Copy-editors: What They Really Do

People often think that if you can write you can edit – and vice versa. But writing and editing are very different skills, and competency in one doesn’t guarantee ability in the other. The creative impulse that often drives the author should be largely absent in the copy-editor, who is tasked with problem-solving and who essentially approaches the text as a puzzle. Happily, the editor’s eye for detail complements the author’s creativity, and when they are combined successfully you end up with something great.

Many self-publishers decide not to hire a copy-editor because of the cost involved and because they don’t fully understand what a copy-edit can do for their work. The thinking generally goes, I’m not paying someone to correct a few typos and to get rid of the passive voice. The truth is that you’re paying for a great deal more than that, and we’ll examine the specifics of where your money goes in a moment. First and foremost, what you get out of a copy-edit is a degree of confidence that your book is technically sound, that it does what you intended it to do, and that it comes up to the basic standards expected of published work.

In broad terms, the copy-editor must ensure that the author’s words are true to the intended message. One of the reasons it is so difficult to copy-edit your own work is that the message is already clear in your head. You know your intention before you review what you’ve written, and that makes it easy to make assumptions and difficult to affect the detachment necessary to edit. The reader, on the other hand, relies solely on your words, so they need to be the right words, organised in the correct manner, if you are to communicate your message effectively. Enter the copy-editor!

A copy-editor brings a fresh perspective to your work. They will see the words, the sentences and the paragraphs for what they are and will tally them with what you want them to mean. Of course they will correct typos and remove the passive voice in places. But they also understand that the passive voice isn’t always bad, that split infinitives are usually fine and that the odd cliché never hurt anyone. The intention is never to make your writing generic but to allow it to shine by selectively applying rules and consistently applying style.

So, let’s look in more detail at what your friendly copy-editor can do for you.

Consistency

This is the Holy Grail for copy-editors, and rightly so. In English you are often presented with two or more correct options, and you must choose one and stick to it religiously. For example, if you use ‘okay’ in Chapter 1, you shouldn’t use ‘OK’ in Chapter 6; ‘seventies’ shouldn’t suddenly become ‘70s’, and you can’t jump back and forth between ‘dramatise’ and ‘dramatize’. Copy-editors create a style sheet specific to your book, detailing the decisions that they make on spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, presentation of dates and numbers, etc. That style sheet can then be passed on to the typesetter and proofreader to ensure consistency and make everyone’s life easier. Yay!

Repetition

Repetition comes in many different forms, most of them evil! Political rhetoric can stand a little repetition, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing your aim is not to write political speeches. Sometimes an author will deliberately repeat something to emphasise a point, not realising that most often the effect is to undermine rather than to underline. Most repetition, however, is unintentional. It can occur pages or chapters apart or it can even be contained within the same phrase (‘each individual person’, ‘various different’). If you use ‘wonderful’ five times in five paragraphs it sounds lazy and unprofessional; if you use the same words to describe a room twice in two chapters it sounds lazy and patronising. A copy-editor should also pick up on hidden repetition, such as explaining the content of dialogue when the message is already clearly conveyed in your characters’ words.

Overuse

We all have words and phrases that we fall back on and use too frequently. Chief offenders are the meaningless little tags we add to sentences without even thinking, e.g., ‘basically’, ‘to be honest’, ‘let me begin by saying’, ‘at this point in time’. Buzzwords and jargon are also often overused. The effect can be to smother the meaning of your message and to leave your reader wondering if you know what point you’re trying to make.

Clarity

We don’t always write exactly what we mean, and we don’t always mean what we write. Sometimes this can be as simple as a misplaced comma (‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is an entirely different proposition from ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’) or an adverb gone slightly astray (‘The road needs to be resurfaced badly’ is not the same as ‘The road badly needs to be resurfaced’).

Grammar and usage

There’s no short cut to good grammar: you just have to learn it, remember it and then apply it to your writing. But not always! There is an element of judgement involved here. Making a valiant stand against misguided prescriptivism, Winston Churchill (apparently) said, ‘This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!’ And he was right: sometimes your message is best served by a bent or broken rule. But be careful! You have to know the rules before you can break them with any confidence, and a copy-editor will be sensitive to just how far you should push it.

Spelling

Obviously your copy-editor will look for typos, but I’m also going to shoehorn homophones (words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently) into this category. ‘Complement’ and ‘compliment’; ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’; ‘principal’ and ‘principle’; and ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ are all embarrassingly easy to overlook. A good copy-editor will seek out and destroy these. They will also make sure that foreign words are italicised and accented correctly and that hyphenation is correct and consistent.

Punctuation

Apart from the never-ending comma debate, you would think that most punctuation is fairly straightforward. But time and time again it turns up as a huge issue, especially when it comes to dialogue. I can honestly say I’ve never come across a manuscript with dialogue that has been punctuated consistently. I’ll give this topic a blog post all of its own very soon because it’s not optional, and it’s not OK to get it wrong, even if you get it wrong consistently. Copy-editors know these rules inside out. They also know that you shouldn’t use more than a single exclamation mark at a time and that even one should be used sparingly. F. Scott Fitzgerald said they are the equivalent of laughing at your own joke, and I tend to agree. If you’re in the habit of pairing exclamation marks with question marks you will be politely but firmly told to quit.

Factual accuracy

Copy-editors are not researchers, but they will check dates, names, places, periods and the like so that fact and fiction tally. They will point out that your Victorian heroine couldn’t have taken antibiotics and that your hero was not in Zimbabwe in 1978 because the country was called Rhodesia at the time. If the Edwardian house your character lives in was built 200 years ago, it cannot in fact be an Edwardian house.

Libel

Most copy-editors have a basic understanding of libel law. They can’t guarantee that you won’t be sued, but they will flag anything that should be run past a lawyer. This is important not only for non-fiction authors, but also for writers of fiction, who often mention real people and events as well. If any of your characters are identifiable as real people, you need to be sure you’re not saying anything that will result in a costly court appearance.

Line-editing

Your copy-editor will rephrase ungrammatical or awkward sentences as a matter of course, but you will have to discuss with them exactly how much beyond this you want them to intervene. Some authors want minimal intervention so that their style is preserved, whereas others are happy to have a copy-editor make changes when it adds to the clarity, flow or readability of the text. The level of editing is always up to you as the author, but it’s worth remembering that Word’s Track Changes function allows you to reject a change with a single click, so an editor’s input is never anything more than a suggestion.

Copy-editing is more than correcting typos, and it’s also more than the sum of what I have detailed above. It will leave your prose clearer, more engaging and more readable, and to my mind it isn’t optional for any published work. Just to prove that I practise what I preach, I’ll share with you the fact that this very blog post was copy-edited by Liz Hudson of the www.littleredpen.com, because I know better than to think my writing can’t be improved!

This article was originally published on Catherine, Caffeinated, a fantastic resource for anyone thinking of self-publishing.

2 thoughts on “Copy-editors: What They Really Do

  1. Pingback: Copyediting - The Editing Edge
  2. Thank you so much for clarifying all that. As someone who’ll self-publish herself for the first time next year I was sold on getting an editor anyway, but it’s nice to see everything you guys do broken down so clearly.

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