Tagged: Content Editing

Definitions of Editing: Copyediting


This post continues this short series about different types of editing with a look at copyediting.

Copyediting takes place after structural editing and rewriting have finished and the commissioning editor has taken delivery of the author’s final draft. To return to the gardening analogy, copyediting is like garden maintenance: pruning, mowing the lawn, tidying up the flowerbeds. Maybe a shrub can be moved to a sunnier spot, but reorganisation usually isn’t too extensive. Copyediting is a form of spadework, turning over every word to be sure it’s fresh and alive – though of course, in practical terms, sometimes all that’s needed is a trowel and a hand fork, rather than a bulldozer.

The work involves a wide variety of tasks, depending on the needs of the book, and whether a light edit or a heavy edit is expected; the commissioning editor should give a clear brief to the copyeditor.

The Basic Tasks: Correcting And Standardising
A light edit will fix only obvious errors, and be little more than a proofread of the writing (see future post on proofreading); you sometimes see the terms mechanical editing and technical editing used to describe these sorts of tasks too.

Mistakes will be corrected. Some will be mechanical or technological errors – careless things that slip through our drafting: typos, missing words. Slips of the keyboard and word-processing mistakes arise because composition usually takes place on screen and we are continuously tinkering with our sentences and introducing errors in the process (you might spot a few here): incorrect verb agreements; the Cut & Paste that cuts too little or pastes over one word too many; an earlier Search & Replace of ‘-ise’ endings that has resulted in ‘advertize’ and ‘televize’. Many of us even write or revise on the hoof nowadays, editing documents kept in the Cloud, and we know how the autocorrect has a life all of its own … (Yes, I really did intend to say its there, Apple, not it’s. And I did not mean duck off.)

Other outright errors might need fixing in spelling, punctuation, and grammar, though such matters are rarely straightforward. As Steven Pinker has pointed out, many of the rules of grammar are open to interpretation. I prefer the idea of usage to grammar, and aim to follow a writer’s preferences. Though I do have a few bugbears: after I saw the light on the difference between that and which, there was no going back. But even so, there is no point in changing whiches to thats if it’s not really necessary.

The idea of consistency is perhaps an easier rule to follow. Certain forms will be standardised: hyphens, capitals, abbreviations, the use of italics, the treatment of numbers and dates, variations in spelling. Copyeditor, copy-editor, or copy editor? Even the experts can’t agree: all are right, and none are wrong (or should that be none is wrong … ?!). But on the whole we should choose one standard and avoid mixing forms within a document. Consistency is perhaps a golden rule in copyediting.

Publishers’ guidelines often make decision-making easier, with a house style imposed upon the text for these and other matters, e.g., Oxford commas, -ise/-ize endings, single/double quotation marks. In practice, house style is often loosely employed, though again internal consistency is usually expected.

Either British or US conventions in both spelling and punctuation will be followed more strictly. If a US author is being published in the UK, US style will be followed – and in practice US manuscripts are not likely to be copyedited in the UK anyway, as a UK publisher will simply take the copyedited, typeset and proofread text from the US. But for some reason – age of empire? – you sometimes see American publishers changing UK spellings and terms. I never forget finding Wite-Out in the American edition of a bestselling, prizewinning British author’s coming-of-age novel set in the Midlands; we use Tipp-Ex in the UK. Don’t American publishers trust their readers to have imaginations and contextual reasoning?

Beyond matters of form, copyediting also addresses aspects of content. Continuity errors, ambiguities, anachronisms, points of confusion, and biased expressions might be flagged. Sometimes these can be easily fixed, but sometimes they need to be queried with the author.

The copyeditor might do some fact-checking or at least flag points that might need confirming. The New Yorker famously has a whole department of fact-checkers, but verifying every nugget of information in a manuscript could take an impractically long time. On the whole, book publishers rely on their authors to be authorities in their fields, and there is only so much that a copyeditor can be expected to know. That being said, it’s not unusual for copyeditors to have their own niches (gardening; crime fiction), and if necessary publishers will send a manuscript out to specialist readers, just as writers might include experts among their beta readers (e.g., a medieval historian for that novel set during the Crusades).

