The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the same as the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. ~ Mark Twain
You’ve sat at your computer for several months, even years, and you finally have a product you think is ready to publish. You’ve even had friends and family read your manuscript and they say it’s good to go. Some of you have also taken the extra step of working with critique partners to revise and polish your pages. Good for you! Unfortunately, that’s where the majority of writers stop before they press the publish button or send it off to agents and editors. No matter the road you’ve chosen to publication, there’s another step you should consider.
While your friends and critique partners can provide valuable insight and catch many mistakes, they are not the same as using a professional copy editor. These folks can do amazing things to your manuscript to bring it to the level it should be before a story is published. Wikipedia states, “The ‘five Cs” summarize the copy editor’s job: Make the copy clear, correct, concise, complete, and consistent. Copy editors should make it say what it means, and mean what it says.” Isn’t this what we all want?
A good copy editor will look for grammar, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure mistakes. This is the key to not letting your reader get distracted by basic errors. They will also check for consistent verb usage and for the consistency of tone and mood. If something doesn’t make sense or they think your accuracy might be in question, they will point that out as well. A good copy editor will get rid of extraneous or over used words, sharpen your paragraphs to a point and will even delete sections if they don’t make sense or add value to the story. In short, they are the drill sergeants of prose!
There are several things to check before you enter into an agreement with a person to do this job for you. They should have an excellent command of language and be able to spot factual errors. (This means that if they are not familiar with your subject, they will take the time to look something up if they don’t feel it’s accurate.) They should also have good critical thinking skills so they can spot inconsistencies in your manuscript and have good interpersonal skills to communicate their thoughts with you. They should be able to do all of this and still not change your voice and the heart of your book. That’s a tall order.
Check their web site for an editing philosophy, client list, resume, and affiliations with professional groups. If this type of information isn’t on their site, contact them and ask about their work process, rates, time frames and if they have different levels of editing based on what you need there and then. This may sound like a lot of work on your part, but why would you trust your blood, sweat, and tears to a person you didn’t take the time to vet?
A good copy editor should offer to take a few pages as a trial run to see if you are compatible with each other. This protects both sides of the coin. They don’t want to get stuck with a writer who has serious issues and the writer doesn’t want to get stuck with someone who tries to change too much or can’t pick a misspelled word out of a sentence. This trial run should also be done for free or for a small amount of money. The sample should be around five pages so it shouldn’t run into any substantial kind of money. Do not hire someone if they want to change things to the point where your unique voice is unrecognizable. Do not hire the person if you question some of the changes and their response is defensive or cold. Run away as fast as you can. This is a partnership which should be collaborative and supportive. However, by the same token, don’t hire the editor who strokes your ego and only tells you how fantastic you are. They should be honest and willing to offer their authentic insight on how to make your book better
Once you’ve found the right person, you can expect a written description of the steps involved in the project. This, my friends, is called a contract. Make sure you have one. This way there is no mistaking the expectations on both sides.