What is copy editing and proofreading?

In a nutshell
  1. Developmental editing is for authors who have an incomplete manuscript, and need help making it complete.
  2. Copy editing is for authors who have a complete manuscript, and need help making the writing ready to publish by making sure it is correct, consistent, logical, and suitable for intended readers.
  3. Typesetting/formatting is for authors who have a complete manuscript, and need help preparing it for publication in a specific format.
  4. Proofreading is for authors who have a complete manuscript ready to publish, and need a ‘final check’ for accuracy, inconsistency, error, and presentation of all necessary elements.

There are many different definitions used by editors or proofreaders for the same or similar services involved in book production. For example, sometimes developmental editing is synonymous with substantive editing, structural editing, or manuscript critique. The below are my definitions of the book production process, based on my experience and understanding.

Developmental editing

Developmental editing looks exclusively at the big picture aspects of a story: how the overall narrative works in relation to the structure, characters, plot, dialogue, themes, and concept of the story. It’s intended to make sure that it is as fully ‘developed’ as it needs to be, and can help give you guidance on where to take it from conception to completion. Developmental editors won’t read line-by-line, as with copy editors, but will focus on particular extracts or paragraphs within a given scene or chapter and will offer suggestions for improvement. In this sense, they work at the paragraph-level and not the sentence-level.

There are two main types of developmental editing: ‘substantive editing’ and ‘manuscript critique’. Substantive editing may involve substantial rewriting or restructuring, which can be taken as suggestions by the author. In this way, it is a heavy form of editorial intervention, for authors who may not be confident with their story or writing and could benefit from an expert editor. Some forms of substantive editing have differing levels of intervention. It could go on a scale that places it as a higher form of intervention than ‘line editing’, which looks more at improving the flow of writing at the sentence-level, and ‘copy editing’, which looks more at the technical parts of language than on improving the writing.

There is also a ‘manuscript critique’, which will offer a report in the form of an editorial letter, offering constructive criticism and feedback to guide the author by commenting on their strengths and weaknesses in structure, characters, plot, dialogue, themes, and concept. With this information, the author can then work on the problem areas themselves.

Copy editing

Copy editing involves making sure that the writing style is appropriate for the intended readership, the structure of the publication is logical and complete, and the writer’s message is clear. Some copy editors will offer suggestions on the structure and style of sentences where there is inconsistency, ambiguity, disrupted flow, or where there are issues to be raised.

Copy editors, as with proofreaders, correct and mark-up errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and use a style sheet and checklist to verify that all writing elements are consistent and make sense. However, copy editors are permitted to intervene more than proofreaders because they typically work on an unedited and unrefined version of the author’s manuscript, and there is therefore more scope for changes to be made. In situations where the manuscript requires more intervention, the copy editor will raise queries with the author to verify facts and better understand the author’s intention.

It’s the copy editor’s responsibility to make sure that:

  1. The writing is correct, flows well, makes sense, and is suitable for the intended readership
  2. Stylistic decisions are consistent according to standard conventions or preferred style
  3. Use of language is accurate such as word usage, repetitive or superfluous words, tense, and point of view
  4. The presentation is of the highest quality and consistent, setting the standard for readers’ expectations
  5. The writing of the manuscript is fit for publication and ready for designing, formatting, proofing, printing, and publishing

Copy editors traditionally work on a more incomplete version of the manuscript, before it has been designed and typeset/formatted. Proofreading comes in at a later stage, used as a final check that there are no lingering errors. The term ‘copy editing’ comes from when an editor, traditionally working for a publishing house, would glance at a ‘copy’ (unedited original manuscript) and work on a ‘proof’ (to-be-edited copy) side-by-side.

Proofreading

Proofreading requires marking-up errors of spelling, punctuation, and grammar, using a style sheet and checklist to verify that writing is consistent and makes sense.

Proofreading is a stage that traditionally comes after copy editing, and is used as a ‘final check’ to correct any lingering typographical errors, or even new ones that have been introduced if there have been multiple rounds of editing between editors and the author. Therefore, the proofreader reads for consistency and sense, and only intervenes when there is a discrepancy because they must keep in mind that they are working on a manuscript that is close to a published version and cannot afford to make any unnecessary or costly changes that could have repercussions.

Some of the textual elements a proofreader checks include capitalisation, hyphenation, spelling, style, abbreviations, time and date. Some of the design elements a proofreader checks include page numbers, running headlines, headings, tables, illustrations, captions, references, cross-references, widows and orphans, and footnotes.

