Copyediting: It’s Not Rocket Surgery

by | Jul 22, 2015

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.


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Gordon A. Long

    I always use an online editor. Pro Writing Aid is what I’m using at the moment, and I find it very thorough. (I did a rather whimsical post on Indies Unlimited on using the program, if anyone’s interested. But I find it a bit too thorough at times, so I’ll check out Hemmingway. Thanks for that.
    I also read my MS starting at the back, half a page at a time, with a ruler underneath. Picks up a lot of errors.
    And THEN I send it to a living editor. You people area too nice. You CAN’T edit your own work. Full Stop. Okay, never say never. Maybe there’s a genius out there who can. But it isn’t me, and I bet it isn’t you.
    BTW, do you have a style guide or style sheet that does Canadian?
    Thanks for a great post.

  2. Sean O'Donnell

    Great post C.K. and Carla.
    With beta feedback in hand, I am about to do a final polish and copyedit on my debut novel. I plan to run it through PerfectIt 3 first, and have been looking for tips on what style I should use. The book is also sci-fi and fantasy, and full of names and terminology that I have been adding to Word’s dictionary, so I imagine I will need to compile a robust style sheet for this particular series as well. Do you have any advice for me on how to use this add-in on my style of book?
    Also, I have read your other great posts here, and on your site, and added a small army of macros to Word. Does PI3 take the place of them, or should I run them in addition? I planned to do both, unless there can be compatibility issues?
    For a side question. I always approach a new draft after pulling a save as copy, and have yet to use the track changes function. Should I turn that on for this copyedit?
    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and offering ideas and solutions!

  3. Theodore Nwangene

    A very awesome post Carla,
    I agree with you that no book can really be 100% error free. It all boils down to giving the work to a good copyeditor.

    I usually do my editing myself for now and how I usually do it is, i read the article aloud after writing and, I’ve always discovered many errors when doing it this way.

    Thanks for sharing mate, really informational.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hey, Theodore,

      Thanks for your very kind words! So glad you found the information useful.

      I agree that reading your writing aloud can help you see it differently. You find errors, like typos and missing words, but you also hear it—the rhythm, the sound of the words, and so on, and you notice where a reader might stumble. It’s a good idea to do this. Some people also get a computer program to read it aloud to you—that can be a good proofreading trick.

      Best of luck with your writing, and thanks again for your comment,


      • Robin Reardon

        Carla — Like Theodore Nwangene above, I read my novels (more than once, actually) in my proofing process. But I’m intrigued by your mention of having a computer reading program do it. When I google that phrase, the results are all about learning disabilities, and opening a few links didn’t help me understand whether any of these offerings would read my original work. Do you know of any specific programs that would be useful?

        Thanks again for a great thread.

        • Carla Douglas

          Hi Robin,

          There are a few ways to get your computer to read your book to you. If you use Chrome, there are some free apps available. Go to the Chrome web store and enter “text-to-speech” in the search box. One I’ve tried recently is called SpeakIt! After you install the app, you simply select the text and then click the speaker icon and it’ll read out loud to you.

          You can also Google Windows text-to-speech and find instructions on how to activate this feature for Windows 7 or 8 (if you’re using Windows). I believe Macs also have a built-in text-to-speech function, but I’m not familiar with Mac computers.

          Another way to have your book read to you is to use Adobe Reader XI. It’s free. You’ll have to save your ms. as a pdf, then open it with Adobe Reader. Here’s a link to a tutorial on how to activate the read-aloud feature:

          In an earlier incarnation, Corina and I wrote and published a number of literacy resources. Our most recent resource is an interactive digital workbook that makes good use of this read-aloud feature. Give it a try! There are also text and mark-up tools, and you’re able to make audio comments as well. It’s fun!

          Hope this helps! Thanks for your question,


  4. Louann Pope

    I’ve considered the question of whether a copyeditor is necessary (full disclosure—I’m a freelance copyeditor) enough that I have devoted an entire page of my website ( to the question. In the page, I propose answers to the following specific questions:
    * If I write well, do I need copyediting?
    * Can readers tell the difference?
    * Doesn’t spellcheck catch everything?
    * Isn’t it enough for me to self-edit? [this one may be of particular interest to readers of this article]
    * Can my friend copyedit for me?
    * Will a copyeditor change my voice?

    Let me know what you think!

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Louann,

      Thanks for weighing in. I like your questions—I regularly mull some of these over, too. My short answer is that copyediting will always improve a piece of writing. There’s going to be something you didn’t catch that a copyeditor will. What I have noticed, though, is that writers become better with experience, and that experienced good writers usually need less copyediting work done to their manuscripts.

      Self-publishing is changing the standard answers to most of your questions, I think. Some readers will notice if a book hasn’t been well edited, and some won’t. It’s up to self-publishing authors to weigh this risk and decide for themselves how much or if their book needs editing. It’s interesting to watch how this is evolving.

