Copy Editing – Why It Works

Copy Editing is like going to the dentistCopy editing is a bit like visiting the dentist – we know it needs to be done but we also know it’s going to be painful!

As a copy editor, who runs a copy editing company, unsurprisingly, I have pretty strong views about copy editing. However, I just want to open a debate on the value of copy editing and why all writers can benefit from a good old edit..

What Is Copy Editing?

This is a question that is open to some debate. For me (and BubbleCow) a copy edit is a structural edit. It is an edit that looks at the way the story is put together. The focus of a copy edit is on plot, pacing and narrative. It is not focussed on grammar and spelling, that is a proofread. To cloud the water even further here’s another definition of a copy edit from Mpub.

But rather than get bogged down is what a copy edit is, or is not, I would suggest it is more fruitful to consider the goal of a copy edit.

For me the aim of a copy edit is to do three things:

  • To improve the document,
  • To improve the writer’s understanding of the structure their own book,
  • To make the book more publishable.

When Should You Consider Copy Edit?

A good solid copy edit will improve your book. It will make it more publishable and, therefore, more attractive to potential agents and publishers.

I often come in contact with writers who feel their work is beyond a copy edit. My response is always the same. Firstly, I have never read a manuscript that didn’t benefit from a copy edit. Some may benefit to a greater extent, but all will benefit. My second point is always to consider publishers. The editing of a manuscript is an essential part of the pre-production process. A publisher would never publish a book without an edit. However, for publishers cost is critical. If this was not the case why would they waste time and money in editing if it didn’t produce a more saleable book?

The publishing world has become so competitive, that most agents and publishers are looking for books that need as little work as possible prior to publication. This means that if a writer can edit their book BEFORE they submit, then they will improve their chances of publication.

So in answer to the questions when to consider a copy edit, I would say the moment you are happy with the book and feel ready to submit. That is the point you should be thinking about an edit.

Can You Do It Yourself?

Well, errr… no! The whole point of a copy is that something new is being brought to the book. The very nature of a copy edit is that it is a third party looking at the structure and content of the book and focusing attention on areas that require further development.

Writers become so engaged in their work, they sometimes become ‘blind’ to the most obvious mistakes. This happens to us all, it is an essential part of the writing process. It is just important that you, as a writer, see this and understand what an external editor can bring to your work.

Does It Have To Cost

No! It is not essential that you employ a third party company or freelance editor. You can ask a friend to carry out the work for you. However, PLEASE remember editing is a skill. Would you ask your friend to remove your teeth, just because they had been to the dentist?

Editors possess a certain set of skills that make them very good at assessing other people’s writing and drawing attention to the areas of concern.

These are:

  • Professional understanding of narrative and book structure,
  • An in-depth understanding of the marketplace,
  • An understanding of the publishing landscape,
  • Attention to detail,
  • Ability to teach not lecture.

What’s The Benefit?

At the end of the day the benefit of a good copy edit is a better book and a better writer. Yes, the process may be painful but if you have picked the right copy editor you will come out of the process with a new understanding of your work, but most importantly you will have been directed to develop a new set of skills that will mean you can write better and more publishable books.

16 Comments » for Copy Editing – Why It Works
  1. Great article — as always! Thanks.

  2. Annette says:

    As a writer and freelance editor myself, I totally agree! (Our definitions vary a bit–what you call a copy edit, the company I work for calls a “content” edit. We call a “copy” edit the grammar/punctuation stage, and so does my publisher. Just gee whiz.)

    The semantics don’t matter–what matters is exactly what you said: getting another set of eyeballs on your work, because as the author, YOU can’t see the holes and the problems. It’s worth paying for if you don’t have someone a trusted friend with the right skills.

  3. Lisa says:

    I heartily agree. I just read an aspiring author’s first chapter. This is a book she is already submitting and pitching to agents. She can’t understand why no one will pick it up. It is screaming for a copy edit (and some proofreading as well). I think many of us unpublished try to submit far too early without having the RIGHT people take a look at the work.

  4. 4kidlit says:

    Great article — as always! Thanks.

