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.



My collection of excuses

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

~ Louis L’Amour

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

~ E.B. White.

Truth be told, since I started freelancing 6 years ago, I have cradled a little writer’s dream to develop and pitch articles for magazines and a certain national newspaper, and to create and write my own blog. All of these things were going to happen in my “free time” (i.e., the time not spent on paid freelance work, and not spent actively caring for 3 children under the age of 5).

It seems reality has finally caught up to me. I haven’t yet pitched a magazine or newspaper, and though I did create this blog, it is decidedly lacking in content.

In fairness to myself (here come the excuses), the paid freelance work has been growing steadily, and it has been worthwhile to prioritize those professional writing and editing projects. This blog may be neglected, but I do contribute articles to another blog ( And did I mention the 3 kids?

These things keep me busy. Not too busy that I couldn’t carve out some time to write those articles or posts, but just busy enough to build a boatload of excuses to make me feel better about not doing it.

The list of excuses looks something like this: I don’t have time, we’re always moving/I’m always packing or unpacking, my paid work takes priority, I have meetings or phone calls with clients on other projects, there are dishes to clean, dinners to cook, groceries to buy, a dog to walk and volunteer gigs to fulfill – and it all must be done between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. when the kids are at school.

There are also the perks I consider part of my freelance life that I don’t want to sacrifice: self-care is the mot du jour, and I really do value my occasional daytime yoga classes and time out of the house for lunch dates with other freelancers or stay-at-home friends. The library or a bookstore often lures me in, and don’t even get me started on the temptation of daytime Netflix viewing (I’m talking about you Stranger Things). Oh yes, the feast or famine lifecycle of a freelancer can be this mundane, and this much fun too.

As flimsy as these excuses are, they work very well to allow me to avoid the real problem fairly guilt-free.

The problem you see, is writing.

As in, writing is hard. Like, really hard.

Not so much in the technical aspect of writing. I am after all, an actual experienced writer with some degree of skills, and the task of writing and editing words is still one of my greatest joys. Searching for the right words to string together, sentences to rearrange, massaging the text and helping the written word sing makes for truly satisfying and rewarding work. When I’m in deep, it’s effortless.

But it’s different when I’m writing for myself. As in, essays or short stories that are more creative non-fiction or fiction,and less professional communications projects with clear goals and identifiable audiences. Without money, a deadline, a subject at arm’s length from my personal life, and a larger project plan to keep me motivated and on track (i.e., panicked), I fall back into some pretty well worn procrastination patterns. Without tangible consequences or rewards, I simply don’t sit down enough and just write.

A friend recently mailed me a copy of a book on this exact topic. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a brilliant and witty salve for any creative soul struggling with this problem, which he dubs “resistance”.

Resistance indeed. Despite the fact that I do actually think a lot about what I might write for a magazine article or essay, I tend to just keep adding the ideas to a long list versus sitting down for a few hours and taking a stab at one of them.

This is where it really gets thorny. I know I can (and should) just schedule in some disciplined and dedicated creative writing time into my week. And while I have built a career around writing well, and passionately at times, about topics that I enjoy and are important to me, I have little experience sharing what I write about my own life.

Sitting down to write authentically and openly about myself, my family, my experiences and opinions and then sending that out into the world with my actual name attached to it is as terrifying as it is tempting. It feels a lot like handing around copies of your diaries for everyone to read. What if nobody ever wants to publish it? What if they do, and then my friends and family hate me for what I reveal in that writing? What if I don’t, and I never let those stories out to see the light of day?

The real problem—the really deep down, stop-me-in-my-tracks problem—is fear.

On the bright side, that adds up to only one excuse on my list. A collection of one.

It’s a big one, but the one I’m absolutely going to have to reconcile with if I really want to explore my creative writing voice and find an outlet for all the stories whirling around in my head.

The path is really quite terrifyingly simple. All that’s left to do is write.

Or, as someone so much more elegantly fearless than I once said:

There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

~ Ernest Hemingway.