Thursday, January 29

Red Ink In the Trenches: A Copyeditor’s Perspective

By Dario Ciriello

Part of the Indie Authors Series

I’m going to try to give some different perspective and insight on four common—and often agonizing—questions faced by indie authors:

1. Should I hire a copy editor?

2. What will it cost?

3. What will I get for my money?

4. Can I do it myself?

The short answers to these questions are (1) YES; (2) it varies; (3) that depends; (4) if you’re willing to work hard, you can probably do enough to make a huge difference to the published ms.

In more detail, then:

First off, copy editing doesn’t come cheap. The copy edit on an average-sized novel can run from $800-$1,600 and even more, but believe me when I say a good copy editor earns their money. To go through a 100k-word novel takes me, on average, 35-45 hours, and the work can be quite intense.

So what does the indie author get for their money? That will depend enormously on whom you hire; but perhaps a summary of my own experience in editing indie authors at both novel and novella length will serve to clear up some questions.

My own editing style goes beyond simple copy editing to address stylistic and occasionally developmental/substantive items. On average, a 100k novel will generate between one and three thousand tracked changes, and anywhere between fifty and two hundred inline comments. Once I turn in a job, the author typically spends two to three days accepting/rejecting all the changes and probably another day or so addressing the inline comments.

Truthfully, most of the indie work I see as a freelance copy editor is rough enough that, published in its original form, it would get a good many poor reviews and annoy more than a few readers, with the probable result that many would not finish the book. Spelling, grammatical, and stylistic accuracy are every bit as important in keeping the reader on board as are character, plot, and setting!

The Good News

The good news is that there are a number of very common issues every editor sees over and over again, and most of these aren’t beyond the skills of a determined author on a budget to fix. Taken together, these items make up well over half the edits in most manuscripts I see. Let’s look at what these common issues are.

The first advice I’d give is, don’t overload your sentences. A good deal of any copy editor’s time is spent fixing sentences which just don’t quite work…close, but no cookie. The most common cause is the writer trying to cram too much into one sentence, often by using present participles (-ing ending verbs). An example might be,
The next thing he knew was the car screeching to a halt alongside him, the driver’s door opening and the fat man getting out, gun in hand, pointing it right between Harry’s eyes as he was yelling, “Freeze, mister!”
This kind of thing is painful. Even when there’s not anything actually impossible going on (and present participles are often flags for actions which can’t happen simultaneously, no matter how much the author would like to think they can), these sentences are a mess of barely identifiable subjects and objects, ambiguous pronouns, dangling modifiers, and so on. The fix is usually to break the sentence up and use simple past, like so:
The next thing he knew, the car had screeched to a halt alongside him. The fat man climbed out of the driver’s door, gun in hand. He pointed the barrel right between Harry’s eyes and yelled, “Freeze, mister!”
(You could legitimately leave one participle in there: Pointing the barrel right between Harry’s eyes, he yelled, “Freeze, mister!”. Stylistic choice.)

Perhaps the next most critical issue is consistency. This applies to so many things, from naming characters in narrative (settle on a first or last name and stick to it), to consistency in capitalization, when to use numerals instead of words, the ins and outs of hyphenation, and a myriad other details. The writer who really cares and wants to get these things right will buy a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style (aka CMoS, the standard reference book in use in the US), and study it often. In the course of this, the writer will discover that the following are correct (if contrived). Look closely:
  • He greeted the president, saying, “Hello, Mister President”.
  • She looked at her mother and cried, “Mommy!” while Big Daddy, her father, waited.
  • They sailed east to the East Indies.
  • Between sixteen hundred and 1,615 died.
  • 22 percent of them arrived at 10:40 A.M., the rest at eleven o’clock.
  • All the twenty-three-year-olds met their fathers-in-law.
  • He took several mouthsful and declared the stew good.

Bottom line? Be consistent from start to finish. In the case of words frequently used together (real time vs. real-time or even realtime) usage changes, and in many cases both versions may be correct. In these cases, choose one style and stick to it.

