Copyediting: How I Do It

As I sat down to write this post, it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to describe everything a copyeditor does in just one blog post. I love copyediting, and I feel very lucky that I get to do this type of work almost every day. What I’ve tried to do in this post is cover the basics and answer some questions that indie authors might have about copyediting. (If you’re interested in reading about how I developmentally edit a manuscript, click here.)

What is copyediting?

Copyediting is the process of fixing grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, accuracy, and consistency errors in order to help a writer deliver his or her message clearly to readers. The job requires focus, creative and critical thinking, organization, and language skills.

During copyediting, a specific style manual is used to ensure the manuscript conforms to US publishing standards. Copyeditors may be familiar with multiple style manuals. Popular style manuals include The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Associated Press Stylebook (AP style), and the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Publishing companies sometimes have their own house style, which usually follows one of the previously mentioned style guides but with noted exceptions. In addition to the style manual, a specific dictionary, such as Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition), is also used.

When does copyediting take place?

In book publishing, copyediting takes place after a developmental or content edit (or after an acquisitions editor has vetted the manuscript and determined it can go straight to copyediting) and before proofreading. Your manuscript is not ready for copyediting if…

  • your manuscript has not been through a developmental or content edit,
  • you have not self-edited your manuscript,
  • no one else has read your manuscript,
  • this is the first draft of your manuscript, or
  • you are still working on your book.

It’s important for copyediting to take place only after the writing is complete, the manuscript is as final as possible, and no substantial revisions remain to be made. This is because no matter how big or small the change, anything added, rewritten, or revised after copyediting needs to be reviewed again by the copyeditor to ensure no new errors have been introduced. It’s often after a copyedit has been completed that an author decides to make last-minute changes that result in rather embarrassing mistakes in the final publication.

Can you tell me about your copyediting process?

Absolutely! The first thing I do is skim through the manuscript and take notes about inconsistencies, how certain elements in the manuscript are treated (e.g., are there letters, text messages, or other correspondence that will need to be set off from the main text?), and the general state of the manuscript. I will also do a sample edit on approximately 2,000 words of the manuscript. The preliminary review and sample edit help me determine how long the project will take, the level of copyediting required, and whether that level matches the one stated by the client.

When I’m ready to begin the copyedit, I set up my style sheet, which is a separate document that I keep open while I’m editing. A style sheet lists specific style decisions, spellings, and other conventions used throughout the manuscript and helps ensure consistency. I also always have a web browser open with several tabs: one for the dictionary and style manual I will be using, and one for a Google search page so that I can fact-check when necessary.

All copyeditors have their own methods for copyediting. I like to take care of minor, global corrections first, including formatting issues. I have a list of items that I search for using Word’s Find/Replace feature so that this process goes rather quickly. Experienced copyeditors are Microsoft Word mavens. They know how to use Word’s features to automate certain tasks; this ensures consistency and saves time so that the copyeditor can focus on bigger issues in the manuscript.

As I work through the manuscript, I keep track of all character and place names and descriptions on my style sheet. I also write a brief summary of the events in each chapter so that I can track the storyline and plot. Novels are usually written over long periods of time, and for many reasons, plot inconsistencies often crop up. If I notice an inconsistency or think something should be changed, I alert the author (by using Word’s comment feature) and provide a suggestion for revision. The author can take my suggestion or might come up with another way to resolve the problem. If any rewriting is necessary, I work to maintain the author’s voice, and if the rewriting was substantial, I will alert the author to the change via a query so that he or she can review the rewritten material and either approve it or change it differently. All of my edits are tracked using Word’s track changes feature so that the author can see what I’ve changed.

Here’s a very brief list of items I’m on the lookout for when I copyedit:

  • Logic and continuity in plot and character thoughts, dialogue, and action. For example, the narrative might mention that a character sits down at the kitchen table to read a magazine, and a few sentences later, the character gets up from the couch. When did the character go from the kitchen table to the couch?
  • Repetition of specific words or details. Sometimes an author might repeatedly describe a character in the same way to the point that it’s redundant. Once readers know that Kelly is the protagonist’s six-year-old sister, the author doesn’t need to mention Kelly’s age a dozen more times. If an author has repeatedly used the same word or phrase, I’ll alert the author of the overuse.
  • Consistency. For example, are the chapter numbers spelled out or are they numerals? Are the characters’ names spelled correctly in all instances? Are numerals treated consistently per the style manual’s guidelines? Is the timeline consistent? Are character thoughts consistently italicized or not?
  • Dates and proper nouns. Good copyeditors know to question everything. If the author has mentioned dates of historic events, I verify them using reputable sources. The same goes for names of real-life people, places, businesses, etc.
  • Permissions. Has the author used lyrics, poems, or other content that will require permission to reprint?
  • Clarity and word choice. Has the author used the best word to get his or her point across? Are any passages unclear or confusing?
  • Incorrect or inconsistent punctuation. I’ll standardize the use of punctuation and fix punctuation errors.
  • Grammar, usage, and spelling errors. These errors will be corrected in accordance to the style manual, the dictionary, and traditional grammar rules.
  • General writing errors and things that should be avoided. For example, in past-tense narratives, it’s generally recommended that the words here, now, these,and this be avoided. Sentences that begin with “It was” or “There was” can often be revised to be stronger sentences. Dangling modifiers can cause confusion for readers and should be revised.

