The copy-editing experience

This is an unusually long post from me today, as I want to write about copy-editing. One thing I wasn’t prepared for when preparing the manuscript (MS) of Ignoring Gravity for publication was copy-editing. This was something I just hadn’t got around to organising.copy-editing It wasn’t that I didn’t know it would have to be edited, but I hadn’t factored in the time needed. The novel has been read so many times, in its many forms and with its different titles, by so many different people, surely copy-editing is just picking up bad punctuation? Wrong.

I am so thankful that a journalist colleague now runs a copy-editing business. Dea Parkin [below] and I go back a long way, I trust her. Fiction Feedback gave me a brilliant service. I heard Dea gulp when I said she had a week to turn around the MS, and another gulp when I said it was 99,000 [alright, 100,000] word MS. But she did it. In fact we did have more time, and in the end Fiction Feedback read the MS three times. It was worth every penny. copy-editing On all style points, Fiction Feedback refers to the Oxford English Dictionary, and New Hart’s Rules. The major style changes made to my MS were:-
Internal thoughts are in italics;
All double quote marks replaced with single as per standard UK English format for novels, double quotes are used only for quotes within quotes;
Oxford comma used throughout;
Numbers over 100 are written as numerals;
Per cents in prose written as numerals, but if in dialogue, spelled out;
Times styled eg 7 a.m. If no a.m. or p.m. is used, spelled out: seven-thirty;
Many words made whole rather than hyphenated – home-made, over-react, etc;
Internet with cap I;
At one point in an earlier draft I changed the year of the ‘now’ strand of the story so there were incorrect references to TV programmes watched.
Language I used which was not in general usage in the Sixties was highlighted.
Continuity issues, for example Rose sitting down in a chair when she sat in it a page earlier, or drinking from a glass when I’d written that she picked up a cup.

Dea also checked the timeline from the Sixties to now, the order of events, that ages were correct etc. I thought I’d caught all the contradictions, but Dea and Sarah-Jane found some. Which just illustrates why a professional copy-edit is necessary.

I found the process enlightening, and a little humbling. I had told a good story but without the input of Fiction Feedback the MS would have been strewn with errors. They have edited so many manuscripts, they must have seen just about every possible error. With this in mind, I asked Dea for basic advice to all authors. copy-editing What are the five things all writers should do?
1. Make time to write. It sounds obvious, but a lot of writers find this hard. My advice is, don’t wait until you can dedicate a large chunk of uninterrupted time to writing. Instead, get into a regular routine, even if you can only spare half an hour a day. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to slip back into the groove every day and how much you can achieve.

  1. Write for yourself. Write what you want to write and what you’d like to read, however unfashionable or off-genre. Don’t force yourself into a direction that doesn’t feel like you. If your work is sufficiently well written, it will find readers. As long as you’re clear yourself what it is you’re writing.

  2. Read. Voraciously, anything and everything, but especially recently published novels in the same genre (eg romance, fantasy, contemporary fiction, crime) as you want to write. Don’t be afraid of being influenced by another author’s style. If you are, it will pass, and later you’ll edit it out. But without reading what’s on bookshelves now and appreciating how they work you limit your chances of writing a successful novel. It amazes me how many would-be writers don’t read. Most successful novelists I know make time for it. Read in the bath, on the train or listen to audio books in the car – but do it.

  3. Create thinking time. It won’t be wasted.

  4. Open yourself to new ideas and experiences. Don’t try to write from an ivory tower. It doesn’t work for most people. Experience informs novels, even if you don’t draw directly on it.

What are the five things writers shouldn’t do?
1. Don’t try to write another Harry Potter, or another Fifty Shades. Publishers are looking for the next big thing, not rehashes of the old.

  1. Don’t edit as you go. I realise this is contentious, but in my experience writers who can do this successfully are in a minority. Write and allow your creativity full rein; don’t stop. I know people who never get beyond the early chapters because they must edit, and re-edit, and edit again. Time for that when it’s finished. Until then, give yourself over to the writing.

  2. Don’t plan a novel or story if you find this inhibiting. Many writers do, but it’s been drummed into them to plan, and they think you can’t write a novel without planning it like you might an essay or a report or an article. In my opinion, this takes all the fun out of it, and so you get bored and it becomes hard. Instead, trust your creative instincts. If you get stuck you will find a way out. After a chapter or two you’ll begin to have a vague idea of the shape, and soon you’ll know where you’re going. But if you must plan, plan to deviate like mad.