Commas can drive you crazy. Whatever anyone tells you, comma use in English is as much art as it is science, though there are some broad rules. First off, the serial (or Oxford) comma: though it’s fashionable to argue against it, really can eliminate confusion and in any case does no harm—none. The serial comma is simply the last comma we put in a list of three or more items with a single conjunction.

The following example, where I’ve omitted the serial comma between the last two elements, should make it clear why it’s best to use one:
“I owe it all to my parents, Jane Austen and Jesus.”
Just use the serial comma consistently and all will be well.

Although a good rule of thumb when in doubt is to use a comma whenever you’d hear a slight pause in reading, this can result in overuse. The purpose of the comma is primarily to prevent confusion and make reading easier. CMoS has pages and pages on comma use, and I strongly recommend becoming familiar with them.

Next are commonly misused words. There are plenty of lists of these online, and I encourage you to seek them out and learn them thoroughly; but the ones I see most frequently are:
  • Accept / except
  • Affect / effect
  • Altogether / All together
  • Anymore / any more
  • Discrete / discreet
  • Into / in to
  • Lead / led
  • Lose / loose
  • Palate / palette
  • Peak / peek
  • Sight/ site
  • Who’s / whose

Rather more subtle, since they involve grammar, but very important to get right, are the following:
  • Was / were
  • That / which
  • Should / could
  • Who / whom Lie / Lay (This one seems especially troublesome for many writers)

A lot of authors also seem to have a problem using the past perfect, aka pluperfect, tense (he had thought vs. he thought) correctly. This leads to problems such as this:
He had gone to ask her father’s permission. The butler had let him in and had told him to wait. Her father had been dubious at first, then had finally come around.

Looking back on it now made him chuckle.
Apart from being tedious to read, this is incorrect. Think of it this way: you need only use the past perfect (he had arrived) once at the onset of a scene or event to shift the reader from the current narrative time into the narrative past; after that, just carry on in simple past (no had). When we’re back in the current narrative time, it’ll be clear. So:
He had gone to ask her father’s permission. The butler let him in and told him to wait. Her father was dubious at first, then finally came around.

Looking back on it now made him chuckle.

Another thing I see a lot of in fiction is failure to use (or insufficient/inconsistent use of) contractions in dialog, resulting in stiff, formal-sounding speech. Unless your character is a stuffy old Oxford professor or a wannabe evil overlord, please don’t let them say things like, “I do not think that is enough: I will not accept it.” My own style is to use contractions freely in narrative as well.

We should also address speech tags like he/she said—and please stay away from swifties and said-bookisms, which you should google if you aren’t already smiling at the mere mention of them. Many writers use too many tags, and occasionally too few. Rule of thumb: it should always be clear who’s speaking. In the case of two people speaking, tag one or other speaker every three/four exchanges so as to not confuse the reader; in the case of multiple speakers, tag whenever a new speaker breaks in.

As well as simple typos, fix repeated words. Very often I’ll find an author repeats a word used just a sentence above, or even several times in a paragraph. Try not to do this. English is a phenomenally rich language, so instead of saying “plane” three times in a short paragraph, switching the middle instance to “craft” avoids repetition without sounding flowery.

Finally, the word “then” at the beginning of a narrative sentence should almost always be deleted. Trust me.

Together, these items cover the vast majority of the edits I find myself making in most client manuscripts. At the stylistic/substantive level, for which I use inline comments, many of my notes consist of places where either (i) more interiority—internal thought, aka free indirect speech—is needed, or (ii) where more setting description is required to keep the reader grounded and prevent “white room” syndrome.

Of course, there’ll always be many instances of possible confusion, lack or excess of information, and so on, that you, the author, are going to find very hard to catch. The best advice I can give here beyond using good beta readers is to let your manuscripts cool for a few weeks after your main copy edit pass for the items above, and then come to it fresh and read it slowly and with a critical eye.

In conclusion, copy editing your own work is difficult, but a great deal can be done if you have the determination and a copy of the CMoS. It really helps to read the work aloud, and slowly.

Do any of the above sound familiar? What’s your experience with copy editing your own work?

