Do You Need a Copy Editor? You Bet You Do!

Last week, a spirited debate with a fellow author got me thinking about the various types of editing we might seek out for our books. I see editing in a series of three levels. At the highest level, is a "content edit," where an editor is paid to look at the book with a critical eye and identify areas of the story that are either not working or could be strengthened. The content editor examines character development, story arc, goals, motivations and conflict. He or she will tell you when something doesn't make sense or when a character behaves differently than expected based on what we know about them. This is the kind of editing you hear traditionally published authors grumbling about, because it often comes in the form of a multi-page letter outlining the issues identified by the editor. Authors are usually poleaxed by these letters initially, if for no other reason than it is rather shocking to hear that your masterpiece isn't quite a masterpiece. Yet. The advice usually given to editorially poleaxed writers on the published author loops is to read it, absorb it, let it sit for a few days and allow the answers come to you organically. Don't dive right in and start hacking. Think, contemplate and then proceed. These are often BIG edits that require a certain level of "rip apart and rebuild" activity before the book can be resubmitted for the next level of review. This is usually the most difficult stage in the life of a book for the author.

If you are an independent publisher, this type of editing is the most expensive. I've seen prices that range from $1000 to $3000 or more for an in-depth content edit. Among the freelance content editors currently available for hire, you will find that many have had publishing experience. Some have been laid off as publishers tighten their belts. Others have left to raise families but want to keep a hand in the business. It is very possible to hire highly qualified, experienced professionals to content edit your book. Is it necessary, however? As an independently published author, that—like everything else—is entirely up to you.

On the second tier, you will find copy editing and proofreading. I'll come back to that in a minute.

One the lowest tier are beta readers, fellow writers and family members who read our books out of the goodness of their hearts and point out any story failings or typos they might find.

Each of these levels provides a distinct service to the author, but one is not to be mistaken for the other. A beta reader or fellow writer cannot and will not provide the same level of feedback and constructive criticism that a professional content editor will provide. That's not to say that beta readers and fellow writers can't identify fatal flaws within the story or help to improve a story line that isn't working as well as it could be. A content editor will go much deeper into the bones of the book and help to make it stronger. A content editor will ask questions you've probably never considered and will make suggestions that very often make the book a much better finished product.

After all of that work is done, in come the copy editors and proofreaders. I want to preface my comments about copy editors with a full disclosure: I am a professional copy editor. I have a college degree in Journalism, have had courses in copy editing, have worked on newspapers and served as editor-in-chief of a national trade magazine for 16 years. I understand publication style and have a better-than-average grasp of grammar, spelling, word choice, etc. Have those skills benefitted my fiction writing career? You bet they have. I've yet to have a copy editor fail to comment on how clean my books are. But that doesn't mean I don't need a copy editor. I'd never presume to be able to edit myself. That would be like a neurosurgeon thinking she could operate on her own brain. Well, maybe not quite THAT dramatic, but even with more than 20 years of professional copy editing experience and 20 completed novels, I wouldn't DARE publish a book without a professional copy editor reviewing it.

I want to share a little story from my copy editing history that illustrates how critical a good copy editor can be to any organization--or any author. I worked for many years for an association that supported the careers of government finance professionals. My boss at the time had drafted a letter to congratulate the new Comptroller General of the United States on his 15-year appointment. He asked me to proof the letter. About halfway through was a declaration supporting the new CG's "commitment to pubic financial management." I circled the word "pubic," which of course was supposed to be PUBLIC, with a black Sharpee and wrote across the top of the letter, "Do you love me?" My boss appeared in my office doorway a short time later, white-faced and bug-eyed. "Oh. My. God," he said. I think he said it three times, actually. I earned my keep that day and many other days because I know stuff. Yes, you heard me right: I. Know. Stuff. Trained, professional copy editors are the possessors of more worthless knowledge than just about anyone I know (other than my husband who is NOT a trained copy editor but likes to think he's become one via 20 years of osmosis). That knowledge suddenly becomes worth its weight in gold when it saves a writer from an embarrassing error, as copy editors do every single day of their professional lives. In fact, the "pubic" saves are the moments we live for!

I asked some of my fellow professional copy editors to help me make a list of the kind of stuff we know, so you will see there is editing and then there is EDITING. This is by no means an exhaustive list. We actually know a lot more than this--LOL!

