Copy Editing


Copy editing is a relatively straight-forward task that will ultimately cause you untold trouble and stress. It is the final step in the long manuscript production process. Skimping here could be the difference between acceptance and rejection from an editor. The two most important things for you to remember about copy editing are: (1) it is very, very difficult for you, the author, to copy edit your own work and (2) you are either a good copy editor or you are not. Both of these facts, once accepted, need not stop you for copy editing your own work, but should instead send up red flags that this is a dangerous forest and you need to use extra care as you walk through it. Copy editing should be given as much respect, time, and consideration as all of the steps that came before it.

Copy editing your own work is difficult because you are hyper-familiar with the manuscript and you made all of the errors. This means the errors will be that much more difficult for you to see. You know what you want to say and there is something in each of our minds that blocks out the errors and allows us to see what should be there instead of what is there. (Form should be From, but we see from, not form when we read it). Unfortunately, just because you are a great writer doesn’t mean you are a wonderful copy editor. Copy editing is a skill apart from and very different from writing. The copy editors I know say that the errors pop off the page at them almost as if they were in red ink. But, even if you do not have a natural talent for copy editing; you can learn basic copy editing and improve your own skill as a copy editor with a little work, practice, and a note book.

What is Copy Editing?
From The American Heritage Dictionary:

  1. to edit (a manuscript, document, text, etc.) for publication, esp. for punctuation, spelling, grammatical structure, style, etc.

Copy editing is an intense and deep reading of a final manuscript for spelling and grammatical errors as well as typos. It is the final step in the production of your manuscript. Good copy editing is critical in producing a “clean” manuscript and the cleaner your manuscript the less likely it is an editor will toss it back to you as a reject. Turning in a clean manuscript won’t get you published, but it will show that you have done your work and respect the editor to whom you are submitting. Bad copy editing is a mark of unprofessional work or, at the very least, a lazy author. In either case, it reflects badly on you, the author.

Copy Edit Marks
Copy editing marks are the standardize symbols used pretty much universally by all copy editors and proofreaders on hard copy manuscripts. Marks are made within the text and annotation is made in the margin. While using these marks is not required when you are editing your own work, I strongly suggest you used them. This will ensure you have a set system for copy editing and also familiarize yourself with the industry standard. I also strongly suggest you do your final copy editing on hard copy.

The link below is to a sample set of these marks and their meanings.

How to Copy Edit
You finished revising and rewriting and are done with your manuscript except for the copy edit. Save your document.

A Note on Spell and Grammar Checks
Spell check and grammar check are two features that come with all word processing software. These are not copy editing software and they should not be mistaken for or treated as such. Spell check is a great place to start your copy editing tasks. It will not, however, catch correctly spelled but misused words. Examples of these are alter/altar or their/they’re. It will also not catch typos that make real words such as tot he (to the) or form/from, or for that matter, compound words that are also stand alone words such as school house (schoolhouse) or fire man (fireman). In short, spell check is limited to checking spelling under very specific conditions. Do not rely on it exclusively.

Grammar check is turned off on my computer as it is worthless, in my opinion. Use the that/which test. Under the right conditions, grammar check will suggest you substitute that for which. Go ahead do it. Now run grammar check again. It will suggest you substitute which for that in the same exact place. Hours of good, clean unproductive fun. Grammar is best learned by writers and/or checked in a style guide.

So run spell check (and grammar check if you like), but do not accept any suggestions without looking at them and confirming they are actually correct. If you aren’t sure if the spelling suggestion is correct check it in the dictionary to make sure you don’t alter/altar your work incorrectly.

  1. Print a hard copy of your manuscript. This is one of the few places were I insist you edit on a hard copy. (Your manuscript should already be formatted in a double-spaced line format.) You want to look at the actual document as the editor will see it. Get two different color highlighters, a notebook, pen/pencil, dictionary, and style manual. Chicago Style and Elements of Style are both popular. You simply need a grammar reference guide that you like and can refer to with ease.
  2. Read your manuscript aloud. (For a novel, break it into chapters.) There is so much that the ear will catch that the eye will miss. Find a quiet room and read aloud to yourself. Highlight anything that causes you to pause, stumble, or that you question. At this point you are only copy editing, if you find you need to rework sections, rewrite paragraphs, or make large changes return to the revision/rewriting stage. Read the entire story/chapter to the end highlighting as you go.
  3. Now go and look specifically at the items you highlighted and using your copy edit marks make the changes. Refer to the dictionary and style guide as needed. If you have a lot of changes (more than five per page) make them on your computer and reprint the document.
  4. Now start at the beginning and read each word. Each sentence. Each paragraph. Look for typos, incorrect punctuation, and grammatical errors. The trick here is to READ EACH WORD and SEE EACH PUNCUATION MARK. One of the hardest copy edit problems to conquer when editing your own work is to actually read what is on the page not what should be on the page. Look up the words you think are spelled incorrectly or used wrong. Check punctuation and other grammatical issues in the style guide. Mark all changes on your hard copy.
  5. Enter your edits into your computer document from your hard copy. Print another hard copy and give it to your reader or professional copy editor.

As you go through this process, make a list of reoccurring errors to help you develop your copy edit skills.

Know Your Weaknesses
This is good advice in general and will improve your copy editing skills. I know for example that my spelling is terrible. I keep a list of words I always spell wrong at my desk. I also know that my right hand types faster than my left hand and ultimately this means I make some typos all of the time. An example of this is tot he (to the) which I have loaded into my custom dictionary. I never use the word tot, so it was safe to customize my dictionary to change it. What are your weaknesses? Do you comma splice? Do you not use commas? Do you use certain incorrect words over and over? Figure out what your writing weaknesses are and work on removing them from your life or at the very least make a list of them so you can correct them during the copy edit phase.

Get Help
Help is critical. You should have someone read your manuscript after you have finished copy editing. In the case of a short story, you may be able to find a friend who is a good copy editor or another author who you can swap stories with on a regular basis. But it is important to understand that the person reading your work is going to copy edit it and not just read it. For a novel, I highly recommend you pay someone, a professional copy editor, to copy edit it.

Copy Editing Exercise
There is an on-line copyediting test at:

NEXT TIME: How to Survive and Benefit from the Manuscript Critique Process

Amie M. Evans
August 2008

“Two Girls Kissing: Writing Lesbian Literary Erotica” © 2008 Amie M. Evans. All rights reserved.

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