Proofreading Equals Questioning: Tips for Self-Editing

Tricks and techniques for good self-editing range from reading your manuscript aloud to reading it from end to beginning. These tactics can help you spot errors that otherwise may go unnoticed. They are particularly good for detecting missing words or confusing constructions. But much of self-editing is simpler than that.

The essence of good editing is knowing what to question. If you’re new to editing, the answer is, question everything. If you don’t know if something is correct, look it up. As you become more practiced, you will question less because you will have learned the rules. Even when you know the rules, however, some areas should always be questioned. The following five points are common problem areas that spell-check will not reliably catch.

  • Every time you see “your,” ask if that is the correct choice. If you mean “you are” then you know you want the contraction, “you’re,” instead.
  • Every time you see “it’s,” ask if you mean “it is.” If that’s not what you mean, then you want the possessive, “its.”
  • Every time you come across a pronoun, particularly “they” or “it,” ask what noun it refers to. If you can’t find the noun or it is very far away from the pronoun, replace the pronoun with the noun or rewrite the sentence.
  • Every time you come across a list, ask if each item in the list is in the same form — sentence, phrase, or single word, for example. Make all of the list items match.
  • Every time you see two words that form a common phrase, look them up in the dictionary to find out if they should be one word, two words, or hyphenated. Do this even if spell-check has not highlighted them.

This last point warrants further explanation. Certain word pairs are so often used together that we think of them as one unit. Some of them really are one unit. Others have been joined by a hyphen, and still others remain two words.

These days, word pairs are rarely hyphenated. While words used to evolve from two words to hyphenated to one word, today we often skip the hyphenation phase. For example, the evolution of “to morrow” to “to-morrow” to “tomorrow” took a few hundred years. The evolution from “Web site” to “website” is ongoing, but most of us never even bothered with “Web-site.”

With that bit of etymology in mind, consider these word pairs, some of my personal favorites:

time line
story line
cell mate
soul mate
full time
long-term (as an adjective)
on edge
post-traumatic stress disorder

As you can see, there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason behind what is hyphenated and what isn’t, what’s one word and what’s two words. There are some rules set out by various style guides, but even those have exceptions. And that is why you simply have to look them up.

Editing your own work is difficult. It’s why we hire professionals. But before you get to that step, take some time to read your work with the thought to take nothing for granted. Take your time, and question everything.

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