  

Is my story ready to be copy edited?

In a nutshell
  1. Developmental editing is for authors who have an incomplete manuscript, and need help making it complete.
  2. Copy editing is for authors who have a complete manuscript, and need help making the writing ready to publish by making sure it is correct, consistent, logical, and suitable for intended readers.
  3. Typesetting/formatting is for authors who have a complete manuscript, and need help preparing it for publication in a specific format.
  4. Proofreading is for authors who have a complete manuscript ready to publish, and need a ‘final check’ for accuracy, inconsistency, error, and presentation of all necessary elements.
Before I hire a professional copy editor

Before you consider hiring a professional, it is helpful for you to read resources about how you can self-edit your story, to improve it to the best of your ability in terms of writing, characterisation, plot, overall narrative, and structure. A self-edit is not a substitute for hiring a professional editor, but it can help make sure your story is in the best shape possible; which will make the process easier for you and the editor, and is more likely to help improve the quality. Ultimately, time spent on self-editing your story will mean less money is spent on your editing, and it’ll be less likely that you’ll need the help of different professionals before publishing.

It’s also recommended before considering hiring an editor to get honest feedback on what trusted friends think of your writing. Join writing groups, online writer communities and forums, or find beta-readers to get an objective view of your story. These book lovers will help you see your story from the point of view of readers and it’s wise to take on board their advice, build on your strengths, and compensate for any weaknesses. It’s not always appealing for writers, at least in my experience as a writer, to listen to what other readers think, but the value of reader’s feedback and an outside perspective should not be underestimated or dismissed if you want to move your writing and your story forward.

When do I hire a professional copy editor?

Once the story is complete, in terms of the structure, plot, and overall concept, then it is time for the author to consider working with a copy editor. Some copy editors prefer the author to have had their story developmentally edited, self-edited, or beta-read before they accept to work on it. However, these are guidelines for new authors rather than strict rules. In practice, most copy editors will request to edit a sample of the story to get a feel for the writing, see how much editing is involved, and assess if it is ready to be edited; as well as such things as how suitable the story is for them to work on and how much the editing will cost.

Do I need copy editing?

There is no obligation for the independent author to hire a copy editor but it is recommended for ‘professional’ authors who are serious about working as a writer for a living, getting positive reviews, and writing for their readership. Many authors decide to work with copy editors based on the advice or feedback they receive from beta-readers or other writing professionals. Publishers use copy editors because they know that their expertise can help ensure that the quality of the story is in line with reader expectations. In this way copy editing acts like a bridge between the author and the reader.

If you only intend to publish for family and friends and you are not concerned what your potential readership thinks of your writing, then it might not be worth investing in a copy editor. Even though many independent authors begin by not writing for a readership, only writing and publishing to prove that they can and to hone their skills, later these same independent authors may easily want to appeal to a particular group of readers or are confident enough to publish professionally.

What is copy editing?

Copy editing involves making sure that the writing style is appropriate for the intended readership, the structure of the publication is logical and complete, and the writer’s message is clear. Some copy editors will offer suggestions on the structure and style of sentences where there is inconsistency, ambiguity, disrupted flow, or where there are issues to be raised.

Copy editors, as with proofreaders, correct and mark-up errors of spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and use a style sheet and checklist to verify that all writing elements are consistent and make sense. However, copy editors are permitted to intervene more than proofreaders because they typically work on an unedited and unrefined version of the author’s manuscript, and there is therefore more scope for changes to be made. In situations where the manuscript requires more intervention, the copy editor will raise queries with the author to verify facts and better understand the author’s intention.

It’s the copy editor’s responsibility to make sure that:
  1. The writing is correct, flows well, makes sense, and is suitable for the intended readership
  2. Stylistic decisions are consistent according to standard conventions or preferred style
  3. Use of language is accurate such as word usage, repetitive or superfluous words, tense, and point of view
  4. The presentation is of the highest quality and consistent, setting the standard for readers’ expectations
  5. The writing of the manuscript is fit for publication and ready for designing, formatting, proofing, printing, and publishing

Copy editors traditionally work on a more incomplete version of the manuscript, before it has been designed and typeset/formatted. Proofreading comes in at a later stage, used as a final check that there are no lingering errors. The term ‘copy editing’ comes from when an editor, traditionally working for a publishing house, would glance at a ‘copy’ (unedited original manuscript) and work on a ‘proof’ (to-be-edited copy) side-by-side.

