Copy editing your own work

Style sheet for copyediting

Doing your own copy editing would have to be one of the most fraught jobs! It’s because we very often see what we expect to see, rather than what is actually on the page. When you have revised your story or novel or article 10 times, you stop “seeing” the actual words and punctuation, and instead “hear” the text. It’s a bit like having it read aloud to you. Hard to explain but you probably know what I mean. Because you have given your work to someone and they said, “Hmm, I picked up a lot of grammar and punctuation errors.”

What? You thought you got them all! After all you used the spell checker and the Word grammar checker, and both of them picked up lots of errors and you fixed them all, darn it. All except the ones you didn’t see.

How to get around this? You do need to fix this stuff because nowadays, if an editor thinks it’s going to take too long or cost too much to fix all your little errors, they’ll reject your work. It’s very rare that anyone’s storytelling abilities are so magnificent that poor grammar is overlooked. There are three steps I recommend, and they do take time and patience (but think how much money you’ll save – a copy editor might charge $3000 or more to edit a novel).

Step 1 – make a list of everything you know you struggle with, especially things that have slipped through in the past (ask a friend who is good at grammar and punctuation to read one chapter – the errors in one will show up everywhere). they should include repeated “tics” as well that need to be weeded out. These might include: wrongly punctuated dialogue; starting sentences with a stock -ing phrase such as Walking through the door, …; commas in the wrong places; overly long sentences that are confusing; point of view slips; tense slips; too many exclamation marks; unnecessary sentence fragments (they can be overdone); inconsistent italicising of thoughts (if you are using italics for thoughts – work out what is best); overstated chapter cliff hangers; pointless dialogue exchanges; poor time or location transitions; overuse of the verb “to be” and its variations; overuse of “would”, especially in memoir. These are the main ones that come to mind from recent copy editing jobs I have done.

You can see already that to fix all of these will require you to examine your manuscript, sentence by sentence, word by word. That’s good! It forces you to see the writing differently, and not get carried away by the story.

Step 2 – create a style sheet for your manuscript. I will attach a sample for you to use (link at the top). On this, write every word that needs to be consistent and correct. You will add to it as you copy edit, so you don’t need to fill it all out before you begin your second run through your manuscript. Some of the things that will go on your style sheet include: how words are capitalised; any acronyms you use (and the first use should be explained); particular spellings, such as whether in your country you use the -ize or the -ise ending; spelling of character names; hyphenation of words (use a dictionary – in Australia consult the MacQuarie for hyphenating); foreign words you have used (check spelling); anything that pops up in the manuscript that needs verifying and/or that will be used again. This way you will save yourself a huge amount of time. I often hear people say, “I’ll just do a search in the document for it”, but that takes a lot more time than simply recording it on your style sheet for quick reference.

Step 3 – re-check formatting. Have you double-spaced with proper margins? Are all your chapter headings consistent? Page numbering simple? Indents done with the tab rather than tapping the space bar? Font is what is recommended? Most editors and publishers ask for Times New Roman or something very similar. It’s easier to read and provides more accurate word/page counts.

All of this might sound incredibly time-consuming, but as I said before, if an editor or publisher has to pay someone to fix your errors, and that’s going to cost several thousand dollars … Besides, think what you will learn along the way about how you write and what your most common errors are. It’s actually an investment in making your next manuscript even better.

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