Copyediting for Fiction Writers

Image by João Silas on Unsplash

Image by João Silas on Unsplash

By John Flynn-York

Copyediting and proofreading your own work is difficult. It is also essential. Once you’re happy with the structure, the character arcs, the beginning, the ending, and the middle; once you’ve revised to your heart’s content and had friends look over your work and give you notes and you’ve revised again based on those notes; once you’ve gotten sick of the piece and put it away for a bit and then looked at it again and tinkered with it and found yourself pretty much okay with the way it is, finally—well, then you’re ready to copyedit, and however tired of reading over your work you may be, you don’t want to send that thing you’ve worked on so hard out with spelling mistakes and missing words, do you? You want that final polish, that high sheen. You need to copyedit.

But this can be difficult. Copyediting is a skillset that has significant overlap with, but is also distinct from, the general skillset required for writing, and many writers haven’t developed the copyediting skillset. In addition to that, writers become very familiar with their sentences when going through whatever version of the above process works for them, and when it comes time to copyedit, that familiarity becomes a liability: it’s impossible to see the sentence as it is on the page, in the same way that when we know a person well, our familiarity with them changes the way we see them. When copyediting their own work, writers often overlook missing punctuation, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors. They fail to spot sentences that can be revised to be tighter, more elegant, less wordy. They don’t notice that some elements are clunky, hard to read, or completely and utterly incomprehensible (and not intentionally so). In short, they become unable to look at their work objectively—and therefore miss problems that need to be fixed.

 We want to help rectify this situation. We want to help writers become better copyeditors of their own work (or even just copyeditors of their own work, period). In that spirit, we’ll be running a series of short posts with tips on copyediting for writers. Our advice will be targeted specifically to fiction writers, though in some cases it might have broad applicability as well. In this, the inaugural post, however, rather than specific advice, we’re starting off the series with suggested resources.

First up is Benjamin Dreyer’s recently published Dreyer’s English. Dreyer, the copy chief of Random House for many years, has written an eminently readable book about copyediting, which is a serious feat. Copyediting can be among the driest topics imaginable; he makes it sound sexy and fun. More importantly, his advice is rock solid, and particularly relevant to fiction writers, as copyediting fiction is his specialty. We may disagree on some of the finicky details, but those quibbles are almost purely academic. If you want a single resource on copyediting, make it this one. 

Next up is The Chicago Manual of Style. Well, okay, fine, any style manual will do, but pick one and stick to it—when it comes to copyediting, consistency is key. Use it to answer questions of grammar, punctuation, styling, etc. For us, that’s CMOS. Its tilt is academic—it is, after all, the style manual of a highly respected academic press—and it therefore doesn’t cover some edge cases that appear more frequently in fiction than other writing, but otherwise it is extraordinarily comprehensive. Its online version is easily searchable and its Q & A section often contains answers to tricky situations that aren’t covered in the official publication. If you can’t find an answer to a problem in CMOS’s pages, it’s probably fine to pick one way of doing it and stick with it.

Finally, choose a good dictionary and use it. We like Merriam-Webster, specifically the online version, for general questions, and the Oxford English Dictionary for deep dives into history and etymology, but any established dictionary will do. Consult the dictionary whenever you’re unsure about a word’s meaning or spelling; often, dictionaries also cover tricky usage cases as well.

We’ll be back soon with our first round of copyediting tips & tricks. In the meantime, feel free to email us at if you have a specific copyediting question. We’ll try to answer as many as we can; answers will be posted in future installments in this series.

What Else Can It Do?


Man in Smoke.jpg

I saw a trailer yesterday for a film called Crawl, in which a young woman must save her injured father from being trapped in the crawl space of their home while a hurricane brings on rising flood waters—and there’s a gator-like monster down there with them. Individually, those components are pretty intense. Compiled, they’re near unbearable.

There are about a thousand outstanding horror films, novels, and stories whose only goal is to scare. The Big Four—Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and all their sequels come to mind. And sure, they’re immensely popular for good reason. They do the scare thing brilliantly, the gross-out impeccably. And audiences by and large leave their seats a little shaky, a little sweaty, and glad the ride is over until the next time they sit down. There’s high entertainment happening there, no doubt.

And I am certain Crawl is going to do that scare thing really well, too. Being a claustrophobe with a recurring drowning nightmare, I’m basically the target audience for that film’s scares. Hell, I got twitchy just during the trailer. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. Sure, that’s the point of scary movies, right? To feel that life-or-death intensity without the risk? I’m all in on that, for sure. But can it be more? Can it do more?

