Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Joy of Copy Editing

I make my living by editing manuscripts, specializing in fiction and memoir. As readers of this blog have perhaps gathered, I am a plot junky, and I feel fortunate to work with words in pursuit of the Joy of Story. So I take pleasure in editing the stories written by other writers, be they freelance clients or the authors of the books we (Daniel & Daniel, Publishers, Inc.) publish under our Fithian Press imprint.
Editing—especially editing of memoir and fiction—comes in three varieties: developmental editing, which means big structural changes, major cuts or expansions, rearranging of elements, and the like; line editing, which involves rewriting the sentences and paragraphs for stronger, more effective phrasing; and copy editing, which is routine clean-up of grammar, spelling, punctuation, formatting, etc.

Developmental editing is a huge and complex subject, and there are volumes written about story construction and repair. I won’t attempt to tackle this subject in a blog post, although many of my blog posts have touched, and will continue to touch, on various aspects of what makes good stories work and play well.

As for line editing, yes there are lots of books about writing craft at the sentence level, too. But I have a few red flags to raise on the subject. I’ll do that in a future post.

This post will focus on copy editing. There are good reference books for copy editors, too, and the ultimate authority on my shelf is the Chicago Manual of Style, but to be honest I use it for only the thorniest, most convoluted issues. Far more accessible is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I believe every editor (and may I say every writer?) should own a copy of Strunk & White, and should dip into it for pleasure as well as for guidance.

But for a short-short list of copy editing fixes for what I’ve come to identify as the most common errors, I’ve come up with following rules. I share them with the authors of every book or story I edit, and also with the freelance proofreaders whom we hire for eagle-eyed repair work. Some of these rules reflect my own opinions on debatable questions, and others are rulings on matters of just plain right versus just plain wrong.


Our house style is to use a comma before the conjunction in series of three or more.

Our rule for ellipsis dots: When they follow a complete sentence, there are four dots, one of which is the period belonging to that sentence. The four dots are followed by a space. When the ellipses follow an incomplete sentence, there are only three dots.

When somebody’s speech is interrupted mid-sentence by another speaker, we use an em-dash (—), not ellipses.

“Mom” and “Mama” are capitalized when they work as names. They’re lower case as common nouns. Same rule applies for Father, Dad, etc.

It’s customary to use italics for foreign words and phrases. Also for names of newspapers, magazines, books, and ships.

Pay special attention to quotation marks. When a spoken passages carries over to a second paragraph, that second paragraph opens with another “open quote mark.

When you end a quoted passage, the punctuation mark (comma, question mark, or period) precedes the close-quote mark. (like this,”; not like this”.)

Beware the dreaded comma splice. That’s two independent clauses joined by a comma. Needs to be two sentences, or joined by a conjunction or a semicolon.

We spell out numbers under 100; use numerals for 100 and over. (Always spell numbers out in quoted dialogue, or when the number is the first word of a sentence.)

“anymore” (one word) for adverb. “any more” (two words) for adjective. “Don’t give me any more cookies. I don’t eat cookies anymore.”

“awhile” (one word) for adverb, as in “stay awhile.” “a while” (two words) for the object of a preposition, as in “stay for a while.”

“all right” is always two words. “alright” is not a word.

“under way” is always two words. “underway” is not a word.

“farther” for distance; “further” for degree: “I had to travel farther from home to be further educated.”

“blonde” means a blond-headed woman. It is always a noun. The adjective (male or female) is “blond.”

as a general rule, compound adjectives are hyphenated if they precede the noun they modify. “This is a red-hot poker. This poker is red hot.”

The possessive of a singular noun ending in s is ’s: “Tom Jones’s lady love.”

The only use for single quotes (‘,’) is to represent quotation marks with quotation marks.

And finally,

Learn by heart the conjugations for “to lie” and “to lay.” Mixing these verbs up will get you in trouble.


  1. This was brilliant. I found when I first started writing that I seriously violated many of the rules you outlined. I'm getting better, but our language has so many rules.... Thanks for this great tidbit of information. I hope 2014 is treating you well.

    1. Thanks, Chris. Yes, our English language is a glorious mess, having inherited grammar from so many ancestors.

  2. John, have you been looking over my shoulder as I write? I ask because you've listed several words and phrases that often present problems for me. I love "The Elements of Style" and I wouldn't be without my copy but, thanks to you (I've printed this list out), I'll be saving quite a bit of time in the future. Great post! Thank you!

    1. Pat, I'm glad you think this little list is helpful. It's only a beginning, of course.

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I'm about to print it. I knew some of these but there were a few that took me by surprise.

    1. Theresa, our language is rich with surprise, much of it illogical or whimsical. Never a dull moment.

  4. Everyone should be reminded of these now and again. Under way is one I often see misused. It seemed every newspaper where I worked had a different style book--AP, UPI or Chicago. But they all agreed on Strunk & White.

    1. I agree, John. Strunk & White's the best for the basics.

  5. Oh John, to lie and to lay, always giving me grief--great list and reminders!


    1. Now I lay me down to rest.
      I'll lie here till I feel my best.

  6. Thanks for this, John. I look forward to subsequent posts on editing. Always useful! I bring Elements of Style to every first workshop class and say, "Buy this." As for numbers, I spell out one through nine, then use numerals (AP Stylebook). Maybe that's why I still haven't had a best seller? (Two words, no hyphen, except for Wikipedia's "bestseller")

    1. Best sellers are written by best-selling authors.