What is Copy Editing?
Copy editing is a bit of a gray area in the editing world. No one seems to agree 100% on what distinguishes it as the editing level/step between developmental editing (big picture edits) and proofreading (cosmetic edits). There has also been a decline in its use. Some newspapers have laid off their copy editors as their budgets shrink. Most freelancers who offer editing services stick with developmental and proofreading options. I, however, think it’s a crucial step, especially when it comes to manuscripts. Traditional publishers still do this step. So what is it?
Well, a copy editor seeks to clean up as many minor errors as possible, just like in a proofread, but the two key factors that set it apart are fact-checking and the creation of a style sheet.
When a developmental editor works on a book, he or she focuses on strength of character, plot, dialogue, tone, and overall structure. When a proofreader works on a book, he or she focuses on cleaning up typos and minor grammatical errors left behind after the copy editor has finished up. Neither is all that concerned with whether a cast iron skillet can really stop a bullet or whether lightbulbs were commonplace household items in 1882. But a copy editor is. Copy editors also fact-check the more mundane things, such as whether or not Atlanta really is four hours from Nashville. Copy editors make sure the details are right so that nothing pulls the reader from the story and the whole experience feels real.
They also create style sheets, which lay out common grammatical problems the writer is having, the chosen spelling of names and certain words, how numbers will be used, etc. Let me give a few examples of things I include in style sheets. One thing most authors have trouble with is whether or not to hyphenate compound words, so my style sheets always include a “One Word, Two Words, or Hyphenated” section where I list out words I corrected in the manuscript so the author and/or proofreader can see the proper arrangement. I also always decide from the beginning how numbers will appear. In a fiction manuscript, most numbers should be written out, the exception sometimes being things like time when listed in a format like 4:30 p.m. In nonfiction, the rules can vary: everything over ten listed in numerals, everything under one hundred spelled out, etc. There are also certain words that are acceptable in multiple forms. A common example is tee-shirt, tee shirt, and T-shirt. It doesn’t really matter which you choose, but there are certain trends that change throughout the years. For instance, you’ll see tee-shirt in lots of books published in the 80’s (I see it all the time in Stephen King novels). Now, however, T-shirt is the most common usage. As a copy editor, you must decide which form to use, write it in the style guide, and then make sure it stays consistent throughout.
I include a style sheet when I do a proofread, as well, but that is because if I don’t do it, I will lose track of chosen spellings, etc. In traditional publishing, the copy editor gets the manuscript after developmental edits, makes the style sheet, and then hands it off to the proofreader as the final check before publishing. The proofreader uses the rules set in the style sheet to polish the manuscript. Usually, when I’ve been hired as a freelance proofreader, the client doesn’t have a style sheet, so I make one myself and then give it to them for future reference.
Improve Sentence Structure
This is an element that not everyone includes in the definition of a copy edit. I, however, think that since copy editing sits in between developmental edits and proofing that this is the stage where the editor should get rid of passive voice as much as possible, rework confusing sentences for improved flow, and make sure that the author maintains a consistent voice. That way the story itself isn’t being critiqued or changed, but the sentences are at their best before the proofreader goes through for the final polish.
Additional Tips and Tricks
Now that you understand what sets copy editing apart, I want to list a few little tricks I use to make sure I provide the best possible service to clients and make my own life a little easier in the process.
- Read out loud! This is the most important tip I can give you. It makes it so much harder for your brain to skip over a minor error like a misplaced apostrophe or missing article when you’re reading aloud. In copy editing, hearing the sentence spoken can alert you to awkward wording or help you realize that the sentence sounds confusing.
- If you rework a sentence for any reason, make sure you reread it out loud again before you move on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve rearranged a sentence to get rid of passive voice or improve clarity and then realized that I’d forgotten an article or that I left a word hanging at the end that I meant to delete.
- If you have a question about something in the manuscript, ask it in a comment. You aren’t being paid to solve plot problems, but your client will appreciate your feedback as a reader. They want to know if you are confused by something.
- Similarly, I like to insert a comment whenever the author makes me smile or laugh. Humor is one of the hardest things to convey in prose, as least in my opinion. You never know if the timing is working or if that sarcastic tone you’re looking for is coming through. I’ve found that authors really appreciate knowing which comedic instances are really working and which may need some help. All I do is type a quick, “I laughed,” or “I smiled.” Then, when I deliver a manuscript, I let the author know why I did this.
- Question everything. If there is any sort of detail that relates to location, culture, dates, or science/technology, I google it. Most times the author knows what they are talking about because they did the same thing or they have personal experience with the place or the tech, but you will find occasional mistakes. Err on the side of extreme caution, and you’ll catch those minor details that make your client sigh with relief and say, “Thank God you found that.”
- If your client is self-publishing, whether they choose a copy edit or proofread, yours is probably the only edit they are going to get. Thus, if you’re copy editing, a proofreader probably isn’t going to get your style sheet; the author is the only one who’ll see it. I try to include instructions on nuanced grammatical rules that the author is accidentally breaking often, probably without even realizing it. I’m not talking about the basics that any serious author knows just from reading avidly and writing often. I’m talking about the nit-picky things that only editors lose sleep over. For instance, I often make this entry in style sheets:
“Em dashes (—) are used to denote a strong pause, connect an adjoining phrase to a sentence, or replace parentheses. En dashes (–) are used in instances of passing time (ex. 6–7 a.m. or 1980–1982), some sort of range (ex. read chapters 7–8), or to show some sort of conflict or connection (ex. the conservative–liberal debate). “
Some clients may not really look at this, but I think most will, and it’s just a helpful little insight that they can apply in future writing. I actually had one client thank me for teaching her this distinction. She was just using hyphens for everything before I made this note, but now when I get her manuscripts, I’ve noticed that she uses the different dashes correctly.
I enjoy copy editing, and I always suggest it to first-time authors. I think it is a really comprehensive editing form that can help any author, especially those who are self-publishing. Plus, you can charge a little extra for it because you’re offering extra services. In the current market, offering copy editing as a freelancer can help you stand apart with a mid-ground service that not many others provide.
Do you have any questions about copy editing that I didn’t answer? Let me know in the comments.