I think about films like Get Out, Us, Hush and Alien, whose metaphorical content are intended to facilitate social conversations as a result of their scare tactics. Yes, they are scary films, but the fear they generate serves another purpose deeply intertwined with the horror itself. These films force us to confront biases and misconceptions about the machinations of society, the people we share those societies with, and most importantly, ourselves. Often, those reflections aren’t comfortable. But they result in a deeper understanding of, oh god forgive the phrase, the human condition as it manifests in experiences different from our own. And they can validate perspectives often overlooked by mainstream entertainment, and even horror specifically.  

Then I think about stories like Stephen King’s The Body, which is hard to classify as horror but whose undertones suggest an evil in Ace Merrill running deeper than natural human assholery—a suggestion which is later solidified in his Needful Things. The Body is undeniably classic bildungsroman, but is driven by the face-your-fears prospect of seeing a dead body, the ultimate mark of lost innocence. The film adaptation thrives without the supernatural undertones, resulting in an ultimately satisfying experience. But the novella? Heartburstingly emotional because it’s all the great things the film is—plus scary.

Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels ramps that up a notch, taking the bildungsroman into werewolf territory and letting it grow teeth. I can’t remember a time a book hurt so bad with all the good feelings; Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door hurt worse than anything I’ve ever read, but Mongrels does it with love and nostalgia, whereas Ketchum uses a sledgehammer and a basement.

All of this admittedly vague exposition leads me to this: What else can your genre do? I love horror. Love a good scary movie, and the most recent Pet Sematary is almost perfect in that regard. It’s everything a straight-ahead horror film should be. The film stabs the right notes at the right times and then twists the knife fantastically—and as such, is great entertainment. But I sometimes want more out of my entertainment.  

Which is why in my own writing, and in what I watch and read, I gravitate toward the emotional truth a piece creates, and am always looking for the reason why we endure the fear. Just that in itself, enduring the fear, can be the point, but in the case of Crawl, wherein I’m actually negatively anxious about the experience, will there be a payoff beyond playing in that anxiety? For some, it certainly won’t need anything else. For me? That anxiety is a high price of admission, and I’m going to be looking for, am always looking for, the grand destination to which all that twitching and sweating leads.


Slow Down

By Eli Ryder


My father died of a brain tumor at the ripe old age of forty-five, and if that hadn’t taken him down the cancer in his lungs would have done the job. I don’t remember if anyone connected the two, calling one a metastasis of the other, or if they were separate issues. What I do know is that his age threw a cloud around my own longevity, because the other thing no one ever discussed is whether he was genetically predisposed or if he’d brought all of that on himself.

The brain tumor could have been the drug use throughout his life. The lung cancer, maybe the two-pack-a-day habit he had since before I was born. Or, he could have passed to me a potential for illness I would have to carry around in the back of my mind.

I smoked for a while. Did my share of recreational drugs. There’s more cancer in the family, too. All kinds of potential.

I’ve tried to leverage that potential into motivation to do all kinds of things with my life, to wear all kinds of badges:








Single words, short ones. But with so much power. Their technical definitions and emotional implications can express universal experiences with such specificity. Or create imaginary identities out of nothing, identities we wear like winter coats even when they don’t all-the-way fit.

The longest there is ten letters, ten ultimately arbitrary characters we’ve all agreed have sounds, and those individual sounds make a longer, more complex sound, and suddenly the five, six, seven characters assemble into an entire identity.

These identities overlap, combine, and even their almost-magical capacity to contain, to be infinitely bigger than their arbitrary signifiers, are individually still too inadequate to contain an entire person.

We sure make them try, though, don’t we?

Writer: Here I am, writing. I’ve got some short fiction out in the world, a play once upon a time in San Francisco, and some short musings on writing and craft for Automata’s blog. Also, a songwriter—nothing anyone would ever remember, but enough to make a record, and record demos at home, and then play them for people years later when I don’t think they’d laugh. I’m an editor, both for my own magazine and for friends in writing groups. I’m in my second career, having left a decade of experience in retail management behind for the much more challenging and rewarding halls of academia. And, Asshole. Yep. I’ve been that. Haven’t we all?