  5. Annette says:

    As a writer and freelance editor myself, I totally agree! (Our definitions vary a bit–what you call a copy edit, the company I work for calls a “content” edit. We call a “copy” edit the grammar/punctuation stage, and so does my publisher. Just gee whiz.)

    The semantics don't matter–what matters is exactly what you said: getting another set of eyeballs on your work, because as the author, YOU can't see the holes and the problems. It's worth paying for if you don't have someone a trusted friend with the right skills.

  6. Lisa says:

    I heartily agree. I just read an aspiring author's first chapter. This is a book she is already submitting and pitching to agents. She can't understand why no one will pick it up. It is screaming for a copy edit (and some proofreading as well). I think many of us unpublished try to submit far too early without having the RIGHT people take a look at the work.

  7. Tracy says:

    My definition’s different; content/structure editing is different in my world from copy edits. But I agree–we can only see so much of our own work. A second set of eyes is critical even for the most accomplished writer. My publisher, University of Nebraska Press, still copy edits (which they see more as line editing)–and even at that stage of production, it was such a boost for my book. I love my copy editor. He even explained the most arcane rules to me in little footnotes. It was heartening to see how much he cared about the precision of my prose and the accuracy of my commas.

    • You want a “second set of eyes” on your work? Set it aside for six months and turn to your next project. Then go back to the first six months or a year later. You’ll be amazed at what you see. You will see it anew all over again. At least this works for me.

  8. Tracy says:

    My definition's different; content/structure editing is different in my world from copy edits. But I agree–we can only see so much of our own work. A second set of eyes is critical even for the most accomplished writer. My publisher, University of Nebraska Press, still copy edits (which they see more as line editing)–and even at that stage of production, it was such a boost for my book. I love my copy editor. He even explained the most arcane rules to me in little footnotes. It was heartening to see how much he cared about the precision of my prose and the accuracy of my commas.

    • You want a “second set of eyes” on your work? Set it aside for six months and turn to your next project. Then go back to the first six months or a year later. You’ll be amazed at what you see. You will see it anew all over again. At least this works for me.

  9. Editor says:

    You actually couldn’t have it more wrong – a copy edit is more like a mechanical edit, wherein you pay attention to the finite details of grammar, spelling and house style. The structural/substantive edit comes BEFORE the copy edit to work with the bigger picture and the writing style, NOT the house style (as in, serial commas, treating abbreviations, etc). The proof read comes last and it’s a PROOF, not an edit…it’s the last pair of eyes reviewing a piece of writing for anything that may have been missed or errors that were introduced during the layout. Also, you don’t mention that the editor’s chief responsibility is to consider the audience and do what’s best for them.

  10. Editor says:

    You actually couldn't have it more wrong – a copy edit is more like a mechanical edit, wherein you pay attention to the finite details of grammar, spelling and house style. The structural/substantive edit comes BEFORE the copy edit to work with the bigger picture and the writing style, NOT the house style (as in, serial commas, treating abbreviations, etc). The proof read comes last and it's a PROOF, not an edit…it's the last pair of eyes reviewing a piece of writing for anything that may have been missed or errors that were introduced during the layout. Also, you don't mention that the editor's chief responsibility is to consider the audience and do what's best for them.

  11. A novel should appeal to readers, so I think a bunch of readers will do as good a job as a professional copy editor, maybe better, because they won’t be prejudiced about what is ‘publishable’ – they just know what they enjoy. My novel ‘Remix’ was read by about a dozen people, first relatives then volunteers who’d read the start on a writers’ site and wanted to read the rest. They gave me their reactions, and found the odd plot hole, and made suggestions. Hugely helpful.

  12. A novel should appeal to readers, so I think a bunch of readers will do as good a job as a professional copy editor, maybe better, because they won’t be prejudiced about what is ‘publishable’ – they just know what they enjoy. My novel ‘Remix’ was read by about a dozen people, first relatives then volunteers who’d read the start on a writers’ site and wanted to read the rest. They gave me their reactions, and found the odd plot hole, and made suggestions. Hugely helpful.

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