How to copyedit a book: a checklist for a copyeditor

I know I promised no more “how to write” stuff. Well, I promised no more rules about what I write about, so that means there’s no rule saying I can’t write about writing when that’s what I want to write about.

This thing is, I believe many best decisions are made when you’re simply trying to solve a problem by doing them. And here’s my problem: I’m training a brilliant new copyeditor on my team of editors, and I want to do better than just write up a checklist. Why not make this easy to access, because you never know who else out there might be wanting to work on their copyediting chops.

I’ve resisted this post before. The problem with writing about how to edit is: training an editor is unique to each editor. Every editor has a unique style. Every writer, and even more specifically, every writing project, has nuances. This means there is no textbook that I can give to an editor that tells them how to do the job right. Most of what I’ve written on how to copyedit has come in personal emails, messages (gotta love the Slack app), and my own layer of comments in the manuscript. It doesn’t matter how many books on how to edit you read: until you cut your teeth on a job and get right in the trenches, and do the work, pick and shovel, well, it’s all might-be academics.

Consider this a caveat before I dive in. This post is, to whoever is reading this, just more academics, more textbooks, more how-to how-to stuff. If you want to learn how to do it, the best way to learn is to apprentice under an experienced editor who can teach you, who can build a learning program customized to you, based around studying how you work, your quirks, your strengths, your weaknesses.

To my copyeditor reading this post, no need for this caveat, because our email training talks will continue. So, let’s dive in.

A copyeditor’s checklist

How do you copyedit a book?

The simple explanation: read it like a book, in Word (or Google Docs), with the track changes feature on. Apply corrections and query as needed, according to your copyeditor instincts.

The hard version is based entirely on that part “according to your copyeditor instincts.”

On the surface, this will boil down to a checklist. Though not exhaustive, the checklist consists of:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Clarity
  • Word choice
  • Continuity
  • Fact checking
  • Formatting
  • Logic

I could write a post on each of those, but won’t bombard you with that here. The main take away from that list is:

You don’t dive into storytelling, and you don’t fuss too much with typos and last minute errors.

To appreciate what a copyeditor does, imagine a relay team. The editing cycle involved in publishing a book is like a relay race. The first runner is the developmental editor. They work with the writer on revision at the broadest level, ie the storytelling itself. The second runner is the copyeditor. They come in after the storytelling is solid and get down to the nitty-gritty line-by-line. The final baton is passed to the proofreader. They come in after the chopping and hacking that is common during copyedits (more on that below), to fix typos and oopsies that are hard to spot when you’re trying to get a confusing sentence right.

The copyeditor is the one in the middle. That perspective is important when you’re a copyeditor. And this is the hardest part about copyediting:

You have to anaesthetize two parts of your brain — the one that says to catch every typo and get it all perfect right now, and the one that tells you to “correct” sentences and push to story-level rewrites. As much as you might want, if you are copyediting and you send a writer back to the drawing board, you’re sending them in circles. If the manuscript is so bad that you have to “fix” it, that means the developmental editor before them didn’t do their job right. Usually, that means send it back to the first editor, let them dig in deeper, then when that is done, then and only then are you ready to take your anaesthetic. (This has happened before, and usually this is the result not of negligence, but simply of the first edits requiring so many rewrites that the developmental editor got what I call “perspective fatigue”, ie, being so focused on the given rewrites that the other plot hole vanished on the battlefield; this is where a copyeditor’s fresh eyes can actually help the first editor rise to the helm for the final melee.)

When you copyedit, as you keep your checklist in mind, there are two ways you can do edits:

  • Directly in line
  • By way of comment bubbles

Most of your edits will be in-line changes. A grammar issue like wrong verb tense is best fixed directly.

Sometimes, though, your edit isn’t as objective. This is especially true of matters relating to logic, clarity, word choice, fact checking, and continuity. If someone’s hair was blue on page 54 and it’s suddenly green on page 57, you don’t know which colour is correct, so that’s best left for a comment.

It’s helpful when commenting to categorize the type of edit. For example, put the word “continuity” at the start of a comment, then make your argument. This helps the writer see what kind of copyediting issue you’re addressing. It also helps you though, since it’s tempting to use the comments to “chat” and share more subjective ideas, which becomes overwhelming to a writer who is already wading in heavy copyedits as it is.