I am also a Father. Connotatively, that’s love, support, guidance—and fun and sacrifice, a great magnitude of things. The word contains so much that a single essay cannot possibly express everything the word demands. And, to my daughter, that singular word will encompass every I am to her. Every other identity will be contained in that word: “My father is (insert other signifiers here).”

Even in their magnificent power to create meaning, words are still too small and weak to contain an entire human.

We are a great many things, and when one of them overshadows the rest, maybe the whole human suffers. For instance, teacher—my mother (there I go, boxing her in) is a teacher, has been for 20-odd years, and will likely never be able to retire. So, she’ll be a teacher until she dies. She also has horses, reads books, and twice upon a time was a wife. But mostly: teacher. And now, that’s pretty much it. Solitary, almost anti-social, she works from dark to dark and is usually too drained by her work to do anything but decompress when she’s not at work.

She’s become someone who can fit completely inside the badge. Teacher. There are other things, but they’re wedged into the Teacher box and only exist to support the teacher identity. She’s made everything else so small that even my limited-scope version of her wilts in the face of Teacher.

I have a new badge.

I’m trying hard not to let that new badge, the new-as-of-12:46pm-January-8-2019 badge with the lethal connotations, gain too much space among the rest. I’m a writer, friend, partner, teacher, lover, reader, songwriter (despite that hat’s rare appearance), and more recently, walker, breather, relaxer. All of those can peacefully coexist together, even support and make each other stronger. Now, though, there’s an interloper, a badge often so powerful it crushes people under its weight:


That’s what I am, now. A patient. A negative metastasis, no spread of disease, best-news-about-worst-news early-detected Prostate Cancer Patient.

And that word, that identity, could easily obliterate everything else, spread and take over and suffocate the rest of me. It could, and does to a lot of people—most of whom don’t have the positive adjectives tacked onto the front of that badge the way I do. If there’s luck in these kinds of situations, I’ve got it. So, that’s a new badge too: Lucky.

Lucky that I turned down the position in Las Vegas when I did, because that landed me here in Texas. Lucky I missed my flight to the interview in Fort Worth after having accepted a position in Houston, because that kept me in Houston—where my general practitioner made a mistake on a lab order and ran a test never ordered on people under fifty. Which led to a series of tests and biopsies and discoveries probably not explored had I not found the one GP who would make that mistake.

My surgeon told me he had no idea why my PSA was tested, because my age and indicators didn’t call for it. I’m only forty-one. He also told me I’d not have lived to fifty, the age at which that test would normally have been run.

My father wasn’t so lucky, didn’t have medical insurance, and maybe forty-five was my timeline without all these seemingly random events falling into place. But they did.

So, lucky.

I am a Patient, noun, one who is receiving medical care. But, let’s look again—patient, adjective, able to withstand delays, problems, and suffering without becoming upset. (I stole those definitions from the internet). Being patient means weathering a storm without having dimmed one’s shine.

The etymology of the homonym looks obvious—it comes from “patience,” according to Patience, noun, the ability to suffer and endure. That’s another stolen definition. The noun Patient, in receiving medical care, must endure. The adjective Patient, a modifier for other identities. I like to think the adjective exists to remind the noun of the noun’s existence. To remind it of it’s endurance, its ability to stay shiny in a storm.

So my new badge? It should take the reins sometimes, let me settle into each diamond-glow moment for the moment itself. Let it support all my other badges. Make everything I am more patient. Slow down with students when the third and fourth attempts don’t hit home, because I’m going to miss the moment things finally click.

Slow down when my daughter’s independence—the clear sign she’s mine—means she’s not listening, she’s testing boundaries because that’s what smart toddlers do, so that I’m more in tune with what she’s doing and how she’s growing, because I’m going to miss the toddler when she’s older, the kid when she’s a teenager, and the teenager when she’s an adult.

Slow down when the words don’t come, or come fragmented, or come stupid. Because those moments are the pain of writing, the work is to bear down and write through it, and that takes slowing down, embracing the process, and coming out on the other side.

And that’s the meat of it. Weathering the storm, is what patience is. I should be a patient teacher, a patient writer. A patient friend and partner. All of these things in addition to, and due to, being a Patient. The rest of my little boxes should nest in that one for a little while, let me be a Patient among all those other things and bear down, work the process, and come out on the other side. Because I’ve got time, now, more than my father had.

Not a Book

This wonderful sci-fi story by Ken Liu I read the other day concerns the book-making and -reading habits of various (fictional, as far as we know) intergalactic species. It has the kind of inventive and intricate storytelling I look for—there’s a touch of mischief to it, a sense of wonder, a sinuous line of pattern-making and -breaking.

