THE COPY EDITING PROCESS
We’ve just completed a major structural edit and a continuity edit on a novel. By now, all the action and character development in your novel should be positioned where it needs to be, surrounded by all the description you need to make each of your scenes work. If we’ve been thorough and are very clear on what needs to happen, you won’t need to change the structure again.
The next stage of making your novel polished and submission-ready is copy editing. Copy editing progresses in a series of stages where you look at obvious things first then dive deeper for the more obscure, less-noticed problems until you finally slip into the proofreading stage.
My copy-editing process changes with each novel. Sometimes I need to focus on tone and style first because with that book, it’s a problem. With other books, I’ll jump straight into tightening sentences. Whatever order I choose, there are always several things I check.
I do multiple edit runs during the copyedit stage. If I try to do everything at once, I inevitably miss something. When I’m trying to plan things and make sure I don’t miss anything, I invariably jump into a spreadsheet.
The image is an early version of my tracking for continuity within my story and between the three stories in Tangled up in Blue. There were a number of shared scenes (scenes that appeared from all three sisters’ points of view) that needed to be carefully mapped. There was also a family story distinct from the romance that also needed to be checked for continuity within this story and between the three of the stories.
My process, not in any real order.
Grammar and spelling. I’m pretty good at both so I combine these. The main grammar problem I have, but have thankfully mostly eliminated, is gerunds—sentences beginning with ‑ing words. Because, with these sentences, the subject was already separated from the action, I often separated it further and the sentences didn’t make sense. Eg: Following them into the room, he pulled the curtains closed. The spelling I focus on is making sure I spell to my market. Often that means I have to change to US spelling. Most of the time, Word will correct those for me but some still slip through.
Wordiness and syntax. Again, because I write fluently, I combine these but you might like to separate them. I have a tendency to write long, complex sentences. I also have a tendency to write sentences of similar structure. This can make the reading boring. I need to check to make sure I vary sentence length and vary sentence structure. The syntax check building on the grammar run from before.
Clunky transitions. These slip in usually when I’m working quickly or when I’m not sure how to finish a scene smoothly so I just jump to the next. Clunky transitions can also be between paragraphs or between sentences. Anything that jars, that doesn’t flow smoothly and expectedly onwards needs to be looked at. Sometimes you want a jarring transition, but most of the time the only function it has is to drop the reader out of the story.
Problematic or misused words. For me, this is mostly repetitions. It’s a relatively easy thing to identify – do a search for specific words. I have a list of about twenty words that are my problem words. It includes things like: that, then, was, like. All those modifiers that can just as easily be eliminated. About 90% of mine get cut.
Tone and style deviations. I find this one a difficult one to do myself. I often don’t notice if the tone of my characters’ speech as slipped, combined, or become my own unless it’s a major slip. I rely heavily on critique partners to point this one out.
Uneven flow. Most of this is fixed with a thorough structural edit but some always slips through. It’s easy enough to pick up when a complete read-through. Often just a sentence or two added or deleted will fix the flow. Sometimes I need to move a few paragraphs somewhere else, or delete them.
My advice for copyediting:
I don’t recommend you try to do all this in one read-through of your work. You’ll miss things. Focus on one thing at a time and do as many read-throughs as you need.
Doing multiple read-throughs brings the danger of you reading over or past things because you know what you expect to see. Every second read-through, read the work aloud. It makes it more difficult to skim over parts you know well.
Save all the versions you work on. Label them NameV1, NameV2 etc, or whatever your naming convention is. Previous versions of a book are often useful. You might realise you need some part back in the story. You might, with another book, need to check how you dealt with that particular editing problem before. If you use Track Changes, or something similar if you’re not working in Word, you’ll have all your changes and the methods you used to make changes there in front of you.
When you get close to the end of the copyediting stage, you’ll start slipping into proofreading. Try to resist. If you look at punctuation or capitalisation but only fix some of them here, you run the risk of inconsistent treatment overall, and that will reduce the professional presentation of your work.
Next up will be the proofreading stage. This is the last stage before submitting to publishers. Don’t think the editing is done, though. The publisher who contracts your work will want more editing done.