On Publishing and Self-Publishing: The Value of Professional Copyediting


First of all, this is the 1000th post in the history of Magical Words, and I think that’s worth a little “Woot, woot!”  Thanks to all of you for following us and making this such a special site.

One of the points we at MW have returned to again and again in our discussions of the advantages of traditional publishing over self-publishing is the importance of working with a developmental editor. There is a second point I’d like to focus on today. First though, I would encourage you to go back and read this post, which I wrote several months ago.

In that post, I list the many services traditional publishers provide that self-pubbed authors, whether putting out hard copies or electronic copies, either pay for themselves or skip. Second on that list is “A professional copyeditor,” and since I am now working on the copyedits for Thieftaker I thought I would expand on this a bit. Many people don’t understand what a copyeditor does; the more you learn about them, the more you’ll come to see just how valuable a service they provide.

Let me say up front that my copyeditor on this project, Terry McGarry, is one of the very best in the business. I have worked with several copyeditors, and not all of them are as thorough or as skilled as she. In part, this may be because Terry is also an accomplished author who knows how it feels to be copyedited. (Terry’s Illumination trilogy — Illumination, The Binder’s Road, Triad — is one of the best fantasy series I’ve ever read: great characters, magnificent prose, terrific story.) I should also mention here that Terry is a good friend, but I assure you that she puts just as much effort into the manuscripts of strangers as she does into mine. To be honest, we’ve been a bit out of touch lately, so I’m not sure she knows that I’m “D.B. Jackson.” But her work on this book was every bit as thorough as her work on my other books.

So, what does a copyeditor do? Well, when I receive my copyedited manuscript from the publisher (in paper form — some publishers are moving to electronic copyediting, with track changes etc.; Tor still works with paper manuscripts for this stage of the process), the first thing I see is what’s called “Copyeditor’s Style Sheet.” The style sheet is one of the most valuable things I get from ANY phase of the publication process (and Terry gives great Style Sheet . . .). It includes first a list of the sources she uses for her editing of the manuscript — which dictionaries she referred to (Webster’s New Collegiate, 11th ed.; Webster’s Third Unabridged), which encyclopedias she consulted (Britannica), which style manual she used (Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed.), and what other sources she consulted (in this case several books about Boston).

It then specifies style and usage conventions used in the manuscript, usually (but not always) deferring to the author’s stylistic choices: serial comma, how possessives are handled in names ending in “s”, hyphenation conventions, capitalization, when italics are used, how numbers and dates are written (numerically or spelled out), and other stylistic choices. Then we get into the really valuable stuff. The style sheet includes a list of all proper names occurring in the manuscript and the page on which they first appear. Character names will often include a brief physical description and/or an indication of who the character is. Place names include similar information (a description of the place and/or its significance). These listings will also include alternative names used for any places or things. So, for instance, the entry on the list for the tavern where Ethan Kaille, my hero in Thieftaker, hangs out reads like this: “Dowsing Rod, the; the Dowser (a tavern on Sudbury Street) 17, 23, 123.” Translated: The Dowsing Rod is first mentioned on page 17, the nickname for the tavern (the Dowser) is first used on page 23, and its Sudbury Street location is first specified on page 123.

The style sheet then lists words or phrases that are either unique to the manuscript or might be considered idiosyncratic. For instance, I refer to the Boston jail as the “gaol” because that is the usage of the day. The style sheet lists that. It also lists things like the names of spells that Ethan casts, as well as information about them (e.g. “elemental spell 62 — fueled by fire, water, earth or air, 216”). Terry’s style sheet for Thieftaker also included every Latin spell Ethan uses in the course of the book, with the Latin spelled out and my translations listed as well.

Finally, the style sheet includes a list of queries, questions the copyeditor has for the author. Usually these deal with inconsistencies or potential inaccuracies. For example, in the course of the book, I use two different Latin phrasings for one of the spells; Terry wants to know which one is right, and she wants me to fix the ones that are wrong. In another spot, I list the name of a street, but it’s a street that is named differently in various maps of pre-Revolutionary Boston and in books about the city. Terry wants me to be aware of the potential discrepancies and to use the one that best fits the book. The queries also sometimes deal with more mundane issues — a question of style or phrasing that doesn’t quite sound right or could potentially be confusing.

And that’s it for the style sheet. We haven’t even started on the manuscript yet! Actually, a copyeditor’s work on the manuscript is usually the least of her (or his) work. A good copyeditor will catch typos, grammatical and syntactical problems, and other stuff like that. But — and this is key — a good copyeditor edits with a very light hand and queries any changes that might be more substantive. Lots of authors (Faith included, if I’m not mistaken) have horror stories about copyeditors changing too much; for instance, taking dialect and turning it to King’s English, or other stuff like that. That’s bad copyediting.

