Copy editing tips for authors

Copy editing is usually the most expensive part of the editing process because it requires your editor to read every word and every punctuation mark in your manuscript, often more than once.

Here are some things you can do yourself before you send your manuscript to a copy editor.

Always run a spell-check over your manuscript before you send it to a reader or editor; and repeat the process each time you make revisions to the text. Don’t do global changes as it increases the risk of introducing new errors into your manuscript; instead, look at each spelling query the program throws up and make each decision individually.

If you’re not using American style and spelling for your book, you’ll want to change the language setting to Australian English: e.g. colour rather than color; travelling rather than traveling; organise rather than organize.

Spell-check won’t pick up words that sound the same but have different meanings: e.g. they’re, their, there; discreet, discrete; bear, bare; pour, pore, poor; it’s, its. You’ll need to read for these separately; or you could search for the most common homophone errors and check you’ve used the correct spelling each time.

Replace double spaces after closing punctuation with a single space.

Are you using single or double quote marks for dialogue? Either is fine, but make sure they’re consistent throughout the manuscript.

Check you’ve not missed any full stops: at the end of a sentence, a paragraph, or inside quote marks.

Filler words, or dead wood
Words like actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally can usually be cut from a sentence without affecting the meaning.

Take out started to/began to verb phrases: e.g. she started to read the letter aloud; he began to run after the dog. Usually these can be removed, making the action verb stronger: she read the letter aloud; he ran after the dog.

Similarly, replace a weak verb + adverb with a strong verb: Angrily she set the cup and saucer onto the table could become She slammed the cup and saucer onto the table.

Cut adverbs that repeat the sense of the verb they’re attached to: the TV blared loudly; she shrieked piercingly.

Some writers advise on cutting all –ly adverbs from your work, especially when they’re used as dialogue tags: e.g. ‘I’m not going to let you get away with that,’ he said grimly.

Do you have lots of stage directions: e.g. characters moving around a scene, changing location, making tea or coffee, getting dressed, entering or leaving rooms/cars? Too much mundane detail slows the pace of a scene.

Look out for repetition of words or phrases in the same sentence or paragraph.

Many authors have a favourite word or phrase that may end up being overused in the manuscript.

Avoid overuse of italics for emphasis. And take out all – or almost all – your exclamation marks. If your writing is strong and confident, you won’t need these props.

Read your dialogue aloud so you can hear the rhythm of your characters’ speech. If the dialogue sounds stilted, try using fragmented rather than full sentences; and replace full verb forms with contractions (e.g. don’t, can’t, haven’t, I’d, they’ll).

Consider breaking up overly long sentences, or long blocks of dialogue. Have other characters interrupt; or use a sentence of narrative text to break up the dialogue.

Avoid overusing characters’ names in dialogue, especially when characters know one another well.

A lot of dialect in a manuscript can become off-putting for readers: e.g. Wha’ d’ya mean, git away from ’em? Instead, use syntax and rhythm to suggest an accent or some other aspect of a character’s background.

Check the dialogue itself conveys the emotion you want to get across; resist the temptation to explain it to the reader: e.g. ‘You can’t be serious,’ she said in astonishment.

Have you stuck to simple speech tags – e.g. said, asked – or do you have a list of alternative verbs running down the page? Try replacing them all with ‘said’, then take out the ‘saids’ you don’t need because it’s clear from the context who’s speaking.

Thoughts don’t need quote marks because they’re not spoken out loud.

Styling your Word document
Avoid using hard returns to insert space into a manuscript; instead, insert a line break at the end of each chapter.

Rather than using tab marks or spaces to indent the first line of a new paragraph, use the paragraph function in Word and select ‘First line’ in the Indentation option.

Keep your Word styles very simple: e.g. Normal for body text; Heading 1 for chapter titles; Heading 2 for subheadings.