Category Archives: editors and editing

What Copy Editors Do and How They Save the World

Dickens and editorFor some time now, people have been asking me to write about what copy editors do and why they’re important. This is a companion piece to last year’s little trot through the origins and history of publishers’ editing: “What Editors Do”.

Why now? I have just actually been reviewing the copy editor’s changes on the text of my new book. So the mind is focused on what I did and what it felt like.

I should point out that, like my blog on editors, this is highly personal. Though I have also drawn on conversations with copy editors and a great talk, some years ago at an RNA Chapter, by jay Dixon, a trained copy editor.

Emotions Aroused by the Copy Editor

writer v. copy editorReading a copy editor’s comments can be quite an emotional experience for writers.

OK, most writers tear their hair out in the drama of deadlines versus  domesticity. Happens at least once a book to me.

But there are three reasons why copy editing can be particularly painful.

gin before copy editors1 Copy edits come at the end of everything. You’ve finished the first draft (AAARGH). You’ve done everything your editor wanted (hiss, spit, make tea, weep, re-write, polish; possibly several times). If you’re lucky you’ve had a word or two of praise. You’ve broken out the gin.

copy editors at work



2  And now you’re being marked like a (not very good) student in an exam. Corrections in red. Could do better.

3 You’ve come to the end of the line. Now you have to get out and walk. You’ve been motoring up to now. This is grindingly SLOW. copy editors work slowly

I’m not saying it’s fair, certainly not to the copy editor.

I’m not saying it’s rational.

It’s human. Feel it. Forget it.

Copy Editors Monitor language

Basically this means they keep you grammatical, properly spelled, well punctuated and consistent in the use of hyphens. For anyone like me who gets fogged up between English and American usage, this is invaluable.

copy editors love old booksThey correct the occasional Malapropism. (“The importance of bondage between a mother and a child” – thank you, Dan Quayle.)

Software word checking can’t do that. It’s aimed at spelling, not sense. But sometimes your synapses scramble the word before you can type it. Sometimes Autocorrect strikes.

They also consider style in the bigger picture – vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph length – in the context of a house style, if you are published by a third party or, perhaps, in the context of readers of similar books to your own, if you’re an independent.

Copy Editors Monitor Internal Consistency

When jay Dixon showed us her consistency list, I was astonished. She had a calendar of events. She also had page for each character on which she noted not only their appearance and back story, but every time they appeared, key things they said, any preferences they had. Emma Bovary’s eyes wouldn’t have changed colour on her watch!

copy editor rocksIn my own recent novel, the copy editor caught one of my minor characters drinking the wrong comfort beverage. “Too right,” I shouted and did a couple of cartwheels.

I’d also changed the names of two of my minor characters in a couple of places. Both were pure brain scramble. BUT I would never have caught them myself in a month of Sundays. I’d have seen what I expected to see.

Copy Editors Monitor External Consistency

The extent of this depends on what the publisher or the independent author asks them to do. copy editor accuracySometimes they just raise a query – SUBTEXT “Look it up, if you’re haven’t already. Looks a bit iffy to me.”

Sometimes, as with Regency novels, for example, the copy editor will have seen both the history and the common errors so frequently, she knows the answer.

Historical fact, geographic distances, forms of address, even prevailing fashion – I’ve seen copy editors asking for sources to check all of these, when something in the novel they’re working on just strikes a wrong note. Experience tells here.

Risks of No Copy Editing

copy editors rescue readersYou can seriously confuse your reader, so they simply lose track of the story.

You look a) careless or b) an idiot, so that the reader spends their time tutting, instead of engaging with your characters.

Too much of that and you have a bunch seriously pissed-off readers. They feel insulted. Or contemptuous.

It reminds me of once buying a (cheap) pair of trousers and discovering, when I got them home, that I had to turn up the hems myself. I did it, but I was mightily annoyed and hated the trousers for ever. Even though it was cheap, I never went back to the shop again.