What is the point of copyediting? Why is it so important, and why do copyeditors take so much time with style sheets and the like? In part, a copyeditor is there to make sure that a novel is consistent from cover to cover. S/he ensures that the author’s intent and execution are in sync. “Did you intend for his eyes to be blue or brown, because they’re blue on page 67 but brown on page 314?” But beyond that, a crucial aspect of a copyeditor’s job is to serve, in essence, as a liaison between the author and the typesetter. Those style sheets will serve me well as I continue to write in the series — I now have a handy reference for names and spells. But more important, the style sheets allow the typesetter to make certain that unusual words and phrases are correct, that italics are used in the right places, that calling the tavern “the Dowsing Rod” in one place and “the Dowser” in another is okay.

Because just as an author wants to get this stuff right, and so does the typesetter, our readers REALLY want this stuff to be correct and consistent. Reading a book with errors and inconsistencies can be incredibly frustrating. Copyeditors save us from that. And this is one more way in which traditional publishing often produces a higher quality book than does self-publishing. I don’t know what Terry charges for her services, but I do know that it’s a considerable amount (as it should be). When Tor publishes my book, I don’t have to worry about the price of a copyeditor. It’s part of the process, part of the reason why I don’t get all the proceeds from a book sale. And it’s worth every penny.

David B. Coe



25 comments to On Publishing and Self-Publishing: The Value of Professional Copyediting

  • Wow. Now I want a copyeditor for Christmas. And a style sheet. 🙂 (Okay, I’ll take traditional publisher for xmas, since it comes with developmental editor, copyeditor, and two AA batteries.) I know that I need to do at least a basic style sheet of my own for my novel. But it is so much work! Having that would be a godsend! So much work has to go into a novel to get it from idea to someone paying to read it. I’m always annoyed with things are poorly copyedited. I admit, I might not catch a bunch of the mistakes you mentioned (like different names for the same street? No way I’d have noticed that, but I’m not a historian of Boston!). But, I might have noticed the Latin, for example. I tend to notice grammar errors (shocking, I know), at least ones that aren’t obviously for dialect or style. Honestly, this kind of stuff is what is holding me back, in part, from self-publishing. I just can’t imagine getting it all done well in a way I could afford right now.

  • I’ve lots of copyeditors over the years, and some are horrible (like the one who changed dialect into proper spellings. GAH!) And some are wonderful and catch *everything*. Some come across totally snarky. I can deal with snark, when the CE is helpful, you know? One recent CE didn’t catch my misspeling of a mountain in NC. It is going into print that way. (covers eyes in shame) Yes, the misspelling is my fault. Totally. And hers for not catching my error. Sigh… My poor readers…

  • I love getting the style sheet, particularly for the encyclopedic listing of things I’ve made up (places, characters, devices etc.) as if they are real. That always gives me a thrill. It’s as if the stuff I’ve invented has just taken a step into becoming actual.

  • Emily, I’m that sort of reader, too. Little inconsistencies bug me, and so I’m especially appreciative of the work my copyeditors do on my books. But yeah, the style sheet is simply invaluable. And we hope you get a publisher for Christmas, too. Fingers crossed.

    Faith, I’ve been lucky in that I’ve only had one or two bad copyediting experiences. In part this is because Terry worked on the first Winds of the Forelands book and then Tor kept on sending her the subsequent volumes. But it’s also because the majority of copyeditors are committed and conscientious. That said, a poor copyediting job can really foul up a book.

    A.J., I know just what you mean. I still remember the first really good style sheet I received — it was a revelation. Very cool.

  • You know, I never considered it before, but this might be a big press only perk. I just doubled checked, and while I have lovely style sheets for my NY pubbed books, I don’t for my small press books. (Though my small press has been growing a lot recently, and I know they’ve contracted new copyeditors since my last book, so for my next book things may be different.)

  • henderson


    I found this post informative and helpful. Thanks. It appears that a style sheet that lists the characters and settings can be quite useful to an author who is interested in writing a series.

    I, however, have to take exception with a sentence in the last paragraph in your post regarding publishing versus self-publishing. Why did you have to mention? I don’t think it was really necessary to mention this.

    After reading the last paragraph, it just left a bad taste. I have been following MAGICAL WORDS for over two years. I know that many authors who post on this blog have strong feelings about traditional publishing and self-publishing, and there have been discussions about this issue in previous posts. I just didn’t like the reference to this issue in a post about copyediting.

