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What is Copy Editing?

March 29, 2010

via Maison Leblon

“I’m a writer first and an editor second… or maybe third or even fourth. Successful editing requires a very specific set of skills, and I don’t claim to have all of them at my command.”

~Lynn Abbey~

The phrase ‘copy editing’ is a little misleading. Copy has nothing to do with the copy and paste function in your word processor or the laborious hours sat in a high school classroom transcribing board after board of notes into your A4 folder. ‘Copy’ is jargon for ‘text’ – copy editing is the intense scrutinising of the written story.

While structural editing is looking at the big picture story, copy editing is like pulling out your magnifying glass to look at the small details of the writing. Copy editors look at each paragraph, each sentence in that paragraph and further still, each word in the sentence.

Copy editing is the distillation process of writing. It isn’t unlike distilling alcohol. The raw ingredients are mixed and fermented over time. The fermented liquid is then heated to separate the alcohol from the water. Copy editing is the start of the process of refining a story into the purest form. And obviously it requires some heat!

While the writers, who work with me, call my editing ‘the beautiful razorblade’ perhaps it is more like a blow torch at times.

The Copy Editor’s Brief

A copy editor’s job is to hone the writing and language so the story at hand is conveyed with greatest precision, depth and authenticity to the reader. In a nutshell – copy editing ensures that a story says what is means, and means what it says.

A great example which pops into my head comes via twitter last week where an editor commented the manuscript she was reading was coming across more like a zombie story rather than the romance.

It is said there are five ‘c’s which cover an editors job (and I shudder because the six ‘c’s were hammered in to us as high schools students – gratefully none of them appear on this list). A copy editor must ensure the story is:

  1. Clear
  2. Correct
  3. Concise
  4. Comprehensible
  5. Consistent

Some of the questions I ask as I’m going through a manuscript:

  • What is the current word count? What does it have to get down to?
  • How could this be shown and not told?
  • What does this detail add to the overall story?
  • Is there a better word?
  • Is this consistent?
  • Does this fit the time line?
  • Do I know who is talking?
  • How can this be told with less words?
  • Where does it end?
  • Does it fit the genre?

1. Clarity

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

~George Orwell~

The clearer a story, the greater the chance of  reader understanding and following the story.

Writers often carry a considerable back story in their head which never makes it into the final version (for good reason) and as such, they often forget the reader comes in cold. A reader needs a certain number of certainties early on to be grounded in the story and to continue reading. In a short story the reader should have a good grasp of the basics in the first and definitely by the second paragraphs, in a novel within the first five pages.

Never be afraid to put in, what you perceive to be, too much back story in early drafts (it is often the right amount and if it is too much it can be chopped out easily) than not put enough in (my own person foible).

A copy editor will be looking at the beginning of the story to find out:

  • Who (are the characters and who are they relating to?)
  • What (is going on?)
  • When (an indication of a time period)
  • Where (the setting)

A copy editor will immediately see what is missing, point out the holes and make suggestions on how to make an opening clearer. When a story starts of with a clear purpose and direction… the why can unfold at its own pace.

They will apply the same scrutiny to the rest of the story to ensure new characters are properly introduced, action/reaction and relating are logical and believable, there is a clear progression of events and that the emotional investment the reader puts in is equal to the outcome.

2. Correct

“A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know the difference.”

~United Press International Stylebook~

Fiction, just like non-fiction, is expected to be accurate when recounting facts.  We recently almost made a terrible mistake when a location was incorrectly described as being in Europe not in Africa! Gratefully the mistake was picked up before the book went to print.

A copy editor should be looking to ensure the accuracy of:

  • Facts
  • Dates
  • Geographical locations
  • The narrative timeline
  • Historial details

Editors will also go through and correct punctuation, spelling and grammar.

3. Concise

“The most important lesson in the writing trade is that any manuscript is improved if you cut away the fat.”

~Robert Heinlein~

Most writers are working to some kind of word count and few writers hit the word count first time round. A copy editor will highlight what they believe is important to the story and what can be cut  without undermining the integrity of the narrative. Remember that writing and editing are equal parts of a distillation process, and distilling is by nature about reducing the volume and increasing the quality.

The axiom of the editor is: Can this be said in less words? The answer is often yes! Editors will specifically look for the overuse of:

  • Adjectives and adverbs
  • Dialogue attribution
  • Descriptive narrative
  • Metaphor or imagery

They will also look for things such as word and idea repetition (where the idea is merely restated with out being grown or explored deeper.)

Each word in each sentence will be looked at and its worthiness judged. Writers are often amazed when the receive a returned draft to see how many unnecessary words have been cut from a story.

An editor will look to see if the story begins where it starts and concludes where it actually ends. These two places are beginning points to cut several sentences from in a short story – several pages or even a chapter in the case of a novel.

