Lana R. Castle
Sample Article Writing
(published in Publishers Marketing Association Newsletter)
DEFINING YOUR COPYEDITING NEEDS
by Lana R. Castle
In the April issue, Curt Matthews mentioned the need for
independent publishers to pay more attention to editorial concerns. While
“big picture” issues such as content and structure are vitally important,
we shouldn’t disregard the “picky little details” of a thorough copyedit.
Publishers who rely solely on a grammar-check and spell-check take a big
risk. Computers aren’t that smart about consistency and context. A solid
copyedit is worth the investment because a handful of errors can destroy
The term copyedit means different things to different people. Many
clients who turn over a job say, “All it needs is a copyedit.” I’ve heard
these words about everything from a 900-page manuscript needing
extensive permissions and a major rewrite, to a polished document
needing only a quick proof.
The first step toward a solid copyedit is to define your expectations
and to communicate them clearly. This is especially important when you
rely on freelance editors. But it’s also helpful when you’re editing your
I split the editing process into three phases: 1) developmental or
substantive editing, 2) copyediting, and 3) production editing. While this
article focuses on copyediting, a brief description of the other two phases
puts copyediting in perspective. Not every editor approaches the process
the same way. They may perform some steps during other phases, or
steps may overlap. What’s most important is that you clarify which steps
have been taken, which steps you expect the copyeditor to perform, and
which steps will follow.
Here’s what I do during each phase, unless instructed otherwise:
1. During the developmental or substantive edit, I examine “big
• organization and structure
• approach, focus, and tone
• accuracy, clarity, and completeness
• potential problem areas (biased language, permissions, trademarks)
• length and fit
2. During the copyedit, I address “picky little details”:
• grammar and spelling
• style issues
• typographic errors
3. During the production edit, I apply “the polish”:
• consistency of chapter titles, headers, footers, and numbering
• accuracy of index entries
• compliance with formatting specifications
• quality of images and typography
• acceptability of end-of-line hyphenation
Now let’s explore copyediting in more detail.
Grammar and spelling. This step may seem like a “no-brainer,” but
questions do arise. Unless you want your copyeditor to make all such
decisions, you’ll need to indicate some preferences. For instance: Is it
okay to start a sentence with a conjunction or to end a sentence with a
preposition? Do you wish to avoid split infinitives? Do you prefer a or an
before a sounded h (such as a/an historic)? How closely do you wish to
limit the use of which to nonrestrictive constructions? Where do you draw
the line in using who versus whom? These questions have more than one
If you’re distributing a book internationally and prefer British
spellings, inform your copyeditor. If a book contains special terms,
consider compiling a word list. If a book includes trademarks, indicate
how you want them handled.
Style issues. Style varies with the audience, market, medium,
organization, publication, and product—to say nothing of personal taste
and the writer’s intent. Guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style
answer many questions, but they can’t cover every possibility. You may
also wish to make exceptions to certain guidelines. Many publishers use
a house guide and/or word list for each book. Such guides and lists
usually address abbreviations, capitalization, compound words, numbers,
punctuation, and other points of style. Here are some examples.
Abbreviations. List your preferences for capitalizing, punctuating,
and spacing abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. Do you prefer pm,
p.m., PM, P.M., PM, or P.M.? E.B. White or E. B. White? Will you place the
meaning first and then the abbreviation in parentheses, or vice versa?
Capitalization. Capitalization styles vary from one publisher to
another. When capitalization is arbitrary, “Up Style” capitalizes letters that
“down style” sets in lowercase (Black and White vs. black and white).
What’s your general preference?
Compound Words. Inconsistent compounds can lead to
“Hyphenation Hell.” Determine which compounds you’ll set as one word,
two words, or hyphenated forms (copyedit vs. copy edit vs. copy-edit).
Numbers. Indicate your standard “cut-off” point for spelling out
numbers versus using numerals (10, 20, or 100). Also list special cases
where you prefer one numerical treatment over another. For instance,
how will you treat ages, centuries and decades, and round numbers—use
numerals or spell them out?
Punctuation. Punctuation preferences vary considerably. Closed
(heavy, traditional) punctuation uses more discretionary marks than open
(light, informal) punctuation. Ensure that your copyeditor knows which
approach you prefer. Also indicate whether or not you use serial commas
(those before the conjunctions in series).
Consistency. This step is fairly straightforward in relation to
person and tense and the use of contractions. But when it comes to bias-
free language, things get more complex. Bias-free language uses terms
that relate to age, ethnicity, race, gender, marital status, sexual
orientation, mental and physical characteristics, and socioeconomic
factors only when they are accurate and appropriate. If recasting text to
ensure bias-free language isn’t a priority, inform your copyeditor in
Cross-reference checks. This step involves comparing chapter
titles to table of contents entries, and bibliographic entries and
illustration numbers to citations within text. Headers and footers should
be verified as well.
Typographic errors. While editors look for typos throughout the
editing process, errors may be more significant during the copyediting
phase. If you’re copyediting your own work, double-check headings
(where errors often appear) and easily interchanged small words that a
computer spell-check may miss (a, an, and; if, in, is, it; to, too; than,
then, and so on). Finally, run your eyes over the page from bottom to top
and right to left. Misspellings pop right out when you’re not distracted by
Next month, I’ll share a simple way to track and communicate
custom style decisions.
Lana Castle runs Castle Communications, an Austin-based company. She
is also the author of Style Meister: The Quick-Reference Custom Style
Guide. You can reach Lana at PMB 358 PO Box 200255, Austin, TX 78720,
512-413-5059, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.