What does copyediting actually look like?
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
You’ll find a lot of editing terms around the internet, but a little more digging will show that often, people don’t define these terms the same way. That’s why when you’re looking for an editor, you should read that particular editor’s definition of the services they offer. Otherwise, you might end up with an edit you didn’t expect!
For maximum clarity, I’ve written this blog post to show you exactly what you’re getting when you ask for a copyedit from me. Complete with examples!
Here are some notes about the Stephanie’s sample piece:
Genre: high fantasy
No special requests or notes
BIG NOTE: What you’re about to see is just the way I copyedit. Other copyeditors may handle this same sample totally differently from me. This is why it’s so important to get a sample copyedit from an editor before hiring them.
First, let me show you my standard. This is the way I copyedit by default. If you don’t give me any special requests or instructions, this is what I’ll do.
The key to my standard copyedit is that I only fix outright mistakes on the page itself. For everything else, including style options, I ask a question instead. This includes awkward sentence structures. If I think the reader could understand the sentence as-is, I leave it alone, even if it’s awkward. Instead, I make a comment suggesting a smoother alternative.
Take a look at the sample below before moving on to my breakdown. This sample includes my edits on her document itself and a basic style sheet. (My style sheets for fantasy novels are usually a lot more complex than this. Stay tuned for a dedicated post on this subject!)
(This is just the first page of the sample edit. Click the image to download the entire PDF!)
Now that you’ve seen the sample, let’s take a closer look at what I did:
Young Stephanie really liked semicolons. She used six of them in this short sample. I ended up changing four of them to other, better-fitting punctuation.
I adjusted the capitalization of several words, including capitalizing proper names and making general terms lowercase.
It seems like young Stephanie might have changed her mind about the tense while working on this project, and she missed a few verbs when she self-edited. So I changed present-tense verbs to past tense in a couple of places.
A lot of the dialogue punctuation needed alterations. Many writers seem to struggle with this, so fixing it is pretty routine in my copyediting work.
I also adjusted some other punctuation—mostly apostrophes and commas. These are by and large the most troublesome punctuation marks in most of the pieces I work on.
A couple of the proper nouns in this excerpt had different spellings. (See: Tirivia/Tiruvia) These are Stephanie’s original proper nouns, so I can’t go in and change them without consulting her first. I’ve left comments addressing these.
Some words are alternately capitalized or lowercased with no discernible pattern. (See: Panthers/panthers) Because I don’t know how Stephanie wants to treat the capitalization going forward, I have to leave a comment asking her how to handle it.
Some words have multiple potential spellings that are all correct when checked in the dictionary. (See: traveling/travelling) I’ve noted these words in the style sheet so that the next time I see the word, I can check that it has the same spelling as before.
One sentence had a bit of an awkward construction. I wasn’t worried about readers understanding it, but I did want to suggest a smoother alternative, so I left a comment.
The prose also got a bit too wordy in one spot. This, again, is not a clarity issue, so I flagged this with a comment suggesting that Stephanie delete the wordy parts.
Stephanie used straight quotes and apostrophes when writing this sample. For publishing purposes, these need to be made curly. I made this change silently, meaning I didn’t turn on Track Changes while I did it, because it would leave way too many red marks in the manuscript and be distracting. Instead, I left a note in the style sheet.
I also changed all double spaces after punctuation to single spaces. Double spaces are for typewriters—we don’t use double spaces in on-screen writing. I changed this silently as well.
NOTE: For a couple of the consistency questions (Tirivia/Tiruvia, capitalize Panthers or not, etc.) that would affect the entire novel, I would not normally leave them as comments on the manuscript. Instead, I would compile a list of these questions during my first pass to send via email before I started my second pass. This way I could address these potential edits myself rather than leaving them for Stephanie to deal with by herself.
Standard Copyedit Stats
For this particular sample, here were my stats:
Time: 142 minutes
*Truthfully, this is a tad slow. My editing speed will go up as I get familiar with the characters, story logic, and writer’s habits.
