Copyediting: 3 things to do before you pay for professional copyediting

Copyediting is an essential part of any writer’s life. Whether you are self-publishing or preparing your book for submission to an agent or publisher, you will at some point, consider employing a professional copyeditor. In this article I use my experience of running BubbleCow, a professional copyediting service, to try and outline the three things I think every writer should do before employing the dreaded red pen of a professional copyeditor.

Copyediting Tip 1: Get the basics right

If you are paying a professional copyeditor to just check your spelling then you are wasting your cash. You would be amazed at the amount of manuscripts that we edit that contain, not only a huge amount of very basic errors, but also numerous technical issues such as incorrect punctuation for dialogue and paragraph indenting.

Now don’t get me wrong. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes and have annoying, and often less than correct, writing habits. But that is what makes a writer a writer. We are not robots, in fact I would go as far as saying that the best writers bend and break the rules to create their own distinct styles. At BubbleCow we are more than happy to guide writers through the solutions to genuine writing problems, be they basic or complex. In fact, if you are struggling with an issue such as punctuating dialogue or indenting paragraphs, don’t waste your money paying us to edit your book, just fire me an email and we will explain the best way to correct the issues. However, it is still not in the best interest of any writer to pay for error riddled manuscripts to be assessed.

The reason is simple. If the manuscript you submit is ‘error heavy’, then you are at risk of not getting the most from your copyeditor. A copyeditor works best when able to take a holistic approach to your book. If they are focused on watching for, and then correcting, basic errors, it makes it that little bit more difficult for the copyeditor to see the bigger picture.

The copyeditors we employ at BubbleCow are highly experienced professionals, but their skills are wasted if they are spending hours just adding commas and correcting spelling mistakes. Their real value comes from the input that they can provide regarding structure, plot development and characterisation.

Action Tip: Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your book with an eye to spotting grammar and punctuation errors. If you are not sure how to correct the mistakes they spot, then go to the latest best seller and see how they do it…

Copyediting Tip 2: Use beta readers

A beta reader, is a trusted reader who will read your book and provide valuable feedback. These readers are looking for more than basic errors and will offer feedback on plot issues, characterisation and, in fact, anything you ask.

I would strongly suggest that you ask at least three beta readers to read your book before you consider paying for professional copyediting. Once again, it is better to pick up basic errors and plot holes at this early stage, rather than paying a professional to spot that the colour of your protagonist’s eyes is blue for two chapters and green for the rest!

Action Tip: Here’s four tips to getting the most out of beta readers:

  • 1. Define your goals: Be clear in your own mind what you are hoping to achieve from having beta readers read your book. Realistically you should be looking to get an early warning for any major issues in your book. Don’t be afraid to suggest readers pay particular attention to a certain issue or chapter, but be ready for the feedback – good or bad!
  • 2. Give permission to criticise: It is essential that you make it super clear to your beta readers that you want a warts and all assessment of your book. Give them permission to be painfully honest. Only by giving them permission to be honest will their comments be of any real value.
  • 3. Ignore the feedback: Having given your beta readers a clearly defined goal and permission to be mean, it is then essential that you are prepared to ignore their feedback! By this I mean don’t react in a knee jerk fashion to any problems they uncover. Don’t fire back long and complex emails explaining the motivations of your characters and the reasoning behind certain scenes. However, do give their feedback time to sink in… if the beta reader is confused by an issue and you have to explain it to them to make it clear, then chances are all readers will be confused. Therefore, before you embark on a major re-write give yourself time to digest their feedback, make a list of the key issues and then approach them in a calm and intelligent manner. Beta readers are not always correct and you may simply feel the changes they suggest are not needed. This is ok, after all it’s your book and you know best.

Copyediting Tip 3: Know what you are getting

Imagine the situation: You know that some level of professional feedback will improve your book, but you are not sure just what type of feedback is best for you. You trawl the internet and find hundreds of companies and individual editors promising a plethora of wonderful (and not so wonderful) services. Which do you choose? Which is best for you?

Below is a list of the three most common types of professional editorial feedback, and some guidance as to which situations each is best suited -

  • Detailed line-by-line copyediting: This is the process where a professional editor goes through your manuscript, reading each sentence, paragraph and sentence, in the process making detailed notes on everything from basic punctuation mistakes to major plot holes and structural narrative issues. This is what we do at BubbleCow, in fact this is all we do at BubbleCow!
  • Reader’s report: This is where a reader reads over your manuscript and makes superficial comments regarding the basic narrative issues, possible characterisation problems and visible plot holes. This type of report will provide you with an overview of your book, any potential problems and, in some circumstances, an opinion on your book’s commercial potential.
  • Proofread: This is a line-by-line assessment of your manuscript, in which the proofreader checks ONLY for grammar and punctuation errors. They will not provide any editorial feedback, though they may ask for clarification in regards to certain words and phrases.

Action Tip: Which type of feedback is best for you?

Copyediting : If you have completed your novel, have had feedback from friends and family (or even beta readers) and you are in a position where you are seriously considering either submitting to an agent or self-publication, then copyediting is the best choice.

Reader’s Report: If you simply require a brief assessment of your novel to determine its place in the market, or you have major concerns over certain plot issues, then a reader’s report may be useful. I would, however, highlight that many reader’s reports will spot problems, but may not offer feedback on how these can be corrected.

Proofread: If you are self-publishing, have had the book copyedited and are ready to send the book to the printers (or up load to amazon), then it is time for a proofread. The best way to think of a proofread is as the last thing that happens before the book is published.

About the Author

By Gary Smailes - Co-founder at BubbleCow, helping writers to write, get published and sell more books. Google+ Twitter

  • Eliza Green

    I’m really enjoying the down to earth advice in these posts. I wrote about my own experience of using a copyeditor just yesterday if you’re interested in reading it. It’s at Referencing my own experiences, I am trying to enlighten people about the things they should know about writing but perhaps haven’t asked. For me, using an editor (copy editor) was a must for my own work.