Throughout all of this, the most important thing to do is maintain the author’s style. Fiction writers are granted some leeway, and if the author has done something unconventional that won’t affect the reader’s experience in a negative way, it’s often okay to leave it.

I go through each manuscript at least twice, and before I send the manuscript back to the author, I review all of my queries and eliminate any unnecessary ones. I ensure my style sheet is complete. I run spell-check again on the manuscript and additional Find/Replace searches. I finish my editorial letter, and then I send the documents to the author.

What happens after the manuscript is copyedited?

Your copyeditor will return the manuscript to you. The manuscript will contain tracked changes and comments (these are valuable editing and review features in Microsoft Word). In addition to the manuscript, the copyeditor might also send a style sheet and perhaps an editorial letter.

Once you have the copyedited manuscript, it’s time to review the edits the copyeditor made, answer any queries the copyeditor left for you, and make revisions as necessary (using track changes so that the copyeditor can review your changes).

As you read through the edits and suggestions, you’ll see that your copyeditor is your biggest fan, fighting for the clearest, best possible word or phrase to get your point across. If you’ve hired a skilled freelance copyeditor, you will find that your manuscript has improved in ways you didn’t even think possible.

When you are done reviewing the copyedit, answering the copyeditor’s queries, and making changes, the manuscript should be returned to the copyeditor so that she can review and incorporate any changes you made to the manuscript. At this time, the copyeditor may do a light cleanup edit (sometimes at an extra cost, depending on the extent of the changes) to ensure no other errors were introduced during your review.

After all edits have been incorporated and all revisions finalized and copyedited, then the manuscript is ready to go to the typesetter for layout (for print books) or an e-book formatter (for e-books). Note that an editor may suggest that the manuscript be proofread after it has been typeset or before it is formatted for electronic publication.

I paid for a copyeditor. Why have readers found typos in my book?

Copyeditors are human after all, and it’s very likely that your copyeditor will not be able to catch every error. Experienced editors, however, will be able to find and correct most errors in your book. “The best a human can do—even a professional proofreader—is 95% error detection, Dr. Panko of the University of Hawaii found in a review of studies on human error rates. And those studies tested obvious errors such as transposed letters or word choice (such as trail for trial), not errors in style or even in grammar” (source). Proofreading, which I’ll talk about in another post, is typically conducted after copyediting to find any errors that the copyeditor missed or any that were introduced during typesetting or formatting. Even still, errors can still get through to publication.

If you find errors, try not to be alarmed. Record them in a Word document, notify your copyeditor, and have the errors fixed before the next printing. If the book has been published only as an e-book, the errors can be fixed and a new e-book file uploaded to the distributor.

~~~

Are you looking for an experienced freelance copyeditor? I’d be happy to help you with your fiction book or nonfiction manuscript. Contact me today to talk about your project.

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7 thoughts on “Copyediting: How I Do It

  1. LindaGHill says:

    Great article! I’ll be looking for a copyeditor before the year is out, with any luck. I’ve already bookmarked this post to make sure I know where to find you. Thanks so much for this. :)

      • LindaGHill says:

        Thanks, Jenn. Just one quick question – I hope you don’t mind. How are flash forwards (as opposed to flashbacks) looked upon in fiction, generally? I have one near the beginning of my book which shows what will happen in four days’ time. It gives the reader insight when the fourth day arrives.
        Thanks in advance. :)
        Linda

      • Jenn says:

        Hi Linda,
        That’s a great question, and I’m happy to answer it.
        Flash-forwards are tricky because you are essentially writing about something that hasn’t happened yet, and you risk confusing readers.
        Making flash-forwards work depends on the point of view the story is told in, the tense, and sometimes even the genre (flash-forwards are much more acceptable and believable in sci-fi and fantasy).
        You mentioned wanting to use a flash-forward at the beginning of your book. Does that mean you will use it as a prologue? That would be my advice. I think a great example of a flash-forward is the prologue to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. But keep in mind that some readers often skip over prologues because they either think they aren’t important or that they’ll give away something that happens later in the story.
        If you’re using the flash-forward just to provide context or information for what happens later, think about whether those details can be given during the natural course of the story instead or perhaps through the use of foreshadowing.
        Hope this helps!
        Jenn

      • LindaGHill says:

        Thank you so much for this, Jenn. It’s a bit too insignificant to use as a prologue, but it does provide a lot of back story for my main character, as well as an idea of what happens when the time comes. To put the scene in as it naturally occurs, time-wise, would disrupt the flow of the story, since it takes place in a setting that my main character has run away from.

        This probably doesn’t make a lot of sense here, but with any luck (and a lot of hard work) I’ll be sending you my entire manuscript before Christmas anyway. In the meantime, I’m working on a re-write for the first few chapters of my novel, so I’ll take this into consideration and see if there’s another way to do it.

        Thanks again! Much appreciated.

        Linda

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