      Hope this answers a few of your questions! Thanks again for your comment,


  5. Robin Reardon

    As a mere author, I pride myself on my competence at editing my own copy. Even so, I’m amazed and aghast when my “final” manuscript comes back from someone who really knows his/her stuff.

    That said, I couldn’t help wondering whether the term “rocket surgery” is a plant, something intended for this audience to catch. I mean, shouldn’t it be either “rocket science” or “brain surgery?” It does bring up some amusing images, though. Surgery on a rocket, that is.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Robin,

      Thanks for you comment and your vote of confidence in copyediting. Copyeditors get their work copyedited too!

      Yes, “rocket surgery” sounds like it might be a plant (we wouldn’t do that!) but the phrase has been around for a while. You’re right—it’s a bit of a mangled metaphor (now maybe a cliché, too) on “rocket science” and “brain surgery,” and is usually meant sarcastically. In Google Ngram, you can see the expression taking off (ha ha) around 1995:

      Best of luck with your writing and thanks again for commenting,


  6. Linda Austin

    Oh, my, do not DIY without that final edit by somebody else! Just finished putting together a memoir from someone’s notes – severe editing job. I am obsessive and ferocious in editing, but after going over and over the “final” draft, I hand it to a second pair of editing eyes and she finds more changes I need to make. I love (other) editors.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Linda,

      I couldn’t agree more! It doesn’t matter how meticulous we think we’ve been—there are always things a final proof by someone else will catch. They can be embarrassing errors, too!

      Thanks for seconding the importance of that second pair of eyes!


  7. Paula Cappa

    Very helpful! I’m looking forward to your forthcoming book for sure. For Corina or Carla, which is the preferred style: copy editor or copyeditor? There’s a variety out there, even copy-editor. Merriam Webster’s shows copy editor as two words. (copyediting vs copy editing?) Do you have any advice on this?

    • Michael N. Marcus

      I’m neither Corina nor Carla, but when I edit copy I’m a copyeditor, or even a copyed (people in the business know to pronounce that with three syllables, not two).

      The general trend in English is to remove spaces and hyphens between words that are used together. Email and ebook have been replacing e-mail and e-book. Sunscreen has replaced sun screen. High way became highway. However, ice cream is still two words.

      I wrote “Self-Editing for Self-Publishers (What to do before the real editor starts editing-or if you’re the only editor)”

      • Carla Douglas

        Exactly, Michael! I didn’t see this before replying to Paula. You’ve said it very well — thanks!


    • Michael N. Marcus

      Addendum: copywriter is one word, so that’s a good pattern. The only problem with copyeditor is that people may mentally attach the Y to the E, and read it as cop-yed-i-tor.

    • Carla Douglas

      Thanks, Paula. And I love your question — it’s very meta! Corina and I always use the closed “copyeditor.” The Canadian Oxford, the dictionary we normally default to, also uses “copy editor,” but The Chicago Manual of Style uses “copyeditor.” I’m a bit stumped about why exactly we made this call — I think we were following the trend to closing up compound words and using fewer hyphens. It’s a bit tidier.

      Another reason I love your question is that it gives me a chance to show Google Ngram viewer in action. When I enter copy editor, copy-editor, and copyeditor into Ngram and search 2009 American English, this is the result, showing that there’s still a strong preference for “copy editor.” The results are similar for British English: Interestingly, the hyphenated “copy-editor” doesn’t register at all.

      My advice is the advice Corina and I always give: choose one, and use it consistently. Neither is wrong, but if you use the two inconsistently, readers might notice and wonder what’s up.

      Thanks for this great question,


  8. Michael N. Marcus

    I was a journalism major at Lehigh and a reporter for the student Newspaper. I became copyeditor so nobody else would mess up my work, and even got a part-time job as a proofreader at the print shop to watch over my words until they flowed from the press.

    I still copyedit my own work but have learned that it’s important to let a second pair of eyes and a second brain check my books.

    • Carla Douglas

      Hi Michael,

      Your comment made me laugh. I think you’re pointing out that there might be a copyeditor personality type — someone who’s deeply committed to detail. (That’s one of the nicer ways of putting it!) I agree. But as you say, that second pair of eyes is critical. I’d still say it’s risky to publish your own work without that final check by someone else. Especially for print books, where correcting errors is much more expensive than ebooks.

      Thanks for your comment,




  1. Top Picks Thursday 07-30-2015 | The Author Chronicles - […] writer needs editing. Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas explains why copyediting is not “rocket surgery” and Daphne Gray-Grant…
  2. Copyediting: It’s Not Rocket Surgery by C... - […] Copyediting: It’s Not Rocket Surgery by Corina Koch MacLeod and Carla Douglas provides examples of how copyediting is a…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *