While it’s always crucial to hire a professional editor to review every line in your book, as well as one to evaluate the story itself, you should also take it upon yourself to learn the basics of copyediting your own work. Copyediting is an extremely valuable skill that covers many different aspects of language editing. Not only are you appraising your language on the poetic level, but you are also assessing its accuracy and consistency in terms of voice, word choice, and information presented. Dissecting your prose will help you understand what your sentences are trying to convey to the reader and what they’re actually conveying—and will teach you how to lessen that gap.
Try making a style sheet for yourself as you go through your book line by line. Take note of elements like the following, and then use this sheet to refer to as you encounter them again, in this book and in your future works:
· Grammar and syntax—Keep an eye on the kinds of mistakes you find yourself making. The more adept you become at identifying and correcting them, the less you’ll make them in the future.
· Punctuation usage—Do you use the serial comma? Make a note of it on the style sheet, and ensure you use it every time. Are there instances where characters ask a question but in such a flat tone that it requires a period instead of a question mark? Note that to ensure that a question mark isn’t inserted by a later editor.
· Numbers—Make yourself a strict guide for representing numbers and stick to it. Do you spell them all out except years and dollar amounts? Do you use numerals except in dialogue?
· Idiosyncratic spellings—If colloquialisms, made-up nicknames, or words with variant spellings (bandana/bandanna, for example) occasionally appear in your text, make sure you spell them the same way every time.
· Word choice—There are the obvious mistakes––“conscious” for “conscience,” for example—and then there are the less obvious ones. Do you really mean “onto,” or do you mean “on to”? Do you mean “a while” or “awhile”? There are probably many more instances of words not meaning what you think they mean than you’d expect. Inspect your text suspiciously.
· Style—Do you follow a house style guide? (You should—we like the Chicago Manual of Style for fiction and creative nonfiction.) Refer to it for the questions you most often find yourself having (When do I capitalize “president”? When should I hyphenate compound adjectives or nouns?) and copy those answers onto your style sheet.
· Trivia—Anytime you give the reader information about the world in your book, research it to make sure it’s true. This is where a professional copyeditor can be invaluable, as they are often troves of information, with specific areas of expertise. Would your character have a buffalo nickel in 1908? Do lionfish live that far north? In what month do cherry trees bloom in Washington state? Did Fords come in that color back then? Are lobsters red before they hit the pot? Follow up on all the little claims you made unthinkingly and note their accuracy on your style sheet—you might be surprised at how many tweaks you’ll have to make.
Copyediting is essentially quality control for your writing. It will ensure that your readers aren’t given pause by the little things that could have been avoidable, and looking at your language through that lens will help you to hone your writing immeasurably.
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