 

How to find the right copy editor

Speciality

How do you decide who is the right copy editor for you? Sure, you’ve got to look at their reputation, experience, and qualifications, but more often than not it’s about whether the editor specialises in working on the type of project you have to offer. Are they the expert in their field; do they have sufficient knowledge of the subject matter? On many occasions I have been contacted by individuals who offer me projects to edit without having any idea whether I am the right fit as their editor.

Trust

For those seriously considering an editor, trust and being able to identify with the individual behind the services and website are key components. Is the editor a likable person and is the information they present clear and cover the main questions on the client’s mind? And if there isn’t enough information or there are secondary considerations, does the editor reply promptly, in a friendly tone, answering questions directly and trying to help?

Communication

Communication is very important when you consider hiring a freelance editor, or if you are an editor considering taking on freelance work. I’ve worked with people where communication has been such an impediment to understanding the requirements of the job that you spend a lot of time trying to understand intent or sometimes end up doing more work than you intended to, which can be frustrating. And if the editor does more work then the client typically pays more money … which makes it a lose-lose situation.

Judgement

Choosing the right editor requires equal parts research and judgement. Their online CV is half of the story, the other half is identifying with them: their personality, interests, and way of writing. Sometimes the editor might be the perfect fit, but the project itself isn’t, which may be frustrating for the writer/client: maybe the manuscript isn’t yet ready to be edited or the efforts required for the copy editor to macro-edit (like restructuring) some parts as well as copy-edit don’t make the fees acceptable to the client. Sometimes all writers, including myself, need to take one step back before moving two steps forward.

How to find the right copy editor – checklist 

Sometimes, unless you ask a potential editor a few questions or send a request to work on a sample edit, you won’t be able to accurately assess the communication and sample edit sections below.

You may have to do a bit of research online to build up an idea of their reputation, from their website and the business or social media networks where they have profiles or communicate with writers. It’s also highly useful to assess whether you can trust the editor from their testimonials, to read past clients’ experiences. Taking a peek at the work in their online portfolio can give you an idea of the quality of the editing, and may provide a measure of confidence. However, the best way to see exactly what an editor can do for your writing is to request a sample edit. Asking pertinent questions can help you decide whether the editor is right for you, and if they can provide the reassurance and service you’re looking for.

Communication

  1. Are there too many misunderstandings between editor and client?
  2. If problems arise, can they be solved in a way that is pleasant and fair to both parties?
  3. Does the editor reply reliably, and in a timely manner?
  4. Does the editor address issues directly, or are they evasive or not forthcoming about offering answers to your questions?
  5. Is the editor overly critical? Does the editor deliberately respond in a negative, arrogant, or patronising manner?

Sample edit

  1. Are the editor’s edits too intrusive?
  2. Does the editor understand the intended meaning, and if he/she doesn’t, do they query it? They should!
  3. Has the editor provided the sample edit as requested/expected?
  4. Are the queries polite or are they deliberately rude or critical?
  5. Has the editor made many changes that have not improved the text?
  6. Does the edit look rushed?
  7. Do you have confidence in the editor’s ability?

Proposal

  1. Is the editor interested in working on your project? How interested? Why would he/she be interested? What would they gain from working with you?

Rates

  1. Has the editor charged a reasonable rate based on the work involved, and their experience/training?

Reputation

  1. Do you trust the editor from their online and real reputation? What is he/she like on social media, engaging or unresponsive?
  2. Have you assessed how they deal with past clients?
  3. Are they friendly to writers?

Point of view and tense – first person and third person

Incorrect use of point of view and tense are commonly picked up by fiction writers and editors. Part of the confusion is that both point of view and tense are in many ways linked: first person with present tense and third person with past/past perfect tense. Untangling these concepts so that they can be understood by the writer or editor is the first step before careful implementation.

When point-of-view slips occur unintentionally, they momentarily confuse readers and can look out of place. These slips appear more often with inexperienced writers, but while working even experienced writers can occasionally forget who viewpoint character is supposed to be in a given paragraph or sentence and exactly what he/she should be thinking and experiencing. In other words, it can slip your mind.

Inconsistent use of tense can make the viewpoint character’s understanding of what happened when unclear, such as how this understanding of past events has developed, or is developing, into present circumstances.

