Copyediting: It’s Not Rocket Surgery

POSTED ON Jul 22, 2015

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By Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas

In this space a couple of months ago we distinguished copyediting from proofreading. Knowing the difference can help authors identify the kind of editing they need and understand just what an editor might be doing to their manuscript.

In response, one author commented that copyediting is not that hard—that there’s no “rocket surgery” involved, and that self-pubs can and do manage all aspects of self-publishing themselves. Indeed they do. But if copyediting isn’t rocket surgery, then what is it? Maybe we need to clarify this, too. Could you copyedit your own book? How do the pros do it? There could be more going on than you realize, and in more ways than one.

What is Copyediting?

Copyediting isn’t one thing. It’s a process that incorporates many tasks and requires various skills. We’ve talked about copyediting before: it’s the sentence-level and second-last stage of the editing process, where a marked-up manuscript can look like a crime scene. Copyeditors work to the principles of correctness, consistency, accuracy and completeness, and communication (Editors Canada website). They make corrections to

  • grammar, spelling, punctuation and style
  • word usage, sentence and paragraph structure
  • voice, tone, appropriateness of language to audience


They also watch for consistency and plausibility of story, time, and place, and will alert an author if something’s amiss. Copyeditors perform these tasks, and more, to ensure a smooth reading experience with the fewest reader distractions. They also want to ensure that your meaning is crystal clear. The last thing you want is for readers to misunderstand what you’ve said. Something as subtle as tone can make a reader think you mean the opposite of what you intended. It is very difficult to assess your own work from this objective distance.

Most copyeditors have a system—a first-then-next approach to tasks—which usually begins with manuscript cleanup. Copyeditors also use a style guide and a detailed style sheet to stay organized. If you’re thinking about a DIY copyedit, keep this in mind: copyediting means putting a lot of balls in the air, and these tools help you stay in control.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Here’s another author’s take on copyediting:

“Getting copyedited is like going to the doctor and finding out that you have some disease you’ve never heard of.” (Mo Daviau, Every Anxious Wave)

Ha! So perhaps the medical analogy stands up. After all, copyeditors do perform diagnostics, create and apply a treatment plan, and they also consider and review outcomes. So do doctors.

But this author puts her finger on something else copyeditors have observed: that often, writers don’t know what they don’t know—about style, grammar, punctuation, consistency, tone, and more. “You mean there’s a way I’m supposed to write numbers in fiction?” they ask. Yup—but you can’t correct an inconsistency that you didn’t know was there.

Editing Tools to the Rescue
We’ve written before about editing tools and how they can also be useful to writers in the self-editing process. These tools can make you aware of what you don’t know. And there are some brilliant digital tools for identifying errors and inconsistencies in the mechanics of punctuation and style. PerfectIt Pro, for example, will spot quotation marks you’ve forgotten to close, absent serial commas, numbers written out that should appear as numerals, spelling and capitalization inconsistencies, and much more. It will also guide you through the manuscript as you make corrections.

Some wonderful tools for identifying language issues in a manuscript are available, too. Have a look at the table in our post last month: the Hemingway app is especially good at identifying sentences that are too long or complex, and it will also flag your (over)use of adverbs, adjectives and the passive voice.

Similarly, self-editing macros can identify many of the same issues as Hemingway, but macros can also be customized and expanded to suit your own writing quirks. What these language tools won’t do, however, is offer solutions—because technically, what the macros point out aren’t errors. The macros identify some of your writing habits, and it’s up to you to recognize what might need improving. In other words, you need to know something about the issue the tool is pointing to, and then decide if or how to change it.

Where the Hazards Lie
If you are going to run into difficulty while copyediting your own book, it will most likely be in identifying, diagnosing and correcting language issues—usage, mixed or mangled metaphors, faulty parallelisms, awkward and poorly structured sentences, and so on. What’s more, you might not realize you’re in trouble until after your book is published. We are seldom aware of our own blind spots.

You need to have a hunch that something’s wrong before you’ll do the extra work of looking it up to confirm if the word you’ve chosen is accurate. Here’s an example:

Do you flaunt the law or flout the law?
The confusables macro can identify possible usage errors—but only if at least one of the frequently confused words is in your macro. How can you know if the word you might fumble is not in the macro you’re using?

Google ngram viewer is also a helpful tool both for checking that you have the right word and for confirming how and when it was used. Look what happens when we enter flaunt the law and flout the law into the search box:

ngram viewer

The red line shows that flout is the right word in this case, but the blue line shows that a significant number of writers get this wrong. Ngram is also especially good at pointing out miswording and popular usage in phrases: Thin edge of the wedge or thin end of the wedge? Do you stanch the bleeding or staunch the bleeding? Try it and see for yourself. You’re also able to sort for British or American usage in your search, which is helpful if you’re writing to a specific audience.

Where to Get Help
Rarely does a copyeditor begin a project without first establishing which style guide to consult. The style guide sets the standards for how to handle the many details that go into a finished book and give your writing polish: punctuation, quotations and dialogue, numbers, abbreviations, and on and on. A style guide can be as brief as 10 pages, or it could be more than 1000 (that’d be you, Chicago Manual of Style). Our forthcoming book, You’ve Got Style: Copyediting for Self-Publishing Authors, is a scant 80 pages, and covers the least you need to know about copyediting. Watch for it in August!

DIY Copyediting

Would you take on the job of copyediting your own book? Could you diagnose and treat the problem areas in your manuscript? There’s no reason not to try. With a style guide, a few willing beta readers and a cache of editing tools, you’ll improve your chances of producing a distraction-free book that stands up to reader scrutiny.

Measuring Success

How many errors will readers tolerate before they bail on your book? Most editors agree that correcting 95 percent of errors is the industry standard for professional editors. The message? No book is error-free. When asked how many errors editors could tolerate in a finished book, one editor replied: “Zero! Because finding a single error can turn a reader into a proofreader!”

We hear a lot now about the “good enough” book. What does that mean for readers and what does it mean for authors? One thing is certain: if you’re an author, you’d better know what it means for readers. Understanding what’s involved in copyediting can bring you closer to delivering a satisfying experience to your reader.


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