Copyeditors might flag any permissions that need clearing, and also note possible legal problems (e.g., libel, plagiarism), but it’s not really their responsibility to find solutions to such matters, and any concerns should be addressed with a legal read by a lawyer, which is in fact often a condition of a publisher’s insurance protection. In practice, legal matters are rarely an issue, and they tend to be more important for works of nonfiction, but fiction is not exempt from the eye of the law; that disclaimer about all characters and events being fictitious and resemblances to persons living or dead being coincidental counts for little if someone can prove damages. Publishers and authors want to avoid the cost and inconvenience of lawsuits or settlements, but, as in many matters of the law, much is a matter of interpretation and risk.

In addition to such basic matters of handling content, a copyeditor is usually tasked on marking up the text for the designed page, e.g., organising and indicating levels of headings, indenting extracted text, flagging positions for inserting illustrations. Other aspects of cleaning up the text include, for example, making sure that chapter headings in the text match those on the contents page. Editing front and back matter could be a job in its own right for works of nonfiction that have detailed notes, bibliographies, and appendices.

Sometimes copyeditors working on screen are also asked to format text in some way, e.g., coding headings or styling them as bold, and making sure there is only one character space after the full stop at the end of a sentence. But in many ways this sort of technical work is best performed by a typesetter. Copyeditors are not always trained keyboard operators, and a typesetter can be faster and more accurate.

Going Further: Improving And Refining
Anything more than the minimum requirements of copyediting requires a degree of editorial judgement that goes beyond simply correcting mistakes. I often use the term line editing for this sort of work, as it reflects the fact that the editor goes over the writing line by line, not only checking the words but assessing how they fit into sentences and paragraphs and analysing how they can be improved. Other specific terms introduce nuances to the sort of editing that is required; substantive editing, sub-editing, content editing, stylistic editing, creative editing, micro editing, and language editing. They all amount to much the same thing.

Clunky syntax, repetitions, non sequiturs, irrelevancies, digressions, fluffy clauses, excessive detail, weighty explanations, distracting miscues, clichés: various stylistic infelicities are subjective matters, but a good copyeditor can trim, tweak, and recast sentences to improve on them.

Editorial changes can, if desired, go even further in the refinement of prose style. The passive voice can be made active. Emphasis can be created through rhythm and echo. Verb use can be tightened, and excessive adjectives or adverbs can be pruned. Long and unwieldy sentences heavy with subordinate clauses can be broken down into shorter, clearer sentences, or maybe lots of choppy, short sentences can be smoothed together into a longer, sinewy one. Word choices can be made more concrete and specific. And it’s not always about the words; even subtle things such as commas and paragraph breaks can make a difference to voice and pace.

And edits can go beyond syntax, too. Whole paragraphs of description might be cut to leave that line of dialogue that now conjures up a character more forcefully. Lengthy sequences of interior monologue can be focused into that strong central image that would otherwise be lost. Suggestions for clarification or expansion can be made.

Such smoothing of form and content, word by word, can not only enhance the coherence of writing, but also create mood and introduce energy. An author once thanked me for ‘tightening and brightening’ her text. I think tightening and brightening are excellent ways to think about this sort of editing.

Ideally, as edits get heavier, word choices are derived from the original text, even if, for example, nouns are recast as verbs. But sometimes more substantial rewriting does happen. It depends on what is expected, and goes back to the editor’s brief. ‘Good copy-editing is invisible: it aims to present the book the author would have written if he or she had had more time or experience – not, as some new copy-editors think, their own improved version,’ says Judith Butcher, author of the standard UK manual Copy-editing (Cambridge University Press enjoying the hyphen in that instance).

Deeper and more extensive editing for voice and style that extends into rewriting does, in fact, beg the question of how a commissioned manuscript is suitable for publication in the first place. A heavy edit or rewrite might be desired for various nonfiction writers who are not professional writers but have credentials in other areas (yoga teachers, business leaders), or perhaps they’re academics whose style is rather dense for a trade book and needs some untangling or lightening. Translations often need some assistance on their way into English. Sometimes it’s the content of a novel – the concept, the storytelling, the characters – that was compelling to a commissioning editor, and the pace and voice can be improved through copyediting.

