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How to Copy Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro

As a writer, you have one job: to communicate. (That’s it! So streamlined!). Even if you’re not a trained editor, you can copy edit your writing like a pro by using our downloadable checklist and paying attention to the 10 most important things to look for when copy editing your manuscript. Take your time, make notes, and you’ll be positioning your manuscript to best showcase your ideas, strut your stuff, and get into the right hands.

by Jenna Kalinsky, Founding Director, One Lit Place

Many writers are wildly successful as writers despite not being trained copy editors. Given that most of the job of writing is rewriting, how is this phenomenon possible?

It’s because writers are highly attuned to what “sounds, feels, and looks right” with their sentences.

Consider your own relationship to your writing: As someone whose chief currency is language, you are naturally sensitive to the music of the words in a system, the sentences’ rises and falls, their tonal “fingerprint,” and the logistics of whether they are clear, missing elements, overwrought, or correct.

10 Issues to Help You Copy Edit Your Manuscript Like a Pro

Being able to waltz into a cocktail party and talk about dangling modifiers is very nice (or a great way to spend the evening alone), but you don’t have to be a trained editor to be able to effectively copy edit your manuscripts. 

If you both listen carefully to your work and use this list of 10 things to look out for when copy editing your manuscript, you’re sure to send out the best writing you’ve got into the world.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these 10 things are the most important to pay attention to while you’re copy editing your manuscript. Whip these issues into shape, and you’ll see and feel a difference in how your work comes across: leaner, cleaner, and with its own particular art and authority.

1- Use a Style Sheet to Maintain Consistency

1. Ensure your language, grammar, punctuation, and formatting are consistent by keeping track of everything on a style sheet. Consistency is important for establishing your authority. A style sheet is critical to staying organized.

You’re welcome to purchase ours, which is customizable, fillable on your computer, and reusable (and the one we use with our own clients), and only 7 dollars, or you can make your own. 

In essence, a style sheet serves as both a repository for how you handle specific language, punctuation, and formatting situations as well as a list you can refer to during your copy edit of specific usages.

You’d be amazed at all of the little things one needs to keep track of from proper name spellings to timeline progressions to how you handle numbers, and it’s an alleviation as well as a great system for attending to them with care during the copy editing (or as Annie Lamott calls it, the “tooth checking” phase). 

A list is an insurance policy against forgetting anything that could damage your manuscript and your credibility.

Your style sheet can have different sections either coded by letter of the alphabet, or by topic, or it can simply be a list of items to look out for:

  • Proper names: Lorque Fusulman (not Lorq Fuselman or Lork Fusselman)
  • Fact-checking or technical details: Leaf Lane (not Leaf Street)
  • Spelling consistency: Gray or towards (not grey or toward), U.S., Canada, or UK standardization
  • Formatting consistency: subheading font and weight, capitalizations, italics for inner thoughts, journal pages, or letters, etc.
  • Numerals: follow a specific style guide or adapt to your own needs. (We use Chicago Manual of Style for general publication needs or MLA/APA for academic work). Importantly, you stay consistent with how you handle numbers, dates, percentages, statistics, dollars and cents, etc.  
  • Punctuation: Oxford comma (always, if you ask me), em and en dashes, curly or straight quotes, British or U.S. conventions, etc.

Suggestion: as you’re going through your early drafts, keep track of the proper names, word usages, and other items you will want to cross-check later during your copy edit on the style sheet. It’ll make your life a lot easier when you’re copy editing!

pencil close up against black background

2-7 Catch Sentence Mucker-Uppers

2. Tighten baggy sentences: do your sentences have extra words in them? Main words that can be cut are “that” (which is 97% of the time unnecessary), due to the fact that, in actual fact, in order to, etc.

3. Focus on the issue: “the deadline is soon to arrive” or “the document is not of a lengthy nature” are great examples of too many words. Simple and clear is always the most elegant (and understandable) option.

4. Upend the familiar: if you inadvertently (or advertently) used common phrases or fill words like literally, actually, just, and so, unless they’re used in dialogue, they can likely be axed. And clichés? A good rule of thumb (ha) is if you’ve heard it before, toss it. You’re not on this earth to echo what others have said. Say it new and make it yours.

5. Activate passive voice: it is experienced by the best of us (sorry, couldn’t help it), but it’s rarely necessary. When you come across a passive construction, consider whether you need to keep the line passive or whether you can make it active.

Note: active sentences help the narrative travel forward; passive sentences stay stuck in one place. Example: “the book was written by Sue” vs. “Sue wrote the book.”

6. Enjoy dynamic sentence construction and length: If every sentence begins subject-verb-object (Joe went downstairs. Joe opened the fridge. Joe grabbed the jam, etc.), your work begins to have the rhythm of a typewriter and may lull your reader to sleep (or make them aware that the sentences are all unartfully similar).

(And vary your sentence openings): Use different subordinate clauses, adverbial clauses, or other engaging ways to shake up the music of the lines. Also make sure you don’t bundle several short or long and wending sentences together unless you’ve done so for dramatic effect. Vary the length to keep your reader’s eye, body, and mind engaged.

7. Cross-check homophones: a grammar checker may not catch these because even if they’re used incorrectly, they are still correct words (simply not used in the right context). To, two, too, or your and you’re, and there, their, and there are the main offenders.

8-10 Bring on the Reinforcements

  1. Get a grammar app: Use a grammar checker like your spell and grammar check in Microsoft Word, an app like Grammarly, or if you’re using a writing app like Scrivener or Butterdocs, the in-app tool. These apps are great for catching easy-to-overlook mistakes like “the sun was shinning” or “anybody ut there?”

Still, while apps do catch a lot, again, you’ll want to bare in mind that many grammar checkers won’t catch what I just did there because they aren’t designed to flag correct words used contextually incorrectly, so a human will still need to be the last eyes on your work.

9. Read the work aloud: Music is meant to be heard to move us, and language does the same: intellectually and psychologically. Listen to the rise and fall of your sentences.

Note:

  • Breathing = punctuation. Notice where you naturally want to breathe during a sentence and determine whether that desire is supported with punctuation or whether you need to shorten a sentence or adjust the sentence with correct punctuation to allow for it.
  • Subject-verb disagreements: reading aloud will best enable you to catch any disagreements between the subject and its verb (happens all the time when your subject and verb aren’t touching because there’s a long clause in-between like “The pumpkins (subject) lined up in a long row beside the chicken coop were (verb) half-eaten by squirrels”).
  • Missed words (a grammar checker may not catch these)
  • And other funky sentences that simply need your deft touch.
  1. Get another person to read your work (best, a professional editor): It’s common to miss the little errors while reading as our brains are wired to focus on higher-order issues.

Another reason we miss typos, extra spaces, and missing words is by as early as the second go-around, your brain is too familiar with the way the lines look and frankly, it’s tired. Semantic Satiation is the #1 reason you must have a second person read your work.

A friend or fellow writer will be able to flag things you may have missed. And if you go in for the most effective solution (an editor), they will not only catch the errors, but they’ll be able to fix them in short order so the sentences sound exactly like you, only you on your very best literary and communicative behaviour.

Download our free checklist that includes the 10 things to do when reviewing your manuscript, so you can copy edit your work like a pro. Attend to these, and you will illustrate to the publishing powers that be that you’re a serious contender who not only knows your way around a story or an idea but how to articulate it best.

And that often that’s what makes the difference between rejection and success.

Our comprehensive Style Sheet used in conjunction with the checklist will ensure you’ve got all your bases covered!

If at any point, you’d like to do #10 and get a professional editor’s eyes on the case, please reach out! We’re here to help you succeed with all the writing you do. 

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