July 21, 2011

How to Hire a Copyeditor, Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

Last month I wrote about what a developmental editor does. This month we’re talking about copyeditors (and next month will be about proofreaders). The decision to have your final manuscript edited is a big deal---and an important step.

What is Copyediting, Anyway?
Copyediting, also called line editing, is mostly about consistency, word choice, good grammar, and accurate punctuation. A good copyeditor will notice repetition in your work. They may also help you with any timeline issues or chronology lapses, and inconsistencies caused by things like changing people's names late in the game. They will generally do a base-level fact-check as well. They’ll make your word and punctuation choices consistent. In a well-copyedited manuscript, for instance, you’ll never see make-up and makeup. You’ll never see some sentences with series commas (I write, I edit, and I rewrite) and others without (I write, I edit and I rewrite). Copyeditors usually won’t point out issues in the story or plot unless you ask them to, or unless the issues are so glaring that they must. More generally, they’ll clean up your grammar and catch things you wouldn’t be able to catch even if you took a month away from your work and came back with fresh eyes. Why is this so? It seems to be physiological! People stop seeing the errors in their own writing after having spent so much time with it. (I've experienced this enough times myself to know it’s true!)

Why Do I Need a Copyeditor?
You must be copyedited. If you have to choose between a developmental editor, copyeditor, or proofreader, choose the copyeditor. You will be stunned by what comes back. The things copyeditors catch delight me to no end. It’s amazing to see that EVERYTHING contains errors, and it gives you a whole new appreciation for accuracy. If you’re already a perfectionist, knowing that you will have your work copyedited at the end of your process can be a weight off your shoulders. It can allow you to focus on the creative process of writing rather than worrying so much about sentence construction. If you’re not a perfectionist and don’t even know what a conjunction or series comma is, then by god, get your work copyedited!

How Do I Work with a Copyeditor?
Recently I was struck by something one of my clients said about her manuscript being out with a copyeditor: “I just figured I had to sit back and wait,” she told me. Well, not exactly. The most important thing to know about working with a copyeditor is that you can and should give them notes and establish boundaries around your own expectations. There are a couple reasons to do so:

(1) Many copyeditors can slip into becoming developmental editors in a snap. If you do not want to be developmentally edited, then you need to be clear that all you’re looking for is a line edit. There are plenty of copyeditors out there who will over-edit and take liberties if you don’t tell them that you want some parameters. I’ve worked with a fair number of authors who have been shocked (and upset) when they got their copyedits back. This happens most often with people who are writing humor, or writers who specifically are not striving for perfect grammar because their work is intentionally conversational. If this is the case with your manuscript, you MUST tell your copyeditor so that he or she doesn't edit out the funny, or edit out your conversational tone. Ask your copyeditor to edit a sample chapter, or at least a few pages. (Pay for this if you have to---it won't cost too much.) Make sure the editor’s marks make sense to you and that you agree with the changes they’re making.

(2) It can get expensive. A line edit is less time-consuming than a developmental edit, and you can further clarify the level of edit you want by asking for a bid (see calculator below). Ask the editor if they’ll read some chapters and offer an assessment before you get started. Yes, you will most likely have to pay for this, too, but it’s better to throw away $60-$80 than to spend hundreds, even thousands, on something you’re not happy with.

Heavy edit: Word count divided by 310 divided by 5
Medium edit: Word count divided by 310 divided by 6
Light edit: Word count divided by 310 divided by 7

This calculator can give you a rough estimate of how much time each level (heavy, medium, light) should take so at least you will know whether your copyeditor’s bid is in the right ballpark.

Finally, make sure you have good rapport with your editor. Talk to them. Again, pay them to read some or all of your manuscript and give you notes. In today’s publishing climate you can’t afford to submit unedited material to an agent or a publishing house. It can mean the difference between getting picked up or not---and as I said last month, if you’re self-publishing, being thoroughly and professionally edited matters even more.

Until next month,




  1. Great article Brooke, thank you so very much for writing this. I am a perfectionist, and will sell a work that would not be copyedited. I have been reading and reviewing a lot of self published works recently, and the only thing in common they all have is the overwhelming need for a copyedit.

  2. Rather, I will "never" sell a work that would not be copyedited. (I missed an important word the first time.).

  3. Thanks for the comment, and all aspiring authors would be wise to follow your lead!