At a certain point, of course, rewriting is so extensive that it is basically ghostwriting, which creates a whole other set of conditions for the creation of a book. Usually the ghostwriter or cowriter has a particular agreement with the author; sometimes the ghost is an experienced journalist, with skills in interviewing and drawing material out of a subject. And then the manuscript gets shaped and typed up – and this too will need copyediting and often structural editing too. In my experience some ghostwriters – like many journalists – need quite a lot of editing, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are used to having their copy rewritten by sub-editors.

How Copyediting Is Carried Out
Once upon a time, publishers employed full-time in-house copyeditors, but the work is now usually done by freelancers who can devote time to projects with fewer interruptions; this can be painstaking work, and it might take at least twenty or thirty hours (or more) to lightly copyedit even a short 200-page book.

In-house editors are more likely to manage other desk-based work involved in editorial production; different publishers use different job titles and job descriptions, but you might encounter a managing editor, a desk editor, or a production editor, and thus the terms editorial managementdesk editing, and production editing. What they do is basically project management. They line up suitable freelance copyeditors or proofreaders. They integrate an author’s responses to an edit into the final manuscript. They collate proofs, write cover copy, brief designers and illustrators, and carry out numerous detailed functions that ensure the best book is produced on time. Sometimes they work on structural edits, or even find time to copyedit. They’ll also deal with all sorts of other editorial and administrative activities: preparing costings, checking contracts, chasing royalty statements, reading submissions, liaising with marketing and publicity managers, and generally acting as an in-house sponsor and support for the author. Depending on the size and organisation of the publisher, certain editorial activities might be carried out by a commissioning editor, a desk editor, or an editorial assistant.

Manuscript editing is another term you come across, though it seems to be a loose definition. Sometimes it describes the work of a manuscript review or critique, which amounts to a structural overview. But I’ve also seen this used to describe all the work of handling a manuscript. I guess it’s useful to be clear about what is meant by people you’re working with.

Traditionally, copyediting was done on a hard copy of a manuscript; when I first started out in publishing, many books were still typed, and even those that were word-processed were printed out for editing and eventually rekeyed by the typesetter. Edits were made in pencil, in case anything needed erasing. Queries were noted on Post-its, or even written on slips of paper that were pinned (yes, with pins) to the manuscript (I guess pins were more secure than paperclips). A typed list of queries could be more practical though, especially if a manuscript was to be photocopied for showing to the author.

Eventually, technology caught up, and publishers were able to take authors’ text in electronic format, but careful protocols are needed for incorporating editorial changes to the text. Nowadays, Tracked Changes and Comments functions are frequently used for editing and querying on screen, though these are not always easy to handle; it can be wrist-numbing to go through a document Accepting or Rejecting changes one by one, and versions of documents sometimes get confused … To my mind, nothing really beats copyediting a master copy in hard format. Not least, I am sure the eye catches things on hard copy that it misses scrolling down a screen.

A copyeditor will also produce a style sheet, which confirms variants in usage that have been followed, e.g., that copyeditor is one word, that the king takes a lower-case k, and that words rather than figures are used for numbers up to one hundred. Preferred spellings will be listed too, e.g., judgement (rather than judgment), leaped (rather than leapt).

It is important for an author to see the copyedited manuscript, though I am surprised how often this seems not to happen. An author usually needs to answer a copyeditor’s queries, e.g., simple checks about the intention of ambiguous wording, or notes about inconsistencies that need resolving with fresh copy. But an author also needs to see that all of the copyeditor’s changes are acceptable. It is the author’s name on the cover, after all.

Subsequently all of the author’s responses will be incorporated into the manuscript (by either the freelance copyeditor or an in-house editor). This can involve follow-up for clarifications. After that, a master copy of the manuscript will be ready for typesetting, and then proofs will be proofread ( more on that in a future post).

Do Writers Need To Get Their Own Work Copyedited?
On the whole, the answer is No if you’re submitting to an agent or publisher, but Yes if you are self-publishing. If you are being published, your publisher should take care of this. I’ll address these matters in more detail in another post.

Definitions Of Editing: Structural Editing


It’s useful for any writer to understand different editorial terms. They can bring clarity to what your writing needs or is ready for at any stage of creating a book.

