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Reflections on Copy Editing My First Full-Length Book Manuscript

reflections on copy editing

In January, I copy edited my first full book manuscript. Naturally, it was an exciting moment for me as an editor. I had prepared for the edit for a few months, but I didn’t know quite what to expect when I sat down to copy edit 46,000 words within one week for the first time. I learned a few things that will make my next book project easier to tackle.

Here’s what I learned (and some things I wish I did) while copy editing my first book manuscript:

Structure your day with plenty of breaks.

Structuring my day for editing a book was different than structuring my day for editing several articles, blogs, and presentations. When I edit shorter content, there’s naturally breaks between each piece of content, which breaks up the monotony and allows me to do different types of editing tasks every hour or two hours (reading through the piece, scanning subheads, going through the checklist, checking for plagiarism, etc.). But when I had to edit a book in one week, the majority of my time Monday through Thursday was spent actually reading—reading the same text on the same subject. No variation. One document. One topic. Needless to say, it got a bit repetitive.

It was obvious right away that breaks from reading through the text would be essential. The key, I found, is to take breaks that don’t involve looking at screens, such as going for a walk, grabbing a quick coffee or lunch at a nearby cafe, or reading a print book. These breaks varied from 10 minutes to an hour (for lunch). Getting my eyes off the screen and focusing my attention on something other than the book’s topic refreshed my mind, making it easier when I came back to the manuscript later.

When taking breaks, however, it’s important to plan how far you’re going to edit before walking away. Taking a break in the middle of a paragraph isn’t a great idea because you lose focus and forget what you’ve just read. I tried to set goals for myself, like “I’ll take a break when I reach this subheading” or “I’ll finish this chapter before lunch.”

I actually wish I had taken more breaks instead of trying to barrel through reading page after page. Next time I tackle a project this big, I have a better idea of how to schedule breaks and set attainable goals between those breaks.

Staring at a screen for seven hours isn’t fun.

I normally stare at a screen for several hours each day, but something about staring at the same Google Doc for so many hours drained me in a way that work doesn’t usually. To combat this, I increased the zoom on my page so it was easier to read. I also tried to take breaks every few hours, as mentioned above.

Google Docs is a life-saver.

I attempted to edit the book in Microsoft Word, but for some reason, my computer hated the manuscript file and kept telling me I couldn’t save it. After losing my edits twice with Word, I decided to switch to Google Docs.

Initially, I was worried that editing in Google Docs would somehow be a bad decision. This wasn’t because I don’t know how to use Google Docs. I’m comfortable editing in Google Docs—I used to edit all articles for my college newspaper in it and I still use it for all my personal writing. But I was worried that the formatting would get messed up, changes wouldn’t save properly, etc. In the end, I’m very glad I used Google Docs for the bulk of the editing, and I didn’t have any problems with it. When I was done reading through the manuscript and doing the checklist, I simply downloaded the file to Word, scrolled through and checked that the line breaks were the same and that I didn’t miss any underlined words, and sent the finalized file off.

I need my voice to edit.

Now, I’ve been editing by reading out loud (or out loud under my breath) since June, but it just so happened that the week I was supposed to edit the book, I also had bronchitis. I realized that my voice is necessary for me to edit; I can’t just rely on reading text with my eyes, and I can’t get a handle on the flow of a sentence when I’m coughing every three words. So, I suppose next time I have a book project, I’ll try not to contract bronchitis.

Take notes for later.

Several times while I was reading through the copy, I would come across a word that I had seen inconsistently styled throughout the text or find something that needed to be adjusted elsewhere, such as a person’s age. Instead of breaking my concentration and searching through the text to fix it that minute, I made a note of it in a separate Google Doc. Then at the end of the day, or at the end of the entire reading process, I returned to those notes and addressed them.

Good enough is good enough.

In her book The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller talks about the importance of not being so style-obsessed that you cause yourself hours and hours of unnecessary work. She says that as long as the reader understands what the author is communicating, you, as the editor, can feel comfortable indulging an author in his or her unorthodox style habits, such as formatting sources in a slightly different way than Chicago Manual of Style.

Hilariously, that exact situation happened to me with this book. A sources list had been added fairly late in the process, and the substantive editor and author agreed on a particular way of listing sources that didn’t “conform” to Chicago style or AP style. Instead spending hours adjusting all the citations to Chicago style, I confirmed that the author was okay with the source list style, and then I made sure that the style was consistent throughout the list. It didn’t need to be in Chicago style, so I didn’t waste my time “fixing” it — because it wasn’t broken.

I’ve got to get comfortable with mistakes.

In the same vein as “good enough is good enough,” I had to remind myself that editors can’t be perfectionists. This was especially evident once I reached the checklist phase of the editing process. How did I miss so many singular/plural disagreements with “they” and “their” while reading through the text? What if I don’t catch all the words that shouldn’t be hyphenated? While attention to detail is an important quality in an editor, I reminded myself that it’s not synonymous with “perfection.” All I can do is do my best work and follow the process; I can’t allow myself to get caught up in the fear of letting a mistake slip through—or else I’d still be fussing over the manuscript a month later.

Style sheets are wonderful!

A well-organized style sheet is one that makes non-editors ooh and ahh over it. I happened to find a wonderful style sheet template from Jeri Walker, and it made my life so much easier. Luckily, I had access to a draft of the manuscript before my week of editing, so I was able to prepare by plugging in people, companies, and phrases into the style sheet prior to the actual copy editing.

Editing checklists are borrrrrrrrring.

After I read through the entire manuscript, I had the pleasure of using Command + F to search for a checklist of words and symbols to ensure spelling and usage were consistent throughout the manuscript. This checklist consists of things from incorrect punctuation to frequently misused words (“towards” in American English, for example) and style details (is Toys”R”Us spelled the same way throughout the entire text?). Some of these items don’t take long to check, but others take AGES. For example, I had to scroll through around 400 instances of “they” to check that each one had proper agreement with the noun it was referring to. While this is incredibly tedious to do, it’s essential—I found several places where the agreement needed to be adjusted, so I’m glad I stuck with it.

The end is a relief.

As much as I loved working on it, there’s a certain relief and joy to uploading the finalized file, hitting send, and knowing it’s off my plate. Copy editing my first full book went well, and going through the process makes me confident that I know how to more effectively approach the next book I edit.

If you’ve worked on a book project before, I would love to hear your thoughts about your editing process for larger projects! If you haven’t edited a book before, let me know if you have questions—I’ll try to answer them!