How to self edit your novel: spelling, punctuation and grammar

Welcome to my editing series of blogs, all designed to help you self edit your novel effectively.

As a professional editor and proofreader, as well as a debut author, I hope sharing my training and experience will help you develop the skills and confidence to edit your own book(s) to a very high standard. Whether you then go on to query your novel with a traditional publisher, or secure the services of a freelance editor and/or proofreader before self publishing, you will know that you have already given your novel a great chance of being received as positively as possible.

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I am a spelling, punctuation and grammar pedant. I always have been and I make no apology for it. Being precise about the mechanics of English has served me extremely well as an English language and literature teacher, and certainly does now as a professional editor and proofreader.

Fellow authors trust me to help them write, edit and proofread their books, and I thoroughly enjoy my work because I adore reading and language and nuances of meaning. Not everyone does though and that is perfectly alright! People have different strengths – I am great with words but rubbish at cooking! However, if you are writing, or have written, a book and you struggle with any aspects of spelling, punctuation and grammar, this blog will help to show you how to self edit your novel:

1) Apostrophes for plural nouns

Plural nouns NEVER need apostrophes. A noun is the name of an object e.g. pen, book, manuscript. If there is more than one object and the object name ends with a consonant (so not A,E,I,O, or U), simply add ‘s’:

Pen = pens / book = books / manuscript = manuscripts. You do NOT need an apostrophe.

If there is more than one object and the object ends with -ch, -s, -sh, -x, or -z, you usually need to add ‘es‘: 

Church = churches / fox = foxes / bus = buses. You do NOT need an apostrophe.

This is how most nouns become plural, however, as the English language is so weird, there are exceptions. The Oxford English Dictionary outlines the plurals of nouns rules. It only takes a few seconds to check and it really is worth getting it right.

2) Easily confused words

If you aren’t absolutely sure what certain words mean in your book, now is the time to check them! Using the wrong word completely affects meaning and has the potential to confuse readers.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the most commonly confused words but others that I have spotted in published books lately are:

  • sceptre/spectre

Correct uses:

The queen carried the golden sceptre to the throne.

The spectre haunted the abandoned mansion for years.

  • sliver/slither

Correct uses:

She asked for a small sliver of chocolate cake.

The snake began to slither through the long grass.

  • slaver/slather

Correct uses:

The dog began to slaver as soon as it smelled the meat.

As soon as the sun shone, she began to slather sunscreen on her porcelain skin.

  • scalding/scolding

Correct uses:

He burnt his tongue on the scalding coffee.

She immediately felt guilty after scolding her child.

As a reader, these examples have interrupted my absorption in stories and made me question why the books weren’t more thoroughly checked. Do you want a reader experiencing that when reading your book? If not, learn how to self edit your novel well to give it its best chance of success.

3) Punctuation inconsistency

Without going too deeply into ALL the punctuation rules, what is important in a novel is that the basics are consistently accurate, in particular:

  • Full stops at the end of sentences
  • Question marks at the end of questions
  • Single or double quotation marks around speech (depending on preference)
  • Capital letters at the start of all sentences and for all proper nouns (names of people, places etc.)
  • If you choose to use the Oxford/serial comma, use it throughout.

If you like being able to underline, use post-its, or make notes in margins, a few hard copy reference book recommendations* for spelling, punctuation and grammar are:

Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Grammar for Grown-Ups by Craig Shrives

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus

4) Tense inconsistency

Novels are usually either written in one of two tenses:

Past – the story is being told as though it has already happened.

If you are writing in the past tense, verbs (doing or action words) must show that the action has taken place e.g. said, asked, laughed etc. The action has occurred and is being relayed to the reader.

Present – the story is being told as though it is happening right now.

If you are writing in the present tense, verbs must show that the action is currently taking place, as though the reader is observing too e.g. say/says, ask/asks, laugh/laughs. (Adding the ‘s’ depends on the narrative point of view – see below).

Your book may contain different tenses. Flashbacks, for example, might be in past tense but the majority of the story might be written in present tense. Future tense could be applied if a character is going to do something in the future. If it is clear to the reader it is not a problem. If it is confusing it is a problem, so it is important to get it absolutely right.

5) Point of view inconsistency

Novels are usually written in either 1st or 3rd person points of view.

1st person point of view includes the following pronouns:

I / We / Us / My / Our

These are used when the story is being told from the perspective of one (or more) character(s).

3rd person point of view includes these pronouns:

He / She / They / Names of characters

These are used when the narrator is telling the story which features the character(s) and can be limited to one character’s (or more characters’) perspectives. Or the narrator could be omniscient and know everything that happens to all characters, including their thoughts, feelings and actions, like a magic, secret, all-knowing observer.

Your book may be written from one main character’s point of view or it may contain different characters’ points of view. The majority of the story may be written in 1st person following your main character(s) and other parts may be in 3rd person because it’s a story within a story, for example. Again, if it is clear to the reader it is not a problem but if it is confusing it needs to be rectified.

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Whenever these kinds of spelling, punctuation and grammar mistakes occur quite frequently throughout any book, like it or not, readers make judgements. It is jarring for them and makes them focus on your competence as a writer rather than concentrating on the story you are telling, which is where their focus should always be. Fixing these mistakes before publication means your book stands an improved chance of receiving positive reviews and word of mouth recommendations. It matters.

If you have enjoyed this blog about how to self edit your novel, you might find my other writing related posts helpful too:

5 easy ways to make your first novel better

How to deconstruct a novel to write your own

Which is the best way to write your first novel?

How to easily write a non-fiction synopsis

5 ways joining a writing group can make you a better writer

Follow my debut author journey on Facebook and/or Instagram too!

* These recommendations contain affiliate links.

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