I ran across it while reading through a thread on Goodreads about the deletion from Goodreads’ database of issues of FIYAH, a black speculative fiction magazine. So the story goes, Goodreads does not list periodicals and magazines and literary journals in its database. The reasoning behind this is unclear, beyond the fact that these items are not “books”—and Goodreads is a site for books, not writing. But various non-books can and do get added to the database—by users, through automated methods, by osmotic data seepage—and these items are sometimes discovered by the site’s volunteer librarians. They’re deleted if they don’t have ISBNs; if they do, they’re shuffled off to NOT-A-BOOK purgatory. FIYAH does not have ISBNs for its issues, so it was booted.

The upshot of this scenario is a significant loss of exposure for FIYAH, and people are upset. Rightfully so: with FIYAH being dedicated to black speculative fiction, it looks an awful lot like a discriminatory outcome, especially when other literary magazines were allowed to remain. Some commenters in the thread explain this away through appeal to the rather arbitrary and apparently random nature of the librarians’ work—if they happen to find something awry, away it goes, but whether or not they find the things that are awry is left up to chance. It’s a fairly haphazard way to go about the rather serious matter of curating a database that millions of people use, and rather bizarre if you think about it: this is an area in which software excels, in fact an area in which software far outpaces human ability—and yet it’s being handled by humans, and unpaid ones at that. But never mind that absurdity. Other commenters in the thread make the reasonable and rational point that when an outcome is discriminatory, well then it’s discriminatory, and here we have a discriminatory outcome, and whether or not Goodreads’ policies are intentionally discriminatory, they have resulted in just such an outcome. QED: one more example of structural racism, albeit a kind of grunting, creaking, wheezing, who-me-I’m-not-a-racist-I-have-a-black-friend kind of structural racism.

Much of the discussion of whether FIYAH was rightfully deleted hinges on the question of what a book is, according to Goodreads. In my opinion, what makes a book a book, what constitutes “book-ness,” is quite obscure and possibly undefinable; Liu’s story stretched my own conception of “book-ness” so far that I’m not sure there is anything that does not have the potential to be a book. If it can be read, it can be a book—and what cannot be read?

Goodreads seems to endorse the position that books, and only books, are books. We know them when we see them, right? Problems with this essentialist position abound, however: there are non-books like literary journals and magazines and periodicals masquerading as books—they can be read like books and are often printed and bound and distributed just like books, but still: not books—and there are toys and bookmarks and board games that are sucked up into the database because they have ISBNs, which make them appear to be books even though they, too, are (clearly) not books. These interlopers cannot be tolerated, they cause a bad vibe, they harsh the real books’ mellow, and so the lit journals and magazines get the ax, as previously discussed; the non-books with the slick fake IDs, however, they’re trickier, they keep trying to get back into the club, waiting for the bouncer to look the other way or sneaking in through the side door or riding in on the coattails of a friend.

Goodreads’ rather ingenious solution to this dilemma is to send these non-books off to NOT A BOOK land, which features numerous non-books called NOT A BOOK, all written by the exceptionally productive author NOT A BOOK. We should all emulate NOT A BOOK’s work ethic: 180,000+ non-books and counting, as of this writing. I’d like to humbly submit here that if Goodreads can handle this ridiculous ad hoc solution to a real-but-trivial problem, then maybe it could also handle having magazines, periodicals, and literary journals hanging out with the “real” books, rubbing shoulders and making eyes at each other and maybe sneaking off into dark corners, getting busy and creating new hybrid forms like bound collections of periodicals and books that start life off being published as serials.

To bring this back around to FIYAH, though: it’s a frustrating situation and the only clear thing I can see to do is hop over to their site and subscribe, and then tell a bunch of other people about it and get them to subscribe, too. One-year subscriptions for 2019 and two-year subscriptions for 2019–2020 are even on sale! So that’s what I’m doing. Let Goodreads NOT-A-BOOK itself silly and nuke non-books from its database if it wants to; I’ll be over here reading, because that’s what matters, not whether or not something is a book.

Trouble with Titles

My ideal title lies somewhere in between the two poles of “painfully obvious” and “horribly obscure.” It suggests what the work is about without blaring it through a megaphone, it alludes to layers of meaning within the piece, it has maybe a touch of humor or mystery or intrigue to it.