The Copyediting Process

I posted several months ago on how I decide what to leave alone in a novel I’m copyediting. I’ve been meaning ever since to post an article on exactly what my copyediting process is, but I’ve been putting it off because it seems so difficult to condense and codify the steps I take when I work on a manuscript. I’ve decided to give it a try, though.

First things first. When a manuscript comes across my desk, it may or may not have edits from the in-house editor or production editor already on it. If it does, my first step is to go through those edits to get a feel for exactly what the in-house editor sees as a problem: particular sentence structures that bother them, a term or capitalization that they want changed, and so on. (Editors also sometimes include a note detailing such concerns, which is very helpful.) I will follow the in-house editor’s lead on this unless I see that they’ve been inconsistent, in which case I will e-mail a query.

My next step is to begin my first editing pass, which is a painstakingly slow phase. During this pass, I will create a design memo, a manuscript table of contents, and a style sheet (a list of all names, terms, spellings, hyphenations, capitalizations, grammar styles, etc.); keymark items for design; verify all facts; flag for myself any items that I feel the author may have been inconsistent on; look up all spellings and word usage I’m even remotely unsure of; verify all foreign-language use to the extent that I can; apply consistent style guidelines (such as the use of a serial comma, if that has been requested); and query the author on any awkward or unclear phrasing, change of terms, inaccurate facts, inconsistencies, or numerous other things I may find.

Oh, and I edit it, of course. :-)

Most of the above items are self-explanatory, but I’ll expand upon the keymarking and the flags I make for myself.

Keymarking in fiction is usually fairly straightforward, because there are seldom many elements that need special treatment. Basically, however, any element that looks different than plain text gets its own keymark—a set of circled letters such as “CN” for chapter number—that tells the designer it needs to have design specifications written for it. You might typically have part numbers and titles, chapter numbers and titles, epigraphs, ornament breaks, and extracts (verse or prose). I keymark each element and note all the keymarks and examples of their usage on the design memo I create. I make a table of contents for each manuscript I copyedit because a) it enables me to verify that the chapter numbers are correct (they’re very often wrong), and b) it’s useful for designers to know the lengths of the longest and shortest chapter titles when they’re deciding on fonts and sizes. If it is clear from the text that the author wants certain extracts to appear handwritten and others to appear typewritten (and hopefully I have a note to this effect), those elements receive separate keymarks, because of course their specs won’t be the same.

Creating flags for myself that detail the location of potential inconsistencies is an admittedly anal practice I’ve developed over the years, but one I find extremely helpful. I place these flags along the top of the manuscript (flags for authors and editors go along the sides unless I’ve been asked to type them separately), and I go back through them on subsequent passes, so that they’re all removed by the time I’m done. What is a “potential inconsistency”? Well, just about anything. :-) There are particular classes of things, though, where authors are more likely to vary.

First is anything that needs to be correlated to the passage of time in the story. This might include ages, moon phases, seasons, and pregnancy progression. Every time a passage of time is noted, or the progression of something correlated with it is noted (e.g., “the moon was full”), I flag it for myself.

Another class is specific types of items, whether they’re guns, bullets, swords, ships, airplanes, or anything else. If it is mentioned, for instance, that the Sally B is a barkentine, I flag that for myself to make sure it doesn’t later become a brigantine. If the hero is carrying a broadsword, I flag that to make sure it doesn’t later turn into a katana. (And seriously, I edited a book one time where the author had clearly looked up ship in the thesaurus and decided that schooner, galleon, barkentine, and so on could all be used interchangeably. In addition, the ship the author described—the number of sails and masts and decks—didn’t correspond to any type I could verify at all. *sigh* I compare that with, for instance, China Miéville’s The Scar, which was his first work I copyedited. When he started specifying the many ships in Armada, I sighed and said to myself, “He’ll never keep those all straight.” So I dutifully noted them all, and damned if he was never wrong. Not once. I was so impressed! I asked him about this later and found he draws pictures and labels them, actually. :-))

But that’s an aside. Another potential inconsistency one might find comes about when numbers of things are specified: The author states that the hero has eight siblings, but we’re introduced to nine through the course of the book. Or the protag is carrying a six-shooter but fires eight shots over the course of a battle. Or nine missing magical pages are required to read the enchanted tome, but the discoveries of only seven are detailed. All such items—every shot, sibling, page—gets a flag, as does the original reference.

Directions are another problem area. I create a rough map of the world as I edit the book, and I note which way each group is said to go. If the book takes place in the real world, I verify the distances and location of each place if travel in the novel warrants it. When the protagonist travels east for five days, I note that occurrence so I can find it easily later and make sure it doesn’t take him three days’ travel south to get back to where he started—or that he isn’t horseback riding where an ocean was mentioned in Chapter 2.

Physical descriptions of characters, items, and animals are yet another potential inconsistency, particularly if multiple authors are involved. Even with a single author, though, items such as eye color or the shade of a horse are very likely to end up changed over the course of the book.

Are you getting the impression I’m rather anal about my work? Well, yeah, it comes with the job description. I tend to end up with a lot of queries for both myself and the author.

At long last, though, at the end of all this, I’ve finished my first pass through the project. At this point, to be quite honest, I’m not particularly fond of even the very best manuscripts that cross my desk. However, I then get to embark on the second read, which is much more enjoyable. :-)

It isn’t until the second read that I really get a feel for the book as a story. I’ve done all the starting and stopping and painstaking note-taking, and I can enjoy the book as a whole. It is at this point that I find most plot inconsistencies, since I’ve been through the book once already, and it is during this read that I’m able to pinpoint sections that might not accomplish what the author intended. I check my editing, finish applying whatever styles I hadn’t completely decided on during my first pass, and then, when I’ve made whatever queries are appropriate, I go back through the manuscript to look specifically at the flags I’ve made for myself and correlate them with each other. If necessary, I go back through the manuscript again to check them.

So…that’s the process, for any who are curious. I’ve given short shrift to my second read and could delve more deeply into any number of items, but this post has gotten long enough. Perhaps another time.

108 thoughts on “The Copyediting Process”

  1. Thanks for this, it’s fabulous stuff, though I’ve found it very late. I deeply appreciate the incite into copyediting from your side of the process. Note me down as another author who sings the praises of good copyeditors.

    My own copyeditors on the WebMage series are absolutely wonderful and I have gratefully added them to my acknowledgments (which they fixed from acknowledgements, btw). I’m going to post a link to this post from my writers group blog at wyrdsmiths.blogspot.

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