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. It actually took me several times of reading the book before I looked at the picture on the inside of the back cover. He was nothing that I’d picture, but he’s hot! Nice to know he’s also a nice guy? Does he live in England?

  2. Houghton-Mifflin. In fact, I’m headed there on Monday to discuss promotion and cover design.

    I spent a couple of years freelance editing, and while I never went into the sheer depths you do, I have seen many, many examples of the goof-ups and errors you cite. I realized I just didn’t have the temperament to deal with these flaws in OTHER people’s writing. (I have no choice when it comes to my own!) My hat is off to you!


  3. I’m scum! I abuse the language, I don’t understand the dynamic of the semi-colon completely and I overuse ellipses, I’m not worthy! I’m sorry. Don’ ;)
    …so if this something that you ‘enjoy’ what must constitute loathing?

  4. Note to self: When you finally finish & sell a novel find out Dennahoak’s name (if it isn’t just her username spilit) and see if you can request her at all.

    Nice. I’ve been beta/alpha reading for a friend and I do some of what you’ve said in my head (pointing out extra sibilings, name changes, and inconsitancies as to info revealed) because the damn things bug me. But I don’t think I could do what you do professionally. I read too fast and skim a little too much.


  5. PS: Given what you’ve said about the process, how long does a standar (80-100k) book take for you to copy-edit? Just because it sounds long, especially given 2-3 readings of the book.


  6. I honestly can’t think of anything that I absolutely loathe. I’m a descriptivist with grammar, rather than a prescriptivist (which I know is unusual for a copyeditor), so I don’t even “loathe” grammatical errors in different dialects–I find dialects very interesting.

    Loathe. Hm. Well, honestly, I’m coming up blank. I’m a pretty well-rounded person and like a wide variety of different things.

    I’m afraid of heights. I guess you could call that loathing. :-)

  7. It’s my user name split. I’m one of the few who’s “outed” on LJ, I guess.

    The reading slowly is a trick you learn. I actually put my pencil down on every single word, and if the section I’m on is too darn exciting to read slowly, I mark where I am, let myself enjoy it, and go back to edit it afterward so I don’t rush. :-)

  8. Well, except in special circumstances, publishers expect you to complete about ten manuscript pages an hour. To be quite honest, I don’t edit that fast and end up taking a loss.

    This is partly why I really appreciate authors using Courier–not only is it *far* easier to read and find typos in, but it takes up more space so that I don’t risk being hassled by production for charging more.

  9. Interesting. So you charge “by the hour” but the publishers translate that pages/hour so you really get paid by the page? Eek.

    And (doing the calcs in my head) you’re worth more than that. Wow. The whole book industry seems to underpay. Which is a shame, but I guess the public doesn’t read nearly enough to support better.


    PS: If you really want, this entry sparked some musings of my own about the quality of copy-editing in different genres.

  10. Yeah, editing is not a high-money field of endeavor.

    I do charge more in special circumstances–if I’m in danger of really losing by butt because the author has used 10-pt type with line-and-a-half spacing (which I’ve had happen), or if the book was just an incredible amount of work. In general, though, the production editors have their budgets to make, and they don’t want you busting them. If you consistently do so, they won’t continue to hire you.

  11. Wow. I am impressed, and as a reader (and hopefully some day novel-author), grateful to the copyeditors.

    (Yes, I was linked here. You don’t know me.)

  12. Thank you for taking the time to share your job with us. I came through a round about way to your journal. A link from Dancingwriter, from another friends LJ.

    I’m an aspiring writer, and though I spent time as editor of a newsletter, I never understood the real job of copy-editing. Thank you for the valuable information. It gives me something to think about as I scribble away. I hope if I ever manage to get published that my work crosses your desk.


  13. Hmm, so are you getting at difference in common grammatical errors in say a Joisey writer vs an author from Texas or a southen belle from Plantationville, GA …or more extreme say an Aussie vs American vs a Brit?

  14. I’m glad the article was useful to you. Since all successful authors will deal with copyediting at some point in their careers, it seemed like information they might like to have.

    And thank you for the compliment, as well. :-)

  15. I appreciate SO MUCH what you have written here. The process was completely threatening in my mind, after hearing about many friends’ adventures with the STET rubber stamp and how their semicolons were unjustly torn out of their bleeding hands. *grin*

    Years and YEARS ago, author P. N. Elrod held a seminar that I was chosen to attend (out of over a hundred applicants) at a Dallas Fantasy Faire convention. At the seminar, she told us how she creates a style sheet and showed us how to create one of our own. All this time, I’ve been creating style sheets to send in, should I ever get past the wall of rejection. My style sheets list my invented words and character names, explain about the fictional town I’ve created and where it’s supposed to be in relation to Dallas (a real town, or so we claim), and have a few notes cribbed from PNE about why I believe the semicolon is a perfectly legitimate punctuation mark (because so many people think no one has any reading comprehension). *grin* Would this be something I should actually send in, or would this kind of thing coming from an author totally enrage whoever I get as a copyeditor?

    Maybe she just gets away with it because she’s been in print for years. I don’t want to do anything stupid. (Oops, too late.)

  16. I’ve recently been told by several agents (when they requested full manuscripts after seeing my partial) that I need to format in Times New Roman 12 because they find it easier to read. I have visual infirmities (long story) and I think that Courier 12 (or even Courier New 11) is SO MUCH EASIER TO READ that this just gobsmacked me. I can barely make out the type on the screen after I reformat (I use Word’s “150% display” feature, but then you have to scroll the page horizontally, which is a pain.) I believe this is because they’re young and still have perfect vision. *GRIN*

    Whenever they say they don’t care, I stick with Courier and with two spaces after a sentence. It looks like a typewriter of old, and it’s just plain easier to read and make marks on. I often edit my own work on paper anyhow.

