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My favourite editing quick-fixes

Posted in: Copyediting, Grammar by Sally Evans-Darby on 7 October 2015 | 2 Comments

Every piece of text I edit is different, whether a textbook on corpus linguistics, web copy translated from Finnish into English, or a journal article on spondylolysis. Yet there are some clunky turns of phrase that crop up again and again, and they’re among the first things I iron out on my first read through. I’ve compiled a short list of these, so in the hope they might come in useful for fellow editors and writers, here they are in all their glory:

in order to –> to

In almost every case where ‘in order to’ appears, it can be replaced simply with ‘to’ and retain exactly the same meaning. Every now and then I stet ‘in order to’ if removing it changes some necessary rhythm of the sentence, but that’s once in a blue moon.

due to the fact that  –> because

Again, this is one where using the word ‘because’ changes nothing in the meaning – and has the added bonus of cleanly swapping five words for one. I see this very often at the start of a sentence, e.g. ‘Due to the fact that I was trying on a new dress, I was happy’, which I would (with great glee) change to: ‘Because I was trying on a new dress, I was happy’.

utilize –> use

Occasionally ‘utilize’ can impart a more specific meaning than ‘use’ and should be left as is. However, in the majority of cases it’s used unnecessarily, as in the sentence ‘I utilize public transport to get to work’. ‘Use’ does the job just as well and cuts three syllables down to one.

firstly … fifthly etc –> first … fifth

‘Firstly’ is an old favourite in scientific writing to introduce lists, but the suffix ‘ly’ really adds nothing of value and always appears to me a little fussy. I will generally change ‘firstly’ to ‘first’, ‘secondly’ to ‘second’, etc.

Of course, as with all aspects of editing, it goes without saying that these quick-fixes should all be used with judgement, and never applied thoughtlessly without reading the text carefully and being sensitive to the author/publisher’s requirements. If an author much preferred ‘due to the fact that’ to ‘because’, it would have to remain… as much as that would pain me!

I know there are dozens of other quick-fixes out there – care to add your own?

Celebrating Two Freelance Years

Posted in: Copyediting, Copywriting, Grammar, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 22 October 2014 | 5 Comments

Time flies when you’re having fun.

That’s why I can’t believe it was exactly two years ago today that I woke up on a Monday morning to begin my new freelance life. Having handed in my notice at my day job a month before, I was now free to embark on what I had aspired to do for so long: working for myself full-time as a freelance editor, proofreader, and writer.

I can tell you, it was scary at first. The defeatist in me told me I would fail. Who was I kidding? I was no bright young entrepreneur bursting with the latest marketing techniques and unwavering self-belief. I worried that this lifestyle wasn’t sustainable, that things would dry up after the first few jobs, that I would have to tell everyone I’d gleefully told I was “going freelance” that it didn’t work out. I’d be sitting at the local supermarket checkout in a few weeks’ time mournfully pointing out spelling errors in the signage to anyone who’d listen.

Okay, so I wasn’t an entrepreneur as such, but I had determination. It might have been born out of desperation, but it was determination all the same. I had skills that I was simply burning to put to use. And I had discipline. A lot of people say to me they could never work freelance as they would end up sitting on Twitter/Facebook/[insert time-frittering website here] all day. Sure, I had days when procrastination took over and I suddenly found I’d spent half an hour staring open-mouthed at a story online that didn’t even interest me very much. But on the whole, I was good at structuring my days and keeping my nose to the grindstone when I needed to – my new life depended on it.

And so the days went by, then the weeks, then the months, then the years – two of them. And it really has been a blur because it truly has been fun. I’m fortunate enough to say I love my job and the freedom it gives me. I’m immensely grateful to all my clients over the last 24 months who have allowed me to spend my days being a word nerd/grammar geek/pedantic know-it-all.

As it’s a bit of a milestone for me, I thought I would share ten things I’ve learned while being an editorial freelancer over the past two years. Hopefully, some tips may come in helpful for those just starting out. Please do say hello or let me know your thoughts in the comments box below!