  3. Don’t ever think your first draft is good enough to send out. It isn’t.

  4. Don’t ever stop believing in yourself.

What are the most common mistakes in MS submitted to you?
1. Starting the novel too soon. Two or three chapters setting up, especially with long exposition of what’s got the character to this point, is two or three chapters too many. Start with action, and fill in the past later if you need to, but focus on hooking your reader and getting the novel moving. And please, please don’t start a novel with someone waking up.

  1. Telling not showing. Many writers don’t understand this. Effectively telling is where the author tells the story, not the characters. Have description by all means, but shown through a character’s eyes. Let us know feelings, but through how a character acts at least as much as the author telling us, ‘He felt’. Obviously you can’t show everything but writing is much more powerful and engrossing where you do. One big rule: for scenes of drama, we want to live it through the characters’ viewpoints. Don’t ever report moments of great drama or importance. Let us experience them.

  2. Changing viewpoints mid paragraph. Different viewpoints are best kept to separate scenes which will likely be different sections or chapters, but it must certainly be separate paragraphs. A paragraph that switches viewpoint halfway is a paragraph that needs editing.

  3. Getting the pacing wrong. Too many writers rush through the dramatic bits, leaving the reader dissatisfied, and take us in minute detail through aspects that don’t drive the story forward or add anything to characterisation, leaving us to wallow in sloughs of depression. You don’t want that.

  4. The most common mistake of all; authors not doing any editing before sending in a work for critique. Editing your prose, yes, so a reviewer isn’t driven mad by errors of spelling and punctuation and grammar, and finds themselves focusing on those issues instead of the novel, but also general editing, so a novel doesn’t go off in too many different tangents, or reads like it’s been made up on the spur of the moment, or has huge plotting errors. Try to do some self-editing. You’ll get much more value from a critique if you’ve shown some dedication to your craft by spending time re-reading and revising first.

What’s the difference between a critique, structural editing, copy-editing and proofreading?
A critique takes a broad view of your story or novel and highlights major strengths and weaknesses and makes outline suggestions for improvement. It’s a good starting point.

Structural editing looks at all the strengths and weaknesses and helps you make changes. It’s very hands-on. It looks at the nuts and bolts of how the MS is working as a story or novel – structure, narrative arc, characterisation, plot, pace and style.

Once that’s done – and allow at least three drafts including the first – it’s time for copy-editing. This is where we examine the prose word by word. Yes, we pick up problems with spelling, grammar and punctuation, and ensure all-important consistency, but you’ll also be encouraged to test that every word is doing its job to the utmost. So we’ll look at vocabulary choices, naturalistic dialogue, facts, logic, repetition, minor glitches in characterisation or plot, anachronisms and verisimilitude. Do you quote a TV show of 1963 and mention its host? We check it was broadcast then and that the host is the right one. Do you write about watching events at the bottom of an unlit garden from an English home at 5pm in January? We respectfully point out that might not be feasible. Do you use one expression of amazement no matter which character is speaking? We suggest you create different expressions for each character. Allow for two copy-edits.

Once you’ve checked the final copy-editing amends, you shouldn’t really be making any further revisions. But just in case you do, and most particularly to pick up any oversights or inconsistencies, the novel needs to go through a final proofread before publication, preferably by a different pair of eyes. At Fiction Feedback, we use a different proof-reader from the editor whenever we’re asked for the service.

What’s your advice for writers who want to send off an MS to an agent; what should they do before sending it?
Check you’re sending what they want. Websites are a useful guide, or call and ask. Not all agents want the first three chapters, a synopsis and a covering letter, and some want your submission by email, some by post. Do what they ask for. Pay attention to getting your name and novel title and a consecutive page number on every page, and ensure all your contact details are on the cover sheet. If posting, don’t use coloured paper, unusual fonts or fancy binders. Don’t use staples or paperclips. Keep it crisp, clean and simple.