  • Hmmm, I don’t know, Kalayna. Perhaps Faith can chime in on this to comment on whether small presses do this, too. I have always assumed, based upon anecdotal evidence that small presses have copyeditors who do style sheets, but this may be something that some CEs do and some don’t. Interesting. Thanks for the data point, Kalayna.

    Henderson, let me begin by apologizing. I certainly didn’t mean to do anything to leave you with bad feelings. That said, though, if you go back and read the title of the piece and also the second and third paragraphs, you’ll see that I made clear from the outset that I was drawing attention to something that comes with traditional publishing and is often overlooked in the self-publishing process. That was also the point of the post to which I linked in that second paragraph. The fact is that copyediting is crucial to creating a clean book without distracting problems and inconsistencies. Traditional publishers provide copyediting as a matter of course. For self-pubbed books copyediting is often a luxury, and an expensive one at that. I was trying to show the value of copyediting, and yes, I was pointing to it as another advantage of traditional publishing over self-pubbing. I meant no offense, but I think it should have been pretty clear that this was the entire point of the post.

  • henderson


    No reason to apologize.

    Thanks for the response. Congratulations on the 1000th post at MW.

  • Razziecat

    Thank you for this post. Great explanation of what copy editors do. I already knew they were valuable, but wow! Hope I get to have one someday 🙂

  • Yes, congratulations on being post #1000! That’s a pretty cool milestone for MW in general.

    I didn’t realize that the copy editor was another valuable facet of Traditional Publishers. That only makes me want to go that way even more. Even if it taked me years longer. Upon hearing of a rejection I received last week, a few well-meaning friends told me I should just self-publish. I can’t. (Besides, the rejecting agent gave me valuable personalized feedback. I can fix the story and send it elsewhere.)

  • 1000 posts! Woot woot! So much helpful info–someone really ought to use it to compile a book! 😉

    Seriously, this post is helpful not only in detailing how copy editing is **supposed** to work, but also in highlighting one of the many difference between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Let me add another data point to the spectrum here: the small publishers. My novel Dreaming Creek was published by a small but busy non-New York publisher, and the copy editing I got ONLY touched on the grammar and typos and inconsistencies (and lightly at that; I was appalled at the number of typos that ended up in the printed edition–with them and with myself). My novel was never meant to be anything but a standalone book, but it still would have been helpful to have many of the things you listed on the style sheet for future reference/projects. Until a writer get deep into the publishing process, it’s hard to imagine how many things/services are required in order to produce a high-quality book. Copy editing is a big one, but certainly not the only one, and the bigger the publisher, the more of those things/services are provided.

  • Thanks, Henderson.

    Razz, I hope you get one soon!

    Laura, thank you. As I say in the post, a good copyeditor is worth his or her weight in gold. I’m about a quarter of the way through the manuscript right now, and already I can tell that Terry has made the book cleaner and clearer than it was.

    Edmund, thanks. I do think that this is a place where the big publishers have an advantage. It seems odd to me, given how crucial good copyediting is, but it does seem to be considered a “luxury item” of sorts in the publishing world. Thanks for this perspective.

  • Wow! Congratulations, MW, for hitting the big 1K!! Very impressive!

    Thanks for this insider view of the benefits of copy-editing.

    The first time I beta-read a novel for a friend (who later sold and published 6 books in the series) I generated a style sheet without even realizing what I was doing. There were just so many characters and places and unusual spellings that I had to write things down to keep track – and of course it then helped me catch problems (one character aging 10 years while another ages only 3; green eyes here, blue eyes there). That was 15 year ago, and until this post, it never occurred to me how valuable that information could be to the author!

    Thanks, David, for sharing the other side of the process.
    That was fifteen years ago.

  • Good post. I didn’t know about the style sheets, they sound handy. I should probably do one for myself, I’m forever going back to see how I named this city or that town.

    I’ve read a number of self-pubbed books. Some range from nearly indistinguishable from trad-pubbed to somewhat juvenile. Many fall into the category of a really good final draft, one that you’d submit to an agent or publisher. Not too often has it been the copy editing that has been at fault, more often the developmental editing. The larger picture story progression type stuff. But it is the copy editing that really smacks me about and pulls me out.

    I hate reading: “He grabbed to the the at his sword.” Type of lines. Clearly just the author rewriting a sentence but then not getting picked up by the editor.

