Copy editing

When does a copy edit happen?

The copy edit (also known as line edit) is typically only performed on a manuscript that’s completed a development edit phase and then been revised appropriately by the author. All major issues should now be resolved, meaning it’s time to polish by correcting/improving the actual text. Copy editing is the final major editing stage and should result in a ready-to-publish manuscript, although it is followed by a proofing run wherever possible.

What does a copy edit look like?

This edit is a detailed parse of the full manuscript with grammar, spelling, word repetitions, inappropriate adjectives/adverbs, awkward English, errors, etc. directly corrected in the text. It is done using Microsoft Word tracked changes along with explanations and other editor communication in embedded comments.
When the author gets a copy edit back it’s quite a mess of the original (black) text and modified (red) text. The reason it has to be this way is because it’s always the author’s decision what changes to accept/reject: the document therefore has to be an amalgam of the original manuscript and the editor’s proposed changes.

Many editors simply won’t go beyond text correction at this stage…but this goes against my maxim of always trying my best to improve the manuscript. Whilst I won’t revisit issues I raised in the development edit that the author has decided upon, any inconsistency with plot, characters, scenes, etc. will be highlighted. Depending on the issue, I will sometimes provide an inline edit that I feel solves the issue – this way explains things more clearly than just a comment, and if the author chooses to accept it then it cuts down the work required from them. Broader problems may require pausing the edit and discussing solutions with the author.
This is going back into development edit territory, but my view is that if it’s needed then so be it.

What happens next?

It’s now over to the author to work through the changes and accept/reject each one. This sounds horrible, and is, so a faster alternative is to scan through the changes and modify anything you don’t like. After that simply select to accept all changes in document.
Whichever process you use, the target state is unified (ie. no tracked changes) text with no comments throughout the whole manuscript.

Note that editor support doesn’t just end with the return of the manuscript. Especially if work has been done to fix e.g. an inconsistency there may need to be some dialogue and perhaps the exchange of working manuscripts between the author and editor to confirm solutions.
I also strongly recommend a similar process for any significant change the author makes during the accept/reject phase – make it as a tracked change and send the manuscript to the editor so that it can be checked and copy edited. The general rule of thumb is that any significant change should have both sets of eyes (the author’s and the editor’s) go over it before it is accepted into the manuscript.

A final proofing run.

Working with track changes on in Word is essential for the reasons above. However it’s also messy and the likelihood is that it will introduce errors of the missing/double space, spelling or typo variety into the manuscript. For this reason I always perform a final proofing run on manuscripts I’ve copy edited as soon as they are clean (ie. no live changes, all comments removed). This check is the Word spelling and grammar checker, but with all results reviewed manually. For this stage I simply correct the text without tracking the change, as the only changes will be clear error fixes.

How do I book a copy edit with you?

In most cases I won’t accept a copy editing job for a manuscript I haven’t development edited. Why? Because I start working through fixing the text and then very soon I’m aware there are all kinds of major issues blighting the novel that are beyond the scope of a copy/line edit – it’s a situation best avoided.
Therefore we’ll already be in contact from the development edit stage when it comes to booking a copy edit. You’re under no obligation to use me for this stage, but if you want to then we’ll make a rough booking in my calendar and then we’ll stay in periodic contact to ensure the manuscript remains on schedule.

P.S. Isn’t AI coming for all copy editing?

I’ve been researching this recently and trying out the various AI tools to understand how they will change my profession (and how I might use them to be better and/or more efficient).
The current barriers to using AI for fiction novels are having to take text out of Word document format and submit it piecemeal, and restrictive word count limits on what you can input to the main AI tools such as ChatGPT. This destroys document formatting, increases the risk of error, and is tedious.
What I’ve also noticed is that AI is not very good at copy editing and gets worse the larger the word count of the input file. I wouldn’t accept the majority of the changes any AI editing tool I’ve used to date makes.
Where I do think AI will come in and dominate very quickly is text which is probably non-English in origin and where style and form doesn’t greatly matter. Think stock market reporting from China or football match reports in multiple languages for worldwide betting sites. Whilst this will still create job displacement and pressure in the industry, my belief is that high quality fiction copy editing will remain a human preserve for longer than many people suspect.