Productivity and Self-Editing

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bookdoctorby Bobbie Christmas

Q: I do not feel very productive in the way I write. How do you keep writing the rough draft without getting bogged down in revision or self-editing?

A: Productivity lags when we get bogged down with revisions before we even finish our first draft. Productivity takes discipline. If we stop writing to revise, we are not moving forward, and to get the first draft finished, we must move forward. Move forward. You might want to print those words on a big piece of paper and put it where you can see it from your computer. Whenever you feel drawn to stop, go back, and revise, tell yourself, “Move forward.” You’ll have plenty of time to revise later. Getting the first draft down from beginning to end is vital; otherwise, the things you took so much time revising might be unnecessary when you finish the draft and discover the book took off in an unexpected direction.

Most of us you know how tough it is to go against a long-established habit. Perhaps when you sit down and write without revising for twenty minutes or a half hour, you can stop and reward yourself. Get a stick of gum or play with the dog or simply pat yourself on the back for a job well done before you sit again and write for another twenty minutes without stopping and revising. Sure, a little revising will be necessary as you write, but don’t go back to prior paragraphs or chapters. Move forward. Always move forward.

Q: I plan to self-edit my manuscript as much as possible, on the chance that I can save some money. What materials will I need to edit my book myself?

A: Although you need only a small amount of the information in The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition, it is the book almost all professional book editors use to standardize such things as punctuation, capitalization, and when to spell out things or use abbreviations. You can buy the book at any bookstore or subscribe to the information online at http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org. I use a combination of the book and the web site, because finding items in the book can be time-consuming and frustrating. I go to the web site and undertake a search on the subject I’m trying to find, and the site tells me where to find the information in the book. There’s no subscription charge if all you do is use the search function, and sometimes your answer will come up on the site at no charge.

The next book you need is a dictionary, but not just any dictionary. If you write books, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends Merriam-Webster. I use the free online version at http://www.merriam-webster.com/. The most common mistake I catch in manuscripts is whether something is one word, two words, or hyphenated. Sometimes the answer depends upon how the word is used, plus dictionaries and spell-check programs differ where spelling is concerned, so the only way to resolve the issue with any consistency is to follow the guidelines in Merriam-Webster.

I hesitate to recommend my own book, but here goes: I wrote an editor’s desk reference book called Purge Your Prose of Problems. I use it to train my staff of editors, and I reluctantly decided to make it available to the public. I was reluctant for several reasons. First, it took me twenty years to compile all the information, and second, it is exceptional in helping people self-edit. You see, I’m an editor, and I’d rather people pay me thousands of dollars to edit their manuscripts than pay me only $29.95 for my book. Nevertheless, Purge Your Prose covers the major points of The Chicago Manual of Style, explains grammar and punctuation rules, answers hundreds of issues that confuse writers, and even gives creative-writing tips to make writing stronger, tighter, and more compelling. To order it, go to http://zebraeditor.com/book_purge_your_prose_of_problems.shtml.

You will need a spell-check program, but Microsoft Word has that function built in, and Word is the standard, preferred software for manuscripts. Spell checkers aren’t perfect, because sometimes they don’t pick up on the use of variants, when there is a preferred spelling that differs. They do, however, catch some spelling errors, typos, and extra spaces between words, so always run a spell check after making any changes to the full document.

You would do well to find a capable critique circle or critique partner, as well, because other people will find things you overlooked or did not know that you didn’t know.

Because you will find many issues by reading your manuscript aloud, you might want a reading program that reads your manuscript aloud to you. One free program is available at http://naturalreaders.com/.

Other things you need but cannot buy include patience, objectivity, and an eagle eye. I cannot help you gain patience or an eagle eye, but you can gain a little more objectivity by letting the manuscript rest for a few weeks before you begin your edit. If you have not been working on or reading your manuscript for a few weeks, you will see it with fresher eyes when you pick it up again.


Bobbie Christmas, book editor and owner of Zebra Communications, will answer your questions, too. Send them to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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