It’s at this stage you need to put your creativity as a writer in the background and put on your business head. Agents and publishers look at writing and writers as business investments. Impress them with your professionalism. Write a proper synopsis, not a back-cover blurb or a chapter-by-chapter plot guide. There’s plenty of advice on how to write one on the web. For your covering letter, check out the advice given in the pdf accessed from the Resources page of the Fiction Feedback website.

But before you do all this, make sure the work you’re sending out is the best it can be. An agent or publisher will only spend a few minutes assessing whether to read an MS, probably just one or two pages. Inevitably, the aspect that can put them off most in this short time is the prose. If you’ve not taken care over the word choice and the spelling and the punctuation and the grammar, then your wonderful characterisation, pacey plotting and original idea is going to go to waste. Don’t let that happen. Hone your prose. Pay attention to Word’s wavy lines and check it even if you think it’s right.

One of our customers comes to us for a copy-edit for her early chapters prior to submitting. It’s a sensible course of action.

Never, ever send a first draft. Take time perfecting it so you can improve it no further. If a critique or structural editing is not for you, read books from the library about writing and self-editing. Everything you learn and apply to your writing ups your chances of getting an agent.

Advice for writers with an MS they want to self-publish.
If you’re self-publishing, you have to bring an objective view to your novel. You need to look at it as if you were a publisher and judge whether it’s good enough at this stage to set loose on the reading public. This is hard to do. By all means ask friends who are keen readers to give you feedback, but take what they say with a pinch of salt. Friends are usually kind, as not hurting your feelings is their priority. Beware of forums and writing websites; you can of course find good readers who will give you useful, constructive feedback, but you can equally find the ill-informed, or the egotistical who take delight in criticising. Knowing which they are before you trust them with your MS isn’t always possible.

Naturally I’m going to advocate a professional editing service where people who understand books and what makes them work can help you realise the potential of yours. If you’re reluctant to accept this idea, have a look at the self-published books out there. There are an awful lot of them for one thing, and an awful lot are things you’d fling down with impatience after not many pages.

Many self-publishers have the view that their book is good enough. Sadly, it often isn’t. Happily, more and more authors who take their writing seriously are realising that to achieve their self-publishing aims their book needs the aid of professional editing, just like a traditionally published book. This way, it stands out from the crowd and is more likely to attract readers, good reviews and recommendations – and agents and publishers, who these days are actively looking to take on writers who already have a proven self-published success behind them.

The money involved in editing sometimes seems scary. This is why traditional publishing, even with its low royalties, is still a goal for many writers, as then all that work is completed at the publisher’s expense, not yours. But with self-publishing, it’s the price you perhaps need to pay for publishing what you want when you want, and selling it too, and perhaps building up a fan base of readers who will want your next book, and your next…

What’s the length of the typical MS you edit and what approximate price do you charge?
We edit short stories, often intended for submission to competitions, and we edit novellas, children’s books and full novels of all lengths, from perhaps 40,000 words to 250,000 words. (Yes, really!) The average length for a traditionally published novel is 80,000-120,000 words, but with ebooks this is becoming less an issue.

We don’t quote for copy-editing without seeing an example of the writing first. This is because MSS vary greatly in the work required. Our copy-editing prices vary from around £9 to perhaps £13 per 1,000 words. If it’s going to cost more than that, we’d hesitate before taking it on, as chances are it needs more work than a copy-edit. If an MS in our opinion is not ready for the copy-editing process – for instance, a young children’s story written in too grown up a style that needs major revision – we won’t take on the work. We will provide a no-obligation free sample edit where requested so you can see exactly what you’re getting for your money.

We use highly experienced and/or qualified editors, and any unknown editor who asks us for work is rigorously tested before we consider using them. There are many people out there setting themselves up as freelance editors who have neither the knowledge nor the skills. We believe in offering a professional service at reasonable prices. Sometimes we edit superb MS that we think might attract an agent, and our reputation is such that literary agents pay attention to MS we recommend.

Tips re formatting
Use only one space after a full stop. Two spaces are old-fashioned, and no one ever gets it consistently right anyway. Just use one.

Don’t put line spaces between paragraphs. Show every new paragraph with a decent indent (at least 5 characters) – except for the first line of a chapter or section, when it should be without the indent.

Put consecutive page numbers in a footer.

Start every new chapter on a new page; use a hard page break, not line spaces.

