Editing for Indie Writers: Copyediting

The indie editing series continues (starts here but the collective posts are here).

What is copyediting?

Copyediting, when it comes to books, is the stage between content editing (which you should have finished by this point) and layout/formatting.  The general idea is to make the book text perfect before handing it off to be formatted, so when the proofreader gets it, they’re only dealing with minor nitnoids and making sure that formatting didn’t introduce any errors (which it can).

Copyediting traditionally means making text:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Correct
  • Comprehensible
  • Consistent

I also have to add that copyediting has to maintain the integrity of the author’s vision, but that doesn’t start with a c, so sometimes you can get copyeditors who forget that.  Let’s make that:

  • Communicates the author’s vision

for a sixth c of The Copyeditor’s Five Cs.

But how to do that?  Do you just go through the document line by line, fix everything that’s wrong, and bingo! that’s copyediting?  Nope.  That’s line editing.  The difference between copyediting and line editing is the style sheet.

What’s a style sheet?

A style sheet is a master sheet that:

  1. Provides the source of most of the copyeditor’s decisions, like saying “Merriam Webster Online used for spelling unless otherwise noted,” or “Chicago Manual of Style Online used for style unless otherwise noted.”
  2. Provides guidelines for the copyeditor (and proofreader, later on) for any breaks in spelling, punctuation, style, etc., from those guides.

So if you use a lot of sentence fragments, a copyeditor may note, “Sentence fragments acceptable” and list a bunch of page  numbers justifying this within your style.

Why bother?  Copyeditors bother with it because a) they can’t remember everything, especially with some of these 300K fantasy epics, and b) they don’t want the proofreader to freak out over nonstandard usages.

Why should you bother with a style sheet?

But you don’t have to deal with a proofreader, and you have a photographic memory, so that doesn’t apply to you, right?  Er, no.

  • You want your manuscript to look professional, and spelling the sidekick’s name as WonderFred for 2/3 of the story and WonderSled for the last third doesn’t look professional.
  • You want to hone your writing, because you’re always forgetting commas the first time through, and you’re tired of having to decide to use a series comma every time it comes up.
  • You’re writing a series, and you don’t want to have to reread your whole series every time you start a new book in order to find out what the dad’s best friend’s dog’s name is.
  • You want to be able to see things in your manuscript that you’ve overlooked before, because you’re too familiar with your work.
  • You’ve tried other methods of editing, like reading your work aloud, and that’s great for making sure your work sounds good, but it doesn’t deal with making sure you have all your ducks in a row.

I’ll go more into how to build and use a style sheet in a bit, but let me stress here: if you do it the way I do it (which is not the way most copyeditors do it), it will be a laborious (although not that time-consuming) process, and your brain will feel like you’re torturing it.  In a way, you will be: you’ll be forcing it to continuously think about what it’s reading, instead of just glancing over it and seeing what it saw last time.

Some people recommend reading your work aloud or putting it into a different font in order to force your brain to see it.  I recommend gathering facts about your manuscript, then organizing those facts so that patterns emerge.  This will help show you:

  • Whether you’re describing your characters consistently.
  • Whether your characters say something that’s out of character.
  • Whether you’ve explained a certain detail early enough in your story.
  • Whether you’ve presented all the facts your readers need to work something out.
  • Whether you’ve written flat characters.
  • Whether you’ve repeated yourself in providing details.
  • And more.

The Writer’s Style Sheet

If you’re going to go to the bother of doing a style sheet, you may as well do one that benefits you as a writer, not just as an editor.

Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Save your style sheet as a separate file.
  2. Pick a dictionary and style guide and list them.
  3. Start at the beginning of your story and create an entry for each of the following:
    • List proper names (people, places, even unusual things).
    • List all foreign and/or fictional words not commonly used in English (italicize or format exactly as you do in the document).
    • List any break in grammar, punctuation, spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, etc. from your dictionary/style guide.
    • You can cite the page number of the first place this appears, if you like.
  4. So far, this is just like any style sheet.  But as you work through your document, add the following:
    • Start with an entry for your timeline just after the style guide/dictionary.  All other items should be alphabetized.
    • Any descriptions about each item on your style sheet (e.g., “Wears a vest”).  Include all nicknames or aliases.
    • How other characters feel about it. (You can list this with either or both entries; “Orion’s skin crawls when Mi Tao touches him” could be listed under Orion, Mi Tao, or both.)
    • If applicable, how they feel about themselves (e.g., “Mi Tao thinks her arms are too long”), their beliefs (e.g., “Orion thinks the Pinks will accept him if he brings the chimp back to them alive”), and their goals (e.g., “Orion wants to bring the chimp in”).
    • Note: You must not write down anything you don’t read in your document. For example, if you “know” that Orion is a gorilla (and he is), you must not write it down until you see it actually mentioned in the story.
  5. As you encounter any issues related to the Six Cs above, first check your style guide/dictionary to find the preferred usage for that instance.  Then check your style sheet to see if you have an exception listed.  Follow the exceptions on the style sheet over the rules in the style guide/dictionary.
  6. If you see a pattern among the items that you have to fix, question whether you should add an exception to the style guide.  Your authorial intent takes primacy over all other considerations, even clarity (e.g., if your character is in a drug-induced stupor, you may want your style to reflect that).  Whether or not your authorial intent is on the money should have been determined during the content editing phase (i.e., while writing your synopsis), not here.  If you add an exception to your style sheet, make sure all previous instances align with it.
  7. You may need to take an additional pass or two through the document if you find inconsistencies and have to make changes, or if you added exceptions to your style sheet toward the end of your document.  The document should be textually perfect by the time you’re done copyediting it.

I recommend typing the descriptions out, too, rather than copy/pasting them.   You can sum up.

This is something that I learned in an acting class, of all places.  We had to go through a ten-minute scene and laboriously write down every word about our characters–what our characters said about ourselves, what other characters said about them, how they spoke, their stage directions.  We weren’t supposed to think so much as to gather the data about our characters in a way that made us look at our preconceptions about the characters, and how different the characters were than we’d first throught.  It was a pain in the ass, but you knew what the playwright had actually written by the time you were done.  When you manually collect facts, it’s harder for your brain to deny the patterns that are there, rather than the patterns it wants to be there.

Here, as the writer, you already know your intentions–but you don’t necessarily know how well you communicated those intentions.  By only writing down what you see in the work, you can see whether you did your part in communicating those intentions to the reader.  You can’t do anything about readers who misinterpret or who see your work through different lenses than you intended.  But you can be sure that all the clues are there.  And you can be sure that you’ve presented the work professionally, so your readers aren’t tuning you out due to frustration with crappy commas.

To get the most out of copyediting, then:

  • Write it down.
  • Look it up.

Next week: Copyediting Checklist


In Begrudging Support of Rush


Article at PPW Blog: How to Write for Adults


  1. Excellent advice. I’m writing a follow up book to one of my first (I wouldn’t call it a series yet. Maybe one more), and I had to spend far too much time wading through the first book to get a minor character’s name right. Almost dropped him from the follow up – he’s not /that/ essential

    • De

      Oh, me too. When I did book 4 on the kids’ series I swore I’d never try to wing it like that again. I couldn’t remember the main character’s dad’s name…and he shows up in all the books, but he’s always “her dad.”

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