Editing Levels: 5. Copyediting Checklist

Editing Levels: 5. Copyediting Checklist
By Norma J Hill (aka Pen and Paper Mama) © 2021

In our previous series for writers, we discussed and provided worksheets for “Self Exploration For Writers,” “Your Writing Life,” and “Author Considerations Beyond Just Writing,” and “Planning Your Writing.”  In this new series, “Editing Levels,” we will explore:

  1. Editing Levels Overview
  2. Developmental Editing Checklist
  3. Substantive/Structural Editing Checklist
  4. Stylistic Editing Checklist
  5. Copyediting Checklist
  6. Proofreading Checklist

At the end of each post in the series, there is a link to a downloadable and printable PDF copy on which you can write your responses. Put them in a binder or Duotang-type report folder (you can continue to add to your binder from the previous series). Then, periodically along your writing journey, return to your answers, read what you noted previously, and add new thoughts and experiences. Through this process, you’ll end up with a wonderful record of your writer’s journey.

5.  Copyediting Checklist

Copyediting deals with the mechanics of writing—the technical conventions of spelling, punctuation, use of numbers, abbreviation, and capitalization. It is the correcting stage—the final step to polish up a piece of writing. A copyedit looks for errors which, while they might not interfere with the writer’s style or the reader’s comprehension, will reflect negatively on the author. After all, readers expect a writer to care enough to make sure their work is “correct” and to know the “basics” that theoretically everyone learns in primary grades, right? Poor mechanics can destroy an otherwise wonderfully written piece, since minor, easily corrected errors can really annoy your readers. They are not being unreasonable grammar police. The fact is that mechanics are a professional necessity for writers. Appearances do matter.

While mechanics are important to the final success of your writing, don’t forget you need to focus first on the foundational issues of communication, such as clarity of ideas, a good storyline, and well-developed characters. Even if your writing contains no mechanical errors, it may be far from good writing if it has issues with aspects like organization, structure, and flow. Always start with the big issues and then do your mechanical polishing when all else has been completed.

Though you’ll probably want to hire a copy editor to check your manuscript over, especially in a book-length document, after you’ve completed lots of self-editing with the help of your self-editing team, the more mechanics editing you can do for yourself, the better. The ability to self-edit mechanics correctly and efficiently is a great skill not only for your own writing, but it could be an excellent skill to add to your resume; it will save you lots of editing money and time; and it could even be the deciding factor when an agent or publisher (or employer) is deciding between you and another applicant. For short manuscripts, such as articles or short stories, you should be able to do the copy edit yourself, perhaps with a once-over by a member or two of your self-editing team.

Your copy editor will most likely use the Microsoft Word “Track Changes” feature to indicate mechanical issues (as well as any other levels you have hired the editor to do). If you want copy editing done on a print-out copy of your manuscript, the editor will use standardized hand-written editing symbols which you should become familiar with. Either way, written comments will also be included in the margins if needed.

Don’t forget to download and print out the attached checklist; then use it to jot down notes of items you need to keep an eye on, or learn about, and also to check off as you complete your checks for each area of copyediting mechanics.

What copy editing isn’t:

– Copy editing is not proofreading. That editing level comes at the very end of the writing and editing process. Proofreading is done after the document has been type-set in preparation for printing. A “proof” is printed out (or the prepared e-file is provided), and a proofreader goes through the entire document, including covers, interior design, front and back matter, and, of course, the main text to find any remaining typos, design issues, and the few, hopefully very small issues previous levels of editing may have missed.
– Copyediting is also not copywriting. Beginning writers often confuse the two terms. A copywriter is a writer (not an editor) who writes advertising and marketing materials. Be sure that if you do a search for copy editors, you don’t accidentally use “copywriting” as a search term.
– Copyediting is not the editing of grammar. Grammar refers to the way words are put together, the structure of language. It is dealt with in the stylistic editing level, although stylistic and copy editing do overlap to a degree and are sometimes edited together.
– Copy editing is not specifically usage either, which refers to how language is used, and which includes both grammar and mechanics. There are editors who specialize in usage, and they will work on both stylistic and copy editing at the same time. All writers should educate themselves in usage and keep updated on it, as languages like English are constantly growing and changing. Usage also varies over time, in different cultures or regions, in different kinds of publications, and so on. While we have style guides to turn to, which present the current “prescriptive” usage (how it “ought to be”), even those guides keep changing as our language changes and develops. Thus, writers should read widely from many different sources; watch films, videos, and television; listen to radio and other forms of broadcast journalism; and always pay close attention to the way people speak in various situations. This will alert them to current “descriptive” usage which is based in common language practice. English language reflects constant changes in history, multi-culturalism, and the worldwide influences of a language that is spoken on every continent and in many different forms. So, depending on what kind of writing you are doing, understand the prescriptive usages, but also use descriptive usage where it may be appropriate, such as in dialogue.
Some overall copyediting strategies:

