6 simple rules for copyediting your own work
Whenever we write something – be it a novel, research report, formal letter, or email – there comes a point when we feel that we have included all of the information that we want. It can be very tempting, at this point, to press ‘send’ or submit the document. However, taking the time to copyedit what you have written can make all the difference, ensuring that your meaning is not misinterpreted and that you have removed any embarrassing mistakes. The six points outlined below will help you ensure that your writing reads as smoothly as possible.
1. Consistency, consistency, consistency!
Whether your writing is a fictional novel or an academic paper, it is important that you are consistent throughout the document with regard to spelling, capitalization, and the terminology that you use. The easiest way to do this is to make what editors call a ‘style sheet’. If you are writing a document for a publication or institution, some of the ‘style’ decisions may be predetermined, but otherwise they are your choice. Examples of things that you would want to record on a style sheet are listed below:
- Which terms are you going to use to describe things (e.g. if a medical study refers to ‘patients’ at the start, it should do so throughout and not start using ‘cases’, ‘participants’, or ‘subjects’ later on)?
- Which words or terms are you going to hyphenate (e.g. cooperate/coordinate or co-operate/co-ordinate)?
- Are you using UK ‘ise’, UK ’ize’, or US English?
- Which words are you going to capitalize (e.g. the Committee or the committee)?
- How will headings and subheadings look (e.g. in normal case or with every word having the first letter capitalized, main headings in bold and subheadings in italics etc.)?
- Are you going to have punctuation at the ends of entries in bulleted lists?
Write down decisions that you make at the start of the writing process and add to them as you go along. Once you have made a style decision, stick to it!
2. Never completely trust your spellchecker
Always read through your work one last time, even after you have run the spellchecker function. As useful as they are, spellcheckers will not pick up words that are missing (such as ‘not’) or that are spelled correctly but should not be there. Examples of the latter include: their/there, in/it, that/then/than, causal/casual. Spellcheckers are also unable to cope with many academic terms, especially in scientific writing.
Define any abbreviations where they are first used in the document: for example Oxford English Dictionary (OED). After this point, you should use the abbreviation for the relevant word/phrase throughout the rest of the document. An exception to this rule, if you are writing an academic paper, is that some abbreviations are so well known that it is assumed that all readers will know what it means (e.g. DNA).
As a general rule, numbers up to and including ten should be written as words, with numbers after that written as numerals (e.g. ‘The three heroes each drank 13 pints’). However, abbreviations of measurement should always be given as numerals (e.g. 7 cm), and the abbreviation is always singular. Large round numbers can be written as a mixture of words and numerals (e.g. 6 million, rather than 6,000,000) or entirely in words (e.g. six million), but you should make a style decision on this to ensure consistency throughout your document. In formal texts, sentences should never begin with a numeral (e.g. ‘In a survey, 19 respondents said that…’ is correct and ‘19 survey respondents said that…’ is wrong).
5. Is it suitable for its audience?
Check that the style of language being used is appropriate for the intended readers. For example, avoid using a friendly and chatty style if you are writing a company report, and ensure that informal documents don’t sound too dry and academic. Also make sure that the knowledge expected of the readers is appropriate. This is particularly important if your work may be read by children.
6. Take care with catchphrases
The use of popular catchphrases or terms can help to liven up formal writing and inject a bit of humour. However, always take care to ensure that they have been used correctly, particularly if you are not writing in your native language. Getting such phrases wrong can sound a lot worse than not including them in the first place. For example, ‘I am trying to save your face’ sounds strange and should instead be ‘I am trying to help you save face’. Another example, ‘… these results show that the procedure is a risky business…’, would be better written as ‘… these results show that there are risks associated with the procedure…’ in an academic paper.