The definitions of editing I describe in this series of posts are not hard and fast descriptions. Not all of the tasks they explain are necessary to every book that’s written, and sometimes these processes are merged or in some way going on simultaneously. These terms can be used interchangeably, or in different ways by different editors or in different fields or territories. If in doubt, ask for clarification.

I tend to see editorial production as three broad stages: structural editing; copyediting; and proofreading. In this post I’m looking at structural editing, which, using my gardening analogy, is like redesigning and landscaping your garden.

Structural editing refers to the editorial work that deals with aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript, addressing matters of content, organisation, and pacing. Does it take too long to get to the essence of the story, in which case should we cut all the background in the first two chapters and open with that scene from the middle of Chapter Three? Do key revelations in the plot create the most effective narrative tension: might they need staggering throughout rather than being loaded into a big reveal at the end? Is the conclusion sufficiently rewarding, or is it too rushed, or overly protracted? Are characters’ motivations clear? Are settings distinct enough? Could some slow-moving sections be tightened or cut, and might other scenes warrant expansion?

Structural editing often also takes account of the telling of the story. Is the voice persuasive? Does the point of view do justice to the outcome, or could it be deployed in a way that commands greater dramatic tension? Is present tense really serving this story well? Might extended sequences of dialogue be more effectively summarised in reported speech?

Sometimes structural editing is done by professional editors, who’ll actually carry out the work of cutting and pasting and even rewriting the text, knowing that it can be shown to the author for approval and for dealing with any queries. Sometimes (often, for many freelancers …) structural editing is combined with line editing and copyediting, particularly when the publisher is in a rush (often, for many freelancers …).

(And long gone seem those days of publishers’ ‘rush rates’, it seems, in which case maybe freelancers should set the rates themselves.)

Structural editing is the term you tend to hear describing the primary stages of editing in a publishing house, and this work usually takes place when a first or at least an early draft has been completed; the fundamental elements of the book will have been decided upon and bedded down, even if there is still some shaping and tweaking to bring out a desired emphasis.

Other terms introduce slightly different shades of meaning, and perhaps subtly different tasks for writer or editor.

Developmental editing often covers some of the ground of a structural edit (cutting, expanding, clarifying motivation, changing point of view, and so on). But it can also refer to types of editorial work that occur even before structural editing is needed, specifically at the conception of a book and frequently with particular markets or contexts in mind. Broadly speaking, writers who’re serious about publishing can be helped in directing their energies; writers determined to write and publish a vampire novel might need thoughtful input about the sort of vampire fiction that might succeed in a popular but still saturated market, or at least get supportive advice from an agent or literary consultant about what is strong or fresh within their writing, and also where they might gain from doing further work, or experimenting with a new approach, or developing topical themes.

The term developmental editing is often used in educational and scholarly publishing, where, for example, acquisition editors might be actively developing content for new textbooks, taking into consideration particular specialisms within fields of studies or even curricula.

It’s not a term that you encounter often in trade publishing houses, but then this is not always the sort of work that nowadays takes place between first novelists and editors at publishing companies: usually an editor buying a first novel today is pretty much committed to the story idea as well as its style and execution; there might be some structural editing, but if a book needed serious attention to voice or character in the first place, an editor might not take it on, as it could be something of a risk to commission a novel whose final execution remains uncertain. And editors need to be able to get their marketing colleagues on board, and there are lots of books out there, and editors can afford to be fussy, and they don’t have the hours in the day to invest in this sort of time-consuming work.

Developmental editing can often come with subsequent novels though, by which time editorial relationships have a surer footing and a publisher has a long-term commitment to a writer that justifies going back and forth, bouncing around story ideas and thinking about other aspects of the creation of a book and planning a writer’s career.

Developmental editing often takes place between writers and literary agents, as agents are nowadays frequently the professionals who’re working on what might, in other industries, be called talent scouting, nurturing creative professionals towards completing and then publishing a book.

Developmental editing is also relevant to much of the work that goes on within and around what might be called the creative writing industry: manuscript critiques from literary consultancies, meetings with professionals at writers’ conferences, writing courses at universities or within commercial organisations. It also borders on a lot of the activity that can take place in writing groups or among beta readers. In all of these instances, feedback is usually given on writing that is at an early stage of drafting, and in the knowledge that a project could change significantly.

