy editing costs, use this helpful checklist to find errors you may have missed.

Four Months on a Tank of Gas—The Secret Life of a New Memoirist  [PDF]. This revealing glimpse into Barbara’s life as an author tells how her first memoir grew from the gleam of an idea to a self-published book in hand. It features lessons learned during the stages of content editing and rewriting, copy editing and proofreading, typesetting with MS Word, and publishing through LightningSource and Amazon.

How to Write a Good Memoir: How the book, Your Life as Story, helped Barbara write a better first memoir. Includes tips on structuring content, story timeline, and memory problems.

The Move to Change the English Language and How We Write and Speak. Barbara’s rebellious thoughts in protest to this movement, adapted from a 2021 Brabec Bulletin.

Other Recommended Reading:

12 Ways to End a Chapter (with Brilliant Examples)

Changing Passive to Active Voice, from Perdue University’s online writing lab.

How to Master the Rewriting Process: 10 Tips for Rewriting Your Work.

What’s the Difference between Metaphor, Simile, and Analogy?

Copyright © 2004, 2021 by Barbara Brabec

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