I’m an editor by trade, but I know that writers do an enormous amount of self-editing. And sure, a lot of that is developmental (moving sections around, deleting scenes, adding scenes, and so on), but a lot of it is also nitty-gritty mechanics, like spelling and punctuation. There’s also a fair amount of grammar and usage involved. What references does a writer need to have handy to make this process less painful?
Don’t panic. I’m not going to suggest the kind of heavy-duty references we professional copy editors use. These are what I’ll call “garden-variety” materials, easy to find and sometimes free. (Free is good!)
Choose a Good Dictionary
First, you want a dictionary. A standard English dictionary, meaning (most likely) one from Merriam-Webster or American Heritage. A lot of people don’t realize that “Webster’s” is not a publisher. Any publishing company can slap “Webster’s” on their dictionary. Look for “Merriam-Webster.” Both of the big two American English dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, have free-to-use websites containing their dictionaries and thesauruses. (You can pony up for premium access if you’re of a mind to. Many editors have a paid subscription so they can use the unabridged versions of the dictionaries. It’s not required, by any means, but it’s worth the money if you can afford it.) Oxford and Macquarie are great for UK and Australian/NZ writers, respectively.
Here’s where I’ll remind you (or perhaps tell you for the first time) that there’s no such thing as “the dictionary.” There are many of them, and no two are identical. Some are more narrow in their definitions, some are broader. Some provide a lot of usage notes, others don’t. Look around for the one that suits your needs the best.
Writers Need a Thesaurus
While these major dictionary sites include a thesaurus, some people prefer to use Roget’s. (My first print thesaurus was the edition where you had to look up the word in the index, and then find the numerical section containing the information. Convoluted, but I got really good at using it.) If that includes you, there’s an online version.
Once you’ve chosen your dictionary and thesaurus, you can look for a good basic usage book. For years I’ve recommended the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (aka MWDEU). First published in 1978, it remains an authority to be trusted. All the basics are in its pages. (Yes, there’s even an entry on “epicene they”—what we now refer to as “singular they.”) I’d recommend shopping for a used copy to save yourself some cash.
If you’re feeling a little more flush, you can’t go wrong with a more recent volume like Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th Edition) by Bryan A. Garner or Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. The former also comes as an app for both iOS and Android phones, for about $25. I have it installed, and I use it more than you might think. (It’s wonderful for answering Twitter queries when I’m not home.) Garner’s usage is for American English; Fowler’s is British, but it’s well worth having if you can spare the money. (Plenty of usages apply to both types of English.)
Don't Forget a Style Guide
Now we’ve come to the trickiest self-editing tool: the style guide.
Style guides aren’t about developing your personal style as a writer. For that, you might go with something like Stephen King’s On Writing. When editors talk about style guides, they’re talking about books that help them decide on the picky things like hyphenation, commas, quotation marks, boldface or italic type, heading hierarchies, and so on. And of those things, the first three (and all the rest of the punctuation marks and uses) are by far the biggest concern, unless you’re working in specialized nonfiction like academic or medical writing. Then, the heading hierarchies make a difference for you. However, I’m focusing on general writing of fiction/nonfiction. Now that we all are on the same page (har har) about what a style guide is for, let’s go on.
Professional editors often own several style guides, and they also tend to keep up with the newest editions. They also tend to get the dictionary their style guide prefers, which can mean multiples of both if they’re working for, say, a book publisher and a couple of academic journals. It can get pricey. For you, I’ll suggest something just as helpful for your needs and a lot less painful to your pockets.
Useful for Self-Editing and Easy on the Pockets
Honestly? The book I use and recommend most often, more often even than The Chicago Manual of Style 17th Edition, and even for other editors, is a little paperback by June Casagrande titled The Best Punctuation Book, Period. She has distilled the four major styles—book, newspaper, scientific, and academic—into 250 pages, digest-size and three-quarters of an inch thick. It gives you access to the most-used parts of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and the Modern Language Association Handbook, without having to lay out the cash for the actual books (and also saving you precious shelf space!). While you’re not likely to need all of those styles, it’s hard to beat $14US for a quick reference about every kind of punctuation question you’re likely to have, no matter what you’re writing.
If you’re looking for a classic, you can’t miss with Words into Type by Skillin, Gay, et al., 3rd Edition. Get a used copy, and pay about a fifth of what you would for a new one. Yes, it contains information on now-outdated methods of marking copy and manuscript preparation for typesetting, but the rest of what’s in it is always useful. Sure, the copyright is 1974, and some of the blurbs feel rather quaint, but the guts, the how-to, remain worthy.
You’ll notice I haven’t included any actual grammar books. That’s because, to be honest, you don’t have to be a grammarian to be a writer. (Unless you want to write grammar books.) Plenty of editors do just fine without owning copies of the Oxford and Cambridge grammar texts. You will do just fine, too. If you spring for a copy of The Chicago Manual or Words into Type, you’ll get a lovely section on grammar, anyway.
What About Online Grammar & Spelling Checkers?
I know you’re going to ask, so I’ll add this bit. What about online grammar and spelling checkers? Are any of them worthwhile?
The answers, which everyone hates, are “yes and no” and “it depends.”
As a professional editor, I have one litmus test for any online grammar checker. It has to be able to correctly identify passive voice.
“The dog is red” is not passive voice. But I have yet to find a grammar checker that knows that. Every one of them flags it. (Some require “advanced settings” to be turned on.) My concern is for the folks who honestly believe that the grammar checker is always right. It’s not. It’s all right for a safety net, but it can’t be trusted to be 100% accurate. None of them are. Not one. (This is one of the perpetual discussions among professional editors.)
With that caveat, I’ll say that if you feel better using one for your work, and for whatever reason, you want something more than the ones built into Word (perhaps for your emails, which Grammarly can check from your browser or from Microsoft Office), Grammarly and GrammarCheck work well for that purpose. Another less well-known option is Ginger Pages, from Ginger Software. For me, they all have the same kinds of limitations; I prefer to use only the checkers built into Word. If you do opt to use one or more of these, be sure to double check their suggestions rather than accepting them blindly. At the worst, you might decide they’re more irritation than they’re worth, and delete them. No harm, no foul.
Summary: Self-Editing Essentials
Let’s sum up. You need a good standard English dictionary, either a print copy or access to its website. You need a usage manual. You need a style guide or a copy of June Casagrande’s little paperback. Then, if you choose, you can use a grammar checker (and if you’re writing in Word, you already have one right there in the program).
Arm yourself with these self-editing reference tools, and you’re on your way to improving your writing on the technical level and to making your editor a very happy person.
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