  • Thanks for the comment, Lyn. There are any number of reasons for creating a style sheet, and I do seek to replicate the process in a way as I write the book. But as A.J. mentioned in his comment, there is something about having it done for you that is not only very cool, but also very helpful. There are terms, names, places that I take for granted as a writer that another reader, or in this case editor, would include. And that’s invaluable.

    John, I agree. For some reason those little typos and technical errors pull me out of a reading experience from more abruptly than would poor character work or a contrived plot point. It’s not that I don’t notice the latter, but rather that I accept them and just pass them off in my (negative) judgment of the overall quality of the book. But the silly stuff — the typos etc., they just tick me off.

  • I’m still ashamed to admit this, but there were so many typos and style inconsistencies in my dissertation that I had to get it professionally copy edited, and read for copy by two of my friends (Henry and Emily, to whom I now owe my kidneys, since they turned down offers of my first and second born children.) I swear I did my best not to be an idiot, but the number of typos was unbelievable. The thought of my work going out un-copy edited makes me feel a little queasy at this point. The bottom line, for me anyway, is that after dwelling so closely with a text for so long, I just can’t see those small, but crucial details that just leap of the page at a reader.

  • *off. I meant *off. Case in point.

  • Vyton

    One thousand megaWoots to MW. For me, this was a valuable post. Thanks, David.

  • Sarah, there is no shame in it at all. We all have those issues with finding our own errors. This is one of the reasons why working with professional editors (Developmental AND copyeditors AND line editors) is so important. We can only do so much for our own work, and then we need a trained set of eyes (or several) to help us make our books as good as they can be. Seems to me that this is fairly universal. We all know what it’s like to read a book by a famous author and think upon finishing it “Oh, it looks like X has stopped listening to his/her editors…” We ALL need editing.

    Vyton, thanks very much.

  • Great insight into things I knew little about. I assumed copyediting was slaying errant commas and relocating missing words.

    Tweeted and shared.


  • cslakin

    Thanks for touting the need for a good copyeditor! I work professionally as a copyeditor and writing coach in the book publishing industry for publishers, literary agents, and individuals. And I am also an author. What amazes me is that I go over my own novels about ten times, sure I have caught every error, and lo and behold! My proofreader or critique partner will find a ton! Other editors will tell you the same thing–that we often can’t see our own mistakes because we know what we meant when we wrote that sentence and so our eyes see that–not what’s really there. I also recommend downloading Natural Reader and have your computer read your book back to you. I have all my books read to me this way and i catch not just repeated or wrong words but hear the euphony (or lack of it).

    And if you want to understand the difference in editing services, you can visit my services page and read about them, and that way if you do hire an editor, you will know what to ask for, since there are a lot of editing choices: http://www.cslakin.com/editing/php Thanks! Susanne Lakin

  • Thanks, Dave!

    And thanks for your insights, Susanne. I read my work aloud or have my mac read it to me for just the reasons you point out. Thanks as well for the link; I’m sure that will prove helpful to our readers.

  • I had about six books out through a NYC publisher before I ever got a style sheet (from a new publisher). I was amazed and delighted by it. 🙂 So it’s not just small press vs large, but just how different houses do things.

  • I know it’s very, very late for this… but I’ve been super-busy lately, so I only read this recently. But I had some thoughts on this.

    Firstly… cslakin: I get a 404 error when I click your link. Google tells me this is the correct link: http://www.cslakin.com/editing.php I also note, on that link, that a style sheet is not mentioned on the copyediting services? (I’m not asking because I’m in the market for a copyeditor, at this time. I ask because I might at some future point theoretically be in the market for such, and I’m curious if something like a style sheet is cost-effective or a costly add-on for typical editing services.)

    Secondly: All the grammar and other stuff is, of course, I think invaluable, but like others I’m very intrigued by the style sheet. I think I’d find it very useful. But as I read about it, I realized that a large chunk (though not all) of what’s contained in a style sheet I’ll already have extent when I’m writing a book simply by virtue of the approach to writing that I take. For novels, I’m finding that I’m a heavy planner/outliner, and part of that process includes creating lists of characters (along with their descriptions and keywords), unique terms, places, etc. I’m sure I’ll miss some that I take for granted or I don’t consider significant enough to warrant an entry in my compendium of notes. The other component of the style sheet that my process misses is the first-page-appearance… although I think I’d find a full page reference index to be even more valuable (though for something major like the main character, such an index might actually be too much clutter, as it would likely list every page in the book, but for something of medium importance that appears a few times throughout the book, the page reference index might help me find later occurrences of the term/character/place where I need to correct mistakes).

    Anyway, this was very interesting. Thanks for going into detail about the work of the copyeditor!