An Introduction to Copyediting

I finished a month-long workshop on copyediting last week and learned a few new things. I was also relieved to find that I haven’t been making too many mistakes in my own writing. So what exactly does a copyeditor do? And what’s the difference between editing, copyediting and proofreading?

Copyeditors work in the world of publishing, whether it be book, newspaper, magazine publishing, or online publishing. Any industry which requires written material will need a copyeditor. The copyeditor will perform his or her complex set of tasks behind the scenes: fixing awkward sentences, correcting mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling, and checking that titles and other proper names are accurate. Copyediting is much more than proof reading; it requires a mastery of the rules of grammar and a desire to make the written word shine. A copyeditor will transform an awkward or clumsy sentence into one that is as smooth and graceful as a choreographed dancer.

The process begins with the writer producing the article, feature or novel. This raw material is presented to the editor, who reads it with an eye to the story and structure of the piece. The changes they may recommend will include: plot modifications, character adaptations; and in nonfiction pieces, adding additional resource material. After the writer has made the changes and the editor has approved the manuscript, deeming it to be ready, the piece will passed on to the copyeditor.

Using the company stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook, the copy editor reads the manuscript with an eye toward lucidity, consistency, and errors. He will closely scrutinize punctuation and spelling, check the accuracy of titles and other proper names, and modify sloppy or lazy sentences. When changes are made, the copyeditor does so while keeping in tact the author’s voice and meaning. If the author’s meaning is unclear, the copyeditor will include a note asking for clarification. When the changes made are satisfactory to the writer, editor and copyeditor, the manuscript is passed along to the proof reader to check for typos or other errors that may have sneaked into the copy. The manuscript is nearly ready for publication and if the editor and copyeditor have done their jobs, the piece is now the best it can be.

I’m sure you can see how learning the basics of copyediting would be beneficial to an aspiring author. A submitted manuscript that is clean, free of errors and smoothly written will be much more attractive to potential agents and publishers than one that is sloppy and clumsily written. And especially for the Indie author going the self-publishing route, having a copyeditor’s eye is absolutely essential!

Research Notes – The Great War (11) Keeping House In 1914

My current work in progress is a historical novel partially set during World War One. To write the story accurately, I’ve been reading about all things war related. This is not really about The Great War, but it is about the time period. As with the details of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic and other events that would impact the lives of my historical characters, I want to make sure I write everything authentically. That includes the way they would have worked, eaten, dressed and housed themselves.

My central character in the 1910’s timeline, Gladys Henry, is a young woman who, although would have been considered fairly middle class –her father is a clerk at the bank in their town in the west of England– has had to take on a job when the family falls on hard times. Her father becomes too ill to work and of course, without work there is no pay. In those days, the options for women to work were limited. Without some sort of training in a profession like teaching or nursing, women would likely have to find work as domestic help. This is the case with Gladys. She spends her days as a maid in the services of a wealthy family in the town, cleaning the manor house in which they live.

Now, this all probably sounds very Downton Abby, but I absolutely refuse to rely on another work of fiction as a source for information. (Besides, I really wasn’t a fan after they killed off Matthew. Ugh.) Anyway, in my internet search, I came across an article titled “Home Duties” from a periodical of the time which describes the tasks involved in keeping house in those days.

In cleaning the bedrooms for example, windows would be opened wide, no matter the season. Curtains or draperies would be taken from their rods and shaken out, carpets would be rolled up and removed to the outdoors to have the dust beaten out. The now bare windows would be washed as would all the mirrors. Upholstered furniture would be brushed and leather furniture wiped down with damp, flannel cloths.

Sheets would be stripped from the beds and taken to the laundry where they would be washed and scrubbed by hand and then hung on lines to dry, after-which they would be ironed by a fire-heated iron. The rest of the bedding: blankets, quilts, coverlets, etc. would also be shaken out and left to air on the outside clotheslines. As you can imagine, the weather would have a huge impact on the housekeepers’ ability to perform these duties!

When furniture needed to be polished, a home made polishing agent was concocted. I found this recipe for one in the article:

  • Half pint of cold water
  • One ounce of Castille soap cut into slices and dissolved in the water
  • Half pint of turpentine
  • One ounce white wax, one ounce bee’s wax, dissolved in the turpentine
  • Mix the water solution and the turpentine solution together
  • Add one to two tablespoons menthylated spirits and shake vigorously.

When all was cleaned, dried and removed of wrinkles, everything would be put back in place, and if the rooms would not be in use till guests once again visited, everything would be covered with dust sheets.

Whew…. makes me grateful for my Shark vacuum and my Maytag washing machine. This might seem like research ovrkill, and in truth not all of that will make it into the story. However, just knowing how they performed their duties helps keep mistakes from creeping in. For example, erroneously describing the use of a commercial product which may not have existed in those days. It’s the small things that can make or break a story sometimes. I just wish I had a couple of Victorian ladies to beta read this book for me!

Thoughts On Writing A Series

I was having a conversation with my friend Tom, a new writer still working on the first draft of his novel. He emailed me to say that he was beginning to get some ideas for a new story. He asked me what I thought about writing a sequel to his first novel and extending the tale of his current characters. Since I’m a series writer, my first instinct is to say, go for it. But with some caveats. Of course it gave me the idea for this post.

Writing a series is really a lot of fun. A series writer creates the world they would like to live in. There is a great deal of satisfaction in making your fictional universe just the way you want it. However, there is also a great deal of meticulous planning and record keeping that must be done to make sure that your world remains consistent throughout all the stories set within it. Additionally, if you have recurring characters, they must also remain inside the parameters you’ve already written for them. For example, they can’t be the town sheriff in book one and the town dentist in book two. Or ten years older in the sequel if only six months have passed since the original story.

One of the ways I keep record of the details of the fictional world I’ve created is to have a database of information on each character, a map of my town and in some cases a drawing of the layout of a house or other building. Each character has a detailed biography including age, appearance, occupation, relationship to other characters and personality traits that may impact the way I write them. I will add to that biography after each new story so that the experiences they have had along the way are included for future reference.

Writing a series can mean following the life and times of one recurring character, as in a detective series like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan series (Bones) or Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware novels.

Another way is to have each new story focus on a different character from a collection of which we’ve already been introduced. Nora Roberts does this with her trilogies and quadrologies. Three or four women (or men) will be introduced in book one, but the story will focus on the romance of only one of them. The other women (or men) will be well-developed secondary characters that return in the subsequent story, one of them as the main character, and so on. This is the format I followed for The Bucks County Novels. There is a risk in this approach, however….

Each of our characters deserves a unique voice. It is very difficult to write a story set in the same locale, perhaps within a circle of friends and not have the personalities of all your male and female characters blend together. My real world friends who have read my book Three Empty Frames say they hear my voice narrating the part of my main character, Jen. I had to try really, really hard not to sound exactly like that for the other women I wrote for the subsequent books, but I’m sure there are overlaps even so. Our own writing style makes that task difficult. We always sound like ourselves. That is why, in writing this sort of series, it’s even more important to have the detailed biographies on each one of our characters; to help focus on their unique attributes and distinguish them from the rest of the cast.

I am not sure if I will write another book in The Bucks County Series. At the moment, my focus has turned to a couple of stand-alone ideas. Perhaps when they’re brought to completion, I’ll go back to Doylestown for another series story. There are some fun characters in my fictional world who could have an adventure of their own.

Wishing you happy writing and productive editing!

Featured illustration my own.