Need to polish up your manuscript before sending it off to a contest, agent, or before self-publishing? We all know the importance of getting feedback from critique partners, beta readers, and proofreading for plot and consistency issues, but another important step is the editing process. Content editing is equally important, but today I’ll be talking about a slightly different form of editing known as copy editing.
(Adapted from a post I originally wrote for penandmuse.com.)
What is copy editing, and why does it matter?
Copy editing is making sure each and every word in your MS says what you want it to say. Specifically, it’s editing the following areas: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency in style. If you’re self-publishing, this step is essential before you hit publish, and you may consider hiring a copy editor to do it for you. If publishing traditionally, you will have a copy editor go through your manuscript as one of the final steps of the publication process, but if you do a bit of self-editing even prior to submission, it will help make that manuscript shine.
I used to do a bit of freelance copy editing (before life got too hectic with work, writing, and shuttling kids back and forth to after-school activities). Following are some of my suggestions for copy editing and what I still do when self-editing my own work.
1. Convert your manuscript to a “book” format.
You probably wrote your manuscript on your computer or tablet, which means that you’re used to viewing it this way. To self-edit, read your manuscript in a different way. Why? Because your brain can trick you into filling in things that are missing (and this article in The Guardian explains why). This is why you can read something fourteen times and not spot a glaring error; sometimes we just need a different perspective to see it.
Do you enjoy reading paperbacks? Print out your manuscript (when I went this route, I would even ask my local printing service to bind it for me for a few extra dollars), sit down in your reading chair with a highlighter, and read. Prefer e-books? There are several programs you can use to convert your document into a mobi or ePub file (I recommend Scrivener or Calibre). The Mac app Pages will also export your MS into a relatively clean ePub copy for your copy editing purposes.
When reading, highlight the changes as you go, but don’t run to your computer to actually make changes until you’re done reading.
2. If you have even the slightest doubt, look it up.
Don’t rely on grammar check or spell check. If you have even the slightest doubt about grammar, spelling, punctuation, or word usage while reading over your manuscript, highlight it while reading (from step 1 above) and look it up later. There are plenty of resources out there that you can use to refresh your memory of the “rules” or even learn something new.
I recommend as resources Strunk & White’s The Elements to Style, Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips, and Grammarist.com. Following are a few examples of commonly misused words and other items I’ve looked up before because I needed that reminder. When in doubt, LOOK IT UP. I always employ the “better safe than sorry” strategy.
When to use “lay” vs. “lie” (and variations thereof) <– you would not believe how many times I see this used incorrectly, sometimes even in published books! *cringe*
When to use “backyard” vs. “back yard” (and similar words)
Does it matter whether you use “backward” vs. “backwards”? (and similar words)
3. Recruit another set of eyes.
Ultimately, true copy editing should be done by a fresh pair of eyes, not someone who has read the copy before. Again, the reason is because our advanced brains are too good at filling in the missing words as we read. Ask a reader who’s an English teacher, or someone whom you know is great at finding typos as they read. I ask my mother-in-law (who used to proof legal briefs as part of her job) and one of the administrative assistants on my campus (who has a pair of eagle eyes and isn’t afraid to use them).
In writing, whether you are drafting, revising, or editing, your goal is to put the very best work that you can out there.
Have any other self-editing/copy editing tips? We’d love if you shared them below!
Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. Find out more about Helen at www.helenboswell.com.