How to copy edit like a pro

Wednesday, August 02, 2017
The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.

Robert Cormier
Author of The Chocolate War

The most complex publishing job I ever had was managing editor of the Journal of the American Optometric Association. We worked on three issues at a time, which isn’t uncommon, and paid close attention to detail, which is common in medical publishing.

My experience there helped me develop a thorough system of copyediting for medical writing. Some of it doesn’t translate well into other writing styles, so I’m focusing on the aspects that do. The process is not pretty or sexy. The editing/copyediting system is a list of items I checked to ensure that the manuscript was factual, used proper grammar and followed our publishing style. I didn't read every manuscript 17 times, but would combine several steps to maximize my time and effort.

These 17 steps may not cover every aspect of your writing project, but it may help you develop your own consistent style, which can generate cleaner copy regardless of what you write.

1) Capital letters (all proper nouns)
2) Begin parenthesis/quotations – end parenthesis/quotations
3) Names and titles consistent – you can’t check names/titles too many times
4) References in order
5) Commas (especially before “ands,” and “which”)
6) Page endings (in galleys – check for lost words between pages)
7) Contractions (consistent use)
8) Very, really, just, that and then (most can be removed without changing meaning)
9) Read aloud, and read backwards for spelling
10) Perspective (consistent use of first or third person)
11) Subhead styles match (first letter upper case, all others lower, no punctuation at end)
12) Mark the end of every line that has changes (helps them stand out on hard copies)
13) All question marks addressed and answered*
14) Consistent use of present or past tense
15) Correct use of hyphens, especially for compound modifiers
16) Sentence fragments and run-on sentences eliminated
17) Numbers (consistent use, check publication style manual)

*When a question arises while my writing is going well, I don’t want to stop and look it up. I mark the spot with three question marks in a row. Later, when I’m editing, I do a search for three question marks, and can go back to each question and answer it before I turn in my assignment.

Writers shouldn't be intimidated by what some might call the mysterious editing process. Like any art form, it is a craft that can be learned and improved with practice. So use these steps to edit yourself right into more publications. And don't forget to share your editing process!

Mary Horner is a freelance writer, editor, and author of Strengthen Your Nonfiction Writing. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--I like your 17 steps, along with the three question marks.

In my current WIP I've highlighted phrases (that I'm not sure were used in 1921). When I get the chance to check with a source, it will be easy to see each one and confirm.

(Your work with the Journal of the American Optometric Association just amazes me. I'd love to see your writing "timeline"--all the varied writing jobs you've had over the years.)

Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--I forgot to mention: I love the Cormier quote. It is soooo true.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Sioux! I've been fortunate to make a living writing for many years, but am saddened by the fact that so many writers now are not treated as professionals, and some companies and clients believe writing isn't valuable. It seems more difficult now to make a good living as a writer. And I also love his quote, it made me smile, but I'm not familiar with his book so will need to check it out!

Angela Mackintosh said...

Mary, I love your 17 steps as well! Very helpful. I recently embraced the art of revision--usually, a task I despise, I'm actually enjoying it now. :)

I'd also love to see your writing timeline. I'm also interested by your quote: "...but am saddened by the fact that so many writers now are not treated as professionals, and some companies and clients believe writing isn't valuable" - I'd love a post that expands on that and your experiences with it. I've seen that over the years as well, and I'm not completely blaming the Internet, but with it came content mills and content marketing/writing for free (free for the publisher, anyway). I'm not sure if that's what you were referring to, but it would be an interesting post.

Mary Horner said...

Thanks, Angela, I was thinking about that as I was writing it. I had coffee with another writer friend who mentioned that a magazine she wrote for now pays about one-third of what it did five or so years ago for freelance articles. This seems to be a trend, and even some writing jobs I have had in the past have either been swallowed up by content creators who charge very little, or the jobs "outsourced" to agencies who also pay very little for articles. I'll try to do a little more research and see what I can come up with!

Pat Wahler said...

Thanks for the great reminders, Mary. I often think I have polished every sentence, word, and comma, until fresh eyes look at my work. Oops! How did I miss that?


Sheila Good said...

Mary, these are great tips. A clear and concise method for revision. Thanks for sharing them. This is a keeper. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles

Mary Horner said...

Thank, Pat, it's amazing how much gets past us even when we are paying attention!

Mary Horner said...

Sheila, I'm glad you liked them, and I need to check out Cow Pasture Chronicles!

Renee Roberson said...

I love your list, Mary. I don't copy editing so much but I hate developmental editing and plotting. They stall me every time! I'm also a habitual user of just, very, really and then. Those are the main things I have to look for when I do a first run through on any of my own manuscripts!

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