Behind The Scenes: How Copy Edits Work

One of the things we like to do here at Pub Crawl is give you a peek behind the curtain at parts of publishing you might not otherwise see. If you follow any authors on social media, the odds are very high you’ve seen them mention their copy edits more than once. So what exactly are they?

Copy edits come later in the editorial process—almost the last thing authors will do before it’s too late to change the text! (And believe us, most authors aren’t nearly ready to stop tweaking words, even when it’s time!)

The copy editor is many things. Grammar guru, continuity expert, repetition police, dictionary, the works. Here’s how some of it works:

Grammar guru: The copy editor will mark up all the spots the story’s grammar isn’t quite right, indicating what the correct usage would be. It’s then up to the author to either accept the chance, or write ‘stet’ (which is Latin for ‘let it stand’, we’re a quaint bunch in publishing) if they want to leave it the way it is. The author might want to leave something the way it is (technically incorrect) for any number of reasons. The character’s voice—a teenager mightn’t say ‘whom’, even if it’s correct. Their own personal style—they might really like using far too many em-dashes, like I do. Impact—they might want a sentence fragment or something all mixed up to create a sense of confusion, or chaos, or to shine a light on particular words. (Fun fact: ask any group of authors what they stet the most, and they’ll almost always tell you it’s the places the copy editor points out you should, technically speaking, have a semicolon.)

Continuity expert: The copy editor is the one who points out that when your character says ‘I can’t believe it’s only been three days’, they really shouldn’t believe it. Because it’s been five. (Whoops. Yes, that is a personal example.) They check all kinds of things, from eye color to that one mention of a character who got erased in an earlier draft, and technically shouldn’t exist at all. The copy editor is the one who points all this out after you’ve read the manuscript dozens of times, and would cheerfully swear it’s completely clean.

Repetition Police: After checking the manuscript completely, the author is usually completely sure there are no word repeated too close together. They usually find they’re wrong. (See what I did there?) The copy editor catches repeats and confusing language, anywhere it’s not quite clear what a sentence means.

Dictionary: During copy edits on These Broken Stars, Meg and I learned that you can rifle through a box hunting for something, but you riffle through papers. Two Fs. When you’ve got an Aussie on the team, the copy editor sometimes also points out things that might be correct in Australia or the UK, but are completely confusing if you’re an American.

Suffice it to say we love our copy editors, who make us look smart! For more entertaining tales of saves copy editors have made for other authors, check out this hilarious post by author, literary agent and Pub Crawl/LTWF alumnus Mandy Hubbard.

This post is adapted from an article that originally appeared in my monthly newsletter—if you liked it, you can sign up here

6 Responses to Behind The Scenes: How Copy Edits Work

  1. SharonS Apr 16 2014 at 6:31 am #

    I’m a freelance editor and I lump all these things under line edits. What is the difference between copy and line edits?

  2. Amie Apr 16 2014 at 7:01 am #

    Hi Sharon! There’s definitely overlap — I’m usually still pulling out repeated words during first pass pages, and some of the stuff mentioned here will have been done during line edits as well. Everybody’s experience is different, depending on the editor they’re working at, the publishing house they’re at, etc, etc. So, here’s the distinction for me, noting it may be different for others.

    For me, line edits take place with my editor, and we’re tweaking and tightening the book on a paragraph-by-paragraph level (for example: ‘do you think this line would hit harder if you deleted the next sentence and made it the end of this section?’) in a way that contributes to the tone of the book, the pacing and the voice. We’ve already done a round or two of substantive edits, in which we’ve done the heavy lifting and cut and added whole scenes/characters/plotlines, so now we’re down to polishing.

    Once the book moves to my copy editor, our focus shifts to things that are more technical — timelines, continuity, grammar, etc. Some of my editor’s suggestions will cover these things, and sometimes my copy editor will also ask content questions, but predominantly they work in two different areas. I hope this helps!

  3. Annie Apr 16 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    haha – I’m the opposite. I have semi-colons everywhere and negotiate with my editor about changing them to commas or em-dashes. I don’t change them to colons though.

  4. Amie Kaufman Apr 17 2014 at 8:47 pm #

    I love it! Annie, we can trade — we’ll both end up with exactly the right number of semi-colons and em-dashes!

  5. Adam Silvera Apr 18 2014 at 12:27 am #

    Amie, I’m legit doing edits right now and the Riffle vs. Rifle thing came up. THANKS FOR THE EDUCATION!

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