Copy Editing – Part I: What Is Copy Editing?

Copy editing — an important part of the publishing process.

Prepare yourself for the usual author rant — but with a difference. This one is coming from an author who just completed her 69th book. An author who has worked with about eight different publishers and dozens of copy editors over the course of 15 years.

So no, this isn’t a newbie writer griping about a heavy-handed editor on her first or second book. It’s coming from someone who has been doing this for a long time and feels as if she’s “seen it all.”

I’ve taken this topic and split it into three parts. In this part, I’ll start off with an introduction to the topic of copy editing and tell you what I believe it should be.

Stet!What is Copy Editing?

The purpose of copy editing should be to ensure that the original text is:

  • Free of spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. Note the use of the word “error” here; that’ll be important later in this discussion.
  • Consistent with a publisher style guide. A style guide, in the world of publishing, is a document that sets forth usage in those gray areas. I’m talking about capitalization issues such as web vs. Web, hyphenation issues such as email vs. e-mail, and design issues such as boldfacing figure references.
  • Clear and easy to understand. This usually involves breaking up long or complex sentences or possibly rearranging sentence components.
  • Unlikely to be misinterpreted. For example, when you say the “Color in pop-up menu,” do you mean a pop-up menu named “Color in” or are you talking about color in a pop-up menu?
  • Consistent with the writing style of the established book or series. This only comes into play when you’re writing for a series that has a predefined format and style. For example, Visual QuickStart Guides (VQSes) tend to be short and to the point, so I don’t have room for personal stories, as I do in other books. VQSes also have level 2 headings that begin with the word “To” and are followed by numbered steps, each of which presents a single task. (I could list about a dozen style issues specific to a VQS, but you get the idea.)

Flowers for AlgernonOf course, what you’re writing should determine how much of the above is required. If you’re writing a novel much of this may not apply at all. Consider the book, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. The book’s first person narrator is a retarded man. The book is in journal format and the first few chapters are so full of spelling and punctuation errors (or omissions) that the book is difficult to read. But that’s because of the author’s choices and the method he uses to communicate. Would you expect a retarded man to have perfect spelling, grammar, and punctuation? Of course not. The author is using the character’s shortcomings as a writer to make his character more real — as well a to drive home the changes in the character as the story progresses. This technique was used again more recently in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which featured an autistic first-person narrator. If a copy editor had done a thorough job on the grammar or punctuation in either of these two books, he would have altered the characters. The same can be said for dialog in most novels, since few people speak using perfect grammar.

So copy editing of fiction is a different subject — one I’m not addressing here. I’m discussing copy editing of non-fiction, primarily technical or how-to books, since that’s where my experience is.

More to Come…

This is the first part of my discussion of copy editing. There are at least two more parts to go. In the next part, I’ll rant a bit about my experiences with one particular book over the ten-year course of its life (so far). You’d think that after 10 years, the process would be trouble-free…

Why not take a moment to tell us what you think copy editing should be. How do you expect it to change or improve your writing? Use the comments link or form to share your thoughts.

What do you think?