Top Editing Tips From A Pro

Sigrid Macdonald, Author of Be Your Own Editor
Sigrid Macdonald

Today we have a special feature on a book that will help you become a better editor when it comes to refining your own work. Since this skill isn’t the easiest to master, editor/author Sigrid Macdonald decided to write a book on the subject. Here are the details in an interview with Sigrid…

1. The name of the book is “Be Your Own Editor”, so it’s probably best to start by asking what led you to write this book? Give us a little background and some history behind the inspiration.

I’ve been a writer for several decades.  I started out doing articles for political organizations and op-ed pieces for the newspaper.  Then I moved on to writing for magazines and finally, I wrote books.  After I finished my first book, I was hired by a local company to be a manuscript editor.  I knew nothing about editing but I was confident about my skills because I had been writing for so long — that faith in myself was misplaced!

Editing and writing require completely different skill sets.  They look and sound as though they should be the same, because in many respects, editing is just like rewriting. On the other hand, writing involves a creative process of putting your ideas on paper, but editing involves the meticulous review of everything you’ve written to make sure that it’s structurally and grammatically sound and accurate.

In the old days, pretty much everyone who wasn’t a professional writer edited his or her own material.  For example, most college and university students would never have considered hiring a proofreader or editor to go over their essays.  

Nowadays, things have changed.  Higher expectations are placed on students by professors in postsecondary education, yet many of the fundamentals of English composition and grammar are not being taught properly in the early years.  Many of us are writing on websites, in the blog community or even self-publishing books.  No one edits that work, whereas a professional writer can submit an article to a magazine, and the magazine editor will kindly and quickly remove any typos or awkward structural or grammatical problems.  Not so when we do these things ourselves. Consequently, we may miss all kinds of redundancies, inconsistencies, misused words or poorly phrased sentences.

Be Your Own Editor is the book I wish that I’d had when I made the transition from writer to professional editor.  I wrote it in order to share what I’ve learned about editing.  So often, I receive inquiries about my services from people who can’t afford to hire me. That makes me feel really bad because my background is in social work and I want everyone to have access to services. This book is meant for all those talented, dedicated writers or students who can’t afford to hire a pricey editor, and could do a perfectly good job themselves if they put in a little extra time and effort brushing up on the basics of grammar and organization.

2. How did you discover the techniques you recommend in the book and perfect them? How specifically have they contributed to your success?

Many of the techniques in the book are quite simple.  I talk about the need for consistency and clarity.  I discuss how to compose an essay, blog post, article or nonfiction book.  And I go into great detail about frequently misused words such as affect or effect, further and farther or between and among.  I discovered all these things by either making mistakes in my own writing or catching them in my clients’ works.

 In order to become an editor, I purchased The Chicago Manual of Style guide, read Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and subscribed to the “quick and dirty tips” by Grammar Girl on iTunes.  I also read, and would highly recommend, Stephen King’s wonderful autobiography called On Writing.

How has this knowledge contributed to my success?  It’s taken me from a writer who had great ideas with fairly good grammar skills to a writer with what I hope are excellent writing skills!

3. What advice do you have for a struggling writer trying to get ahead in the business? How does your book factor in to that advice?

My main advice would be to watch your Internet presence.  We do so many things automatically online and aren’t always careful enough.  It’s important to take the time to write a proper e-mail.  It’s critical to put up a website that is well-constructed and easy to navigate, and lacks spelling errors or typos; good luck trying to sell something if you have a number of misspellings on your site! Customers will click away in a heartbeat.

The only exception to this rule is on social networking sites like Twitter, MySpace or Facebook.  In fact, I wrote an article about why people should misspell words on Facebook.  I was being facetious, but frankly, I don’t believe we should rigidly punish ourselves by proofreading every single comment that we make when we’re chatting back and forth with old friends.  There is a time to be on-duty and a time to be off-duty.  Know the difference and your business and reputation will flourish.  Of course, this only applies if you use social networking for fun.  If you’re promoting your business on there, all of the regular spelling and grammar rules apply.

4. How soon until someone faithfully taking the advice in Be Your Own Editor can see results? How long did it take in your own case?

People can benefit by the tips in BYOE immediately.  It’s meant to be a reference guide, so nothing has to be memorized right away.  After people read Be Your Own Editor, they can go right back to the part that interests them at the moment.  Some people may be writing novels or short stories.  There is a long chapter on fiction which discusses character development, plot resolution and how to establish realistic sounding dialogue.  Other people may be writing music reviews or articles on the US presence in Afghanistan.  They may be more interested in the chapter on organizing nonfiction and looking at appropriate resources or ways to cite references.

In the short run, people can take quite a bit of information from BYOE, but it will take substantially more time if they want to commit large parts to memory, and for it to become second nature to write that way.  In my case, it took me about a year or more, but it was much like whitening one’s teeth — I could see a steady improvement month by month! BYOE

5. What’s the most important part of the book for you personally? What do you hope writers will take away from it?

To me, the most important parts of the book are the sections on word usage and punctuation.  It’s astonishing to see how many people confuse plurals with possessives, and put apostrophes in words like DVDs or pictures (e.g., “I’m sending you some recent pic’s and DVD’s” is totally wrong!  Just because something ends with an “s” doesn’t mean that it requires an apostrophe.) Likewise with word usage.  It’s important to know when to use loath or loathe, compliment or complement and stationery versus stationary.  You can always look that up in a dictionary or style guide, but the latter costs almost $100 and mine is 900 pages long. That’s like weightlifting!  Be Your Own Editor is 156 pages of dense information written in an informal and occasionally humorous style.  It doesn’t feel like homework.

6. Do you have any success stories you can share about people who have taken your advice and gotten results they’ve come back to you about?

The book was just released a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t have success stories yet. I published it myself, but it has since been picked up by TotalRecall Press in Texas and they will be releasing it on Amazon within the next month or two.  After that, I’ll ask my readers to let me know how it has affected their writing.

I compare my advice to Tony Robbins’ sage words.  Robbins is keen on action.  Reading about how to do something is all well and good, but if you don’t implement the suggestions, you won’t be any farther ahead. BYOE is meant to be read once to understand what’s in it, and then reread several times by section, to study and act on what’s in it.

I also have several pop quizzes so that people can test themselves and their knowledge before they begin, and after they have been working on the grammar or punctuation exercises for a while. 

And almost all the chapters can stand on their own.  So, if you hate creative writing or have no interest in it, but you want to know how to make your website and blog shine, just skip the chapter on fiction.  You don’t even have to read that part in order for the rest of the book to make sense.

7. Any new projects on the horizon? What’s next for you after this?

Yes, I’m always busy with something!  So far, I’ve written two nonfiction books and one novel.  My new book is a work of fiction that I’m co-authoring with my sister, Kristin.  It is based around her life and is called 100 Blind Dates.  Since we are currently negotiating with our agent and dealing with various publishers, I can’t give out much more information about the plot, but suffice to say that it will send a strong social message about dating for people with disabilities (in my sister’s case, a visual impairment), and it will have many comic moments.  The plot will be something like Sex in the City meets the White Cane.

Those interested in purchasing a copy of Be Your Own Editor can buy it on Lulu or visit Sigrid’s blog.