Ten Things I Look After When Copyediting Fiction Novels

 In Editing

If you’ve made it through revisions and developmental or substantive editing, it’s time for copyediting.

Good copyediting does not come cheap. In a recent rate survey undertaken by the Editorial Freelancers Association, the median rate per word for copyediting is $0.02–$0.029 per word which works out to be $1,600–$2,320 for an 80,000-word novel. That’s the median rate, so the cost could be higher. But a good copyeditor is doing more than you might think.

Copyediting, according to the Chicago Manual of Style “requires attention to every word and mark of punctuation in a manuscript, a thorough knowledge of the style to be followed, and the ability to make quick, logical, and defensible decisions.” (2.48) A good copyeditor has eyes on the micro and macro level.

I strive to be a good copyeditor, and I look for ten things when copyediting fiction. Here they are!

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Style

Style can refer to two things: the way things need to be arranged according to rules established by the publisher, or the flavor of the writing. One example of the first kind of style is the very large style guide The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, Chicago). CMOS is a tome-style manual. This big book covers a lot of area and helps ensure standards in publishing of all kinds, but especially novels.

Organizations often have their own style guides. They adopt a standard style guide, such as the AP Stylebook or Chicago, and then add in their organization’s choices. This might look like adopting the Chicago Manual of Style, but not using the series comma, as Chicago prefers. As a copyeditor, it’s my job to keep track of the details of the proscribed style to make sure your manuscript is in tip-top shape.

The flavor-of-the-writing type of style is also important. Good copyeditors will find errors and query unclear things, while keeping the writer’s style intact. If your manuscript is undergoing a light or medium copyedit, your words will still sound like you after your copyeditor is finished. If you want your words punched up, ask for a heavy copyedit. Keep in mind that the more mucking about with words, the more your copyeditor will charge.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Repeated errors

Have you typed manger every single time you referred to Edgar, the assistant store manager? Don’t worry, your copyeditor will find and fix that error. In fact, finding words that are misspelled but not caught by a spell check is one of the many reasons you will be happy to have living human eyes on your text. Spell checkers and grammar programs are great, and copyeditors use them too, but we are also trained to pay attention to the errors the computers aren’t going to see.

As someone who often types manuel when I mean manual, I’m super dedicated to uncovering those tricky typos when I copyedit. How do I find those mistakes? By reading very slowly, my friend. It’s like having a conversation with each sentence: Hello sentence, I see you have a comma there. Is that a comma that should be there, or one that has snuck in and should be eliminated? Let’s have a look.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Grammar

You might be a person who writes with correct grammar as a matter of course. If that’s the case, your copyediting quote will probably be on the lower side. But even if you know grammar like the back of your hand, your copyeditor will be keeping an eye out for little things that might pop up. For instance, do you know what do when you have a sentence with two dependent clauses and a coordinating conjunction? If you know the Chicago Manual of Style from stem to stern, you’ll know what they say about that subject. But if not, I’ve got your back.

If you are a person who feels wibbly-wobbly about commas or other punctuation, or if terms like subordinate clause and subordinate conjunction make you glaze over, I will be your grammar watchdog.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Flow

Flow is a thing I look for because one of my jobs is to watch out for your future readers. I don’t want them to be whiplashed between sections that have abundant action followed by sections where we learn every nuance of a 30-section decree about farming practices. Ideally what I’m copyediting has been revised so thoroughly that there isn’t much to find in the area of flow. But if there is, I’m going to point it out so your future readers won’t feel disjointed, or bored.

Flow is a broad term that encompasses everything from pacing, to point of view, to awkward sentence construction. I often query (make a comment) about flow issues and let the author to decide if they want to revise.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Tenses

Oh lord, those tenses! They can wander all over the place. If you are not sure what the past perfect is, or you aren’t sure if you’ve managed to stick with past tense the entire time you wrote, don’t worry, I will be on top of your tenses. I really enjoy finding and fixing sentences like: I walked past the mailbox when I go to the store today.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Details

If you are writing a novel, there are so many details to manage. Eye color. Hair color. Anachronisms. Day of the week. Specific dates, like knowing that 21 January, 1917 was a Sunday. While I love grammar and words arranged into clear sentences, as your copyeditor, I also love finding and keeping track of those details using my trusty style sheet.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Time line

Are all the days Friday in your novel? Even when the previous day was Tuesday? I’ve got my eyes on your time line and will uncover any unintentional time loops you may have written into your story.

My style sheet includes a section where I track what day it is in each chapter, or in each scene if that’s what the manuscript calls for. Time lines also come in handy when events in the past are referred to. If one part of your novel discusses the first marriage of Hector Luna happening in 1940 and then another part of the novel talks about his second marriage in 1938, I’m gong to find that error by tracking the time line in the style sheet.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Point of view

Point of View is so important for a successful novel. Ideally you’ve nailed your POV and have a clear path you are traveling. It’s not uncommon for early drafts to wander through various points of view. You may retain those points of view as you revise, or you may decide to limit your storytelling to one or two characters. What I will do as your copyeditor is keep track of who’s point of view appears in every scene and chapter.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Character traits

Have you ever had a character whose name changed? Maybe you did it purposefully, or maybe your brain just kept switching the name. I had a character once whose name changed from Rosie to Roxie and back again in the course of the book.

Or what about physical descriptions? Is someone tall at the beginning of the story, but loses six inches during a crucial basketball game? Hopefully not. Does someone always shuffle their feet when they are nervous, no matter what part of the novel it is? Ideally yes.

But I don’t count on character traits staying the same. My style sheet includes a section that lists all major and minor characters. As I copyedit, I make notes about what people look like, their ages, and anything else that stands out about them. If someone is limping in one section and then leaping and dancing without comment in another, I’m going to make note of that in the style sheet and then also write a query.

Spools of sewing thread. Text: Gems

My favorite part of copyediting is finding the moments of wondrous writing. This might be a simple turn of phrase, the humorous payoff to a gag that’s been set up through several chapters, or a paragraph of description that transports me from my office chair to a lush landscape. I don’t let those gems pass without commenting on them. When I find one, I write a query so the author knows that I appreciate their words.

That’s the list. When you get a quote for copyediting and are evaluating if the experience will be worth it, know that you will have eyes on your words and those eyes will keep track of many details. After a great copyedit, your words will be that much stronger.

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Sunlight streaming through tall trees. Text: When to Hire a Beta Reader