Line-editing the text in a work is what most people think of when they think of line edits. And most people think of it as being relatively straightforward. You check for correctness. Either it’s correct or it isn’t, right?
No. It’s more clear-cut when it comes to non-fiction, but even then it’s not black and white. Correct is only one of a good copyeditor’s goals.
Remember your six Cs*:
- Communicates the author’s vision
Which one is #1 on this list (unless you’re writing corporate stuff)?
- Communicates the author’s vision
The problem with editing your own stuff is that if you don’t know what you’re doing with grammar and style, then it’s impossible to sort out what communicates your vision and what is simply an oopsie that you’d rather not inflict on your readers. Another problem with editing your own stuff is that even if you do know what you’re doing with grammar and style, you may not be conscious of everything you do or the reasons you do it–you might find a missing comma and add it without a second thought, when that missing comma was exactly what was needed.
Don’t believe me? Go read some Stephen King. There are technical “errors” all over his manuscripts. And yet his copyeditors–and his proofreaders–let them pass. Because he needed them.**
So if you don’t think that you can deal with editing your own stuff because you don’t want to think too consciously about how you write or you don’t know grammar and style? Then hire a good copyeditor.
I suspect a good way to do assess copyeditor quality is to ask for a sample style sheet (discussed here). They won’t be as thorough as the style sheets that I advocate, but they should have all kinds of notes about things that are technically wrong that the author wants left alone. Like, “Allow sentence fragments” with some page numbers to note some instances of sentence fragments used the way the author wants them used.
If you know grammar and you’re willing to think consciously about why you break the rules (although you shouldn’t do that while you’re writing, really), you can line-edit your own stuff.
In this checklist, remember that communicating the author’s vision is always more important. Err on the side of leaving it alone–if you feel like some comma must be so, even though you know it shouldn’t be so, then it must be so.
These are not rules. They are guidelines.
You will see all kinds of things in this list that you disagree with. Good. Make a note of your disagreements and add them to your style sheet.
This is the long checklist. I’ll do a shorter checklist later to sum up and actually be useful while you’re working. The purpose of this checklist is to identify your weak spots–if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you should probably look it up–and to identify what you’re going to add to your style sheet as an exception, because you’re not going to do it.
- All sentences are complete, with a subject and a predicate.
- All verbs match their nouns (plural/singular).
- All sentences are in the correct tense.
- Pronouns refer back to the correct noun (the noun immediately before it).
- All modifiers are placed to modify the correct word(s).
- All sentences are easy to read, with as few modifiers as possible and no more than 20 words.
- All sentences begin with correct capitalization and end with correct punctuation.
- All sentences reflect the correct POV (first person, second person, third person and their variations).
- If using a subset of POV (“tight” third-person POV), the correct voice is used throughout (e.g., no “he thought” or addressing the reader).
- Proper nouns are capitalized correctly (add to style guide).
- Compound nouns are hyphenated and pluralized correctly (add to style guide).
- Nouns reflect the correct number (singular/plural).
- Possessives are correct and consistent (add irregular cases to the style guide).
- Appositive nouns, nouns that rename another noun, should be set apart with commas.
- Pronouns agree in number with their antecedents and agree with their gender.
- Pronouns are in the correct form (I, me, mine). I is capitalized.
- Pronoun possessives are used correctly (its vs. it’s).
- Pronouns are correctly used in the nominative (who) vs. objective (whom) forms.
- Who/which/what/that used correctly (person/living thing or thing/non-living thing/all of the above).
- Proper adjectives capitalized correctly.
- Definite (the) vs. indefinite (a) vs. omitted articles used correctly.
- Articles removed from nouns that make up a group (vs. a series of nouns, which take individual articles).
- Dates used as adjectives punctuated correctly.
- Adjectives placed to modify correct nouns.
- Adjectives in predicate used correctly (no “ly”).
- Participial adjectives correctly refer to the subject of the sentence (Bad: “Dangling ferociously, the lion ran rampant”).
- Degrees of comparison in adjectives used correctly (good/better/best), including not comparing uncomparable adjectives (like “perfect”).
- Past participial adjectives (“satisfied smirk”) used and modified correctly.
- Adjectives in a series coordinated correctly (“a big, red house”).
- Phrasal adjectives hyphenated, except when appearing in the predicate, as a proper adjective (“Monte Python style”), or a two-word phrase beginning with an adjective (“a quickly raised house” vs. “a not-so-quickly-raised house”).
- Adjectives used as other parts of speech (“collectibles”) or vice versa checked against dictionary for correctness.
Cripes. I think this is going to take a while.
*Traditionally, it’s the Five Cs, but they left out the most important one. Discussed here.