The Curse of the Red Pencil: Advice for the New Fiction Copyeditor


This post was originally written as an entry for blog contest put on by Editorial Arts Academy. The parameters: 500 to 1,000 words, must be divided into sections, be keyword-optimized and SEO-friendly. It needed to be informational, yet also entertaining and humorous. We needed to include alt-text and at least two links to outside sources. I had a wonderful time writing it and learned a great deal. 

As fiction copyeditors, we want to support our authors and help them make the most of their manuscripts. In our dedication, however, it can be easy to go too far. We’ve all been on the receiving end of an overzealous editor. We ask a friend or coworker to look a piece over for us, thinking that it’s good to go. But we get it back and it’s a sea of red marks. We feel like a failure and want to tank the whole thing. As copyeditors, how do we make the most of our author’s manuscript without alienating them forever?


Damn It, Jim! I’m a Fiction Copyeditor, Not a Line Editor

A good copyeditor knows that their role is to focus on the mechanical aspects of writing, like grammar, spelling, and punctuation. That means no major rewording, no moving things, and no deleting anything other than a word or two. A good rule of thumb: when copyediting, assume the manuscript has already been through a line—or deep—edit.

If you’re working with publishers, odds are that is the case. If you’re working with indie authors, they may not know the difference between proofreading, line editing, and copyediting. Talk to your author before starting and confirm the kind of edit they want. Maybe they do want a deep edit. Maybe they just want to make sure there are no outstanding mistakes. If it’s the latter, stay to a strict copyedit. If you feel strongly something needs to change, keep the rewrites out of the manuscript and suggest them in author queries instead.


Ask the Author What They Want, What They Really, Really Want

It wastes your time and frustrates the author if you go through and change all instances of President to president (per Chicago Manual of Style), only to discover after the fact that the author did it intentionally, and the plot hinged on all those capital P’s.

If you’re working with an independent author, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. The author will appreciate that you gave them the opportunity to discuss their style choices, and that you respected them and their work enough to confirm. If you are working with a publishing house, reach out to your contact there. They will direct you as to whether you should conform to House Style or stet.


Pull it Together, Will You?

It’s so easy to overlook words you’ve seen millions of times, and even seasoned editors can fall down the “is it open? is it closed?” rabbit hole. Words that started out open or hyphenated (e-mail) can close at the drop of a hat (email).

A good copyeditor fact-checks everything.
I write freelance, you write free-lance. We’re both right . . . but I’m still going to change it.

In fact, you may notice that throughout this post I use copyeditor. You may be saying to yourself, “What a terrible editor! I’d never hire her. It’s copy editor.” Or, is it copy-editor? The reality is, they’re all correct. It’s in the process of changing as we speak, and copyeditor has been so recently accepted, that most computer spell-checks don’t like the closed version.

In the end, whatever version you choose to use, make sure that it is done consistently throughout the manuscript. That will matter more than the hyphen.


Sarcasm May be Your Jam, But Save it for Your Toast

Anyone who’s ever received an awkward text knows that sometimes things get misunderstood when written down. You may think you’re being witty, but without the tone of your voice or the expressions on your face, it comes off as rude or unprofessional.

If you’re working with the author directly, you probably have some sense already of how they prefer to interact: do they appreciate levity? Are they all business? Is sarcasm lost on them? One rule of thumb that will always serve you well: err on the side of kindness.

Always tell the author what you’re doing in case they’re reading it with the Track Changes turned off, and be deferential in your alterations (AU: You said “otherwise” sixteen times in one paragraph, so I reworded a few to avoid repetition. Okay?). If you notice passages that are particularly well written, tell them (AU: This chapter was very moving. Wonderful job!).

When in doubt, brevity, professionalism, and kindness will serve you well.


There is a Human Being on the Other End of this Manuscript

Editors are so passionate about words, usage, rules, and grammar that we can forget that there is a human being who will look at all the corrections and not be so enthralled. Remember, on the other side of this manuscript is a person already proud of their work. Every red mark can feel like a personal attack.

Be judicious. Be kind with your interactions, your wording; your digital red pencil, if you will. Don’t let everything slide, but try to include some “gives.” Respect the hard work that went into producing this piece of art. Our job is to deepen their pride of accomplishment, not tear it down and stomp on it.

A good copyeditor doesn’t overedit. They query, instead
If your red pencil looks like this, you may be using it too much.

In the end, what a good copyeditor wants most is to enhance the writer’s work. We take the manuscript and put a shiny red bow on it for the author. Kindness, professionalism, and a good search engine give us the firm footing we need ensure that no one walks away from the process battered, cursed and sore from the dangerous red pencil.