Advice · Novels · Writing

Why You Need a Copy-Editor


I’m writing this post at the request of a couple Twitter friends. They say they hear all the time that self-publishing authors need professional copy-editors, but they don’t know why, because no one who hires one ever seems to say, after the fact, exactly why it was so important. Pray allow me to remedy that today.

Two days ago, I got back my copy-edits from my editor. This included a three-page letter of trends she noticed in my writing, a fourteen-page style sheet including every character, a timeline, any spelling on which there is more than one accepted form, and various other hems and haws. And, of course, two copies of my manuscript: one with all revisions accepted, the other with them all tracked.

The revisions. Oh, the revisions.

First of all, did you know that there are two different spellings of the word dominos? There are dominoes and dominos. Huh. Same for worshipped and worshiped.

My copy-editor has also gently informed me that apostrophes can face a correct and an incorrect way. As in, facing them like ‘this is wrong when shortening a word: should be ’em not ‘em. Mine were, by and large, backwards. She fixed them. There were hundreds.

She let me know not only that I used the phrase woopty-doo in my manuscript, but that it’s actually a real phrase, possibly a regionalism. I was using it correctly, but I didn’t realize that it did, in fact, have a definition outside of my social circle.

I used the word jerk too many times, and my characters kept glaring at each other. It needed remedied before my readers jerk back and glare at my book. She pointed them out and made suggestions.

And I seem to have had a strange love-affair with hyphens, where I kept using them, but in all the wrong places, like some sort of song about dating at the right time but with the wrong me. She fixed them. They were not all in the same words. They were not even consistent within the same words.

Out of context, these edits may sound very small, but they add up. To what number, you ask?

4643 of them.

Yep, that is the number of changes my copy-editor made to my manuscript. 193 comments, 4643 edits. So many revisions that I had to switch from my four-year-old laptop to my husband’s high-power gaming computer to keep Word from freezing up every time I scrolled.

This is a manuscript that has had six or seven beta-readers. A manuscript which I have edited no less than ten times. A manuscript which has had a dear friend comb through it on a line-by-line basis as she lectured me on my terrible comma usage. In short, a manuscript that was, to my eyes, pretty well done.

It was not.

And as far as I’m concerned, if the copy-editor hasn’t touched it yet, neither is yours for all the same reasons.

I wasn’t always a convert. I hired a copy-editor for a specific reason: because my manuscript has quite a few challenges that make it extra-hard for me to edit on my own.

First, it is, in large part, written in dialect. Not a common dialect, either, but the dialect of a neglected corner of northern Appalachia that generally gets shamed out of written publications. As in, if you had this dialect fifty years ago and went to university, they made you take remedial speaking lessons to get rid of it.

To complicate that, my manuscript has no less than five first-person narrators. First-person present-tense. As in, their telling occasionally devolves into stream-of-consciousness as the character tries to cope with events in real-time that are complicated, nuanced, and often frightening or painful. Each of those characters has a different vocabulary, grammar, and plot line to keep track of.

These complications put my at my limit for self-editing. I hired someone for it all while thinking, “Well, for this other simpler manuscript, I can probably go it alone.”

And, you know, from never having had a copy-edit before, I can even see why I thought that. I just don’t think that anymore.

Let me repeat this:

4643 revisions.

Now, I can already hear the arguments against my advice. You know commas inside-out, hyphens aren’t a big deal, you looked up the words I mentioned and a whole list more. You can run your manuscript through Scrivener and let it come out with a list of words you over-used. In short? You’re fine…

…if those are your troubles.

But what about how you have a character mention in chapter seven that they skipped school, only way back in chapter two they already mentioned being there that day? Or the thingy where you have a lot of apostrophes on the page due to cutting off various words (like ’em and ’cause) and it’s too much so you need to work out a plan to preserve the speech without annoying the reader? How will you know that your title gets 200,000 hits on Amazon and needs to be changed? Or that your dialogue occasionally gets confusing from lack of tags? Or that two people use the same distinctive phrase seventy pages apart? Or that someone’s grammar was actually too perfect in this place and should be a bit worse? Or a million other things I can’t even think of.

Maybe you can. But how sure are you?

Hiring a copy-editor is a great way to get something that we self-publishers really don’t have: a green light.

A copy-editor gives you security. Once they are finished with your manuscript, you know that it’s the best it can be. Everything has been seen to, every stone overturned. And remember, many of those stones are ones you never even heard of. Never once thought meant a thing.

A few months ago, I was really troubled because I didn’t know if I should write full-time or fulltime or full time. Looking up every other word phrase to check whether it’s one or two words just seemed like a recipe for crazy. I needed someone who already knew that stuff so I could avoid tearing my hair out by the fist-full.

Hiring a copy-editor meant I could ask her the questions I just couldn’t figure out. Every forum in the world told me to use one grammar rule, but all my life I’ve used another. What’s the line between good dialect and annoying dialect? Alright versus all right?  My copy-editor attends conferences for editing, reads books of grammar, is a professional. If anyone knows, she does. She answered all my questions and more, because that’s what copy-editors do.

I’m telling you now, for the same reason I installed my own kitchen but had an electrician come in to sort out the spider’s-web of wires in the attic, you do not want to try to copy-edit yourself. It might end up fine, but the only guarantee you have is nothing is on fire. Yet.

Yes, it’s expensive. Expertise is.

Hire a copy-editor. Your job is to write, to plot, to polish; theirs is to remind you of the commas you forgot along the way, gently placing them into the manuscript like cherries on a cake.

Next week I’ll write a post about how to actually hire a copy-editor, what you’re looking for, and a couple of the common scams to avoid. If you want to be sure of joining me, click the follow button at the top of this page or like my author page on Facebook!

Have any of you hired a copy-editor? What was your experience? Please share below!

[For the record, my copy-editor is Jennifer Zaczek of Cypress Editing. And she is fantastic. She didn’t copy-edit this blog post. All mistakes are mine, and mine alone.]

5 thoughts on “Why You Need a Copy-Editor

  1. I work with copy-editors and various other types of editors in my full time job and I’m expected to participate in peer edits. Which is daunting. Because the people I work with are far more seasoned than I am! But I’m learning. I can tell you that a good copy-editor is like hiring your own ninja when it comes to cutting the nonsense out of your writing. However, it takes a certain level of iron nerve to accept the results of a copy-edit. When writers think of hiring a copy-editor they should also accept that the novel could (and probably will) need extensive editing. But it does take courage! I feel like it works best when the writer and copy-editor accept the job with a willingness to learn and grow.

    Liked by 3 people

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