I find developmental editing the most apt description for much of the work I do as a book doctor or writing teacher in fiction and general nonfiction – helping writers sift through their narrative content to work out the best focus or direction for a story and the best way to tell it. Sometimes I might even be helping a writer figure out where to place the work in terms of genre: does a writer want to develop this autobiographical content as a memoir, and if so might it gain from a briefer timeframe that creates a more intense story? Or does it make sense to allow for the more imaginative spin of fiction, which can often free a writer to be truthful in other ways?

Though developmental editing often deals with aspects of the concept or bigger picture, an editor or book doctor sometimes goes into more detailed or granular aspects of writing too. Sometimes I find myself helping a writer who wishes to develop a stronger voice – for example, highlighting the use of verbs in sentences in a sample of writing as a means of illustrating ways to achieve a tighter prose style, or suggesting other ways that syntax could be made tauter, or more pointed, or more moody. Performed more extensively, in a comprehensive edit of a whole manuscript, this would amount to what I call line editing (to be discussed in another post), but in my role as a tutor rather than an editor I like the idea that a few sample edits can model what writers could do themselves with their own words, so that they learn to hone their voices as they take books through different drafts. In many ways, developmental editing has much in common with teaching and coaching.

A further difference between developmental and structural editing is that with developmental editing a writer might solicit feedback on a partial draft rather than the whole book, getting the voice and tone right in the opening chapters, for example, before launching ahead into the rest.

Developmental Editing, a guide by Scott Norton that is published by the University of Chicago Press (one of the leading publishers of books on publishing), offers this clarification, which recaps some of the above:

For our purposes, developmental editing denotes significant structuring or restructuring of a manuscript’s discourse. The [developmental editor’s] role can manifest in a number of ways. Some ‘big picture’ editors provide broad direction by helping the author to form a vision for the book, then coaching the author chapter by chapter to ensure that the vision is successfully executed. Others get their hands dirty with the prose itself, suggesting rewrites at the chapter, section, paragraph, and sentence levels. This hands-on approach is sometimes called substantive editing or line editing.

From this perspective, stylistic intervention alone is not ‘developmental’. To be sure, there are cases in which a manuscript’s organization is sound but the tone so pervasively wrong that virtually every sentence must be recast. Severe as these problems of tone may be, they can usually be handled by a high-powered copyeditor—and those that can’t are beyond the reach of editing, requiring instead the hand of a ghostwriter or coauthor.

I’ll talk about line editing, substantive editing and copyediting in a future post.

Content editing is a related term. I tend to think of this as focusing on the internal logic of a work, and it often involves many of the tasks in developmental and structural editing, as well as more detailed aspects that usually come up in line editing or copyediting, such as fact-checking, flagging inconsistencies, or smoothing out the pace. Basically, content editing spans both the bigger picture of a structural edit as well as more detailed work. You often encounter this term in the editing of nonfiction.

Macro editing is a useful idea too. I borrow it from Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit, a fantastic book on revising and self-editing, and I think it is a good way to describe the work writers do themselves, particularly at early stages of drafting. Bell relates it to aspects of the bigger picture of a manuscript: intention; character; structure; foreshadowing; theme; and continuity of tone.

With any of these types of editing, it’s hoped that the process is dynamic and engaged for all parties involved. If you’re a writer, the most important developmental and structural editing is probably that that you do yourself during stages of drafting, revising, and self-editing, of course. But perhaps you can be clear about what you want from an editorial relationship: go in with your eyes open, and also be ready for feedback that can improve your work or even take it in a new direction. Ask a book doctor for a critique that focuses on developmental editing, tell beta readers you’re working on a macro edit, know what to expect from a structural edit from a publisher – or be sure to have taken yourself through some of these stages before self-publishing.

(And definitely, if you’re self-publishing, don’t neglect copyediting – more on that next time, and proofreading after that.)

And a reminder: I’ll be discussing these and related matters in a Writers’ Workshop Literary Salon held at Waterstones Piccadilly on 31 July 2015: Self-Editing: Revising Your Words. Debi Alper and I will be holding specific sessions on revising and prose style, and in breakout sessions we’ll also work through some examples of editing.