My 8-Step Copyediting Process
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
**Update July 2021: As an experiment, I've changed the names of my services! You can still get copyediting; it's just called Detail Debug now.
As writers, you often see the end result of the copyediting process—your manuscript comes back to you full of tracked changes and comments, red marks all over the pages. And while it’s easy to imagine your editor cackling and brandishing a dictionary or style guide in your direction, the process involves a lot more than just grammar policing.
This post is here to show you what the copyediting process looks like on my end, from the day I receive your unedited manuscript to the day I send it back to you full of marks. I hope that for those of you out there who are new to having your books edited, this will ease your anxiety and make you more comfortable sending your precious writing to an editor.
I also hope this will be helpful to anyone who is considering editing as a career, as it demonstrates that editing isn’t just about reading fun books and checking them for typos.
With all that said, let’s get into the actual process!
Step 1: Setup
The absolute first thing I do when I receive any manuscript is check the file for obvious problems. For example, maybe the chapter numbers are out of order or there’s a large discrepancy in the word count (i.e. if you said the manuscript is 75,600 words but it arrives with 72,000 words). If I suspect that you’ve mistakenly sent the wrong file, I’ll be in touch by email right away. This is why it’s important to be near your email when you have a book being edited—if something major is wrong with the manuscript, there’s nothing I can do if I don’t hear from you!
Once I’ve determined that the manuscript is complete and the file is not corrupted, I immediately create a copy and back it up to a flash drive. This way, in the event of any technical issues, I can recover the file on another computer if necessary.
Next, I set up the project in my planning system. This involves:
adding it to my editing project spreadsheet (this is how I keep track of all my stats)
creating a project file in my bullet journal to plan out my pace and keep track of my progress
adding the deadline to my bullet journal, physical calendar, and phone calendar (and setting reminders in my phone)
setting up a project folder on my computer, which will contain the original manuscript, my edited version, the style sheet, and any other files associated with the project
With all that done, it’s finally time to actually start working on the manuscript!
Step 2: Cleanup
Most manuscripts arrive needing a few quick, global tweaks that will make my editing go more smoothly. I take care of these before I dig in to the actual editing part. (Want to take care of these things yourself? I have a post about that!)
There are a few typography points that I almost always adjust:
change all double spaces after periods to single
change straight quotes and apostrophes to curly ones
add a first line indent to paragraphs and remove extra spaces or tabs
I also use Word’s Styles feature to change all the chapter titles to headings so that I can easily hop back and forth through the document—Word automatically creates a navigation menu for the document if styles are used. This helps me save time when I have to go back to an earlier chapter to double-check a fact. (Which happens a lot, especially in the first editing pass.)
Then, finally, I might change the font type and size for easier reading, though I do make a note of the original type and size so I can change it back later.
Step 3: First Editing Pass
The first editing pass is extremely slow. For reference, check out these stats:
My typical reading speed: about 14,000 words (or 56 pages) per hour
My first pass copyediting speed: around 1,750 words (or 7 pages) per hour
This is due to a combination of factors. I read each word syllable by syllable, for one. I also pause to look things up, fix errors, go back to something mentioned earlier, or leave comments. Of course, speed can vary depending on the type of book as well. Hard sci-fi and high fantasy take longer because they usually have more new terms and complex names, timelines, and systems (scientific or magical) to keep track of, while more contemporary books based on our real world aren’t usually quite as labor-intensive. (Check out this blog post for more about why editing takes so long.)
I also set up my style sheet at this stage. I have a template style sheet that I copy, and any time I come across a new character, place, special item, or vocabulary word, I add it to that sheet. (Want to learn more about style sheets? Here’s a blog post about them!) Because everything is totally new to me at this stage, filling out the style sheet takes up about as much time as editing does! However, the style sheet is vital to making sure I give a good edit. If I don’t have one, I’m sure to forget a lot of things!
The first pass also involves leaving a lot of notes for myself, especially in the first fifteen or so pages. I usually don’t make any edits to these pages in the first pass, except the most obvious ones. Otherwise, if there’s a question of author style or preference, then I leave a comment for myself, usually in all caps and red so I can find them more easily later. Common ones are:
CHECK MW (means check Merriam-Webster’s)
CHECK CMS (means check Chicago Manual of Style)
AU PREF? (author preference?)
CHECK THIS LATER
At this stage, I also have my dictionary and style guide open and in front of me at all times. In the case of novels, I go by the industry standard Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style. I think most of my job as an editor is looking up stuff I already know. Ninety-nine percent sure isn’t sure enough when copyediting—any shred of doubt means it’s off to the reference books! It’s amazing how many things we remember wrongly. Editing is a constant exercise in humility.
I usually edit in silence, but I do have a playlist of different acoustic, no-lyrics background music to help me focus more when I’m having a distractible day. I also keep a drink nearby—water, usually, but also tea, lemonade, or some kind of juice depending on the season. I set a timer for forty-five minutes and work until it beeps, then set it for a ten-minute break, repeating like this until it’s time for lunch or to quit for the day. (If you’re curious about what a day in my life looks like, I have a post here!)
