Editing Your Work (Keep Clam and Proofread*)

I work with a lot of documents at my job. The documents that I work on have already passed several reviews and have already been edited by professionals – in short, these documents have been looked at closely by a bunch of eyes. I always catch at least one important mistake. 

This is true of published novels as well, though a book will have gone through writing, editing, peer reviews, rewrites and a formal editor – it will still contain mistakes. I’m a quick reader, so I’m used to missing typos in a book, only seeing them once they’re shown to me. I tend to think that I am a fairly blind reader, I usually become immersed in my reading to the point that not even spelling mistakes will jolt me out of it. Which is why there is nothing more aggravating to me than someone marking up a library copy of a book, pointing out the mistakes. We’ll never catch all of our mistakes, but the least we can do is limit them.

At my job there are two types of editing: technical and substantive:

  • Technical review looks at the nitty gritty – the grammar, the spelling, checking correct citations etc.
  • Substantive review looks at the overall flow and content of the work. Substantive reviews also apply to research – making sure that things are described correctly or things are used in the correct capacity. Usually substantive review is the first formal review of a document, that why you can work with the overall feel and tone of the document.

Technical and Substantive reviewing works well for any type of document. I like breaking the review process into these two phases. There are times when this type of editing is combined in one long mark-up session, but often you can force yourself to isolate each type of review or ask others to specifically look at certain areas.

Below are some ideas to help you with your editing process, these work for both technical and substantive reviews. Ideally you’ll always do a quick spell check before any type of review, but there are always certain words or grammar irregularities that get lost in the void.


Beta readers are a godsend to writers. Beta readers are often fellow authors who edit and provide criticism for your work. The key is finding a good beta reader who becomes acquainted with your work and tone, so they can help you suss out any irregularities or known problems. They are the first outside look at your work and usually provide the best advice.

You can shanghai family and friends to act as your beta readers, but if you’re looking for someone that has similar style and writing level then try looking online.

  • The Nanowrimo twitter account has created the hashtag  #betareader for writers to search for people that are interested in betareading books.
  • The NaNoWriMo website has forums devoted to Novel Aftercare tips as well as critiquing
  • Fictionpress.com – the original fiction offspring of Fanfiction.net has a beta-readers section where you can search for beta readers by their activity and their preferred genre.
  • Use an online writing group (there are plenty online) to test out a couple of chapters. If someone people seems interested in your work, email them and ask if they want to act as your beta.

Beta readers, however, do not write the story for you. You can’t write a bare outline and expect the beta to ‘fill in the blanks’. As well, while beta readers look at the raw version of a story, there is an expectation of spelling and grammar checks before submission to them. You don’t want to waste your beta’s time critiquing grammar and spelling that you could have fixed with a read-through,

Reading Aloud

Reading aloud is the best possible way to edit your own work. It’s perfect if you’re not comfortable with passing on your work to a beta reader, or just want to polish your writing before showing off your work.  Reading aloud not only catches spelling mistakes, but also helps with identifying any wonky sentence structures, flow or tone of writing.

I prefer to read aloud alone, either outloud or in my mind. I’m not comfortable speaking into a microphone, I think I would spend most of my time trying not to stumble over words rather than getting a feel for them.

If you prefer to read into a machine, and catch the mistakes later while listening to the playback, there are plenty of hand-held recording devices that you can pick up at any electronic store. Below are different types of recording programs that you can use as well. Remember, the point is not to get fancy with software but to listen to the flow of what you wrote:

  • Dragontongue  is a dictation software that was a NaNoWriMo sponsor. NaNoWriMo winners get a 50% discount off of the software, 20% for participants. It’s different than just recording your voice in that it types out what you are saying. This would create a separate document that you could edit as you read aloud. There are obvious pros and cons to doing this.
  • Audacity is a free and open-source recording software.
  • Text to speech software is essentially the opposite of dictation, reading aloud what you’ve already written. Verbose is a free text-to-speech (tts) software. Most Windows operating systems also come with built-in tts software. Robotic voices are dull to listen to but badly phrased sentences or bad spelling will become immediately clear when read aloud by a proto-Terminator.
  • Go low-fi and read aloud to a friend (preferably a close friend, who doesn’t mind you droning on).

Taking a Break

This isn’t a formal type of editing, but it is used best by writers who don’t want to show their first few drafts to the outside world. There is a point where everyone hits the wall. Whether you’re still writing or just finished, there is a point where you are convinced that everything is horrible and hackneyed. The best way to edit when you’re in these moods is not to edit at all. To step back, write or read something else. Some of my favourite pieces have been written while I was stuck on other projects.

Walk away for as long as you need. When you’re writing you become intimate with the plot, the characters, the setting. Taking a break mean realigning your mindset so you can rewrite with a fresh perspective.

Always view your first draft as Draft 0 – too often people are so excited that they’ve finished their story that they jump the gun and believe it’s ready for the masses. I think this is why self-publishing used to have such a terrible reputation – first time authors publishing their work after minimal editing. Take at least two editing passes before sending it on to peer reviewers: one for technical and the other for substantive. If you know you’re weak in a certain area, make sure to tell anyone that reviews the first few drafts to focus on that area. If you’re unsure about characterization, tone or themes, ask them to focus on the substantive content. If you know you’re addicted to commas and em-dashes (not that I know anything about that), ask for a focus on grammar. 

When writing, we become blinded to mistakes that we make in our work. You know exactly what you want to say and how it should read; but, on a read-through or editing pass your brain reinterprets what you wrote so it fits with what you intended. This is why grammatical and spelling mistakes can slip by when a writer is editing their own work.


*Keep Clam and Proofread is a poster I’ve seen making the rounds – I wish I could take credit, but I can’t.