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5 Steps to Surviving Your Copy Edit

You might think that editors who are also writers aren't at all bothered by being edited.

Almost Missed You
Copy Edits

The truth? We understand the importance of being edited probably more than some other writers. We also know going in how key it is to choose our battles, and might feel more comfortable deferring to an edit or, conversely, stetting (the copy editor’s term for negating) one we feel strongly about.

But are we immune to the sting that can come with seeing our pages bleeding red?


Having worked for more than 15 years as a freelancer and a staff writer, I’m used to having my nonfiction edited. But receiving my first ever copy edit of my fiction (my debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, March 2017) was different. Because a story you’ve spent a year or more pouring yourself into is much more inherently personal—which can make it hard to let go and let someone else have at it.

Here’s how it works (or at least, how it works at my publisher, St. Martin's Press/Macmillan): After your changes from your content edit have been accepted, your publisher has your manuscript copy edited (either in house or by a freelancer chosen by your production editor) and then sends it to you for author review with detailed instructions for how to

  1. review your edits without screwing up their formatting (certain styles for page layout/design had been applied and were not to be touched)
  2. add additional edits in accordance with their process
  3. stet or comment on the copy editor’s suggested changes.

NOTE: If you're self-publishing, you'll be hiring this out to a pro and then you will have the final say (as opposed to having input) on what to implement, so your author review is even more important.

You’ll likely also be given a Style Sheet with a handy list (for consistency) of proper nouns, character names, and words/styles that could theoretically be correct in more than one variation. (A snippet of mine is shown here.)

On the other side of an intense month in the trenches between the lines, I'm confident I'll be better prepared for this stage when it rolls around again.

And you can be, too. Here are my 5 steps to surviving your copy edit, and becoming a better writer in the process:

1. Rip off the Band-Aid.

Regardless of who you are or how brilliant your copy editor is, certain edits are going to make you want to bang your head on the desk, for one reason or another: You're frustrated you got something wrong, you're convinced the editor is wrong, you're chagrined to realize that something you loved stylistically is technically incorrect … where red ink and paper meet, frustration can fill the margins.

My advice, based on my own years as an editor of a different kind? Get it out of the way. The night I received my copy edited document, I scrolled through all 350 pages of the manuscript. I skimmed, I scoffed, I scowled, I pulled my hair, I ate a giant bowl of ice cream. Important: I didn't touch anything in the manuscript. I only looked at it.

This may seem cruel, to put yourself through all of that at once, but here's what I already knew about myself (and there's a good chance it'll hold true for you too): The next time I look at any one of those marks individually, the initial sting will have worn off. The "unknown" factor has been removed, which means any knee-jerk responses won't really be knee-jerk anymore. You have an idea of the extent of what you're getting into, and you can take a deep breath, and dig in.

2. Acknowledge the vices you knew you had.

I really like to use dashes, OK? It’s just that—well, they can express pauses, inflection, emphasis, interruptions, and a host of other things that commas can’t. And that vice—like my morning coffee, my weekend wine, or my habit of sleeping a little past my alarm—isn’t really one I’m all that interested in giving up. Because I like it—and also hold fast to my belief that in the grand scheme of vices this particular one isn’t that bad.

OK, that was dash overkill, but I couldn’t resist because NO ONE IS COPY EDITING THIS POST RIGHT NOW. (Can you see me stretching my arms and smiling?)

The same cannot be said for my novel.

My copy editor brought a more consistent order to my sentence structure, probably feeling that someone had to draw a line somewhere (or, rather, delete one). And you know what? Ultimately, I agreed. I saved a few strategic dashes that I’d have been especially sad to see go, and deferred to her expertise on the rest.

Sometimes it feels good to have someone take care of a mess for you.

3. Learn the vices you never knew you had.

We’ve all read about “crutch words”—those (often useless or filler) on which the writer tends to over-rely. (My own worst offender is “suddenly,” which—take it from me—can suddenly seem very difficult not to say.) A deservingly common writing tip is to identify your own crutch words and then search-and-replace as many of them as you can right out of your manuscript. And I thought I’d done that.

But from your copy edit, you will learn about crutch words you didn’t know you had. I was astounded to see that I had used the word “just” so many times that the copy editor must have just about suddenly up and quit.

Now I know. In my current work-in-progress, I often check myself when I'm about to fire off a just. Which is one example of how a copy editor really can make you a better writer, if you take note of patterns in the feedback.

4. Go ahead and fix things your own way.

In some cases I didn’t agree with or care for the copy editor’s suggested fix, but I did see and understand the problem she was trying to fix—which is the important part. In those instances I was able to arrive at a third option, one that was better than both my original and (in my humble opinion) her suggestion and that felt true to my voice and story. Win-win.

5. Know that your opinion does matter—but so does your attitude.

To dispel some misinformation I’ve seen elsewhere: You can respectfully request that certain copy edits not be made—that’s why the pages are being sent to you for review, after all. A good editor will not railroad over you and impose edits you strongly object to. The editing of a book is a team effort, and that team includes the author.

That being said, as with all things in life, be reasonable, be thoughtful, and be nice. Have an understanding that the publisher is working from a house style guide, and that you aren’t going to win any battles against The Chicago Manual of Style or Merriam-Webster, so you should turn your energies elsewhere.

Have a reason for anything you choose to object to—and the use of “I just liked it better the way it was” as a reason should be reserved for rare instances. Try to find the root of the change, because copy editors don’t change things for fun. Was your intended meaning unclear? Did you use a word incorrectly without even knowing it? (It happens to the best of us.)

Go in with the right mindset, and you’ll come out with a better book.

Yours in writing,
Jessica Strawser

Editorial Director, Writer’s Digest magazine

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Learn more about ALMOST MISSED YOU, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press in March 2017. (Now available to add to your Goodreads shelf or preorder from Amazon or Barnes & Noble!)

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