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Copy editing: what the heck is it, anyway?

Copy editing: The nuts-and-bolts end of the business...
or, "Copy Editing 101"

'Copy editing' is a term which raises goose bumps on the arms of many writers, yet these days there is absolutely no need for the reaction. In the old days, heavily correcting a piece of work meant retyping the whole thing ... perhaps 300 - 500 pages of typing, Hence the goose bumps! Since the advent of computers, correcting is done on-screen, and you just hit "print" to get a fresh copy. The old "shiver" reaction to the specter of the copy editor persists, but there's no need for it to. Writing is a cross between art and craft, and if you ask any painter, sculptor, knitter or carpenter, they'll tell you the same golden truth.

There are skills to be learned and rules to be followed. Once you have the pattern (be it a knitting pattern for a sweater or a woodworking pattern for a bookcase), it's very like painting by numbers. You stay with the pattern. If something is wrong, you take it apart and put it back together again, to get a correct fit.

This is copy editing. Trust me. You won't drop dead, or spontaneously burst into flames at a lick of sunlight.

The major difference between copy editing and other crafts is that you're working 'on the fly.' The "pattern" is a list of "ingredients," while the plot is the recipe. As the copy editor, you're the 'taste tester.' You stick your finger in the mixing bowl, try the goop, and correct it when it's not quite right.

You need two things, to excel at this. First, you have to be ready to learn, and accept, copy editing. Very new writers cam get very offended when someone suggests that they need some editing. More experienced writers might have a history of rejections, or they've spent some considerable time polishing their own work, with the help of friends.

During this polishing process, a time comes when errors start to literally jump out of the manuscript and bite you ... and, inevitably, you wonder, "Why didn't I see that a year ago?" You realize, the publishers who looked at the novel last year would have seen the errors (they must have seen them, if you yourself can see them now!), and you think to yourself, "A good editor would have weeded the gaffs out of the manuscript back then."

Someone skilled at copy editing could certainly have weeded the manuscript ... but were you ready, at that point, to admit that you needed the editing/weeding? All writers reach a threshold. On one side, they're amateurs, not-yet-ready to go forward. On the other side, they've experienced The Epiphany. In a flash of insight, they start to see written material (fiction of journalism) as a fluid, constantly changing, endlessly flexible, lending itself to molding and shaping.

Copy editing is like dipping your hand into this fluid, changing the pattern of eddies and currents, to get around rough patches, make things clear, and keep the fluid moving smoothly.

So, the first useful thing I can do is take a look at the 'rules' by which this game is played.

You have to learn the rules before you can score tennis, knit a sweater or fiddle with the car engine. Copy editing is no different ... and nothing to be intimidated about.

I'm going to call this "Copy Editing 101," and it's quite a large subject, so what I'm going to do is break it up into chunks and tackle each chunk in a separate post.

In fact, he entire subject of copy editing is larger than you might think at first glance. It can be overwhelming, if you don't break it up into bite-sized chunks. We'll divide up the pie into nibblets which fit the size of blog posts, and you can choose exactly what you need at this moment, to solve some specific problem which you just diagnosed. (However, be sure to get the "big picture" too, because it's way too easy to be making mistakes you're not even aware of. A professional editor will pick them up at once, and there's another rejection slip for your collection!)

You'll probably want to hit the whole list -- and access it easily! -- so we'll itemize it right here (stay on this post and scroll down). Some of the topics are short series of posts...

First Rules: Put out an APB for bad guys

You have the manuscript on the desk before you, and pens and pencils. You're ready to scribble on the manuscript ... all over it, if necessary! But what are you looking for? Here's a short-list -- topics will turn into links as posts are added to this blog:

Typographical errors, especially in manuscripts which were typed up rather than being "done on a computer," which spellchecked the document prior to printing out.
Spelling errors which got past the computer's spellchecker; all spelling errors, if the manuscript was 'only' typed, using a old-fashioned typewriter.
Grammatical errors
Punctuation errors
Textual formatting errors
Inaccuracy: wrong word used
Repetition and Over-use: repeated word within a sentence or paragraph; term or phrase used too often overall.
Ambiguity: the reader can't tell what the writer means!
Writing with consistency in word usages throughout.
Nonsequiteur: the narrative either contradicts itself or heads off in unconnected directions.
Errors of "style" (harder to pick out; don't worry, we're going there).

Take it from the top! I'll start with a five-minute Q&A covering the physical aspect of the job. What does it look like, how does it work at the fundamental level of the paper and pencils ... then we'll dive into the details....

Click here for A Copy Editing Q&A...

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