Three Cheers for the Copy Editor

Jane/Susannah, from deep in the copy editing cave…

Hey, Wicked People. Hope you’re all staying cool and watching early summer things grow. (Yes, I know it’s not quite officially summer yet, but it’s close enough)

Olive and Let Die CoverThis past week I’ve been working on copy edits for Olive and Let Die, Book 2 of the Greek to Me Mysteries. Now, for those of you who might not know exactly what copy edits are, this is the stage in a manuscript’s publication process where the prose gets cleaned up, inconsistencies are noted (did your heroine’s eyes change from blue at the beginning of the story to green at the end—and you’re not writing an urban fantasy or sci-fi?), spellings and capitalizations of names and places are standardized, and those pesky hyphenated words get checked against Merriam-Webster and the Chicago Manual of Style.

It’s a fussy process for the copy editor (who is not your editor at the publishing house—you know, the person who bought your book and helped you fix the plot and characterization problems—but another person entirely), and it’s a fussy process for the author. Me? I use this time as an opportunity to go through the entire manuscript, word by word, again. I find that the copy editor is usually correct and I keep her/his changes.

I also usually find a lot more stuff to fix, which baffles me. Because, you see, I have a copy editing business of my own (Crazy Diamond Editing), and I do this work for other people. (You can read my blog post about it here) And I’ve already gone through the manuscript thoroughly, word by word, before I even think about turning it in to my editor. So you’d think I’d have the cleanest prose anyone at the publishing house has ever seen. “It’s the manuscript I’ve been waiting for all my life! A-plus-plus-plus-plus!” I picture Miss Shields from A Christmas Story here, and my writer friends all cheering me on and pumping their fists in the air. So when those copy edits come back, it’s always a little bit of a letdown. Hmmm. Not perfect, after all.

Now, this manuscript was turned in more than a year ago, and, confession time, I haven’t looked at it since then. So as I went through it again, I was able to read it more like a reader than a writer. I realized a couple of things. One, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. In fact, I rather liked it. And two, my characters did an inordinate amount of sighing. I took out thirty–yes, you read that correctly–sighs that I had missed the first time around. And I took out a bunch of nodding, too. Now Bonaparte Bay is a lot less angsty and a lot less agreeable.

My favorite pet, Ellie-cat
My favorite pet, Ellie-cat

And now, I know what one of my pet words is. Every author has them, and the more I copy edit for other people, the more sensitive I am to these repeated words, phrases, and actions in my own work. So maybe I’m getting closer to that perfect manuscript. In my rich fantasy life, some future copy editor is going to throw up her hands and say, “I can’t find a thing to fix!” I nod and sigh in satisfaction, then nod and sigh some more.

What are your pet words and phrases?

33 Thoughts

    1. When I am working on other people’s stuff, I find a lot of nodding and sighing, almost universally. Which is why it’s so funny I had to root it out of my own work! Striding and shrugging–good words, when used sparingly 🙂

    1. “That” and “just” are words almost everyone overuses, including me. I always do a search and replace and find I’m able to get rid of almost all uses of those words. Thanks for stopping by!

  1. My pet words change with every book. I catch the troublemakers from the last one and then realize I’ve overused something entirely new. Thank goodness for good copy editors.


  2. Nice to see some love for copy editors! (I’m not one, so I don’t have a dog in this hunt!) In my personal writing, I don’t have a problem with overused nothing words so much as repetitive use of favorite words. Should a story include “brouhaha” or “gobsmacked” more than once? No. But I always try to slip in a second time….

      1. Excellent words, LOL! We should make a list of once-in-a-book words and keep it handy 🙂 But I agree with Edith–if it’s part of someone’s typical speech, like a catchphrase that helps the reader identify the speaker, go for it.

  3. My people seem to grin a lot. But I do have a peeve about some (not all) copy-editors who try to correct grammar in my dialogue. Excuse me, I do know the correct was to say it, but this is a person with limited education speaking to a friend, and/or in a hurry or stressed out. Do you speak with perfect grammar in that case? Or even complete sentences? I don’t think so. And there’s sort of a secondary issue there: would that person use a rich vocabulary and proper English when s/he’s thinking? That’s not right for his her/his character. Grrrr!

      1. Well, my experience is actually fairly limited with copy editors who are not me, since I’ve only had three novels in the process so far and the copy editors have all been nonintrusive. I agree–unless the character is highly educated, or trying to appear so, there’s no need for perfect grammar. Even in the narrative parts of a genre fiction novel perfect grammar sometimes seems out of place. Down with WHOM!

  4. Cheers to what is becoming, unfortunately, a lost art. There’s much more to good editing than fixing syntax and spelling, but beginning with a clean manuscript makes it much easier to rise to a higher level in the available time.
    I recall one academic remarking that those who most need a good editor are the least aware of the fact — and the least willing to invest in the service.
    That’s when I went back to the newsroom.

  5. One thing I’ve learned is that you cannot edit yourself–the more eyes on the manuscript the better in my book. I have a whole list of words that describe different ways to “walk,” and I have trouble with she glanced, she saw, she noticed…..How many different ways can you say what a character’s eyes “see?” Routinely, I take out “probably” and “just.” Sigh.

  6. I could never be a copy editor. My spelling is pretty bad, and I just don’t care about all those little intricacies of the language. So my hat is off to those who do it and do it well.

    1. Good copy editing makes the difference between a story that you can’t put down, and one that you want to throw across the room! Good to “see” you, Mark!

  7. I’m a copy editor in a last minute frenzy to get to the publishing finish line with a number of different projects. This post is a big motivator just when I need it most. Our work does matter. Yay!

    1. Copy editors have a whole different set of skills than content editors. It’s not everyone who (like me) enjoys looking up hyphenations on Merriam-
      Webster, or researching the correct capitalization and spelling of “Creamsicle.” LOL! It’s cool to be a fussbudget! Hope you get your work done so you can relax. Then we should go to lunch and discuss comma placement. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. “Oh” and “just” are my two worst pet words. Throw in an “… ,” and I find my my own writing obnoxious.

  9. My characters must be an agreeable bunch, except for the ones who scowl. Still, lots of nodding, grinning, smiling, shrugging.

  10. Well, I have many bad habits that sneak into mss.
    I think the worst was “delicious” 14 times in one short novel. (And it didn’t refer to food.)
    Thank heavens for Word’s search facility.

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