Step 4: Author Communication
Depending on the deadline and the length of the book, I usually get in touch with the author right when I finish my first pass. On a tighter deadline, I’ll contact the author earlier—usually around halfway through the first pass.
As I go through the first pass, I keep a list of questions that the author needs to answer. These questions usually have to do with style choices that I can’t make for them, which might include:
whether to capitalize or lowercase certain terms (Elves or elves)
spellings of certain terms that have multiple possibilities in the dictionary (traveled vs travelled)
clarification of certain story details (locations relative to each other, how magic systems work, etc.)
The major category of questions I’ll ask the author has to do with consistency. For example, if the main character’s name is spelled “Rebecca” half the time and “Rebecka” the other half, I can’t make a unilateral decision about that. It’s the author’s choice.
I send this list of questions off and then take a break from the manuscript. I try to time this so that it coincides with a weekend, that way I can get a full two days to rest my eyes and the author has plenty of time to respond to my questions. If it doesn’t work out that way, though, then I at least give myself a full day off the manuscript (either working on my own business admin or on another client’s manuscript) before I dive back in for the next round.
Step 5: Second Editing Pass
Since I’ve gone through the manuscript once already, I now have a better idea of what kinds of mistakes to expect to find, who all the characters are, what the story world is like, and the author’s style in general. With all of this knowledge, the second pass usually goes much faster than the first, usually taking about half the time the first pass took. I still read slowly, though—a lot more slowly than my usual speed. I’m just not stopping as often the second time around.
There’s always more to catch, so I still make plenty of changes at this stage, though definitely not as many as the first round. I find that I usually catch more consistency errors in my second pass. This is probably because I’m reading faster and stopping less often, so it’s easier to notice sudden changes in hair color or occupation that I might not have caught the first time around when I was so busy catching everything else.
I also do a more thorough edit of the first fifteen or so pages that I mostly left alone in my first pass. With my knowledge of the rest of the book, this goes much quicker, and my comments to myself are resolved pretty easily.
I still have my reference books out, but I end up using them much less often. What I use even more often, though, is the style sheet. I reference it when making edits, but I also add in the author’s answers to my questions from the first pass and keep an eye out for those as I go through.
Sometimes I have more questions to ask at the end of the second pass, so I’ll send them off to the author at that time. Most of the time, though, everything is pretty much set at this stage.
Step 6: Admin
After the second pass is complete, I let the manuscript rest one more time while I take care of some admin things.
Here are some of the things I do:
start drafting my edit letter to the author
start drafting my delivery email
prepare links to various resources the author might find useful while looking at my edits
send everything I’ve written so far through spellcheck just in case
start prepping the final invoice
All of this admin prep allows me to have a smooth delivery day. Just copy, paste, and send! That takes a lot of the pressure off the deadline day, because I don’t have to spend hours and hours doing all this admin then.
Step 7: Third Editing Pass
If the deadline allows, I go through the manuscript one last time. Mostly, I’m checking all my edits to make sure I still agree with them. For this pass, I’m usually speed reading or skimming the manuscript showing only Simple Markup so that I have a clean view to work on. I’m also checking my comments to make sure they’re clear and as kind as possible.
I run the manuscript and style sheet through spellcheck at this stage, not just to make sure I haven’t missed anything, but also because it checks all my comments as well. As an editor, even though I know probably better than anyone that everyone makes typos, it’s still embarrassing to have one in a manuscript I edited! (If I don’t have time for an actual third pass, then I do this during the second pass.)
This is my last chance to incorporate any of the author’s answers to my questions. If the author hasn’t gotten back to me by this stage, then I’ll just add a note to the manuscript and style sheet.
Step 8: Delivery
With all my editing passes done, it’s delivery day!
I make the final touches on my edit letter and delivery email, finalize my invoice, and attach all the documents to an email. Then I send it off!
Delivery day is always a bit anxiety-inducing for me. Will the author be happy with what I’ve done? Will all the documents go through properly? Will there be any problems opening any of the files? Will I receive my payment on time? Will the author find some random mistake that I missed? So many things swirl through my mind. Impostor syndrome is a problem I’m still working on.
Once the delivery’s done, I reward myself by taking the rest of the day off, however much that might be. Maybe I’ll open up a Pepsi or have some chocolate. Maybe I’ll play some video games or take a nap. Whatever it is, I allow myself to do it guilt-free for a job well done!
This concludes the editing process on my end! If the author opts to utilize their hour of consultation time, then we’ll set that up as well, but more often than not, my job is complete at this point. The rest is up to the author.
If you got your copyedits back recently and don’t know what to do with them, you can take a look at this blog post!
Have any lingering questions about my copyediting process? Need your book copyedited? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org!