As for what the rules of grammar, punctuation, and formatting are, this is where you can do your diligence. Read and reference style manuals. The Chicago Manual of Style is a good benchmark.

The biggest point though isn’t that you have to know your style manual rules inside and out. Do your best to learn as much as you can, but you can do even better:

Don’t ever let yourself “guess” unless an edit is a no-brainer. If you’re pinning down the use of a pain-in-the-ass verb like lie/lay/laid/lain, you don’t want to guess and guess wrong. You’re being paid to be the one who will look up what you need to, as you need to, so that the writer/publisher can trust their book is in good hands. Google is your friend, and lest I go on a rant to those who say that’s an unprofessional move for an editor, let me add: Google is your friend, because you’re smart enough to query like a detective and make sure you reference reliable sources. The internet’s full of gold, but it’s also full of junk, but again, there’s a reason you’re paid the big bucks, and it’s not because of the style manual you memorized.

And that’s as far as I can go for a copyediting 101 article. Good enough for a follow-up training email.

Lastly, it’s 1:00 in the fucking morning and I shouldn’t be writing this. This is the test embedded in the post. Copyeditor-in-training, please send me a list of typo corrections, so I can hit publish and get back to reading. I have a cat on my lap and my George Carlin book waiting for me, but, as George is teaching me in his Last Words, sometimes you got to just improvise, and get on stage when you’re needed.

Back to the cat!

Post note: this blog post has now been revised with my copyeditor’s copyedits. Passed with flying colors!

About John Robin

John Robin is an epic fantasy writer, professional editor, and lover of imaginary worlds. He write stories about magic and myth, human suffering and the power to rise above it. He loves world building, coffee shops, mathematics, chess, and is an avid author community builder.
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6 Responses to How to copyedit a book: a checklist for a copyeditor

  1. landofoyr says:

    the big question is can a writer apply copy editing techniques (like yours) as a first level or pre level edit before a professional comes in? or even can i as a writer be the sole editor in order to reduce costs? we have discussed these before of course but they are issues in my mind that won’t leave unless i find some money!

    • John Robin says:

      Great question! Yes, I believe a writer can reverse engineer the process and save lots of money. We call this self-editing. One trick that I find helps is to somehow separate this step from your usual writing process. Submit the manuscript to yourself by email, then open that document and pretend you’re the copyeditor. Some writers prefer to print out a copy and approach edits on the physical page, since this makes it harder to revise as you edit. Ideally you want to do a full pass as “editor” before you then send the manuscript, with edits, back to yourself. It’s a psychology game, but if you can make it work you can harness that more objective editor perspective on your work that can save you lots of money. Of course, you’ll still have blind spots, so self-editing can only take you so far, but this skill can help you down the road to rein in lots of bad writing habits and get even more of an edge on what you deliver to your editor in future.

      • landofoyr says:

        i have seen that you must let time pass between finishing your manuscript and self editing i call it the maturation period when you engage in other projects and you engage your story from a different eye

  2. Pingback: A Copy-Editor’s Response – GaoRyuki's Ramblings

  3. Zainab says:

    This post is quite helpful, thank you so much for your insight. What stood out the most was the fact that you train copy editors? If there’s an availability in your schedule, may I know more about your training process? I have been following your blog posts for a while and it has always been very informative to me, just like a mentor’s.

    • John Robin says:

      Hi Zainab! Thank you for your comment. I don’t train copyeditors outside the process surrounding our publishing company and private editing division, so would not be able to offer training unless it were part of oversight for an editor on our team. The model I use is based on what the traditional publishers have used — a more senior editor acts as apprentice, overseeing an already qualified editor to help them hone their skills. Being qualified as an editor is something the more senior editor will assess based on existing prior work by the apprentice editor. We have hired people for our team on this basis, though at present we have a large team and would not be able to expand it at this time. Though I always welcome anyone to apply, in practice I’ve found that our team has grown organically around those editors who network with us and collaborate closely, since that lets us get to know their existing skills, but also have a sense of if their editorial philosophy matches ours. Hope this is helpful, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the comments! That is very much my editorial philosophy: teach through doing, and the learning goes both ways.

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