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by Elektra Hammond
(c) 2011

Hi. I’m Elektra and I’m a copyeditor.

Shoot me now, please.

Copyediting as it applies to fiction, particularly genre fiction, requires wearing so many different hats that I sometimes identify with Jasra (sometime Queen of Kashfa from Roger Zelazny’s Amber series). Go ahead and look her up, I’ll wait . . . back now? Good.

Anyway, I’m a copyeditor. That means I’m a proofreader, and a spell checker, and a grammarian, and a fact checker, and a consistency checker. Or I’m just a really slooooow reader. Depends on how you look at it.

When I get a manuscript to copyedit, I start by reading through it and noting/fixing only the most egregious errors (that I just can’t ignore).

Next, I make a slow, serious pass through the piece, noting every error I spot. Additionally, as I read through, I create a style sheet (that is, I take notes). For every character, I note their name (correct spelling!), sex, what page they first appeared on, titles, relationships to other characters, and anything else I think might be relevant. I do the same for any named locations, miscellaneous other interesting things that come up in the manuscript, and create extra categories if needed, like starships. I also note any odd acronyms used, how plurals are being handled, and
anything else I think noteworthy.

  • <<<NOTE FROM THE HANDYMAN: one of the simplest and most standard way of doing what Elektra has outlined here is to take a sheet of paper (or a fresh computer document) and write or type out the alphabet, leaving plenty of room for notes, then each time you encounter one of the things you need to keep track of you fill it in under the appropriate alphabetical letter. Also include a notation for numbers. As you are copyediting this is your style sheet to reference as you go along.>>>

When I’m reading, I do not get engrossed in the story itself. If I find that happening, I get up and walk around, or look at something else for a few minutes. I pay attention to every detail, and stay focused on what’s happening, but I don’t get lost in it. It takes practice. Otherwise you might not spot when someone who is gagged and tied to a chair joins in the dialogue . . . .

Is this starting to sound like work yet? I hope so. It’s not digging ditches, but make no mistake, it is work. Taking notes while you read makes it way less fun. Now add in looking up every word you’re not sure of (for meaning), and checking any usage questions you might have (capitalization, hyphenization, titles, etc.) in the Chicago Manual of Style.

But wait, there’s more. If something just doesn’t make sense, you either look it up or ask someone who might know. If there are sentences that are just awkward or sound bad, you need to suggest alternatives. If a word is being overused, you need to find other choices to suggest. All these things take time and energy.

And everything you do must be noted. If you’re working on paper, it’s handwritten notes and tags. If you’re using MS Word or Open Office, it’s track changes and lots of comments in the text. Lots of comments. Did I mention the comments?

After the long, slow pass, if time permits, I read it through with all the changes, to make adjustments and pick up any other problems I might have missed.

The most important things to remember when copyediting–pay attention, and don’t be afraid to look something up if you’re not sure, even if it means getting out the big dictionary.

Books I can’t live without:
  •     Chicago Manual of Style (current edition)
  •     Words into Type (Skillin & Gay)
  •     The Shorter Oxford (in two volumes)

ps. The most common question asked of writers: Where do you get your ideas?  The most common question asked of copyeditors/proofreaders: How did get you started and can you get me started? I also find mistakes in books I’m reading . . .

ps2. For those of you who are too lazy to do the research, Jasra spent some time as a coatrack.
  • <<<From the Handyman: Did you enjoy this article? Do you have copyediting tips to share? Please leave us a comment!>>>
Elektra Hammond has worked in the back end of publishing as a copyeditor and proofreader since the late-90s, working in fiction and non-fiction for both large and small press. She recently started doing book reviews, writing short fiction and turning the gears of Sparkito Press, an imprint of Dark Quest Books. Look for her first published story in the anthology In An Iron Cage: The Magic of Steampunk.

Elektra recently relocated to Delaware where she lives with her husband, Mike, and the twenty-some cats of BlueBlaze cattery. When she’s not freelancing, she travels the world judging cat shows. She can be found on LiveJournal (elektra), Facebook (Elektra Hammond), Twitter (elektraUM) and building up her website at http://www.untilmidnight.com.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 18th, 2011 12:07 pm (UTC)
>requires wearing so many different hats that I sometimes identify with Jasra

May. 25th, 2011 04:53 pm (UTC)
LOL... I didn't know, but I would have beens usurprised if you hadn't.

Thanks for reading.

May. 18th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
Check out The Literary Handyman
User elektra referenced to your post from Check out The Literary Handyman saying: [...] I’m guest blogging today about the copyediting process over at The Literary Handyman [...]
May. 18th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)
I start my character sheet as I'm outlining and fill it out as I'm writing. So much easier than trying to remember the name of the gossip in Chapter 3. . . .

But I organize them by setting, not alphabetically.
May. 25th, 2011 03:36 am (UTC)
Writing is different than editing, and you should organize however works best for you . . . .
May. 25th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting.

The alphabetizing is really for copyeditors since they are working with material they aren't - presumably - already familiar with, helps them to find references quicker.

May. 19th, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC)
copy editing
I keep a tracker of who's doing what where, color coded. And a separate sheet of the little foibles and mannerisms of the characters.
May. 25th, 2011 03:38 am (UTC)
Re: copy editing
If you're doing that for a copyedit, you're even more OCD than I. Perhaps I need to send you my next manuscript to go over . . . .

That sounds like what I do when I'm writing versus editing. I approach the two jobs rather differently.
May. 25th, 2011 04:56 pm (UTC)
Re: copy editing
Wow...I'm downright lazy compared to that ;)

Thanks for reading!

May. 19th, 2011 06:33 pm (UTC)
>> Additionally, as I read through, I create a style sheet (that is, I take notes). <<

Some writers do this, especially for a novel or set of connected stories. It's called a "bible." If there is one, providing a copy to the editor(s) can save a lot of work -- you still have to check stuff, but there's a starting point and authors who use a book-bible are less prone to making mistakes.
May. 25th, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
Re: Thoughts
Very few writers send a copy along when they submit--and if they do, it may not filter all the way to the copyeditor.

The "bible" I keep when I write contains far more character info than a style sheet. After all, when they're my characters, I know more about them then ever goes on the paper.

For those interested, Pennwriters (http://www.pennwriters.org) offers a very intensive online class on creating a project bible.
May. 25th, 2011 04:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Thoughts
Ooh! Thanks for sharing that link!

May. 25th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
Re: Thoughts
I really need to get down to it and put together bibles for my series. I have some notes but I've been pretty sloppy. Now I have sequels to write and half the reason I'm not further along is I am just exhausted thinking about going through the earlier books and putting this together.

May. 19th, 2011 06:40 pm (UTC)
Read About Copyediting
User ysabetwordsmith referenced to your post from Read About Copyediting saying: [...] has a guest post up about "Demystifying Copyediting [...]
May. 23rd, 2011 08:32 pm (UTC)
I love to see that proof readers make mistakes too.
"The most common question asked of copyeditors/proofreaders: How did get you started and can you get me started?"

Great article! This will be of great use while writing, as well as proofreading. Thank you for taking the time to put it on "paper".

May. 25th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
Re: I love to see that proof readers make mistakes too.
Thanks for reading, Dante! Glad to hear you are finding useful information here. Do let us know if there is anything in particular you would like to see covered on the craft or the business of writing.

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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