Monday, November 5, 2007

Learn the Basics

by Donna Hoard

Advice from a Copy Editor

Are you bubbling with wonderful ideas you’d like to share with the reading public? Good writing takes lots of imagination and creativity, but as a copy editor, I’d like to address the more practical side of your work. You really need to know the basics.

Your manuscript must be readable and fairly clean, or it won’t be considered. You need to check grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Then, give it to several trusted critique partners for more input. It’s nearly impossible to edit your own writing. Your mind sees what you meant to write, not what is actually on the page.

Consult references books and websites.

My favorite reference book is The Chicago Manual of Style. I also found these highly rated style books on Listmania, under Essential Books for Copy Editors:

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Brian A. Garner
Words Into Type (Third Edition) by Marjorie Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay

There are many grammar sites online. Here’s a link to Writing World.Com, which has assembled several links to get you started:

Remember, it’s best to use websites associated with universities and other reputable sources, rather than “Buffy’s Best Grammar Site Evah”.

Compound words can be extremely difficult. Often, there is more than one “correct” version. There are many online dictionaries, but my favorite is OneLook (, which searches multiple dictionaries. This can help you decide whether the word should be solid, hyphenated, or open.

Sometimes it’s easy—if you type “party goer”, OneLook redirects you to “partygoer”, your only choice. Sometimes it’s a question of seeing which usage is most popular. If there are two entries for “bow-tie”, four for “bowtie”, and fourteen for “bow tie”, then the best choice is obvious. Keep in mind, editors give more credence to Merriam-Webster than Wikipedia.

Do your research!

You may think small details are unimportant, but readers will be annoyed if your character does something “wrong”.

For example: A Waikiki resident throws his suitcases into the backseat of his ’57 T-bird, drives on Kalakaua Avenue toward Diamond Head, then arrives at Honolulu International Airport.

Knowledgeable readers know that a ‘57 T-bird does not have a backseat and Honolulu International is in the opposite direction from Diamond Head.

An author can lose credibility making such mistakes. It might pull readers out of the story—or make them want to throw your book across the room.

No matter how esoteric the subject, you’re bound to find some links in search engines like Google. Again, consider the source. I recently visited a grammar site that had the spelling error “past participal”. A big clue to use another site!


The Find or Search feature in your word processing program is a wonderful thing. Please use it!

Accumulate a list of common mistakes to check. Yes, there is a difference between “any more” and “anymore”, and when you are “prone”, you are lying facedown. And please, please, please, learn the difference between “lay” and “lie”.

The checklist may be a little extra work, but you have the assurance that you haven’t missed a single occurrence of a particular error. If you’ve misspelled or misused a word once, chances are there will be more of the same.

Please be kind to your editor; learn from your mistakes!

Also, if you decide to write a series, please refresh your memory about the previous book. Compile a fact sheet about your world and characters. The heroine from a previous book who makes a guest appearance in the next installment should have the same eye color as she did in “her” book. And a character should have the same last name as before. (Yes, these mistakes actually happen.)

Also keep in mind that different publishers have different styles. So even if you think you’ve written the Most Perfect Manuscript Ever, you and your editor may need to tweak it a bit to comply with the house style.

Content editors welcome an innovative, entertaining story, but if the basic writing skills are missing, no matter how wonderful your story is, it’s likely to be rejected. Editors can’t be expected to teach Writing 101.

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