Self-editing with style

Last week, I had the pleasure of editing a manuscript in prep for the author to submit to a scientific journal, hopefully to be accepted for publication.

This type of work is among my favourite types of projects I get hired for, as it generally involves a combination of both stylistic and copy editing, which I find to be a satisfying blend of both art and science: relying in part on my intuition and experience as a wordsmith as much as it does on a working knowledge of the mechanics of writing and style.

Short and sweet, editing a manuscript often only takes a few hours to complete, but while I’m doing it, I’m totally immersed in learning about a new subject as I smooth the text; catch any grammatical errors; ensure consistency in style across citations and references, units of measurement, headings and sub-heads; check the figures and tables; and look for typos, spelling mistakes and any errors in tense along the way. At the same time, I’m ensuring that the content flows clearly and logically, all while leaving the author’s voice and tone perfectly intact.

I find this type of editing immensely fun, and I guess luckily for me, not everyone shares my enthusiasm, allowing me to make a living offering a valuable service I genuinely enjoy providing.

I found myself reflecting on all this and more last week as I edited that manuscript, and felt compelled to jot down some of the tools I’ve collected along the way for copy editing and stylistic editing, both as an editor and when I’m the writer.

Like many of my clients, I didn’t learn much about style guides in school: I certainly used a very basic writer’s handbook during my undergraduate degree to guide me on formatting references and papers, but my understanding of style never went much deeper than that.

Switching gears after graduation to a career in communications, then writing and editing, changed all that: I literally went from editing by “gut-feel” to developing and gaining an understanding of the mechanics of a sentence, of style, of grammar, and the strategic approach anyone can use to improve the impact and readability of their writing.

So if you’re looking to boost your self-editing skills, adding more polish and consistency to your writing, here are my top tips to getting started:

1) Invest in a style manual. I personally like the Chicago Manual of Style and Editing Canadian English, and keep mine within arm’s reach of my desk, with all my most-used sections flagged for quick and frequent lookups. There are many different style manuals out there, including online versions and ones specific to different disciplines, as well as in-house guides created and used by individual organizations and academic journals. It won’t be hard to find one that matches your specific needs.

2) Pick 5 topics to start with. Let’s be honest here, none of us are going to pick up the nearly 1,000-word long Chicago Manual of Style and read it right through (well, some of us are, but that’s another topic for another day). I suggest easing into this gently by just focusing on a few things you’d like to start being more consistent and error-free with and read up on them. Things like:

  • dashes vs. hyphens
  • units of measurement
  • formatting lists
  • colons vs. semi-colons
  • capitalization

Once you have these down pat, and have those sections flagged for quick, future reference, you can go back for more.

3) Use a style sheet, old and new school. By old school, I mean taking a piece of paper, drawing a simple grid with 10 boxes in it, and using each box to jot down a style choice as you go along in a specific project. Keep this cheat sheet handy to keep track of whether you decided to capitalize common names or not, if there is a space after a quantity and a particular unit of measurement, what abbreviations you are using, and so on. By new school, I mean creating simple custom style sheets in your word processing or text editor software that keep your font, headings, margins, and more, consistent throughout each document. Both are simple, effective tools that take the guesswork out of your style choices and save time in the long run.

4) Edit by section, or do several passes. This particular strategy helps me a lot, especially if I’m writing or editing documents with more complicated formatting and more than one author. I like to do a once over for typos, general readability and flow, and then go back to look just at the headings, again just for the citations and again just for the units of measurement and so on. If I’m pressed for time, I use my old-school style sheet and work through a document section by section, crossing things off my list of style issues to check as I go. If I’m using track changes, which I usually am, I like my last read through to be in “final” version, so any remaining typos stand out with the corrections and comments hidden.

5) Find a good editor. You knew I was going to get here eventually right? In all seriousness though, the old adage is true: everyone needs an editor, and a good one will correct your mistakes, elevate your writing, and also teach you along the way. Whether this is a colleague, a friend with a keen eye for grammar and style, or a professional editor, I think you’ll find, as I have, that your writing will drastically improve with the feedback and perspective gained from an extra set of eyes. So while I agree that “to err is human,” (to quote part of another apt and enduring proverb), I also know we can minimize the errors in our work and increase its impact with a good team of editors on our side.


So that’s it: you’re on your way to self-editing with style (see what I did there now?).

What about you: do you have any particular style issues you love to look for when editing, or ones that stump you every time you have to write them out?

For me, I love checking the format of citations, and the satisfaction of catching a missing period in “et al.”, but I can never remember off hand whether or not to leave a space between the number and the degree sign for temperatures – I have to look this up. Every. Single. Time.

(There is no space between them, in case you’re wondering. I just looked it up.)

Happy writing everyone.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *