Seven Changes Your Copy-editor May Make to Your Manuscript

You’ve finished at last! You’ve written your story: first, second, umpteen drafts and versions. Perhaps you’ve used a writing coach or a development editor; you’ve rewritten and self-edited until you can’t see straight. Now your book needs a buff and polish to ensure that readers don’t stop reading partway through because there are inconsistencies, or the language is too tangled.
Enter the copy-editor. They’re like someone who uses gentle fingers to untangle your hair after it’s been washed. Lovely! If you’re worried about the changes your editor will make to your manuscript, being more aware of the types of changes will set your mind at rest. And knowing why the editor makes their changes should turn your concern into appreciation.
1. Formatting
Aim at consistency of formatting: irregularities may cause problems when you try to publish, or self-publish. Your font, font size, tabs and headings need to be consistent throughout your manuscript. For example, don’t use a double line space to indicate a scene break: use a dinkus, a series of asterisks set between paragraphs. If you use a double line space, uploading your manuscript as an e-book will close up the space so you won’t have a break. Also, indent your paragraphs consistently: readers prefer a standard layout that makes their reading experience easier.
2. Consistency: your story, characters and locations
Consistency is essential in fiction writing. Your copy-editor will look for consistency and logic in your storyline and your settings. Grammar, spelling and dialogue layout must also remain uniform between scenes and chapters, unless changes are determined by the story. Common oversights that copy-editors look out for include the changing details of a character’s appearance (blue eyes turn into green ones) or spellings of their name (Phillips becomes Philips – or, worse, Kate becomes Jenny). Place names shouldn’t change, nor should the location (does northwest of Tinkerland becomes northeast?). Or relationships may alter, with a sister turning into a cousin or a niece.
Your language also needs to be consistent. Do you want to capitalise the name of your made-up race? Should first-born or hit-man be hyphenated, one word, or two? Such consistency issues can be ironed out by your copy-editor.
3. Coherency: does your plot hold water?
Coherency checks ensure that the timeline and sequence of events in the story remain consistent, practical and believable. The copy-editor will deal with a four-month pregnancy (miracle baby!), or a young man who dies in a car accident and subsequently meets his girlfriend’s parents: slightly implausible, unless the story is about the undead. Can your hero really battle the baddies and get back to base without anyone realising they were gone? Can your lead character have breakfast in Paris and be in Toronto for lunch?
A copy-editor will watch out for anachronisms, and not just in historical fiction. More obvious ones would include mobile phones being used more than 25 years ago, though more subtle errors can also creep in – Shakespeare famously describes sea journeys starting from landlocked cities, and he has clocks in ancient Rome years before they were invented.
4. Clarity: is your language clear and correct?
Copy-editors describe this as making your language flow, sing, or even dance. They try not to change the natural voice of the author, and they look for ways to improve the reading experience. Literary sing-song can be delightful when written well, but simple plain English is often just as effective. Why use three words when one works better? Are you repeating your words, phrases or sentences? Do you resort to ‘very’ to enhance an adjective? A spot or patch that’s very small could be tiny, minuscule, or minute.
Copy-editors will look for malapropisms – misuse of words that sound similar but have very different meanings (they danced the flamingo/flamenco); spoonerisms – mixing up initial letters (par cark); and tense-switching, even mid-sentence (He went for a walk in the country and sees a bull in the field.).
Sometimes it’s not that the wrong words are used, but rather that the sentence is ‘clunky’. It jolts the reader out of the story when they have to re-read it to understand what’s being said. The editor will recast the sentence to make the reading smoother and ensure it doesn’t mask the meaning. The overuse of descriptors may result in tautology: ‘The orphan boy had no parents.’ By simple yet judicious alteration of a few words here or there, the copy-editor can improve sentence flow.
5. Grammar, punctuation and dialogue
Many first-time authors expect their grammar, punctuation and spelling to be the only areas for change, so editors are often asked for ‘a quick proofread’. Though a proofreader will be looking for these sorts of errors, proofreading should be the last stage of the editorial process, catching those final few typos that have slipped through. A copy-editor will tackle grammar, spelling and punctuation issues as they edit, and also monitor the flow and clarity of the language.
6. Legal issues
The copy-editor will check for anything that might put you at risk of litigation. However, you choose what you write, and ultimately you are responsible for your words. If you simply write that your characters met at Starbucks for a chat before going shopping, you’re unlikely to have a problem. But if your character is terrorised by staff in the named coffee house, or gets food poisoning for the second time that month, you may get a lawyer’s letter. And a good copy-editor will be alert to copyright issues too.
7. Style sheet
Technically, a style sheet isn’t a change to your manuscript, but it’s an essential part of a copy-edit, and an invaluable companion to the text. Style sheets are created and updated to cover every aspect of the style of your manuscript, and should cover all the items discussed in this blog. The list will include all the characters in your novel, and relevant attributes such as their mode of speech and place of origin; and also places mentioned in your narrative. A style sheet is a map enabling you and your editor to chart a course throughout your text, and to maintain consistency in your writing.
I hope this sheds some light on the sort of changes a copy-editor will make to your manuscript, and the reasons for them. But if you’re ever in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask. Your editor is the partner who wants to work for you and with you, to make your text the best your complementary efforts can make it!

Katherine Swailes
Betterwrite Associate Editor

Posted in Advice to Writers.

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