4. Comprehensible

“The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

~ Mark Twain~

Every writer wants the reader to ‘get it’. There is no point in telling a story no one understands. Everything on the page has to work for the story – from the characters to the language to punctation. Poor sentence structure, formatting and word choice all stand in the way of the writer and reading meeting at the same point.

An editor can offer suggestion on how your sentence and paragraph structure may be tightened to enhance your narrative – overly long sentences shortened, sentences carrying two ideas divided, where a sentence may be fragmented or two sentences combined for good effect. Punctuation can provide a rhythmic backdrop to your narrative and an editor may be able to offer ideas on how to make punctuation work for the writer and their story, rather than the reverse.

An editor will look at the language to see if the story is getting the most out of the words on the page. I often read a passage and a word will leap out at me because it isn’t entirely at home in the sentence. I know what the writer is trying to express but they’ve used either the wrong word, or a word which doesn’t do the action/description/dialogue justice. Highlighting the word is often enough to trigger a better word when the draft is returned. Suggestions may also be given to better utilise imagery or metaphor to enhance ideas or themes, or create a subtle sub-strata to the narrative.

Getting the language right for the audience can be tricky. The language used in a young adult fantasy novel is going to be different to that of a literature novel for adults. An editor will look at the language and gauge whether it is the most appropriate language for the market or genre.

At this stage of editing, an editor will look to see if the narrative unfolds in the best possible way from a ‘what’s written’ perspective. They will tweak the placement of paragraphs, and sequencing of sentences within paragraphs so the narrative moves in a logical progression. Editors may also comment or make suggestions on the use of tense and voice to best deliver the story.

5. Consistency

“The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”

~Samuel Johnson~

There is nothing worse than reading a story full of inconsistencies. It is a copy editor’s job to ensure the narrative is seamless.

An editor will look at things such as consistency in:

  • Characterisation
  • Timeline
  • The use of metaphors and imagery
  • Relationships
  • Voice
  • Language
  • Dialogue (especially if any of the dialogue is delivered phonetically or with an accent)
  • Spelling
  • Language and behaviour as relevant to the time period.

Structural, Copy or Just Editing?

It appears to be the trend that copy editing and structural editing are heaped into the one overarching term ‘editing’ these days. Personally, I think this isn’t a good idea. As someone who does both structural and copy editing, I see the benefit in having them as two discrete types of editing.

My recommendation to all writers is to utilise their beta readers as a two tiered editing/critiquing system. Start by looking to see which readers give insightful structural advice and those who give pedantic copy suggestions. Ask the structural beta readers to read and comment on your work first. Do a rewrite. Then offer the rewrite to your ‘copy readers’. This requires you to be more organised but I believe delivers up a better end product.

When It’s All Said and Done

Don’t be shocked when a draft is returned covered in pen or tracked changes. That is the way an edited draft should look. Not all the scribbles will be ‘bad’ – many of the comments and highlights will be the editor recognising the writers hard work and skill.

As always a story is yours, the writer, and you are within your rights to accept and reject any corrections or suggestions made. Keep in mind however, even if you don’t agree with the edits, something about the story at that point pulled the editor up and it is usually prudent to review the section and explore what might not be working there.

Keep the words Robert Cormier in mind when your draft returns: The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.

You can read the first part of the editing series What is Structural Editing? and the third What is Proof Reading? will be along in its own good time.

Jodi Cleghorn admits as an editor she’s never totally removed from the shoes of a writer – though editing feels a little canabalistic right now. While she contemplates the next big copy edit for Chinese Whisperings she’s off to fix the dead car battery. You can find more of Jodi’s musings at Writing in Black and White.
  1. March 29, 2010 6:12 am

    It’s ‘cannibalistic’!!! You can put me in the pedant’s corner. Okay, I’ll shut up now.

    Very good advice. Also important is for writers to be looking at these things not while they’re writing, but when they’re writing their second draft, etc.

    Great series, Jodi 🙂

  2. March 29, 2010 6:45 am

    Pick the bit which was written on the hop without the use of spellcheck #fail! And you can be my pedant any time you’d like. By the sign off I was just worried about getting the car started.

    I’m glad the advice is ringing true – and yes this is definitely second draft or third draft reference material. Of for those wondering what the hell they should do as a beta reader. Funny how writing these articles has solidified in my mind, what I actually do as an editor and a writer.

  3. March 29, 2010 9:13 pm

    Great advice! I loathe editing…of any form. This will definitely help when my ms is finished.

  4. March 30, 2010 12:11 am

    Wow, this was a very clear and in depth post Jodi! Editing is definitely my weak spot I’ve found so cannot get enough of these posts.

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