– When doing a copyedit yourself, before passing your manuscript to a copy editor, wait for a week or so after self-editing other editing levels so you have “fresh eyes” and a more objective perspective.
– Just as with the other editing levels, keep your audience, purpose, and theme (or thesis) in mind at all times.
– Keep your personal style sheet handy with its list of your common errors and refer to the list at the beginning of each new chapter or section as you copyedit. When you pass your manuscript over to your professional editor, include this list so the editor is aware of your identified weaknesses and can keep an eye out for any others you’ve missed.
– Use respected computer spelling and grammar check tools to help you find instances of your frequent mechanical errors as you self-edit. Just remember, you can’t depend on these tools totally. Check each item that has been highlighted by the software and decide whether it is actually an error that needs to be fixed or is something you have done intentionally for a good reason.
Read aloud as you self-edit. Or listen to someone else read your manuscript to you. Alternatively, use the audio function on reading or writing software. You’ll be amazed at how easily punctuation and other mechanical errors are noticed through reading aloud and/or listening to the text be read.
– Study your frequent mechanical issues. Use appropriate style guides as well as writing handbooks with exercises. Practice by self-editing newspaper, magazine, or blog articles and stories by other writers. What errors can you catch? When has a writer intentionally “broken the rules” for a stylistic effect? How can you apply what you’ve learned to your own writing?
– Use dictionaries and thesauruses for spelling. Get a good handbook of homonyms and study it. (Find mine here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Homonyms-Part-1-A-L-Easy-to-Learn-Series-768929  and here: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Homonyms-Part-2-M-Z-Easy-to-Learn-Series-768931 .) If you find spelling difficult, there are many helpful spelling workbooks and computer programs to help you practice. Learn the main spelling rules and the most commonly misspelled words.
Read extensively from well-edited works in genres and subject areas you plan to write in. Learn from them. For example, if you plan to use dialogue, read novels that include dialogue and examine how it is punctuated, paragraphed, etc.
– Remember that English spelling and punctuation can differ to some degree in different countries. Keep handy a style guide that is created specifically for the country where most of your readers will come from, as well as a dictionary for that country.
Mechanical errors, for some reason, love company and tend to cluster. If you find a couple of errors close together, check the surrounding sentences carefully. It might be you were tired or distracted when you worked on that section previously.
– Use the “Find and Replace” function in Microsoft Word to locate your common mechanical errors. There are also lots of macros you can use to help you self-edit.
– To learn to copyedit efficiently, start with shorter pieces such as articles or short stories. Read the piece over several times. Choose only a few mechanical issues to watch for each time. After you’ve done this with several short copy edits, try doing more issues each time until you can successfully do all or most at once, followed by one more read-through to check if you missed anything. Once you are good at doing this on shorter pieces, try it on a novella (a short novel) and then on a full-length novel.
– If you copyedit on a document printed out on paper, use a ruler or a plain bookmark to focus as you read line by line. You can also make a frame from a piece of paper and cut a hole in it that will allow you to see only a couple lines at a time.  
What does the “mechanics” of copy editing include?

