Copy editing | Inside Publishing
What is copy editing?
Perhaps, as an author, you feel you do not understand what copy editing is, or why you should need it. Copy editing, or line editing as it is sometimes called in publishing circles, is the painstaking job of going through a manuscript line by line to correct the spelling, grammar and punctuation.
A good copy editor will also correct errors, such as poor continuity (the heroine having dark hair on one page, but metamorphosing into a blonde later on) and factual errors (such as placing a town in the wrong place). He/she will also comment on more general textual problems (for instance, confusion about who is saying what in dialogue, or placing a character in the wrong place) and will if necessary raise a list of more general queries for the author to consider.
If you are trying to get your work published and know that it is full of minor errors, it's worth considering copy editing, as these errors will not encourage editors or agents to read on, or to take your work seriously. It is important that your work suggests you are literate! A cheaper alternative would be to get a literate friend to go through your manuscript, but don’t imagine that this will be the same thing, as copy editing is a highly skilled activity which requires many hours of focused work. Most copy editors have learnt their trade over many years of working for publishers and they possess the essential expertise which can transform your manuscript into something which is ready to go be printed.
Isn’t copy editing the publisher’s job?
If you do already have a publisher, then don't worry about copy editing, as your publisher will deal with this as part of the work involved in preparing the book for publication. When the publisher's copy editor has finished their work it is advisable to check through the changes to your copy edited manuscript though, particularly if there are a lot of them, to make sure that you are happy with what the copy editor has done. You should also check the proofs very carefully, even if your publisher has a professional proof-reader reading them too, because in the end it is your book and you are responsible for making sure you are happy with the printed version.
What about self-publishing?
Given the huge growth in self-publishing, many authors who are publishing their own work will be wondering whether they should go to the additional expense of having it copy edited before it goes to the printer. My advice would be that this is essential if your book is not to look illiterate in its finished form. Even the most meticulous of writers will have difficulty in spotting mistakes in their own copy, although they should be encouraged to use a spellchecker and then to go through it as carefully as possible before anyone else starts work on it. It’s always worth asking a trustworthy and literate friend to read it with a critical eye. But the author should then think hard about stumping up the money for copy editing as an essential part of the self-publishing process.
So, what is proof-reading?
Proof-reading is a separate activity from copy editing and should always be done afterwards as part of a final check that the text is in good order. Traditionally, proof-reading was done at galley stage, when the text was set up in type but not yet made into pages. There would then have been a final stage during which the corrections made at galley stage were checked in the page proofs.
In theory digital typesetting has meant that proof-reading is not necessary but publishers still employ proof-readers to check that the text is correct and that any corrections made by the copy editor have been correctly input. If you are self-publishing you might want to skip this, but you should check the text through carefully before you pass it for press, as it will be more expensive to make the corrections later.
The plethora of errors in printed books is the result of poor copy editing and proof-reading, and it is important to check the work systematically at each stage, to make sure that errors have been corrected and that the text is in the best possible shape. Otherwise, particularly if you are self-publishing, you risk being disappointed with your finished book.
Chris HolifieldManaging director of WritersServices; spent working life in publishing,employed by everything from global corporations to start-ups; track record includes: editorial director of Sphere Books, publishing director of The Bodley Head, publishing director for start-up of upmarket book club, The Softback Preview, editorial director of Britain’s biggest book club group, BCA, and, most recently, deputy MD and publisher of Cassell & Co. She is also currently the Director of the Poetry Book Society; During all of this time aware of problems faced by writers, as publishing changed from idiosyncratic cottage industry, 'occupation for gentlemen', into corporate business of today. Writers encountered increasing difficulty in getting books edited or published. Authors create the books which are the raw material for the whole business. She believes it is time to bring them back to centre stage.