I will cover the main types of point of view and the tense each is in, as well as how tenses are used in fiction prose. I shall focus on first-person and third-person point of view, how they are used and some of the important advantages and disadvantages. It should also help you decide whether you are using the correct point of view for your story.

Third-person POV

Tense

Third person is written in the simple past and past perfect tense.

Use

Modern fiction recommends one character’s point of view per scene, and usually in the third person (he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs).

The third person is used to convey the main characters’ experiences, as if they are the narrators of the story and are reporting what has already just happened in the form of thoughts and relevant experiences.

Something to keep in mind when writing in third person is not to write anything else except the viewpoint character’s thoughts and experiences, so that the reader can only perceive events from the character’s perspective. Unless you’re using third-person omniscient, it could be a mistake to add other information about your story in between the character’s perspective to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, for doing so may take the mystery away from the scene and will interrupt the flow of the viewpoint character. And most of all, the inconsistency will be noticeable.

Exceptions

Third person is written in anticipation of building up towards present events, which are usually written in first person in the form of dialogue or internal dialogue (protagonist thoughts). First person is also used for italicised text in fiction, such as in the case of internal dialogue.

Advantages

One of the advantages of the third-person point of view is the flexibility to switch between tenses: simple past, past perfect, and simple present. The writer has the freedom to express a wide range of closely related circumstances that had occurred, have just occurred, or are occurring; and yet are written in the same scene or chapter. It takes skill for even experienced writers to master the tenses in such a way that is both correct and can relate a story’s events in an interesting way.

The disadvantages of the past perfect tense in third person

The past perfect tense can sometimes, when used excessively, become a platform for exposition and reader bombardment, which all writers should strive to avoid where they can. This tense can be rigid to read: ‘I had done’, ‘but when he had gone to the store’, ‘before he had thought about heading out he forgot to spend his money’. If you have to digress into background events, try to keep them at a minimum or at least directly relevant to what is happening in any given scene.

In this sense, try to limit the number of passages you write in the past perfect tense, or don’t use too many ‘hads’, which may hinder the reader’s enjoyment of the story. Instead, once you have introduced the tense with ‘had’, in a given paragraph, you are free to continue writing in the simple past and the reader should still understand what is meant. The same goes for background events that occur while the writer is already relating background events. As long as you introduce the tense with a single or a few ‘had’s’ to relate the most important immediate events in the first few sentences, then the reader has been informed of the tense and knows that what they are reading occurred in a time earlier than the time currently being discussed. It requires a bit of skill, judgment, and practice to use effectively, but that’s what writing is!

First-person POV

Tense

In contrast, the first person tense (I, we,) is commonly told in the simple present tense in fiction.

Use

Of course, the reader, as with third-person point of view, can only know what the viewpoint character knows – no extraneous background information should be added if the character wouldn’t already be thinking or experiencing it. It can help a writer think in terms of ‘showing’ the reader the story rather than ‘telling’. ‘Showing’ often makes it easier for the reader to invest themselves in the characters and events, while too much ‘telling’ can instead render readers as idle observers or magnets for excess information.

Advantages

It can grant a situation direct immediacy, and can be quite engaging and exciting to read. If the reader can develop a connection with the character or with intriguing events, it can prove to be effortless to absorb. If there are a lot of exciting events that are closely related to a single character or between one or two characters, then first person can deliver the message of the story concisely and directly, focusing only on the perspective of the character/s who matter, where lives come into contact. It’s good for putting the reader into the character’s shoes, and makes them feel as if they are there, watching events unfold.

Disadvantages

One of its disadvantages, in my opinion, is that it can be quite simple and one-dimensional. Readers can’t penetrate to the depths of a character’s thoughts or to past events with ease without breaking from the main narrative. When the author does break from the main narrative, it can often at first seem as if they are interrupting a perfectly absorbing scene with unnecessary information, which can be distracting. It can express a limited range of meanings, and only in the context of what is happening or what a character is thinking at any given time. It’s my belief that the restrictions of first person make stories linear A–B plots, but I’m sure there are many writers and readers who disagree.

Basic Story Formatting

Before publishing, hiring a professional copy editor or proofreader, or submitting to a literary agent or publisher, it is expected that basic story formatting conventions are implemented to help with ease of reading. Below I will outline the basic structure of a story, how to indent your paragraphs, how to start a new paragraph in a conversation, and how to use scene breaks to separate time, point of view, and events.

