Writing Wednesday: Copyedits

Writing Wednesday

Welcome back to Writing Wednesday, a biweekly feature where I try to troubleshoot an aspect of writing. This week I will be covering COPYEDITS.

Last time, we discussed line edits, which I loosely defined as polishing a manuscript, or editing the craft of writing. Copyedits, on the other hand, is double-checking the style.

Style is not synonymous with voice, at least not in publishing. When editors and publishers refer to “style,” they actual mean grammatical and internal consistency within a work. Most houses and imprints adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style, which has a set of definitions and “rules” about when something is capitalized, when something is italicized, when em-dashes and hyphens are used, etc.

I mentioned last time that most people think of line edits when they think of what an editor does with an acquired manuscript. There is also a significant number of people who think being an editor means “checking for typos and grammatical mistakes.” Oh ho ho ho, no. Nope. While some editors do point those things out, I wasn’t one of them. In fact, I would venture to say that most editors will forgive, overlook, or otherwise just not notice “errors” of this sort. After all, there is an entirely separate position in publishing dedicated to doing just that: the copyeditor.

There are many departments in publishing, but loosely speaking, editorial is responsible for the creative side, and production is responsible for the physical aspect of publishing, or the end product. Copyediting is when we move from the editorial side of publishing to the production side. Once a manuscript is revised and edited to both the writer and editor’s satisfaction, it is deemed FINAL (and accepted) and transmitted to production.

Production is the process of turning a story from the abstract into the concrete, and the first step in that process is copyediting. At this point, the events of the novel, the characterization, etc. is more or less set in stone1, so the copyeditor is not focused on content so much as the style. If you think of the content of the novel as the idea of a house, structural and line edits are about the construction of a house, and copyedits are inspections of the actual materials used to build the house, to make sure everything is up to code.

Copyeditors do read a manuscript for grammatical errors and places where the writing may break with or deviate from the Chicago Manual of Style, but what they’re looking for is consistency and clarity. A good copyeditor will not rewrite all your sentences to make it grammatically correct; they will point out places where grammatical errors make the meaning of your words unclear, or where you might have contradicted yourself. On page 47, you noted it was Tuesday, and on page 50 you said it was Wednesday. Which day is it?

A copyeditor also provides a stylesheet, which is essentially a list of commonly used words in your manuscript that may not common in the lexicon. For example, the Goblin King of Wintersong is also called Der Erlkönig. My copyeditor put that on my stylesheet, to make sure it was spelled the same and capitalized and italicized the same every time it came up in my manuscript. Words you’ve made up may also make it onto the stylesheet, as well as character names.

Because you, the Author, are the final arbiter of the words in your work, you do not have to accept every suggested change made by the copyeditor. You can choose to stet your writing, which means “let it stand.”2 If you think your flow is better, if you think the suggested change is incorrect, if you disagree for personal reasons, etc. you can stet.

That’s all for this week! Next time we’ll talk about the next step in the publishing process after copyedits, which is FIRST PASS PAGES. 

  1. There can be some noodling in copyedits, as there was in the case of Wintersong, when we did some additional light edits to make the novel appropriate for teens.
  2.  Taken from the Latin, because of course.

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