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.