Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Editing Your Book, Part V—Copy Editing: the 5 foot view

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

There are four basic types of editing:
  • Developmental Editing
  • Substantive Editing
  • Line Editing
  • Copy Editing
Each type of editing offers an opportunity to look at a manuscript from a different place, and for different reasons. Today, we work with Copy Editing (CE).

As I said in the first part of this series, Copy Editing is what most people concentrate on. After all, a misspelled or misused word can jump out at the reader immediately. But, although CE is very important, it should be the very last thing in an overall edit.

By the way, CE is the hardest type of editing for me. I am a scanner instead of a detailed reader so I can easily ‘insert’ the correct word over the top of an incorrect one. Thank heavens there are detailed readers who will read each word and make sure it’s right!

After you’ve figured out your story (Developmental Editing), put it into the right order (Substantive Editing), and prettied it up (Line Editing), you’re ready to do the final pass (CE) before sending it out.

Although there is some crossover between Line Editing and Copy Editing, CE mainly looks at punctuation, grammar, and word usage, and correcting the elements of each sentence. There are several easily-obtainable books to use as a guides:

William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White have written a serious book used as the industry standard.
Lynn Truss’ book, on the other hand is tongue-in-cheek funny, while presenting good information.
Don McNair’s book uses specific tips you can follow to make sure your prose is as perfect as possible. This book is really more about line editing, but it has lots of good stuff.

Some suggestions when copy editing:

Slow down. Read every word. Spelled right? Used correctly? In the right place?

Make a list of the words you tend to over use. One of my multi-published friends calls it her ‘trash-word list’. Do a ‘find and replace’ (if you use Word) and try to change out as many as possible. Words on the list could include: very, that, need, thought, watched, just, suddenly, especially, but, had. At least, those are on my list. Make your own with your own weaknesses.

Watch for passive prose: –ing words, lots of passive verbs (to be, have, had).

Adverbs aren’t dead, as they said twenty years ago. But they shouldn’t be used in lieu of stronger verbs. ‘He ran quickly…’ isn’t as strong as ‘He raced...’

Double check your punctuation, especially in dialogue. It’s hard to get it right. Use one of the style books I suggested above for accurate information.

I recommend that, if you’re writing fiction, you lose the semi-colons. Yes, they can be used correctly, but they carry with them a formality that fiction doesn’t need.

Watch for comma clauses. A comma clause is when two complete sentences (noun/verb construction) are joined with a comma. It seems more common in dialogue. The correct way is to separate the two sentences with a semi-colon (yes, I suggested you don’t use them!), a connecting word (and, but, or), or make it into two sentences. Or you can completely reconstruct the troublesome piece and make it stronger.

Hyphens can also be problematic. The technical use is: if two or more adjectives are dependent on each other to modify a noun, they should be hyphenated. So, if you have a ‘blond haired Susan’, she’s either blond OR haired, not both -- unless you have a hyphen.

Figuring out the eternal comma problem isn’t something I do very well – please reference the first part of the piece where I tell you that I’m not a good copy editor. My best friend who was also my critique partner for fifteen years never agreed with me on where commas go. So, we did a continual ‘dance of the commas’ where I put them in and she took them out. I think comma usage depends a lot on who your high-school English teacher was and what year you graduated, because correct practice seems to change. My suggestion is to pick a version you feel comfortable with and be consistent. At least that way, you’ll always be able to change them pretty easily.

One more point about CE. Fresh eyes make good copy editors. Someone who has read it more than once, even the author themselves, can all too easily miss something. I recommend you let someone else be your final copy editor.

This concludes my series on editing. I hope you’ve gotten some good information from it and can utilize the different levels to make your writing stellar!

Let me know how your editing is going! I’d love to hear your stories as you go through your process!


Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in good stories. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. You can find her at or on Twitter @sarahsallyhamer.

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on, from whom I learned the craft of writing. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. I have thoroughly enjoyed your series on editing. Thank you, thank you.
    Jay Wright; Anderson, SC

    1. Thank you, Jay! I'm so glad you've learned something - I did too!

      Hope to 'see' you again soon!

  2. Thank you for all the wonderful tips and guidance Ms. Hamer. Have saved each edition for reference. It's always better to add clarity to our prose. God's blessings...

    1. Thank you, Jim! I appreciate your kind words!

  3. Sarah,
    God bless you and this detailed advice. I've discovered the best editing program that does so much of what you've shared, I recently paid $40/annually for this program and it integrates right into my ms word. I love it. I can pull up any document and then choose from 25 edits to have the program go through the ms, and I have done up to five chapters at a time so far in my wip. It's the best money I've spent this year on writing craft. Anyone can go to their site and get a sample edit done to see what this great program can do. I feel so MUCH more confidence about my writing now. Of course, I will still look for beta readers for the completed ms. Can't have too many eyes on a ms. ( :
    Blessings and Merry Christmas!
    Elva Cobb Martin
    Pres, ACFW-SC Chapter

    1. Thanks for the information, Elva. I'll pass it along to my students/clients. But it's not for developmental or substantive editing, right? Just to make sure that the 'words are pretty'? I need to look at it as I'm not a good copy editor. :)

  4. Thank you, Sally.
    I greatly enjoyed all four articles.
    You truly demystify the whole editing process and made it less daunting.
    I will refer to them for years.
    God bless you!

    1. Thanks, Ingmar! I'm so glad you got something good from it! I know I've learned a lot as I've researched all this.

      See you soon!