06 August 2013

What is copy editing?

And finally, as a follow-up to "What is developmental editing?" and "What is line editing?" I present a post about copy editing--what it is, whether it's necessary, and why people pay for it.

[Please note that this post is written for the academic writers, the independent authors, and the creative writers submitting to lit mags. If you are querying your manuscript, it's reasonable to expect that a publisher would provide copy editing in accordance with their style guidelines if they choose to sign you.]

What is copy editing?
Copy editing is the phase of editing that focuses on correcting errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, syntax and grammar and on ensuring that formatting is consistent (and, if you're an academic writer, that it follows your discipline's or the journal's style guidelines) throughout the document. Copy editing is, by and large, a mechanical process. Things are correct or incorrect.

That said, I think it worth noting that creative writers can get away with a lot more, in the name of style, than academic writers can. In academic writing, it's important to be ultra-correct. While it's fine in everyday speech and creative writing to say, "When a person comes to a certain conclusion, they have to act on it," in academic writing it would be considered incorrect, and I'd change the "they have to act on it" to "he or she has to act on it" so that the pronoun matches the subject.

Furthermore, in creative writing you can have run-on sentences, comma splices, split infinitives and the like so long as the meaning is clear and those choices support the writer's goals for pacing and style. Heck, one of my favorite short stories ever is a science fiction piece told in first person wherein the grammar is atrocious. But that poor grammar is integral to both the character and the story's message. (The story is "Jon" by George Saunders, in case you're curious. I picked it up while writing this post to see if I wanted to offer a sentence as an example, and the next thing I knew I was ten pages into the story. Darn it.)

So you're saying that creative writers don't really need copy editing, right?
Actually, no, I'm not saying that. Nice try, though. Like it or not, readers will notice and will judge you negatively for copy editing mistakes or typos. Do you really want these errors to distract your readers from the awesomeness of your story or poetry?

Exhibit A: I was browsing through books online the other day and found a self-published book that reviewers tended to like, but the majority of them  commented on the number of errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar. If they noticed it enough to mention it in the review, that suggests to me that they found it distracting.

Exhibit B: In my market research today I came across the following on the submissions page for Solarwyrm Press: "Stories may be edited for minor spelling, grammar, or formatting issues. Stories with major spelling and grammar issues will be rejected." So there.

Not to mention the fact that punctuation errors can affect the meaning of your sentence. Consider the following:

1) Dave's wife, Lucinda, drove to the store.
2) Dave's wife Lucinda drove to the store.

In the first sentence, Dave has only one wife, whose name is Lucinda. In the second sentence, Dave has more than one wife, and the one who drove to the store was named Lucinda. I'm not suggesting you'd never want to say the second one; but I am suggesting that you shouldn't lead your readers to think that Dave is a polygamist if he isn't. (For the record, the grammatical phenomenon I'm talking about here is the restrictive clause vs. the non-restrictive clause. Also for the record, my dad's name is Dave, and he only has one wife. But her name is not Lucinda.)

Is it really worth paying for?
Do you:
(a) Have excellent copy editing skills and enough distance from your manuscript to be able to see what's really there instead of what you think you wrote? (It usually takes me several months away from a piece of writing to be able to see what's really there, although it may be a different amount of time for you.)
(b) Know someone who has excellent copy editing skills and is willing to do it for you for free or trade?

If you answered "No" to both of these questions, then yes, it really is worth paying for. It's worth paying for because your grade will be affected--whether in the form of an assignment/course grade for an academic paper, in the form of your peers' judgments of your article, or in the form of book reviews.

*Bonus question: When should copy editing happen?
Last! Last! It should happen last! It can become a hairy mess if you copy edit too soon.

At least, it should happen last in relationship to developmental & line editing, which, by the by, should come in that order, and I'll tell you why: Developmental editing is big-picture stuff--you need to add stuff here, take out this whole section, find a way to develop this plot line, etc., etc. If you line or copy edit before developmental editing, then you'll not only line/copy edit things you end up cutting out (obviously not a good use of time or money) but you'll also have to go back for a second round to line/copy edit the parts you add (not efficient). And if you line edit before copy editing, then again you run the risk of copy editing things that end up being cut or combined or rewritten during the line editing phase.

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