The Writing Life - Six Lessons from a Copy Edit (and a Bonus)

I’ve worked as a professional writer and editor for most of my career, including my current stint as the editorial director at Macmillan Learning. By now, I’m comfortable with the editorial process, and the recursive nature of writing. Still, I’d never had my own writing put through copy edit till this very week when I got back the manuscript for Little Comfort from my editor at Kensington.

Jen Blood writes about The Ten Writing and Editing Stages of the Successful Novel, including copy editing, over on Maine Crime Writers.

Copy editing happens late in the writing and editing process. Good copy editors do much more than correct grammar. They find problems in your novel around logic and continuity, as well as structure, word choice, and repetition. And yes, they correct your grammar. A great copy editor will help you put the finishing polish on your manuscript and make you a much better writer in the process.  

After twenty years of working with words, here are some lessons I learned about my own writing.

1. A lot of my characters drink Bud Light (not Lite). Probably too many.

2. Shelly Duvall spells her name with a second “e” and one “l”.

3. Daycare, hotdog, and loveseat are all two words. Fuck head is one.

4. Writing tics

We all have tics, especially when working on a long-form piece like a novel. One tic I found during the revision process was a really annoying habit of having characters say “Really." All. The. Time. Like this:

Morgan was a veterinarian and had his own practice. Once Kate had moved in with them – and her preschool bills had begun showing up – he’d started picking up spare shifts whenever he could. “They need someone last-minute.”

“Really?”

“Sorry.”

“You owe me,” Hester said, as she saw her day alone suddenly wash away.

But once I knew to search on “Really?” it was easy to find this tic and eliminate it:

“They need someone last-minute.”

Hester smiled at Kate and then waved Morgan to the other side of the apartment. “Are you shitting me?” she whispered.

Thanks to the copy editor, I have two new tics to watch out for in future revisions:

  • Using “over” when I really mean “more than”: She’d interviewed over two dozen people from the party should be She’d interviewed more than two dozen people from the party. You probably already knew this. I should have caught myself doing it, and now, maybe I will!

  • Overusing “quite” as a filler word: She couldn’t quite understand why he’d said that is no stronger than She couldn’t understand why he’d said that. Now it's time to use that "Find" feature in Word. 

5. Possessives

Say your novel features a basset hound named Waffles, and Waffles has a leash. The style for the leash is, apparently, Waffles’s leash (I thought - and still think - it should be Waffles’ leash. I mean, try saying Waffles's out loud!). But it turns out it’s pretty easy to recast most sentences to get rid of that dreadful double s.

6. Commas

Oh, commas. You have been a friend for so long. You pop up in nearly every sentence, offering an opportunity to get it wrong. Thank you!

Bonus: Names

And here’s one last lesson learned that has nothing to do with copy editing: avoid naming terrible, terrible characters after real people, especially ones with whom you may have a conflicted relationship! But, that’s what Find and Replace is for, and that’s why the editorial process has many steps and can sometimes be maddeningly slow. We all want to get it right. That takes time, and a great team.