Now that you’ve seen my standard, let’s take a look at a rush copyedit. This is the type of copyedit I do for clients who are in a hurry. I may only have a chance to do two passes instead of my standard three. Sometimes I can only do one pass.
For a rush copyedit, I’m not focusing on catching as much as possible, I’m focusing on catching the major stuff. I ask myself two main questions during this type of copyedit: Is it wrong? (If yes, I fix it.) and Is it confusing? (If no, I leave it alone.)
CAUTION: If you ask an editor to do a rush edit, they could miss more errors than they normally would. Editing is a profession that requires slow, methodical reading and multiple passes. If your editor is in a hurry, they can’t read as slowly or complete as many passes as they normally would, which means more errors may stay in the manuscript. Plan far ahead when you’re looking for an editor!
Take a look at the sample of a rush copyedit below. (I left the style sheet out of this one for space-saving purposes.)
(Once again, click the image to download the whole version!)
Now that you’ve had a look, let’s talk a little about the differences.
These are all still the same! Mechanical edits are pretty straightforward—either it’s a mistake or it’s not. Either it matches the standard style or it doesn’t. I still correct all of these, even in a rush edit. (But as I mentioned above, editing fast means that more mistakes get left behind, so I might have missed some of these in a truly fast edit.)
Notice that I still asked the questions about consistency issues. Again, I would normally address these in an email, probably about halfway through my first pass during a rush edit. If the author doesn’t give me an answer in time, then I will have to pick whichever spelling/capitalization pattern is used more and go with that one.
(You’ll also notice that my comments are much, much shorter and more businesslike. In a rush job, I don’t have time to beat around the bush!)
You’ll see here that I ignored the awkward sentence structure and wordiness, both of which I had addressed in my standard copyedit. In a rush job, I do not address these—there’s generally no time to do so. (However, in this writing sample, both of these instances were still clear, even if they weren’t exactly smooth. If there’s a clarity issue, I will address it even in a rush job.)
Rush Copyedit Stats
*Note: These stats are estimates based on previous rush jobs. Rather than redo the entire edit from scratch, I went through and removed anything from the standard edit that I would not have done in a rush edit.
Time: 90 minutes
With the standard and the rush jobs behind us, let’s take a look at my final style of copyediting: a heavy copyedit. A heavy copyedit encroaches into line editing territory a bit. In addition finding and fixing errors and inconsistencies, in a heavy copyedit I also focus on making the prose smoother and more concise.
I recommend this type of copyedit for clients who need their word counts significantly cut, who are writing in their second language, or who are brand new to writing. This type of copyedit is more labor intensive and thus more expensive. I only do this type of edit by request.
Let’s take a look at my heavy copyedit:
(Click the image to download the entire PDF!)
Now let’s take a closer look at the differences between this and the other two styles of copyedit.
Once again, these are all the same as both the rush and standard copyedits. No matter what kind of edit you receive, you’ll always get these basic mechanical corrections.
In a heavy copyedit, you’ll see that I still leave a comment about consistency issues (which I would normally address via email), but I do go ahead and use whatever seems to be the preferred style directly in the text until I get an answer from the author.
This part is the biggest deviation from the standard and rush copyedits. Rather than just leaving a comment for the author to resolve, I edit all of the awkward sentences and wordiness directly in the text. Then I leave a comment to draw the author’s attention to the edit, and the author can either agree or disagree with what I’ve done. You’ll also see that I addressed several cases where the writing could have been more concise, which I left alone in the other types of copyedits.
Heavy Copyedit Stats
As you might imagine, a heavy copyedit takes longer than other types of copyedits because I am altering the text more directly and in more detail.
Time: 185 minutes
I hope this post has given you a better idea of what to expect from a copyedit. I'll mention again that you should always get a sample edit from your potential editor to make sure they are doing exactly what you hope for. This post is not intended to replace a sample edit, but rather to give you a general mental picture of what to expect when you hire a copyeditor.
Does your novel need a copyedit? Whether it’s a standard, rush, or heavy job, I’m here to help you make your words shine on the page. Get a free quote here!