Let’s face it – there are so many rules in the English language that no one (not even a trained editor like me) can know them all (that’s why I have lots of reference books to make sure I get it right more often than I get it wrong). But if the rules and the reference books aren’t your thing, there are a few things you can do to cheat your way to better editing.
The rules state that certain words in headings shouldn’t be capitalised, such as “a”, “the” and “and” (unless they are the first word in the heading). There are more groups of words that aren’t supposed to take an initial capital. But do you know what they are? More importantly, do you care?
So an easy way to avoid having to figure it out is to use the minimal approach – that is to only use an initial capital on the first word and to leave all others uncapitalised.
Capitalised example: What to Do When You’re a Bad Writer with a Good Story
Uncapitalised example: What to do when you’re a bad writer with a good story
Headings are always formatted differently to regular text (usually bigger and bolder and without punctuation at the end, unless it’s a question mark or exclamation point) so that sets them apart as headings even without the extra capitals. But don’t forget that proper nouns (naming words for those of you who don’t remember anything you learned in English classes) are always capitalised, even when using the minimal heading approach.
Capitalised example: What to Do When Santa Claus Visits from the North Pole and You’ve Been Naughty
Uncapitalised example: What to do when Santa Claus visits from the North Pole and you’ve been naughty
Eliminate Possessive Apostrophes
Apostrophes in contractions that indicate letters are missing usually aren’t where people get tripped up – words like “aren’t”, “didn’t”, “couldn’t” and “wasn’t” are reasonably simple because it is clearly the “o” that is missing from the word “not”, which is then slapped on the end of another word to reverse its meaning. When homonyms (words that sound the same) raise their ugly heads, there is some confusion (special mentions to “it’s” and “its”, “you’re and your”, and “there”, “they’re” and “their”) but the real trouble starts when trying to figure out the possessive applications of the apostrophe.
So maybe you’re just better off not even trying.
Apostrophe example: That is Ben’s boat.
Non-apostrophe example: Ben owns that boat.
Apostrophe example: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Non-apostrophe example: A Dream of/on a Midsummer Night
Apostrophe example: The cats’ litter tray is full.
Non-apostrophe example: The litter tray used by the cats is full
This approach can require some real creativity and often uses more words but once you’ve done it a few times, it will start to become a habit. But then again, if you’re prepared to put the effort into learning a new skill, you might as well give the apostrophe rule a chance.
Run the Spelling & Grammar Check
It’s amazing how many people forget to use the Spelling & Grammar Check in Microsoft Word. It’s not perfect – far from it, in fact – but if you don’t know anything about spelling, grammar and punctuation, then it’s going to know more than you. And it will complete a check that could take you days in just minutes.
Identify Errors but Don’t Fix Them (Yet)
One of the great pieces of advice I (and many others) give a writer is to put their book aside for a few weeks or a few months after they’ve finished a first (or second or third or fourth or… you get the idea) draft so that when they come back to it, they can read their writing with fresh eyes. The important word in that last sentence is “reading”.
The whole point of writing a book is so that someone (hopefully many someones) can read it. And to know whether it works, then shouldn’t you really read it yourself? I mean just read it? Just in case there’s any confusion, you really should. Because you’ll be surprised how many errors you find by just reading your book.
But here’s the crucial part – don’t try to fix it. Not yet anyway. Simply highlight it (if you’re reading on screen) or circle it with a pen (if you’re reading a printed copy) so that you know it needs fixing and keep reading. Being able to recognise that something is wrong is an important first editing step. Yes, you’ll have to attempt to fix it later but rather that it being a really long process, you can skip from highlight to highlight (or circle to circle) and forget about all the other words in between that don’t need your attention just now.
Ask an Older Relative to Identify Errors
The great thing about old (or older) people is that no matter how well you think you were educated, they will have received a better education in the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation (assuming they were educated – if your grandmother left school at twelve or her first language isn’t English, the logic of this argument goes completely out the window). Older relatives also generally love to be right and to rub it in. So why not take advantage of that? They might not have the ability or inclination to fix the errors but they might pick up things that you’ve missed. And if they do have the ability and the inclination, score! You’ve just found yourself a free editor.
Have Your Book Professionally Edited with the Track Changes Feature On
Okay, this is less cheating than it is learning but if you can see how and what a professional is changing and figure out why, you might learn a few things and remember it the next time you need to edit something.
To be honest, there aren’t that many ways to cheat at editing and it’s really in your own best interest to get good at it rather than trying to cheat. But if you can’t, then give these suggestions a whirl and see what you can achieve. A professional editor (an honest one, at least) will only charge you for the time it takes them to edit your work. And if you can help the process along, even a little, then maybe the bill will come down accordingly.