Beyond Grammar & Punctuation: Why You Need a Copyeditor
by Erin Doherty
I recently edited a novel. The author was clearly educated and had a good grasp of standard English grammar. She wrote in complete sentences, didn’t seem to have many misspellings, and generally used punctuation correctly. At first glance, it may have seemed like a copyeditor wouldn’t have much work to do.
But grammar and punctuation are not all that copyeditors pay attention to: we also look for consistency, awkward or convoluted phrasing, redundancies and repetition, factual errors, legal issues, and formatting.
Consistency is a big part of whether people perceive your writing as professional or high-quality; they may not realize that it impacts their perception, but it does.
• Does the author favor toward or towards? Both are correct, but you should pick one and stick to it.
• Serial comma or no?
• High-tech is always hyphenated
• Journal entries are always block-quoted and italicized.
Awkward or convoluted phrasing:
You want your readers to pause to savor your eloquent turns of phrase or to chew on your thought-provoking idea. You don’t want them to pause because they’re confused about what the heck you’re trying to say. When this happens, I’ll read it out loud to myself, try to figure out what the author is actually trying to say, and offer a possible revision. If I’m really lost, I may even call up the author and talk it out.
Redundancies and repetition:
• Thesauruses are your friend. If you only ever use tapping to describe someone’s typing, you will probably want to mix it up a little with typing or clicking throughout the book.
• Five sentences on a single page started with “According to.” Let’s revise a little to avoid that.
• Seven a.m. in the morning—no. Choose one or the other (seven a.m. or seven in the morning).
• Completely destroyed or end result. Destroy already means “to cause something to no longer exist,” so you can just say destroy—the completeness is part of the definition. Result already means “to proceed or arise as a consequence, effect, or conclusion,” so adding on end is redundant. Sometimes an author may feel that the adjective adds emphasis, but generally cutting such adjectives will result in clearer, stronger writing.
• Oops, you misspelled the name of that Spanish architect.
• Actually, you can’t see that park from that café because it’s two miles away (for a work set in a present-day, real city).
• This character is dead, so you should use a past-tense verb to describe his actions (unless we’re talking ghosts: ghosts scoff at verb tenses).
Dumpster, Realtor, Teflon, Kleenex, Walkman, Google: while these words have come to define the type of object they are (trash receptacle, real estate agent, non-stick material, facial tissue, portable cassette player, search engine), they’re still registered trademarks and as such, need to be capitalized.
And that lovely quote you used from The God of Small Things? Yeah, that’s copyrighted material, and you may need permission to use it. A copyeditor will alert you to this, and if they’re knowledgeable in this area, they may also help you figure out if you need permission and help you get it.
This is probably the least glamorous part of copyediting, but it’s necessary. Are there two or sometimes even three spaces between sentences? Buh-bye, spaces, we only need one of you. Did you use tabs (or, heaven forfend, the space bar) to indent paragraphs? I need to eliminate those and use the margins instead. Are all your chapter headings the same size and font? What about your section breaks? Did you accidentally change font type or size in the middle of a paragraph? Are all your quotation marks curly or straight?
As venerable editor and writer Arthur Plotnick said, “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” Confusion, inconsistencies, and errors distract readers and can make them think less of you.
Copyediting lets the reader focus on what you’re saying.