How to Copyedit Your Book Like a Pro

Written by on November 29, 2013 in How To - Leave a Comment

Are you ready to give your manuscript the red pen treatment?After months, or even years, of channeling the Muse, you’ve finally finished your book, and you’re ready to tie a big red bow around it and pop open the champagne.

Or are you? Whether you’re self-publishing or sending your book out for publication, one thing remains true: no one—not even your agent, if you have one—wants to read a sloppy book.

Before you go digging through the junk drawer for red bows, set aside a solid month or more—depending on the length of your work and how much time you can commit daily—to copyedit and later proofread your book for consistency, grammar, and punctuation. This is especially important if you are self-publishing. Here are some ways to stay grounded during the process.

Don’t put the cart before the content. Think about what level of completion your book is actually in. Is this a final draft, or do you still need to work out some big-picture issues? Not sure if you really need that bit character who disappears after Chapter 2? Concerned that the tone varies too much from beginning to end?

If so, it’s probably too early to dive into your copyedit. Iron out these bigger questions before zeroing in on details. No reason to contemplate commas in a chapter you’re going to cut later.

Good news is, you can get help! Ask a friend to read your manuscript, cash in some favors with old colleagues, or get expert advice from a developmental editor.

Be strict, not sentimental. Remember just yesterday, when you were an author, and you had the luxury of writing in a way that felt right? Those were good times. Unfortunately, they’re on hold. Now you put on your editor’s hat, wield your red pen, and click on your track changes. You approach the manuscript in a new, critical way, examining everything about its style, consistency, grammar, and punctuation. Approach the book as if you’ve never seen it before. Be strict. You’ll thank yourself later, as will your readers.

Style matters. Really. Whether you have “in-house” style conventions or are a diehard Chicago Manual purist, be consistent within your manuscript. Think your readers won’t notice? One or two snafus might slip by, but repeated inconsistencies make a book feel hurried and unfinished. Furthermore, believe in your book! Be prepared for Trekkie-level success … and scrutiny.

Read, re-read, then read again. Even though reading your manuscript eight times to check for different types of errors might seem like a chore, it’s faster than the alternative—trying to find and correct everything in one or two rounds, which will lead to inevitable backtracking.

On your first go, for example, check for consistency in your characters’ speech, then timeline accuracy, then verb tenses. At least once, read it aloud to hear the flow. Be aware of the book’s unique features and make an outline of what you should watch out for.

Don’t get discouraged. No matter what problems you might face, remember that every minute you spend on your copyedit is making your book better and easier to market and sell—either to a publisher or straight to your target audience. Every reader who lays eyes on it will appreciate the effort, whether they realize it or not.

Don’t forget that copyediting can be fun, especially for detail-oriented types. And it will help you become thoroughly familiar with your own book. After all, shouldn’t the ultimate expert be you?

What kind of things do you find helpful in the copyediting process?

Kimberly Steele is a freelance writer and small-press publisher living and working in Philadelphia and New York. When she’s not reading manuscripts, writing poems, or brainstorming short story ideas, she is researching the next big trends in copywriting and finding ways to come to terms with her television obsession. 

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