The two important 'C's of copy-editing
There are a lot of stylistic decisions to make when it comes to copy-editing. Not everything is as black and white as correcting a typo or a missing apostrophe. There are some choices that are more subjective, such as whether to use US or UK spelling, or whether to use double quotes for dialogue or single.
So how do you know which format is the right one?
For traditional publishing, most publishing houses have what we call a style guide or a ‘house style’. This means all of the books that get published under one of their imprints are formatted with the same stylistic choices. In many cases, these house styles are based on the popular style guides like AP (Associated Press), CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) and New Hart’s Rules.
The good news for writers seeking traditional publication is that you don’t need to worry about a particular publisher’s house style before you’ve signed with them, or even before you’ve signed with an agent. Those formatting changes will be made by an editor much further down the line, and your manuscript will not be rejected simply because it doesn’t meet house style.
Instead, when it comes to editing your own work, there are really only two things you need to concern yourself with: clarity and consistency.
When you need to make a stylistic decision, a lot of the choice is really up to personal preference. You get to pick whichever style is most comfortable for you, and this will make drafting easier because you won’t need to keep worrying about which way you need to format something – it’ll just be the way you usually do it.
Sometimes, however, you will want to make a decision based on how clear it is for the reader to understand. For example, if you are a US writer, it stands to reason that you’re most familiar with US spelling and would default to that style. Let’s say, though, that you were writing a first-person narrative set in the UK with a British protagonist. While US spelling might be your personal preference, there’s nothing more jarring than a British character using Americanisms like ‘pants’ or ‘trash’, so opting for UK spelling in this instance would improve the reader’s immersion in the story.
Whether you’ve made a stylistic decision based on personal preference or clarity, the next most important thing is to be consistent with it. If you’ve opted to use single quotes for dialogue, or en dashes instead of em dashes, do so throughout the whole manuscript. It doesn’t matter if the choice you’ve made is considered unpopular by every publishing house or agent across the world; it only matters that you’ve been consistent.
This is good for two reasons. First, it will show that the stylistic choices you’ve made are conscious and thought through. Nothing says ‘I haven’t paid much attention to what I’m writing’ like italicising half of your character’s thoughts and leaving some roman. Second, if your manuscript is acquired by a publisher that needs to reformat it to their house style (or if you’re self-publishing and sending it to a copy-editor), it’s much easier for the editor to find and correct all of the instances if they are consistent.
Don’t sweat ‘getting it right’ – get it written
You’re never going to please everyone with all of the stylistic choices you make in your manuscript, but you shouldn’t let that hinder your writing. If you’re feeling held up because you’re not sure whether you should be using parentheses or en dashes for narrative asides, or whether you should spell out numbers or write them as numerals, don’t sweat it. Make a decision and stick to it.
Above all else, just aim for clarity and consistency.