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  • Jess Lawrence

How I copy-edit a novel

How I copy-edit a novel

I’ve seen a few writers ask what the process is like when copy-editing a novel, so while I worked my last job I kept track of every step so I could share it with you all and hopefully shed some light.

Now, every editor approaches a copy-editing job differently, so what follows is simply my method. It’s not the most efficient (I don’t use macros, for example), but it works for me.

So here we go: a manuscript has just landed in my inbox for an edit – what happens next?


For every single copy-editing job I start with a couple of small ‘housekeeping’ tasks that get the project set up and help me track my progress. These tasks are:

  • Quick check for glaring issues. Every now and then I’ll get a manuscript that has some irregularities (such as no chapter breaks, unexplained gaps in the text, random font or colour changes) and before I get started I have a quick scroll through the file to see if anything like that jumps out. If it does, I’ll message the author to confirm whether these issues are intentional or something I can correct.

  • Implement Headings. Some authors do this themselves, but if they haven’t then I’ll set each chapter title as a Heading. That way, I can have the Navigation Pane open while I work and move through the manuscript much quicker without having to scroll.

  • Create a spreadsheet. Each new manuscript gets a new spreadsheet within which I have two tabs:

    • The first tab has a list of all the chapters and their corresponding word count, and from this I set myself targets. For example, if I have an 80,000 word manuscript that I want to have finished within 8 days, I know I need to work through at least 10,000 words per day, so I’ll put a marker next to where that count falls.

    • The second tab is for making notes on the stylistic decisions I make as I go through, which I later use to build my style guide.

  • Set up Toggl. Though I don’t charge by the hour, I do still track my time when I work on a project because it’s helpful to know how long certain tasks take me, so I always set up a new client in Toggl, along with the title of their story.

Preliminary checks

Though I mentioned before that I don’t use macros, I do occasionally run software that scans a file and flags up any consistency issues. I used to use PerfectIt for this, but it was struggling to work on my old Mac and ended up eating more time than it saved. Now, I rely on a smaller version of that program called Consistency Checker and it picks up on things like inconsistent spelling or hyphen usage.

Sometimes I’ll put Word’s in-built Editor tool to use, and that can help in finding some spelling and grammar errors. I don’t tend to bother with the ‘clarity’ and ‘conciseness’ part of that tool early on because I find those kinds of things are easier to determine when I read naturally and I get the full context. Plus, if you’ve used Word for some time, you’ll know it’s not always on the money with its suggestions, so I don’t rely on it too heavily.

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Round 1 of edits

Now is when I properly dive into the edit. The first thing I’ll do here is turn on Track Changes so the author will be able to see every edit I make. There are some things I don’t bother tracking, such as when I’ve deleted double spaces after a full stop, because I don’t want to fill the page with unnecessary red-lining, but I track pretty much everything else. This gives the author the chance to Accept or Reject each edit as they please.

I mentioned before that I have a tab in my spreadsheet for noting down any stylistic decisions I make, so part of Round 1’s edits is building the bulk of that out. For the most part I will defer to the author’s dominant usage – for example, if US spelling is used most often but there’s the odd British spelling, I’ll correct the latter – and other times I will make a decision based on what is common in publishing.

As I go through the file, as well as leaving comments for the author about things they need to check, I also leave positive comments that show my reaction to certain parts that strike my interest, whether that’s a funny conversation or a sudden reveal. I’ve yet to read a single manuscript that didn’t have plenty of strengths, and I feel it’s important to highlight those just as much as the areas for improvement.

Once I’ve finished the first read through, I do a scan back through all the comments I left to see whether any can be updated (because the query I had got answered further on in the story) or to address any I left for myself (like a reminder to go back and check an inconsistency I spotted).

After that, I take the notes from my spreadsheet and build out the style guide in its own Word document, and send both the edited manuscript and the style guide back to the author.

The author’s review

This isn’t a step that involves me, but it’s worth including in the process. This stage is for the author to read through all of my edits and decide which of them they’re happy with and which, if any, they don’t agree with. They can also review my style guide and let me know if there are any stylistic decisions I made that they’d like changed.

Round 2 of edits

The second round is a lot quicker because by that point most of the errors are already sorted. I read through the full file once again, paying extra care to areas I know the author made some changes to or parts I was concerned about in the first round.

What I love most about the second round of edits is that I get to pay closer attention to the story. In round 1, I’m usually so focused on the line-by-line details that I miss interesting plot elements, and it’s not until round 2 that I get to appreciate these.

If there are any updates to the style guide, I will make those too so we have a log of it, and then I send the completed files back to the author again.

And that’s it…

Like I said, this isn’t the most efficient process I could follow. I know other editors who run a lot more preliminary checks than I do, but I’ve always found it easier to approach issues as they crop up while reading rather than viewing them out of context. Sometimes, what a program classes as an ‘error’ or sentence in need of rewriting is actually an element of the author’s voice, but I can’t know that for sure until I’ve really immersed myself in their writing.

I’ve been at this for almost four years now, and my process has developed during that time, so I’m sure it will continue to change. Eventually I will have to shake off my fear of macros and finally start looking into them, but until that day I’m happy with how I do a copy-edit, and I’ve had no complaints yet!



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