A Good Copy Editor:
1. Knows that four U.S. states are commonwealths. Do you know which four? Okay, I'll tell you: Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Virginia. Referring to the "State of Virginia" makes you look stupid. We can help you avoid that.
2. Knows the difference between further and farther. Very important in romance. Did she spread her legs farther apart or further? Hmmm... Do you know?
3. Knows the difference between effect and affect.
4. Knows what constitutes a compound sentence and where the comma needs to go. 
5. Knows when to use "that" and when to use "which."
6. Knows when to use "that" and when to use "who." 
7. Knows when to use their, they're and there/your and you're/ and its and it's. You'd be stunned by how many times I've corrected these words in my career.
8. Knows when and how to use the word "too." Another stunningly misused little word.
9. Knows that words like Dumpster and Kleenex are trademarked and need to be capitalized, and further knows that if the word Styrofoam appears in any published text, a "don't do that" letter will arrive from Dow Chemical in a matter of days.
10. Knows when to use "between" and when to use "among."
11. Knows the difference between champagne and Champaign.
12. Knows when to use "over" and when to use "more than."
13. Knows when to use "everyday" and when to use "every day" (same with "anytime" and "any time.")
14. Knows what a compound adjective is and where to add the hyphens.
15. Knows the difference between "rein" and "reign," and when to use them. You rein in a horse, global warming, banks, etc. You don't reign them in. In fact, a good copy editor knows the word "rein" exists.
16. Knows the difference between "complement" and "compliment" and when to use them.
17. Knows that "different from" is generally preferable to "different than."
18. Knows when to use "who" and when to use "whom."
19. Knows to avoid the illogical phrasing "could care less" and to use the standard form "couldn't care less."
20. Knows not to use "couple" as an adjective, but to use the correct phrasing "couple of." 
21. Knows how to spell Cincinnati, which matters greatly to the good people of Cincinnati.
22. Knows there is a BIG difference between "public" and "pubic," as demonstrated above. 
23. Knows the difference between "loathe" and "loath."
24. Knows there is a very, very big difference between "bawl" and "ball," especially when used as a verb.
25. Knows the difference between "awhile" and "a while."
26. Knows to check the spelling of every place and famous person named in a book! (I can't tell you how many times I've found names of places—restaurants, towns, countries—and famous people misspelled.) Footnote: Knows the period belongs inside the parenthesis on a fully contained parenthetical sentence.
27. Knows the difference between "grizzly" and "grisly."
28. Knows to keep track of characters' eye and hair color (blue eyed in Chapter One, but brown eyed in Chapter Ten? Oops!)
29. Knows to check for continuity errors (did she stand up twice in a row, for instance?).
30. Knows that a stallion is a "he" and a mare is a "she." (I once did a book where a mare mysteriously fathered several foals at the end of the book, lol.)
31. Knows the difference between "prostrate" and "prostate!"
32. Knows it's straitlaced and straitjacket, not straight-laced or straight jacket.
33. And an important one: a good editor knows when to respect the author's voice while still helping to make the book the best it can be. :-)

Still don't think you need a copy editor? Take the quizzes offered by these two sites and see how you do:

Copy editing costs vary. Our fairies charge .004-.006 per word, depending on the condition of the book and the requested turnaround time. I urge you to take this step in your journey very seriously and to approach it as a professional author. You wouldn't visit a general practitioner if you had cancer, right? Of course not. You'd seek out a qualified oncologist. The metaphor may be dramatic, but there is simply no substitute for editing conducted by a trained professional who knows stuff. A lot of stuff. Professional proofreaders also know stuff and should be the final set of eyes on your book. That is another step I'd never, ever skip. Ever. In the Wild West of publishing, readers are the gatekeepers. If your book is full of errors, they will let you know with one-star reviews that stick to your book for life. Trust me when I tell you, readers know stuff, too. Do you want to be dragging them out of your story to grumble, "It's complement not compliment. Sheesh!" No, you really don't. 

Thank you so much to my copy editor Linda Ingmanson for helping me to compile this short list of the stuff we know. You can reach her at And thank you also to my copy editor friend Chris Camara.

Tell me the truth: Did you learn anything from our list? It's okay to say no. But it's also no sign of weakness to say yes. We're all still learning.

Everything Old Is New Again

Beginning when my son was in kindergarten, we went through what we politely refer to as his "Titanic phase." When I say he was "interested" in the epic disaster surrounding the unsinkable ship, that is putting it mildly. I hate to use the word "obsessed" to describe a six year old, but there you have it. His kindergarten teacher was moving to fourth grade at the end of that year and gave him her extensive collection of Titanic books aimed at younger audiences. I think he would've said at the time it was the best gift of his young life. He poured over those books, drew endless sketches of the ship in various stages of sinking and watched the movie (with Mom and Dad taking turns to fast forward over the racy bits) a hundred times.

