Every novelist needs a copy editor. Why? Because a copy editor makes sure the author is wearing his pants before he steps on stage, makes sure the author doesn’t have a trail of toilet paper stuck to her high heel as the lights come up. Yes, typos are that glaring.

Novelists cannot correct their own typographical errors because they know too much. Knowing what was meant to be said, the author reads what’s in their head not what’s on the page. It’s not a fault, just a fact. A copy editor will not have those preconceived blind spots. They will catch where you wrote breathe instead of breath. Copy editors will see the wrong use of their, they’re and there where your eyes will not. They will find your misplaced commas and misused semi colons and correct grammar where necessary. They will pick up on common wrong-word errors that spellcheck cannot, like typing were when you want where. And at finding missing little words like, for, an, and, at, or and so. Your mind’s eye does not see these kinds of mistakes, either.

Your copy editor is the last person to edit your story before you send it off to your publisher, so you’ll want to entrust this person with as polished a manuscript as possible. The best way to do this is to re-read your entire novel one last time, only lip-syncing it from start to finish.

You don’t have to say the words out loud, but you do need to move your tongue, lips and jaw. What happens is your mouth slows down your mind and forces you to say and see what is on the page. You are also likely to discover syntax errors, run on sentences, passive voices and homonyms, all the stuff that trips up coordination between the tongue and the eye. You’ll discover errors in pacing and entire passages that, really, can be cut. Your only criteria at this point is to clean up and clarify; everything else should be done. Reading like this will catch most of these common errors.

A good copy editor is essential today, whether you are self-publishing or have an agent. What comes out of his or her hands is what will stand the test of time. You, the author, will make all the suggested changes (or not) and correct the typos before submitting it, so in that sense you always have the last word. But by lip-syncing your novel one last time, you will make the copy editor’s job much easier, and much faster.

Who should you hire for this? Yes, I said hire, not ask as a favor. If you are really serious about wanting others to recognize your work, don’t skimp here. Ask other writers who they’ve used and who they would recommend. When you find someone you hear is good, and available, take them to dinner. You don’t have to wine and dine them, but get to know them and what they like to read. Ask them about their funniest stories with editing. That will tell you how much they like their job. Offer a few quips of your own about your research or who your protagonist is based on. At the end of dinner, you’ll both know each other better. You’re looking for someone who wants a personal stake in your novel, who wants to be as proud as you are to see their name attached to it. What they charge, what you pay, should be secondary to that.

How much you should pay is entirely up to you and your copy editor. Somewhere between a dollar a page and three dollars a page seems to be the going rate. The two copy editors I have worked with both charged a flat rate. I paid $250 for my first novel and $350 for my second, but they both moonlighted and neither could be bound to a timeline. The first time I hired a librarian, the second time an accountant. Both were equally methodical. I discovered accountants are very good at finding words that don’t add up, if you hire one who has a good command of the English language.  English teachers are another good source. An editor who reads your genre can be helpful, but don’t make that your only criteria. Critical editing is not what a copy editor edits for. All of your plot development, character development and timelines should be nailed down long before a copy editor sees it.

One final word on typos. No one gets them all, and that’s a good thing if you are in the antiquarian, collectable book business. If you don’t believe me, just go ask Alice. Or Huck. Or that “fool Red Cross woman” in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. True first print runs of these classics, identified by their typos, are selling for several times what a second printing will fetch. But that still doesn’t bode well for the author.


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    • Barbara Pattee on February 24, 2016 at 9:18 pm
    • Reply

    Newspapers need competent copy editors now.

  1. TRUTH!

    An editor makes all the difference. I hope the ones you found are reliable enough for you and your future books.

    Like a good hairstylist, OBGYN or car repair shop, find one and don’t let go.

    • Sue Remisiewicz on July 26, 2015 at 5:24 pm
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    These are all good tips. Thanks for sharing!

    • Claire Murray on July 23, 2015 at 9:57 pm
    • Reply

    Enjoyed the article. You make a strong case for a copy editor.

  2. Very interesting tips. A printer once told me you can try looking for typos by reading the sentence backwards.

  3. Hi Phil,
    I always enjoy reading your blog along with the opportunity to learn something new.

    Hope all is well in the north.

    Your friend,

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