How Copy Editors Save the World

copy editors shakespeare accused of poachingThe philosophers tell you that the English language is alive and living things change. When Shakespeare said, “Presently,” he meant in the present, now, at once. In the twentieth century it became the classic postponing word.

“Gay” once meant light-hearted, carefree, brightly coloured; beribboned, even. In living memory, too.

smirk copy editors please saveCopy editors keep the peoples of the world understanding each other by making sure that  authors use words in the same sense as the majority of English speaking users.

(Though “smirking” is now badly at risk, among certain sections of the romance community. Yet it has a wonderfully useful association of grubby complacence, point-scoring and all-round loathsomeness. Think Uriah Heap. And crocodiles. Heroes don’t smirk, people!)

Copy editors of novels keep quotations precise; historical detail accurate; and journeys from Land’s End to John O’Groats taking longer than a couple of hours. No matter what the flying fingers of the novelist heading for THE END may do in writer’s exaltation, copy editors keep us sane.

I salute them.

Lessons of a Serendipitous Editing Week

By pure serendipity, this last week has turned out to be all about editing.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. I had finished the substantial edits needed on my new book, The Prince’s Bride. I felt they made the story hugely better. The publisher’s editor accepted them. The book went up on Amazon for pre-order. It should all have been done and dusted.

But …

I needed to refresh my introduction page on this website. What’s more, the book I’ve been worrying at for far too long was calling to me for some editorial TLC. Loudly.

Julie Cohen TogetherAND

I went to a talk on pacing by the brilliant Julie Cohen at the Romantic Novelists’ Association on Thursday. Came home inspired.

And then I started reading the The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, which is new and strange and full of clearly heartfelt asides on a writer’s craft, disciplines, habits and general weirdness. Including editing. At one point the writer-narrator actually starts editing a vicar’s funeral oration – too many “verys”, in case you’re interested.

Editing is Difficult but Necessary

Editing and flying into the mist

Now, I’ve always found editing my own books difficult. Indeed, when I first started writing stories for publication, I thought editing was almost cheating. I flew off into the mist, under the white-hot power of spontaneous invention. What came out at the other end was, of course, going to be Truth.

When it was clearly Untruth, and a slippery porridge of half digested ideas to boot, I would just put it to one side and take off again on a new flight.

Eventually I learned that flying into the mist is fine at the purely creative stage. But after that I needed to make sure that a) I and b) the readers know what’s going on. In other words, Edit the Damn Book.

Week’s Editing Lesson 1

Tell the reader the things they need to know in the right order. By that, I mean the order of importance to the reader, not to me.

When it came to my new Sophie Introduction page, that meant my new book has to be the first item. It’s news.

editing abandoned ms

But what of my much-loved and frequently abandoned Work In Progress? I had just finished a major editing exercise and I’d learned a lot from it. I could apply those lessons to the tattered pages, couldn’t I?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because I need to think about the reader’s needs, not mine.

editing hun and hunkess

No, because The Prince’s Bride is a romance, focused on one relationship. Work in Progress has romance, sure. But there are at least 2 non-romantic subplots and some major conflicts for characters where love, true love, is no answer at all, even with a serious hunk. Or hunkess.

The right order is not self evident. Confession: I have 39 drafts to prove it.

This is not a failure of story telling craft. It’s vacillating, pure and simple. My guru editor, Jacqui Bianchi, would have hit me over the head with my teddy bear until I stopped tiffling. Gulp.

Week’s Editing Lesson 2

Be brave!

Week’s Editing Lesson 3

Experiment with post it notes to plot characters’ every action. Thank you, Julie Cohen!

editing sequence actionsI’ve heard her say it before, mind you. Never thought I’d do it. But my besetting sin when editing is writing new stuff, instead of applying myself to what’s already there.

I may be able to work out what the reader needs to know next  by drawing up a detailed list of what actions are already there in Neglected Book.