In theory, you can format your story any way you like regarding how you present your sentences, paragraphs, and scenes. It is your story after all. However, if you are planning on hiring a professional editor, publishing your story, or submitting it to agents then you will need to make sure your story conforms to standard formatting conventions.

What may be obvious to professionals familiar with book layout or the parts of a published book is not always easily apparent to some fiction writers, readers, or those unacquainted with the standard format of a book/ebook. When concentrating on your story, characters, and plot; which are where you should be concentrating as a writer; it’s easy to lose track of the required standard formatting. If these conventions are not adhered to then they may appear to be jarringly unfamiliar to readers, who are used to reading standard formats, and this may put them off reading your writing because the presentation may look unusual or unprofessional. As far as you’re concerned, as the writer you’ve done your job and in your own way you’re right, but when your story is complete it may be time to think of how your story will be received.

Not including preliminary matter or end matter (at the front or end of a story respectively), this is how your story should be arranged from the whole story down to its constituent elements:

1. Story
2. Sections
3. Chapters
4. Scenes
5. Paragraphs
6. Sentences

1. Paragraph: first-line indents

An indent is an unobtrusive short space typically positioned to the left of the first word of the first sentence, in a new paragraph within the same scene or chapter. The size of this short space will be determined by the designer or increasingly an e/book formatter that will either adhere to a typographic specification or simply implement best practice. It is standard in fiction to have first-line indents placed at the onset of each new paragraph but not the first paragraph of a chapter or scene, which should be set full-out to the left-hand margin with no paragraph indentation.

The indentation at the start of a new paragraph makes it easy for readers to distinguish the progression of the writer’s thoughts and helps them mentally absorb the smaller blocks of text one at a time. Writers can structure the length of their paragraphs how they please. However, I recommend keeping the length of the paragraph equal to how long a reader’s attention span would likely be sustained. All paragraphs should have a different focus or meaning, from the preceding and subsequent paragraphs. If you have sentences that don’t move onto a new topic, but add to the point of the paragraph, I recommend connecting them to strengthen it. That’s not to say that every sentence will add something of value to a paragraph, as in some cases cutting out unnecessary or repetitive constructions may be advised.

First paragraph of a new chapter or scene is set full-out to the left-hand margin, as in this sentence.
New paragraph is indented, at an acceptable size, as in this sentence.

2. New paragraph for new character dialogue

When another person is speaking in a conversation, it is standard convention to start a new paragraph to indicate to the reader that the person speaking is not the same person as the original speaker.

Original speaker: ‘Isn’t it a nice day today?’
New speaker: ‘Yes, the flowers are in bloom.’

This also helps differentiate who is speaking at any given moment in time, which can get confusing if the same person speaks again after they have already spoken. In this case, do not add an ending quotation mark after the first sentence spoken, as indicated below. This tells the reader that the same person is still speaking. Only add the ending quotation mark after the original speaker has finished speaking and somebody else speaks or the narrative continues.

Original speaker: ‘I hate being at his beck and call all day.
Original speaker: ‘He doesn’t even appreciate the work I do.’

3. Scene breaks to separate periods of time, character point of view, or change in circumstances of an event

Chapters can sometimes reach great lengths, where events occur at different times and from the point of view of different characters. Without an effective break or distinction between these point of views or different times, the reader has to mentally digest a jumble of unorganised information concerning exactly what main event is happening, who it is being perceived by, and when it is occurring. When the reader returns to reading your story they could be lost.

Using scene breaks is a helpful way to organise the structure of your chapter so that it is clear, logical, and easy-to-follow for readers. But just how do you decide where to start a scene break in your chapter? It requires judgement, your editor’s or your own, and perhaps even friends can help you.

Time

I like to add my scene breaks in when it is apparent that a period of time has passed from one set of paragraphs to another. Indeed, a scene may be considered to be a set of paragraphs following on smoothly from one to the next.

Point of view

Has the character whose point of view is important in a particular scene changed? Modern fiction recommends one character’s point of view per scene, and usually in the third-person (he, him, his, she, her, hers, they, them, theirs). There should be a good reason for a change in point of view, for example perhaps you’re trying to show the reader something new or interesting in your scene and you need another character’s perspective, or maybe you simply have more than one main character and their combined point of views are used to build the overall scene.

Events

Are you now focusing on a different, yet related, event or set of circumstances in your chapter? Consider adding a scene break to separate your events. Too many events in a short space of time can be overwhelming, so it’s important to provide the necessary breaks. It can also help you focus on what is important in your scenes and chapters.