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 editor@automatareview.com 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.