Editing a Novel: Copyediting

Okay. Now we’ve touched on beta readers, your first line of defense against suckiness, and developmental editing, working on pacing, structure and character motivation. This episode in the Editing a Novel series focuses on copyediting.

Copyediting is what I’ve always imagined the editorial process to be. I packaged up my manuscript and sent the file over to the copyeditor. She went through it line by line and returned it a few days later full of bright red tracked changes in Word.

One of the biggest mistakes self-published authors sometimes make is not to hire a professional copyeditor. Being a good writer does NOT make you a good copyeditor. Every manuscript has flaws and nothing inhibits a reader’s enjoyment more than constantly tripping up on silly mistakes. Good copyeditors love their work and will groom your story to be a much better reading experience. Don’t skimp here, it’s not worth it.

My copyeditor, Annette, was fantastic. Now retired, she used to be a technical editor at a large company. She loves reading technothrillers and the first time we talked she told me how much it irks her when she finds typos in Tom Clancy novels. That’s when I knew she would be a good fit.

When it showed up in my inbox, the manuscript averaged about a dozen corrections per page. I reviewed every single change and approved or rejected them individually. There were also queries that highlighted questionable word choice, awkward phrasing, etc. that I went through and streamlined.

Normally the publisher supplies the copyeditor with a style sheet. The style sheet is a guide that tells the copyeditor what the publisher wants to see in the final product. Because Uncommon Stock is the first title of a secret, brand-spanking-new publishing company, we didn’t have a style sheet to send to Annette. Instead, I just shared a few guidelines:

  • We wanted serial commas: “X, Y, and Z” instead of “X, Y and Z.”
  • We preferred “Startup” used as a variant spelling for “start-up.”
  • I like simple dialogue tags so we closed off sentences near dialogue with periods instead of using commas to introduce what the character was saying.
  • We wanted em-dashes instead of normal dashes (em-dashes are just longer dashes that look better in book format).
I accepted 90% of Annette’s changes and I had specific reasons for anything I rejected. The manuscript matured substantially with her sharp eye and helping hand. I also learned that you capitalize the word “mom” only if someone’s name, i.e. Karen, could be directly substituted. If you say “my mom drank a cup of tea” it remains uncapitalized because you would never say “my Karen drank a cup of tea.” But “Mom drank a cup of tea” is capitalized because it makes perfect sense to say “Karen drank a cup of tea.” These are the things you learn while editing a novel…
Now it was time to run with the technothriller theme and give a computer the chance to edit Uncommon Stock. A few months before, William Hertling, a bestselling independent author whose books I love, recommended a crazy cool tool to me that sounded like science fiction: a program that uses special algorithms to highlight the typical mistakes writers make while writing novels. This didn’t surprise me as much as it otherwise might have because Will’s books often illustrate how machines are taking over the world beneath our noses.
The program, Autocrit, turned out to be a very useful tool. It identified many common mistakes like overused words, repeated words and phrases, funky dialogue tags, uneven pacing, etc. It even compared my prose to statistical averages of commercially published fiction. No writer should try to edit to optimize for Autocrit’s algorithm. That would be like musicians composing specifically for Pandora. But Autocrit is a powerful addition to any writer’s arsenal. It strengthened Uncommon Stock enormously and I plan on using it for future stories. Thanks Will.
Copyediting isn’t sexy. Correcting grammar, phrasing, and word choice aren’t the world’s most thrilling activities for a writer. But it’s absolutely necessary to creating a quality book that people might actually want to read. Copyediting is the wax that makes your story gleam.
With the near-final copy in hand, we were ready to advance to typesetting and the final stage of the editorial lifecycle: proofreading.