1.    Get moving

Before I went freelance I cycled to the train station every day, so even though my diet left a lot to be desired, I stayed fit and healthy. When I went freelance, at first I tried a bit of dog-walking, yoga, and indoor aerobics, but that all slid to the wayside when the deadlines started coming thick and fast. After a year, I’d put on weight and was feeling sluggish – I’d fallen prey to the sedentary lifestyle. Nowadays, I make sure I get on my exercise bike at least once a day, I eat more healthily, and I play badminton once a week. Sure, I could still do a lot better in the fitness department, but I’ve realised how essential it is to keep yourself moving as a desk freelancer.

2.    Be kind to yourself

Give yourself an afternoon off on a Monday if you’ve worked all weekend to meet a deadline. The world won’t end and you’ll feel like you’re back in control. After freelancing for a while, you get a feel for when you can afford to take your foot off the gas a little every now and then and go on an impromptu day trip or even, heaven forbid, have a lie-in. I always remind myself that I don’t get allocated holiday, sick pay, or any of the other benefits you get in regular employment, so it’s up to me to look after my own wellbeing.

3.    Get an accountant

For someone like me (i.e. as bad with numbers as I am good with words), it just isn’t worth trying to do your tax return yourself. Invest in a good accountant and let a pro take care of it!

4.    Get plenty of Vitamin D

It’s easy to go all day without going outside when you’re up against it. I’ve learned to be strict with myself – even if I’m up to my eyeballs with a punishing deadline, it’s essential I take time to go outside, breathe in some fresh air, and see daylight. Otherwise, I would simply become troglodytic. I have a sun lamp too to combat those grey English days.

5.    Embrace variety

It’s easy to stick with what you know and shy away from the unfamiliar. Obviously, I would advise to stay within your skillset, but I’m glad I’ve taken on a variety of projects and learned about lots of different things over the past couple of years. From philosophical theory to urban infrastructure to jazz music, from fantasy novels to journal articles, I love that my job allows me to dip my toes into an ever-changing kaleidoscope of subjects.

6.    Invest in a decent diary

Or some other sort of scheduling tool. Mine is always at my side on my desk and I rely on it absolutely for all my deadlines and generally scheduling my life. As soon as you begin a new project, look at the days until the deadline and plan how much you’ll have to do in increments to stay on top of the work. It’s easy to think ‘oh, that deadline’s miles away, I don’t need to start that yet!’, but of course the thing about deadlines is that they have a nasty habit of arriving all too quickly.

7.    Listen to music

This is a bit more of a recent one for me. Different things work for different people. I used to think I had to work in silence to get things done, but listening to some instrumental music (at the moment it’s mostly Liszt and Dave Brubeck) can actually really help me concentrate. It’s also good to blast out something feel-good between jobs and blow off some steam!

8.    Connect with like-minded people

This one is mostly a reminder to myself, as I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t yet gone along to a local SfEP meetup. I’ve spent the last two years with my head down at my desk and just haven’t found the time. But there’s no excuse – you have to make time! I’m planning to go to the next Oxford SfEP group meetup next month, am meeting some local ladies for National Freelancers Day, and have also signed up for the SfEP ‘Efficient copyediting’ course in London in December. It’s a start!

9.    Learn to say no

At first it’s hard to do this as every bit of work that comes your way seems like gold dust, and you’re keen to snatch it up. Luckily with time there comes the luxury of being able to choose the work you do. If it’s more trouble than it’s worth, or it’s way outside your skillset, or you just have too much other work on, it’s okay to politely decline. Know your strengths.

10.    Don’t take it for granted!

I’m guilty every now and then of complaining about the volume of work I have, or the haste with which deadlines are approaching, or the length of time today I’ve spent staring at this computer screen. But then I pinch myself and remind myself how fortunate I am – to be completely my own boss, to have a level of job flexibility and freedom I’ve never had before, and to be doing work I’m good at and enjoy. Being a freelance editor is the tops!

Can editors read for pleasure?

Posted in: Copyediting, Language, Proofreading, Words by Sally Evans-Darby on 21 February 2014 | 5 Comments

As any proofreader or editor will know, there’s a clear difference between reading for work and reading for pleasure. With my proofreading cap on, I’m interrogating the text, seeing each word individually and scanning it in the context of its fellows to check for sense, accuracy, and the like. If I find myself swimming merrily from sentence to sentence and enjoying the content, that’s a warning sign to stop and begin the passage again, because it’s likely that in losing myself in the story I’m missing any number of pubics for publics, principles for principals, polices for policies.

