The Journal: Do I Use a Copyeditor?

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: Do I Use a Copyeditor?
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“Science fiction is the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug.” Arthur C. Clarke

“Without goals, training has no direction.” Natalie Coughlin which is why I recommend a daily word-count goal

“So next time you sit down at your writing computer, just let the creative voice run and play…. You might be surprised at how much fun you have writing and how good what you write turns out to be (if you leave it alone.)” Dean Wesley Smith

“Do or do not; there is no ‘try’.” Yoda

Topic: Do I Use a Copyeditor?

When my mentoring students send me an opening or other bit of a manuscript, as part of my mentoring I not only comment on the overall opening itself but (unless the mss is squeaky clean) I do a quick copyedit. When the reason for a particular edit isn’t readily apparent, I also imbed a comment to explain my rationale. It’s a little extra instruction.

One of my mentoring students asked a few questions and I thought my extended response would make a good topic for the Journal. First, my short answers, and then I’ll go into more depth.

“What methods do you use to edit your manuscripts?”

The short answer: I don’t edit my fiction. Ever. And I don’t recommend you edit yours either.

“When you’re extremely prolific, do you offset the copyedit to another professional or is that handled in house?”

The short answer: Neither.

“I imagine short fiction is ‘easier’ but I’m curious about novels. Should one just rely on cycling or hire a copyeditor?”

Short fiction deserves the same attention as longer fiction. Naturally it will be shorter to edit, but not necessarily “easier.” How easy it is to edit any manuscript depends on the skill level and ability of the writer at the time.

A short story contains all the same components — words, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, the denotation and connotation of words, meaning and innuendo, etc. — and all the same craft elements: hook, opening, setting, characters, pacing, conflict, and resolution. The only difference is that it’s shorter, that it contains all that in a smaller space.

And the biggie—”Should one just rely on cycling or hire a copyeditor?”

The question itself contains a misunderstanding. Cycling is not editing. It isn’t even related. More on that later. For now, let me talk about where I recommend hiring a copyeditor.

Every writer is different.

1. If you have an extremely good grounding in grammar, syntax, and punctuation, and if you have a honed sensitivity to the nuances of the language, you probably don’t need a copyeditor at all (either yourself or anyone else).

2. If you don’t have that level of grounding and sensitivity to the nuances, then chances are you need a copyeditor. But don’t do it yourself. If you could copyedit for yourself, your story wouldn’t need a copyedit. I suggest you hire an English major with really good grades from the local college to copyedit for you.

I also suggest paying him or her no more than 1 cent per word, and less if you can get away with it. But always ask that person what s/he plans to do during the edit. To see what I would ask him or her to do (and strictly limit him or her to), click and scroll down to “What I Do.” You don’t need any critical input on story content, especially how s/he would have written such and such.

Now for the more extensive answer —

As I told my student, I’m one of those rare weirdos who is equally comfortable writing a story or diagramming a sentence. It’s as if I was dipped in the river of the English Language at birth. I understand that not everyone is like that. It’s important to be aware of your own limitations.

I’m extremely well grounded in grammar and syntax and punctuation. In fact, I wrote Punctuation for Writers, the ONLY book out there that looks at how writers can wield punctuation to direct the reading of our work. In school, all they ever taught us was how to react to punctuation as a reader.

I also wrote Writing Realistic Dialogue, which deals more with syntax and the nuances of the language and which placed 5th in the Book of the Year awards at BookExpo NY in the early 2000s.

My point is, I know all the “rules” of grammar and syntax and punctuation well enough that I can break them intelligently and sometimes even instinctively, on the fly. I’m also highly sensitive to the nuances of the language. For those reasons, and because I write into the dark, I don’t edit my fiction. Ever.

I never perform a copyedit (or a line edit or the often-mentioned “editing pass” or any edit at all) on my fiction, and I definitely would never invite or allow anyone else to do so.

(But again, every writer is different. Dean Wesley Smith also writes into the dark, but he DOES use a copy editor. As I said, it’s important to be aware of your own limitations.)

I mentioned earlier that if you aren’t well grounded in the language, you should hire a copyeditor. I do NOT recommend, however, hiring a “book doctor” or “developmental editor,” etc. All of those — every one of them — are scams. Some of them mean well and don’t realize they’re scams, but they still are.

A good copy editor is worth his or her weight in gold, but if anyone wants to do anything to your manuscript that I don’t talk about at, do yourself a favor and tell them to get lost. Anything else would be intrusive. Seriously.

Cycling is not editing.

As I’ve said many times before, I cycle (read for pleasure, fully within the creative subconscious) after every session, but — and this is important — my critical mind isn’t involved At All.

If my critical mind does shows up and I start reading critically and “looking for” things to fix or wondering whether a sentence is “too long” or “too short,” whether I’ve used “that” too many times, or anything else negative, I get up and walk away. Physically. Fortunately that doesn’t happen very often anymore.

When I’m cycling, I’m not looking to “fix” anything unless a wrong word (waist for waste) or a typo or something pops out at me. And if it pops out of the manuscript as I’m reading for pleasure, the character fixes it.

So again, cycling is Just Reading, same as if you’re reading a book by your favorite author. You don’t “look for” problems and things to correct when you read others’ work, do you? But if a typo or something pops out at you, chances are you quickly “fix” it and then go on reading.

That’s your creative subconscious fixing it. By the way, if you can’t read for pleasure a novel you’ve bought without actively looking for typos and other errors—if you’re so deeply invested in the critical mind that you can’t just enjoy the story—then I can’t help you.

Of course, there’s a bottom line to all this, and here it is: As I’ve said repeatedly, I rely on my characters to tell the story that they, not I, are living. I trust them completely and explicitly. No excuses, no backsliding.

Trust me, folks, I’ve been in that hell of fear and self-doubt that most writers are still languishing in, and I’m never going back. I really would rather stop writing altogether that have to “labor” my way through writing a story.

Talk with you later.

Of Interest

See “Creative Voice Having Fun” at Incredible that he would post this today.

See “Four Mistakes That Will Doom Your Mystery….” at Something to read, absorb, and then forget while you’re writing.

See “The Power of Generational Storytelling” at This is a cautionary tale if I ever saw one. Wow.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1340 words

Writing of (novel, tentative title)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for August……… 13935
Total fiction words for the year………… 66431
Total nonfiction words for August… 15680
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 121920
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 188351

Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 67
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: Along with discussing various aspects of the writing craft, I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. WITD is “the only way” to write, but it is by far the easiest, most liberating, and most fun.