    But it appears to me as if agents are going to turn the tide on this and insist on the proportional type font. Yikes.

    Bless your heart for trying to make books more fun for those of us who are still old-fashioned readers and therefore can’t stand to see those inconsistencies in book after book after BOOK. (I have actually written letters of complaint to publishers because of books I couldn’t stand to finish after encountering homonym errors, misspellings (!!), and ridiculously incoherent sentences. I quit doing it because I figured I would get on a list of cranks and might receive a midnight visit from the FBI. They didn’t care, anyway. They are perfectly happy to let the errors slide, because “most people don’t notice and don’t even know the difference,” according to one of the agents who does a weblog anonymously. Sigh.)

  17. It depends on how it’s done, honestly. If you supply a list with names and terms and such, that’s fine. If you supply something that clearly communicates that you think all copyeditors are idiots and that you have to supply a style sheet to keep them from screwing up, that’s insulting.

  18. Thank you for writing this. It’s a very interesting read; I’m looking forward to seeing you write further on your second read.

    Oh, to be sure I don’t miss that, I should friend you …

    Rissa, who got here by clicking through friend’s lists…

  19. I really enjoy it when authors use language to give their books a particular flavor. China Miéville’s books are full of British slang, for instance.

    A really bad copyeditor will try to make every book sound the same.

  20. Yeah, I had an agent tell me once that she takes all the manuscripts she submits out of Courier and puts them into Times New Roman. I hate to hear things like that and told her that Courier is far easier to copyedit.

    Times takes up less space, though, which is why I think a lot of people like it–fewer pages to flip through.

  21. Yeah, I really have to sometimes. When the writing in an action scene is really fantastic, I just can’t do my slow, methodical first pass. I’m a book lover, too, and I want to know what happens! :-)

  22. You’re welcome. If you want any help understanding the copyedit when it comes back, feel free to drop me a note.

  23. *bing*-=lightcomeson=- Got ya! Me hate ta tink ya be editin one book in Jamaican Patois. How you I deal wit mon? Eww or thick Haitian Kreyol, or Hawaii’s Pidgeon-English… I ‘spose you’re subject to a bit of linguistic and dialectual research then. So how many __insert language here_ slang for tourists books do you have running about the bookshelves?

  24. Heh. Well, my master’s was in linguistics, so I do have quite a few language books of various types on my shelves. I consult others at the bookstore or look up things online when I need to.

  25. Hey, I have a master’s in linguistics too! It’s nice to know there are so many lucrative job opportunities out there for us. :-)

  26. I specialized most in second language acquisition. My goal was to find work as an ESOL (English as a Second Language) teacher.

    But I was really drawn to anthropological linguistics. The analytical, descriptive approach to language, combined with the (to me) romantic stories of Jesuit priests venturing into unknown lands to create dictionaries in non-Indo-European languages really inspired me. So what if they just did it so they could translate the Bible? It was still an outstanding feat of intellect and passion together.

    All throughout grad school I sat in class secretly wishing for extraterrestrials to land so I could apply the same techniques to their languages. I wanted to be the first to write dictionaries and grammar books and language learning materials for alien languages.

    Unfortunately, they never landed, or if they did, I missed the memo.

    My bachelor’s degree was in speech (the original plan was to be a speech pathologist). One of my undergrad profs was doing research with dolphins, which was really cool stuff. After that class, I took a bunch of courses on animal behavior just because it was so interesting. I even worked in one of the animal labs for a year. I am quite intrigued by interspecies communications.

    Teaching ESOL got old after a while. I became expert at trouble-shooting students’ errors by doing contrastive analyses on their own languages. Once I achieved a certain level of understanding there, the problem was no longer interesting.

    I drastically re-engineered my skillset. Fifteen years ago a fellow faculty member at Miami-Dade College showed me how to use a computer and that is the field I am in now.

    I learned a lot from your thoughts on copyediting, and I appreciate your posting them. I admire your intellectual fortitude; it’s not easy to warm a chair for such extended periods of time. I’m curious, though… do you do everything by hand? Do you only get paper manuscripts? There are fairly common word processing programs that would give you an edge over the yellow post-it notes system. Your thoughts?

  27. I took a lot of TESOL coursework, too.

    Unfortunately, yes, I do get almost all of my manuscripts on actual paper. I prefer editing electronically, but fiction publishing is a fairly hidebound industry about that. I edited the British and American versions of China Miéville’s Iron Council electronically (simultaneously, which saved the author an enormous amount of trouble), and I’ve done a few books for MonkeyBrain Books electronically. (Smaller publishers are more likely to allow it than bigger ones.) All the other fiction I’ve done on hard copy. A few publishers will provide an electronic version for searching, but they still require that the actual edit be done on paper.

  28. Courier is handy, but I think I find errors easier in Times, and easiest in Garamond 13 (had one ms once in that font, and was surprised by the way things leaped out).

    I also appreciate the greater airiness of Courier, though.

  29. Deanna, thank you.
    Every writer should read this. Not only does it help to understand the process, but also we might use some of your methods to improve the work before it gets to you.
    Bernita from An innocent A-Blog

  30. You’re welcome! I do think it’s helpful for authors to understand what the copyeditor is doing to their book, instead of seeing only the final product.

  31. Just found your LJ through a friends list. Should I be concerned that I read this post and thought it sounded like something I’d really enjoy? I found it really interesting that in an earlier comment you mentioned slowing down your reading by touching each word with a pencil. When I’m editing my own work, doing something like that is the only way I can separate myself from my own intentions and look at what I actally wrote. Mind if I friend you?

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