If you use section breaks, make a note and use the same number of line spaces throughout to show the break, whether one or two.

Use line-and-a-half or double spacing, and a very common font like Times New Roman, Ariel or Calibri.

For chapter headings, then if you’re using Word create a Heading Style and apply it throughout. It makes life much easier.

If you’re writing primarily for the British market, use single speech marks, not double. Double for the American market.

And a final, heartfelt plea – it would be wonderful if writers would take the trouble to learn the rules of punctuation around dialogue and apply them! I’d say on average a quarter of copy-editing time is spent on this alone.

To visit Fiction Feedback’s website, click here.
To read Dea’s story about copy-editing Ignoring Gravity, click here.



‘Ignoring Gravity’ by Sandra Danby [UK: Beulah Press] Buy now
Read what other readers are saying about Ignoring Gravity.

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
Advice from copy-editor @DeaWriter about #copyediting via @SandraDanby


  1. Fabulous info Sandra. It was good to get the run down on what is looked for in a copy edit too. Interesting too about the double quotations – I thought it was the other way around, double for UK English and single for American English. Let’s see what comes back to me. And how generous of FF to be open about their prices. It makes me feel so much better about the money I have spent so far. It is scary to spend when one has no guarantee of publication, however I take the attitude that if I am not prepared to back myself, then how can I expect anyone else to do so?

  2. Thank you so much, Sandra! This is wonderful advice for writers in all aspects of the writing stages. I see a lot of errors in self-pubbed books and have even caught some in professionally pubbed books. I think it comes down to careful reading. The one piece of advice that I was surprised about was using single and double quote marks. I am now glad to understand the difference in UK and American quoting since I’ve read a few UK novels and was driven sort of batty by the single quote marks. *laughs* Good luck with your novel!

    • I didn’t realise, until reading a few of the comments here, that there are style differences between countries. Another lesson to be learned along the way. 🙂 SD

  3. Needless to say, I found that an interesting read, agree with some points and not others.

    Any writing benefits from another point of view/pair of eyes. Not for editing but for sense.

    The trouble with editing services is a) everyone thinks they can do it b) everyone confuses all the terms eg your comment re picking up punctuation (I would call that proofing – maybe), and c) all the different rules.

    I’m flexible on rules. I won’t impose single spacing between sentences on an author if they want double, use of ellipses, quotation marks etc etc I do spend time on double-checking facts, I did quite a lot on a recent novel, also 60s-based. I think facts and consistency are critical, but I like to let an author’s style shine through.

    For a basic run through, I like to think an author won’t notice 99% of the changes I make, they should be unobtrusive and make the novel read better. The others are the ones I follow up and we discuss. I want any author (or publisher when going through second party) to be happy with recommended changes.

    I’m surprised they put their approx prices up front although it’s what I consider the going rate. I charge less because I think a lot of indie publishers either can’t or don’t want to pay that. I also do more reads because I don’t find three enough. For anything. Not even a blog post!

    But you do need to see a MS before you can quote, and like FF, I do a free offer for a few chapters however. How else do you know what sort of service you will get?

    Now I’m looking forward to reading IG to see if I can spot any errors! If not, money well spent by you 🙂

    • Kate I totally agree, I think the relationship between author and copy-editor is key. I am lucky enough to have known Dea for years and so we immediately clicked. I admit I didn’t realise you did copy-editing too. 🙂 SD

      • Using someone you know is a good start – as long as working together doesn’t ruin a pre-existing relationship! And if you find someone you like, you use them again – always assuming they will work for you again.

        I also agree with them about being picky (I paraphrase), with projects, but that applies to any work. I looked into getting some journalism work some years back in Spain and was offered a job on a magazine and one sub-editing/proofing on a paper. But seriously the money was terrible and they wanted blood for it. I figured I might as well work freelance. Equally low pay, but far better T&Cs and gives me flexibility.

        I keep meaning to put up a mini-bio on the blog but haven’t done it yet, and got a novel to edit right now so it won’t get done yet!

  4. A lot of really useful info Sandra, if I ever decide to write another book (yes, I wrote one once but it took me ages and I think I’ll stick to drawing 🙂 ) It’s funny how mistakes still do get through, I have sometimes spotted errors in published books.