Will probably colour code by character. Possibly star code to show significance and turning points. OTT? It’s going to be fun.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

editing in The Word is MurderWeek’s Editing Lesson 4

Don’t be scared by feeling out of control. Thank you Anthony Horowitz. (The Word is Murder really is a cracking book, in so many ways!)

Out of control is dynamic. It means the story lives.

A little bit out of control may just be essential to keep the freshness.

Remembering that might stop my pointless rewriting. Focused rewriting, however, remains a brilliant tool.

Week’s Editing Lesson 5

Editing is creative too. I enjoy it. I’m good at it and getting better. Thank you Joanna Maitland.

My esteemed critique partner reminded me of how I apply myself to editing. It’s always painful to begin with but, once started, I see the mist clearing and all sorts of ways to make my story sparkle.

The end product surprises me every time. In a good way.

I’ll still need Joanna to stop me tiffling, though.

And If You’d Like Some Editing Help …

Joanna and I are sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned to add that sparkle to a manuscript in a one day workshop in London next  month.

Saturday, 21st October 2017. Venue: RAF Club, 128 Piccadilly, London
For more information and how to book, see the London Flyer here

Napoleon bares his breast — a cautionary editing tale


Napoleon Bares his Breast
~ or ~
The Editor Is [almost] Always Right

Two hundred and two years ago — on 7th March 1815, to be precise — Napoleon bared his breast to (what looked like) certain death and lived to fight one more great battle. (And if you’re wondering why we didn’t do this blog two years ago, on the bicentenary, we would plead that this website was a mere twinkle in the hively eye back then.)

A cautionary tale of author and editor

Once upon a time there was an author — let’s call her Joanna — who was writing a trilogy of love stories set in 1814-15, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (He lost, by the way.) Continue reading

Screw the Punch — Editorial that Works For You

Editorial Advice — Revisions?

Human hand breaking stone question mark. Editorial problem solving

Which editorial suggestions to follow?

Screw the Punch was the first editorial idea to work for me in a big way.

Traditionally published or indie, everyone agrees that authors need to be edited. But what do we do with those editorial reports? One of the most crucial judgements for a professional author to make is deciding exactly that.

You sought an editor’s help. You got it.

Now you have their report and you’re back on your own again. Continue reading

Dear Editor Please Note

hand writing a letter to editor with a goose feather

Dear Editor . . .

Whoever you are, wherever you are, Dear Editor, this blog is for you. You’ll find it’s somewhere between a  human resources case study and a love letter.

I’ve been writing most of my life. I’ve moved from “Not a semi colon goes” (end of conversation, book never published) to “Whatever you say” (utter misery, nearly stopped writing) and am now definitely at “Looking forward to discussion”.  I hope the following may help other authors and their Dear Editor avoid some of my pratfalls — or at any rate, get up afterwards a damn sight faster.

Relationship in the mist

Whether you’re a difficult author or a pussycat, the author-editor relationship is always edgy, groping its way through the mist. You can’t get away from it. There are just too many dark alleys and water’s edges. You think you’re striding along a good straight path of mutual understanding and — KERPLOP!

Both of you have to live with this.
And pull each other out of the water when necessary.

Editor-author relations like fog in Venice

Editor Fears Author

Continue reading

What Editors do. . .

“What do editors do?” I asked my first literary agent, having established that it was not, as I had first thought, copy editing. I was very young.

She was an editor by training, temperament and still, occasionally, practice. “Teach you to write,” she snapped.

Over time I came to see that she was right, in one way. They intend to teach you to write what their employer desires to publish and/or knows he can sell. And they want an end product that will do just that.

This is how I think modern editing evolved.

Editors Keep You Legal

Back in the day when printer Samuel Richardson was writing Pamela to keep his presses busy, nobody edited fiction. Printers could be prosecuted for content, so such editing as they did of their clients’ work aimed to keep them out of the law courts. Fiction? Not a risk.

Dickens was his own editor. This could not happen:Dickens-and-his-editor

Editors Keep You Decent – and may have a go at saleable

Continue reading