What a Copy-Editor is looking at:
This is the nitty gritty for a copy-edit, where your narrative is examined on a line-by-line basis to make sure it: makes sense, is clear and not confusing or inaccurate, is concise as opposed to convoluting, has variety of word choice and sentence style but also fits consistently within the rest of the story.
So let’s take a look at some of the more common issues often picked up at this stage.
All authors do it at every level in their career. Often they do it without realising it, until an editor points it out. I’m talking about repeated words or phrases.
For example, ‘It was only a matter of time’ would work fine to build tension the first time it’s used, but use it again… and again… and… your reader will get tired of it very quickly.
A character, of course, may repeat a phrase that identifies with their persona or mannerisms. But when you are repeating phrases subconsciously, you’re actually revealing more of yourself – the author – and thus shattering the illusion you are trying to create. Unless you’re experimenting with the ‘fourth wall’, the divide between writer and reader, your main aim is to remain invisible.
As with all of these potential issues, don’t be overly concerned about them during the first draft. But try to leave time between redrafting and/or editing stages, to allow you to spot things like repetition by coming back to your manuscript after a break.
Your sentences provide the rhythm of your narrative. They will dictate – and hopefully reflect – the pace of the story at each particular point, which is why it’s important to vary them up a bit.
That’s not to say include a short sentence and then a long one and then a short one again just to be sure they’re not all the same. It’s more about listening to your story and letting it take the lead.
At the very basic level, this means long sentences for an undramatic sequence where there is no tension and everything is laid back and cool just now. Or short snappy ones to up the pace.
It’s not just sentence length that influences pace, though, punctuation fulfils this same role: so, commas can slow even a short, snappy sentence down; whilst no commas or any other form of punctuation can make you breathless during a longer sentence which seems to be going on and on without pause.
Use your instinct is my best advice. Read your manuscript aloud repeatedly, and use your sentence length and punctuation to guide you.
New writers in particular have a tendency to assume they are not going to be understood, and as a result they explain what they are trying to say down to the very last detail. This is why authors are subject to a lot of ‘cut’ material in first edits and why there are often a lot more adjectives and adverbs than are necessary. It’s a common error but one that is part of the process.
But the result of too much information of course is that there’s not much work left for your reader to do; there is virtually no reading between the lines to be done, so the reader may just switch off altogether.
In simple terms, there’s a heck of a lot of revelation going on when a good mixture of hide and seek is what you’re really after. Your reader wants to be given the chance to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions.
You might hear editors say things like ‘credit your readers with some intelligence’, but I tend to think it’s themselves writers are discrediting NOT their readers. And trust me when I say you will get much better at this in time. It's not something that comes instinctively immediately, but it does become instinctive eventually. Let yourself go through that learning period and listen to the feedback your editor gives: it will help a huge amount with this process.
I’ve talked previously about the style sheet an editor creates whilst working on your manuscript. The purpose of the style sheet is to ensure consistency throughout the book, and it works by recording the choices you have made, e.g. spelling preferences, US or UK English etc, numerical choices (numerals or words), running heads (book title, author name etc), page numbers, paragraph layouts, page layouts (including title pages, prelims and endlims), font styles, heading styles, use of alternative fonts (for emails or texts etc), punctuation style... and so on.
You can see by this list how essential style sheets are for ensuring your book will be consistent and clear all the way through, and thus professionally presented.
You could, if you so wished, produce a style sheet yourself as you work through redrafting. If you do, the copy-editor will use your version when they come to work on your book and will double check that everything in the style sheet has been adhered to throughout. They will also add any relevant points to the style sheet that may have been missed.
Which brings us on to Part 8 of the Self-Editing series where we will address what is involved in the final stage of the editorial process, the proofread.
Part 1: Understanding the editorial stages
Part 2: Developmental Edit (Structure)
Part 3: Developmental Edit (Plot)
Part 4: Developmental Edit (Characters, Setting, Timeline)
Part 5: Copy-Edit (Narrative Voice, Point of View)
Part 6: Copy-Edit (Characterisation, Setting, Timeline)
Part 8: The Proofread
Part 9: Starting Self-Editing
Part 10: Hiring A Professional