Further reading:

The use and misuse of present participle 
Commonly confused words, with meanings 
Using the past perfect tense 
When to use lie vs. lay

Finally, fellow Indie Author Series bloggers Marcy Kennedy and Jordan McCollum have addressed this important topic before from the author’s viewpoint. Their posts are linked below:

How to save money on editing your book
Finding your perfect editor

Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.

Website | Amazon | Barnes&Noble | Indie Bound


  1. Yes! As a freelance editor, I see the same types of problems and find that I make about the same number of comments and corrections. This list covers the common mistakes.

    One little disagreement, however: In the example where you used the word "mouthsful," I believe you are incorrect. In cases such as fathers-in-law or attorneys general, then yes, the plural goes on the noun because there are multiple fathers or attorneys. But a person only has one mouth, which can be filled multiple times. The quantity of food that can fit in a mouth is one mouthful, and three times that amount of food is three mouthfuls. I checked the dictionary before writing this, just to make sure...

    Which is the piece of advice I would give anyone trying to edit their own work: use your dictionary frequently. Even when you *think* you know the definition of a word, you can be surprised. One of my pet peeves is the inappropriate use of reticent when reluctant is the correct word. Usage notes are priceless comparisons between similar words.

    Working to improve your knowledge of grammar, usage, and punctuation is always a good idea if you're a writer, and cleaning up your manuscript can bring down the cost if you do hire an editor. The cleaner the manuscript, the easier the job. Some editors will charge a flat rate per word, but others will give you an estimate based on how much work is required after they've looked at the manuscript.

    1. Pharosian, thanks--and, darn, but you're right about mouthfuls/mouthsful! I wonder if usage has changed, as it so often does over the decades? My AH doesn't give a plural (!), but my OED does indeed tell me mouthfuls is correct. Still, it's a newish edition. I could swear it was mouthfuls when I was young! A quick online search reveals some sources that allow mouthsful, but I'll use a paper dictionary.

      I agree we should all consult our dictionary frequently. We learn most words as children by context, and that can lead to a variety of errors, sometimes handed down. And of course the other thing all writers should do is read, and read a great deal, of good work.

      As per your last paragraph, yes. I've taken to requesting the entire ms. now before quoting a firm price. The very best mss. I've seen come from a mystery author, whose 80k-ord novels typically generate just a few dozen edits and a handful of comments. Joy!


    2. No problem! I think we all get caught out once in a while. I also consulted two dictionaries, and one (Webster's) didn't give the plural. The Explanatory Notes section at the front of the dictionary states that plurals are not given where the suffix doesn't change the base word. So that means the plural of the word is obtained by adding s at the end.

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  3. Had to fix typos...

    I think part of why sometimes writers "overload their sentences" is because we ALWAYS HEAR that our sentences needs to do more than one thing.

    At least as far as novels go.

    That can add to the issues cited above. I've been there and I still have to watch it.

    FYI, you can be told that "Make your writing multi-task" one too many times...

    Sometimes, we as writers try so hard to be concise, we create other problems, without meaning to or realizing it.

    Also, how do you gauge when you need to work on something more versus being so paranoid you can't say "This is just the best I can do" whatever (hopefully minor) errors still exist?

    After all, while this process takes time, we also can't realistically spend YEARS on every book, and with regards to indie authors who often get advised to BUILD THEIR BACK-LIST, how can we develop a stream of books without quality dipping to annoying levels?

    Anyone got tips on how to balance quality with quantity, because I think the question's harder to answer the less flexible your finances are.

    1. (Sorry, forgot to use the "reply" link and entered my reply to you as a comment. See below :)

  4. Taurean, those are excellent and very tough questions. As an indie author myself, I totally understand the importance of building a backlist and publishing with some frequency.

    First off, if you don't own them, buy a CMoS, a copy of Strunk & White's "Elements of Style", and maybe a copy (used, as it's out of print) of "Warriner's English Grammar and Composition". Once you own them, use them, and study the latter two until your eyes bleed.

    In the absence of professional editing, my best advice would be to surround yourself with the very best beta readers, critique partners, or both, that you can find. People who are careful readers and have a good grasp of the language. You might look at creating your own group of likeminded writers (6 - 8 is IMO ideal who are prepared to go beyond ordinary early- middle-draft critique, line editing and even proofreading one another's work before publication. If you can afford a small sum, it's probably possible to find readers with a good eye and a grasp of language, and come to some arrangement with them. Retired or unemployed English teachers, perhaps, or even good students.