EVERY conversation could be brought back around to the Titanic. "What do you want for lunch?" Peanut butter would be good. Do you think they had peanut butter on the Titanic? You get the picture. It went on for what seemed like YEARS. He is now in 7th grade and has passed through subsequent lesser obsessions with the six Star Wars movies, the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Bruins and the rapper Eminem (this last one making us long nostalgically for the Titanic era). So as the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking got ever closer and the new 3D version of the movie was released, his father, sister and I have wondered if there would be a reawakening of the Titanic obsession. Yesterday, he and his father went to see the 3D version of the movie, and since then he has been all Titanic, all the time. "It's back," his sister declared this morning when he pulled out one of his many books to show us something important. We knew it was a gamble to let him see the movie, but he wanted to so badly that we agreed. That's what we get for tempting fate! Ha!

I do have a relevant point in telling you this story of my son's ongoing love affair with the Titanic. In 1997 when the movie was originally released, it was the highest grossing film in history for the next 12 years. With box office receipts of $1.8 billion, it was the first movie to make a billion dollars. Now here it comes again, fifteen years later, with a 3D version to mark the 100th anniversary of the ship's maiden voyage. One of my son's friends joked that maybe with 3D, they'd see the iceberg this time. Okay, bad joke. My point is that Titanic will no doubt have an epic second run with a whole new audience discovering the movie and past audiences ponying up to see it again in 3D. Masterful marketing at its very best. Of course Titanic is a timeless story that never gets old no matter how many movies are made or how often the tale is retold.

The same might be said for that old book you published back in the 80s or 90s. With a bit of updating it might have a whole new second life and earn you some "found" money in the process. Do you have out-of-print books for which you have taken back the rights? If so, consider what you might do with those old books--how you might make them new again by bringing them up to today's standards by including inventions such as computers, email, cell phones and GPS devices, to name a few. Could the same story you told back in 1980 be told with a 2012 spin? If so, what are you waiting for? As we say in the Wild West of Publishing, there's gold in them there books! Do something with them!

Need help? Hire the Fairies! See the links above right to get started.

Question: Will you see the Titanic a second time in 3D or was once enough? When my husband texted to tell me they were going to the movie yesterday, I wrote back to say, "It doesn't end well. Just FYI."

Quantity is Job 2

Remember the old Ford commercial about Quality being Job 1? The same adage holds true for the book-writing business. Our books need to be as good as they can possibly be. From the story to the editing to the cover, it's our job to present the most professional package possible. Sure, an occasional typo will slip by us, our editors and proofreaders. The best thing about digital books is that those issues can be fixed and a new version uploaded within minutes. I won't say I've never done that, because I certainly have—and I'm always thankful that I can.

Once we've attended to all the various levels of quality control, our next mission as self-published authors is to do it all again. And again. And again. The best way to sell that first book is to write a second book and a third and a fourth. And one of the best parts of being self-published is the ability to get those books out in a timely manner to continue the forward propulsion of your growing career. Most successful self-published authors will tell you that the more books you have available, the more you will sell of each one. There will be cases like Catherine Bybee, who was here last week talking about her NYT bestselling self-published book Wife by Wednesday, which took off without a big catalog behind it. But for the most part, a steady climb tends to be more the norm.

On our self-pub loop ( everyone welcome!) we've talked a lot about the timing of freebies. I always encourage authors to hold off on offering a freebie until they have several other books available to benefit from the exposure. Why give a book away when you don't have other books for sale? Freebies can be very effective in building your name and readership, but they are most effective when you have plenty of inventory for an enthusiastic reader to gobble up if they like the one you gave away. (Not for nothing, but sales of other books is also how you profit from a freebie.)

Another of my favorite metaphors involving quantity goes something like this: If you were opening a clothing store, would you launch your new venture with a single pair of pants, a single pair of shoes, a shirt and maybe a jacket? Or would you want multiple styles of each item to give customers some choice? I'd think most of us would say the latter—more choice is better. So think of your online bookstore as a clothing retailer. Make sure you have plenty of inventory ready to sell before you hang out your shingle.

Other self-published authors have suggested having three ready-to-go manuscripts before you publish the first one. I think that's a good number to help you build momentum. Get them all out there simultaneously and promote them individually. If one takes off, the others will probably benefit. Remember, though, this is a marathon not a sprint and it can take a long time for even one of your books to "take off" in a meaningful way. One trend I've noticed among all the more successful self-published authors is a propensity toward the prolific. You don't necessarily have to be prolific to be successful, but you do need to be writing every day and thinking about the next product you will offer in your growing "store."

A word to the wise: Don't cut corners on editing or proofreading. If you put out a book before its time, readers will let you know with one-star reviews that stick to the book for life, no matter how many times you revise and re-upload. Remember always that QUALITY is job 1. Quantity, however, should be a close second.