While many writers think instantly of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, copyediting also includes other technical aspects of preparing a manuscript for printing and publication. Especially with nonfiction, this may include much more than just the main text of the story or article. Let’s take a look at the mechanics of copyediting.
Acknowledgments: Make sure you spell people’s names correctly. It is also considerate, even wise, to make sure people are comfortable with you including their name in the acknowledgments.
Art and graphics: At this point, the desired location of art and graphics should be indicated, in preparation for upcoming work by the designer and printer. Also, graphics with text should be checked for accuracy, including captions, credit lines, and running heads.
Bullet/numbered lists: Be careful with bullet lists that have more than one indent depth. Also decide what punctuation format you will use and be consistent with it. Check your style guide for advice.
Capitalization: Beginnings of sentences, proper nouns, titles, headings and subheadings, and possible use as emphasis.
Citations: Use the appropriate style guide for your writing format/type. Know the different formats and uses of footnotes and bibliographies/endnotes.
Copyright page: Make sure all necessary information is included and is accurate (copyright date and copyright holder(s), statements regarding reproduction or warranty, book title (and sub-title), author(s), ISBN number(s), Library of Congress or other search information, publisher’s name and address, etc.
Emphasized words and expressions, foreign language words, etc.: Make firm decisions about how these issues will be handled and then be consistent. For example, will you use italics, bold, all capitals, or quotation marks? (Ideally, for emphasis, write a sentence in such a way that you don’t need to use these kinds of mechanics; let the wording and context do the job. By the way, underlining used to be commonly used for things like titles/headings or sometimes for emphasis; it is now avoided as it indicates internet links.)
Fact-checking: Copy editors often are willing to do some fact checking (at any rate, they’ll keep an eye out for obvious factual errors), but you really should have done this yourself while you were originally writing and self-editing your project. If you originally wrote factual material “off the top of your head” (even in fictional stories, such as with setting or how a court-case works), you hopefully have long since researched to check the accuracy of those facts. If not, do it now. You may need to contact a professional who can advise you on particular details.
Idioms: will your target audience understand them, and are they too cliché?
Layout: Learn to do formatting correctly—or hire a designer who can do it for you. This includes font size and type, line spacing, use of italics/bold/etc., bullets, headings and subheadings, margins (and text within margins), graphic elements, front and end matter, covers, and so on. It also includes using line breaks and/or sets of asterisks to indicate transitions in time or setting, though, if possible, try to create well-written text transitions instead or start a new chapter. Layout is a complex part of mechanics and while you should understand the basics, you may want to hire a designer or editor who specializes in these, especially with complex nonfiction layouts.
Number words and numerals: Understand when to use each form and be careful with your spellings of number words.
Paragraph indentations: Make sure you’ve used a consistent style (see Microsoft Word Styles feature) rather than depending on the “tab” key.
Punctuation: commas, periods, question marks, exclamation marks, semi-colons, colons, apostrophes (possessive and contractions), parentheses and brackets, hyphens and em- and en- dashes, ellipses, quotation marks (single and double), dialogue punctuation. Avoid overuse of exclamation marks!!! or mixing punctuation, right?!?! Make the text provide the emotion; don’t use emojis :-). Use the punctuation rules that are suited to the country of your readers or to the type of publication you are writing for (check an appropriate style guide).
– Regarding commas, you’ve most likely heard arguments over the use of the “Oxford Comma.” Here are some thoughts: Pro: Prevents ambiguity and promotes clarity; enhances comprehension; corresponds to the natural pause in speech before the last items in a list. Con: Can cause a cluttered appearance and take up space in print such as narrow newspaper columns.
Quotations: Use correct quotation mark styles, using the appropriate style book for your writing format. Know when double quotation marks or single quotation marks should be used (be aware of regional differences), and when block quotations should be used (e.g. long quotations; and lyrics and poetry—that you’ve received legal permission to use). Be very clear on the use of quotation marks in dialogue. Understand the difference between quoting and paraphrasing, and how each are punctuated. Understand plagiarism. Make sure you understand the legalities of quoting materials (even if you’re just paraphrasing) and how to do citations correctly.
Spelling: Watch out for homonyms and for differences in national/regional spelling. Be consistent with the spelling you choose to use. Be careful with spell-checkers: they aren’t always accurate, so always double-check each supposed “error.” Read objective reviews of spell-checkers and use a top-quality one. Watch for spellings of proper nouns, tenses, plurals, commonly confused words and homophones, abbreviations, and acronyms.
Style sheet: Keep your personal style sheet handy as you copyedit your work and refer to it as needed. Make sure you provide your editor with a copy of your style sheet. Also, let your editor know what style manual(s) you have been using.
Tables, graphs, charts, pictures: Understand correct formatting, number use, and spelling and wording of captions.
Text: If the manuscript is to include front matter such as an introduction, table of contents, a prologue, or a foreword, these should now be included in the manuscript and copyedited. Back matter such as appendices and the bibliography should also be included. If there will be an index, it may be included now, although if you plan to hire a specialist index copy editor (or your publisher provides one), the index can be dealt with after copyediting. In fact, creating an index after proofreading is a good idea, when the page numbers of the text are set. But you could at least choose the index topics at the copyediting stage.
Titles and headings: Be aware of the rules for capitalization, as well as accepted formatting for the type of writing you are doing. Be very consistent in your use of heading and sub-heading styles as well as list styles.
Word choice: Although this will have been worked on in stylistic editing, it’s worth continuing to keep in mind. Keep a thesaurus handy for ideas; then check the dictionary for the accurate definition and connotations.
Final check for typos, word omissions, repeated words, etc.: This is technically “proofreading” done directly before printing, but it’s also a good idea to make the manuscript as clean as possible before sending it for design and print layout work.  

Putting these notes into practice:

When you have completed the Stylistic draft of your manuscript, again set it aside for a week or two or clear your mind. Review the Copyediting checklist above, and then read through the manuscript again, making notes and self-editing aspects you need to improve. Once that is done, you may wish to have a couple more beta-readers read the manuscript—be sure to provide them with the checklist above, so they’ll know what kind of advice you are looking for at this stage.

Once you have self-edited your manuscript to the best of your ability—with the help of your self-editing team of alpha and beta readers, writing group members, Feedback group, and writing partner—it is definitely time to hire a professional editor to copyedit your manuscript. At this point, of course, a Copy Editor is essential, but if you haven’t had professional editing done at previous points in your self-editing process, you will be wise to hire an editor who can also do editing of the previous levels (substantive/structural and stylistic) at the same time.

What’s next? Interior and cover design … and then final proofreading before printing/self-publishing, or before traditional publishing if that is your goal.

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