    Although there's no real substitute for professional copyediting, I'd say that any sharp eyes on a manuscript before publication will probably do some good. As to gauging when it's ready...only you can make that call.

    Finally--and I can't stress this too highly--writers need to READ a lot, and at least some of the time, read the truly great writers.

    Best advice I can give.

  5. So far, I think you'd like how I write. I debated for a long time about whether to use contractions in my narritive. I couldn't imagine not using them in dialog. People don't talk without contractions unless they're emphasing a point they're making.

    This post helped me because I've wondered about how well I really write. Although I still don't know, I, now, know that I'm not a terrible writer.

    1. That's great that you were able to use the post as a kind of self-assessment checklist :) If you're scoring well on the above laundry list, you're already ahead of the pack!

      I'd venture to guess that writers who wonder if their work is any good have a built-in advantage: that openness allows space for learning, shows a desire to improve. It really helps IMO to have a good peer group of hardworking, sincere writers to give one feedback, but the real test is getting one's work out in front of real-world readers.


  6. Thanks for this great post. I may send it to every indie or self-pub author I know.

    1. Thanks so much, Steph! I'm very glad you thought it so helpful. Good luck with your edits and revision :)


  7. Dario - enjoyed the post! As always, you present information that is immediately able to be applied by authors...

    The stumbling block I usually encounter when editing 'final' draft manuscripts (per the author) is that vital developmental issues have not been addressed.

    Identifying these problems alters the proposed copy edit and forces me to explain why it is important for the author to correct these issues before the copy edit continues. This might mean adding material or dramatically amending existing material, which can be frustrating for the author.

    This is why I feel editors working with Indie or self-publishing authors need to be very flexible in their approach, quotes, and services. We may be the first, and only, professional support between that author and the public release of their book.

    To avoid some stumbles, I suggest that before an author releases their work to anyone else to review, they need to be their own 'mean guy' by constructing a story outline (if this wasn't done during the writing of the book).

    This doesn't have to be super detailed or a brain-breaker, but the author needs to 'prove' that their story asks certain questions, answers same, stays true to their concepts, makes sense overall, and simply put: tells the whole story!

    I also see a lot of authors who 'rationalize' their story to the reader in the form of near-disclaimers and layered or repeated explanations in the narrative and even within dialogue. Trust the reader! People buy and read books because they enjoy the mental ride. They like having their mind engaged, agitated, and surprised. It's okay to let them hold the paintbrushes once in awhile... :)

    After over 15 years of freelance editing, I tell all my authors to have respect for their story, and that just getting it written doesn't mean the book is finished or a 'final' draft.

    I always want to see an author commit to their story, re-write until their baby no longer walks into a wall, and then allow others (the readers) to adopt it and take it into their hearts. Then, have a good cry -- and start your next book...

    1. Maria, thanks so much for your kind words and comments. When you said,

      "The stumbling block I usually encounter when editing 'final' draft manuscripts (per the author) is that vital developmental issues have not been addressed."

      you absolutely nailed it. My bottom line is that it's up to the author to publish or not as they see fit; but although my job as a copyeditor is to get the ms. *as it stands* into the best shape for publication, I now ask to see the full ms. before quoting cost so that I can advise the client, in the case of severe issues which IMO justify a rewrite, that what they need is a professional critique, not a copyedit.

      I suspect though that no matter how sound any checklist, or your fine suggestion that they construct a preflight outline, as it were, newer authors may not be able to see their own work in any kind of critical light. I think that ability comes with experience and which point the author may well be writing well enough anyway.

      My feeling is that it's vital to have external feedback, and that that should come from the very sharpest readers and writers that the author can surround themselves with. That's not always easy, but it does away with the fatal subjectivity one has concerning one's own work...which, incidentally, cuts both ways: I think most of us have days where we'd trashcan a perfectly good piece of our own writing because we're in that negative, hypercritical phase!