Right now, apart from an inability to get your book on the shelves of major book stores, the big sword in the side of Indy authors is that their books are seen as inferior mainly because, for a long time, they were
inferior. The problem with making it easy for anybody to put out a book on anything any way they want to at any time is that a lot of people will do just that. And a lot of people did.
But the dust is settling, and, like it usually does, the cream is rising to the top (I know, I know–something else also floats, but in this case, it’s the cream).
One of the big differences I’m seeing between the Indy books published today and the ones that were being published even just a year or two ago is that today authors are taking the editing process much more seriously. They’ve realized there’s actual money to be made if they can convince the public that they are credible. So real actual honest-to-goodness copy editors are being employed. This is a wonderful improvement over the pile of carp (that was intentional) the industry got flooded with when POD publishing first came into existence. It’s not even uncommon nowadays for Indy authors to hire their own publicists, that’s how much the industry has flip-flopped.
But hiring copy editors and publicists cost money and the whole attraction to Indy publishing (other than the fact that you don’t have to plead and beg the gatekeepers in New York to let you in) is that it didn’t cost you much to get your foot in the door. So the question is, can you do these things yourself? I’m going to table the question of being your own publicist for another day, and talk about copy editing right now. The fact is, copy editing is a craft much like writing and because it’s a craft, if you really want to learn it, you can. But it takes work.
I was a terrible editor when I decided I wanted to learn to copy edit. Now I consider myself a fairly good copy editor. I wouldn’t say I am exceptional. I actually do hire myself out and copy edit other people’s work, but I don’t charge the same amounts as some of the spectacular copy editors out there because I know I am still learning a little of my craft. But I am getting better all the time. The key to being a good copy editor, I discovered, is to first read up on everything you can about it (there’s a lot more to it than looking for misspelled words… there’s a lot more to even just proofreading than that), and then practicing. And practice a lot. I copy edit every manuscript my writing group submits to me each fortnight as though I was being paid to do so because I consider it practicing my craft.
And when someone tells you that you messed something up, have the ego set aside and listen to them and learn. When I first started doing this, I didn’t even get my lays and lies right. I’m quite serious. There are still some parts of the English language I trip over, but I know where to go to look them up when I run into them. Ah, that’s another thing you need. Good reference material. I have two dictionaries: Websters Third International and Websters Eleventh, along with the Chicago Manual of Style 16, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Chambers Slang Dictionary, and myriad books on punctuation and grammar that I’ve read and reread countless times. Even Copy Editing for Dummies is on my bookshelf. It’s actually not a bad book.
Whether I’m copy editing my own work or someone else’s, I work exactly the same way.
If the manuscript is going to go on to be published and not just stay in manuscript form, the first thing I do is turn on Track Changes.
Then I search and replace any coding in the manuscript that needs to be changed. For instance, when I write, I use straight quotes and double dashes as em-dashes. I underline instead of italicize. So it’s now that I replace straight quotes with smart quotes, double dashes with em-dashes, underlined words with italics. Anywhere I have a single quote and a double quote side by side (just search for “‘ and ‘”) I slip a small non-breaking space in between them (ALT + 8201 in Word). I search through the document checking all the single quotes to see if any are backward apostrophes because smart quotes are actually quite dumb. I replace any ellipses that are three consecutive periods or the ellipse character with three periods separated by non-breaking spaces between them with one non-breaking space before them and one breaking space after them.
That fixes most of the coding issues. I generally mark up the front matter pages, just blocking out what will go where as far as Half Title, Full Title, Copyright Page, Dedication Page, etc.
Once the manuscript is in working order, the next thing I do is start a Style Sheet. The Style Sheet drives everything. It is where I first list all of the rules I am going to follow for this manuscript that may not be obvious (i.e.: anything opposing or not in the Chicago Manual of Style). I then go through the manuscript three times. Each time I do, I am looking for different things.
The first time, I am reading just to get a feel for the work (if it’s your own work, you probably think you already have a feel for it, but trust me—go through it three times) and to fill in parts of the style sheet. Anything that is written on a sign or on a button or anything like that gets set in smallcaps and is listed on the Style Sheet in a specific section along with the page number it appears on.
Any place name or other proper noun (other than people) gets put on the Style Sheet along with the page number of the first time it’s used. If there is something discerning about the place that might be important to the story, that goes on the Style Sheet with it.
Characters get their own section on the Style Sheet. The page number of when they first appear is listed along with any description that is given or continues to show up as the book progresses. Any dates that turn up with interesting information about that character gets written down.
If there is anything quoted in the manuscript from external sources, they get listed in the Style Sheet and will have to be dealt with later, potentially researched to see if there are copyright issues and permission is needed to include them.
Also, during this first pass, I start to develop a timeline for the story. For some stories, this is easier than others. It’s important that the timeline works. You can’t have a character shoot another character on Thursday and then in another scene a month later flashback to buying the gun two days after the shooting occurred. Keeping the timeline straight is one of the hardest jobs of copy editing.
Of course, if I see any blatant spelling or grammatical errors during this pass I will fix them.
The second pass is when I look at the actual grammar, punctuation, and spelling more closely. If I am unsure of any word I come to in the manuscript I look it up in the dictionary to see if it’s spelled correctly. Then I write it down in the Style Sheet in a special section for words that I’ve looked up. Also in this section go any foreign words, etc. Usually, after finishing copy editing a three hundred and fifty word novel, I will have four or five pages of words I looked up to double check the spelling of. I’m not the greatest speller in the world. You don’t need to be a good speller to be a good copy editor.
Commas are something you’ll find yourself doing a lot of work with. Two independent clauses separated by a conjunction should almost always have a comma before the conjunction. Also, unless the author vehemently is against it, I unilaterally use the serial comma. So I’m always sticking in that third comma in any list. Many times authors get semicolon usage wrong, too. It pays to learn how to use the semicolon and will only take you thirty minutes of study to learn it properly. Fixing semicolon misuses and comma splices are another area where much of my time can be spent.
If a sentence is awkward, I comment that it is (nicely, if it’s not my own manuscript) and leave it for the author to fix. If there’s a simple word missing or a tense problem, I generally just fix it and move past it. The rule is: intrude as little as possible on the author’s work. You do not want your presence as an editor to be felt in the writing at all.
Once I’m through the second pass, the copy editing job is pretty much done. There are probably a lot of copy editors that would, at this point, give the manuscript back to the writer. I do a third pass because of my inexperience. I just want to make sure I catch everything. I take a little break between passes two and three. I think it’s important to get a bit of distance before diving in again.
Usually on my third pass I manage to find a few things I happened to miss on the first and second. Not much, though. The odd missing period. Not usually too many spelling errors. Generally if I find anything at all at this point, it’s punctuation errors, not-so-obvious dangling modifiers, things like that.
The last thing I do is search and replace double spaces for a single space. I do this multiple times until Word comes back with zero replacements. Then I know the whole thing is properly single spaced.
At this point, the copy editing is complete. I might go on to put the manuscript into a POD-ready format to be published, but that’s another blog post for another day.