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  • Jess Lawrence

5 myths about working with a copy-editor

Since I went freelance as a copy-editor, I’ve heard a lot of authors say a lot of things about my profession. What I’ve been noticing more and more, is the number of myths people seem to believe about editors. So I’ve decided to set the record straight and comment on five of the myths I hear most frequently.

Ready? Let’s get into this.

1. That you have to accept every change

Most definitely not. In fact, you don’t have to accept a single one of the changes that your copy-editor suggests. Do you know why? Because it’s your story and you get to make all of the decisions regarding what goes into it and comes out of it.

When I’m editing a client’s novel, I tend to do one of two things:

  • If it’s a change that I know is right or is very minor, like correcting a misspelled character name, then I’ll make the edit in Track Changes.

  • If the change involves rewriting a whole sentence, or is more subjective, then I’ll raise a comment. In that comment, I’ll explain what I think is wrong with the highlighted section, and I might even give an example of how it can be reworded.

I then make it crystal clear to my client that if they don’t agree, they are welcome to ignore my opinion. But there is one thing to remember about this point: your copy-editor does (or should!) have professional experience. When they point out that a line or scene doesn’t work, it’s usually worth at least considering why that is.

I’m a writer too, so I know how easy it is to just say ‘No, I like what I’ve written so I’m keeping it’, but there often isn’t smoke without fire, so you should be wary of ignoring all of your editor’s advice.

2. That the editor will cut your voice and the novel won’t be yours anymore

This is actually a valid concern, but I’m labelling it as a myth because this isn’t how working with a copy-editor should be. Any copy-editor with experience should know how to edit your manuscript and suggest changes without removing your authorial voice.

Now, don’t get me wrong, this is hard. As I’ve said, I’m a writer too, so when I suggest changes I have to be extra careful that I’m not suggesting how I would write this sentence/paragraph/scene. But there is a knack to doing this and it’s important to find an editor who is up to the challenge.

So how do you find such an editor? Well, the easiest way is to request a sample edit. Most copy-editors will offer this as standard when they provide a quote because they’ll need to see what level of editing is required. But this sample edit is as much for you, the author, as it is for them. It will show you exactly how the editor works, their technique, and the level to which they root around in your manuscript.

3. That it’s ‘cheating’ to have your novel professionally edited before querying

I’ve heard this one a couple of times. The author feels that if they have their manuscript professionally edited before they send it out to agents, they will be misrepresenting their writing abilities. I can see the logic in this one, but it’s not something you need to worry about.

As I’ve explained above, getting your manuscript professionally edited doesn’t make it any less yours. It is still your idea, your characters, your hard work. And there are many reasons why some authors choose to hire a copy-editor before they start querying. Some are excellent plot generators, but they struggle to put the story on the page coherently. Others can get a solid enough first draft, but they need help smoothing down the rough edges.

Now, by no means do you have to get your work edited before you start querying, but it’s not dishonest if you do choose to. There is nothing wrong with presenting your work in its best possible form. And traditional publishing is incredibly competitive, so why not do what you can to stand out from the crowd?

4. That your editor will catch every error

Oh-ho, how I wish this were true. Here’s a fun fact: copy-editors and proofreaders are human. That means we’re prone to human error. We miss things. Hopefully not as many things as an untrained reader, but still a few typos or apostrophes here and there. When you’re reviewing a 100,000+ word manuscript, it’s inevitable.

According to the Chartered Institute for Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), an experienced professional proofreader should be able to spot at least 80% of all errors, and at least 90% of all typos.

Pick up any traditionally published book, and you are likely to spot at least one error. The funny thing about that is that the book was likely reviewed by at least three or four different professionals with editing experience – and that little error slipped by them all.

It happens. We try not to let it happen too often, and believe me we melt into a puddle of shame when we spot one in our work after it’s too late, but that’s the way of things.

5. All editors can do all kinds of editing

There are different types of editing: manuscript critiques, developmental editing, line/copy-editing, and proofreading. While there are overlapping aspects, each level of editing requires a different skillset.

Not every editor offers all services, for many reasons, including personal preference. Some editors love the nitty-gritty of proofreading but aren’t interested in the big-picture work of developmental editing.

So what does this mean for you? Well, first it means you have to know which type of editing you need. Once you know that, you can set about finding an editor who specialises in that particular service. And if you need multiple services – say you want to start with a manuscript critique and then do copy-editing – you might find an editor that does both, or you may need to prepare to look for two different editors.

Fortunately, the editing community is quite well connected, so one can usually point you in the direction of another if it comes to that.

Editors are pedants, not tyrants

When you’re working up the courage to send your manuscript out to an editor, it’s natural to be nervous. You want to find not just a good editor, but one that’s good for you. One that will connect with your manuscript and work with you to make it the best that it can be.

And, believe me, editors want that too. We don’t want unhappy clients and we don’t want to spend weeks or months working on a project we aren’t passionate about. When you work with an editor, it’s a symbiotic relationship. You both have to find the right fit. And, more often than not, our suggestions come from a place of passion. We want you and your book to thrive.

We don’t expect you to follow our word to the letter, because we’re not tyrants. But we do want to show you where we think you can improve, because we’re definitely pedants.



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