While proofreading is about sustained analysis of every word both individually and how it relates to the words around it, reading for pleasure is a very different story. Our eyes flit hungrily over the words, generally only picking up the major semantic components of a sentence to garner meaning – sometimes even scanning down the page to see where that dialogue is snaking or what devastating revelation is going to precede that paragraph’s final full stop (I’m guilty of this when a book truly has me in its spell).

The trouble is, when proofreading is your job, and every day is spent looking at any text that lands on your desk with a squinted eye and a loaded red pen, you start to look at all text that way. You begin to become one of those people who can’t help gleefully pointing out that errant apostrophe on a shop sign, that quaint misspelling on a menu.* This is all well and good until you come to pick up your favourite novel at the end of a long day, and find yourself unable to concentrate on the content because your constant checks for subject-verb agreement and capitalisation consistency are just too distracting.

So my question to all you editors and proofreaders is this: do you still read for pleasure? Do you find that after proofreading all day you can’t find an off-switch when you just want to casually flick through a magazine or pore over a novel? Do you perhaps find that after looking at text all day you just can’t face looking at another printed word? Or do you consciously switch your reading style when ‘off the clock’, glossing over any words you read that might detract from your enjoyment of a piece?

I’ll throw my experience into the pot to start things off: there are certainly days when I feel I would be doing my poor, tired eyes a disservice to make them look at any more text, so I do something less ocularly strenuous (watching a film; sleeping). But then there are days when I’m keen to start the next chapter of a book I’m reading, and in doing so I find that I have to switch ‘proofreader laser vision’ off. I find myself sometimes scanning back through a passage to see if there ever was a closing comma to that parenthetical phrase, but have to tell myself to stop that, and just concentrate on enjoying what I’m reading, letting the words flow into my consciousness in a very different way to when I am proofreading.

It certainly seems a shame that as editors and proofreaders we might read less for pleasure than before we struck off on this career path; particularly as most of us would have been avid readers first, and editors/proofreaders second.

Leave your thoughts below; it’ll be fascinating to hear about other editors’/proofreaders’ reading experiences.


*On a side-note, people who feel the need to go about correcting grocer’s apostrophes as if they are conducting a public service are probably barking up the wrong tree; see this interesting study about apostrophe snobbery.

Why being an editor is the tops

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Copywriting, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 26 November 2013 | 12 Comments

The alarm goes off, it’s dark and wintry outside, and my hands are stiff with cold as I fumble with the kettle. And yet, it’s another day in paradise. Why? Because I am one of the very lucky people who happens to love her job.

Trust me, it hasn’t always been this way. I’ve had my share of work despair; snippy colleagues, dull-as-dishwater* tasks, slogging commutes. But by some very fortunate circumstances I now work freelance, running my own editorial business, and life has never been sweeter.

I hesitated to take the plunge, as many do. That lack of security that comes from a snug employer and regular payslip was definitely scary. I felt like I was teetering on a precipice, about to throw myself over the edge without so much as an abseil to guide me. What if it didn’t work out? What if I couldn’t pay the bills? What if it turned out I was a big, fat failure? These were all very real worries.

But I did plunge over the precipice (I had a sort of abseil, after all, in that I made sure I had enough freelance work to keep me afloat – just – in the first couple of months). Here are the three major reasons I’m glad I did.

I get to work with words all day

You may have guessed I like words. I wax lyrical about them often. Words are a source of constant fascination to me. In all their different incarnations, whether an academic paper, web copy, a novel – even emails – I love the written word. And as an editor/proofreader type, I get to surround myself with them all day long, adjusting one or two here, adding one or two there. And that is pretty cool.

I get to learn loads of stuff

In the space of one working day, I could be proofreading a book about the philosophy of art, editing a manuscript about the genetic classifications of Lepidoptera, and writing a review of a jazz festival in Gibraltar (this was a real day’s work a few weeks ago). I get to dip my toe into a plethora of different subjects, worlds of ideas, discussions and debates. I like to think this will make me a Trivial Pursuit mastermind one day.

I get to be my own boss

This had to feature somewhere. There’s no denying it, I’m just better suited to being my own boss than having someone tell me what to do. Not because I’m some renegade square-peg-in-a-round-hole who’s too cool for authority. No. More because I simply prefer to set my own goals that I can get truly excited about. I like to have my own deadlines to stick to. I like to be inundated with a variety of things to do rather than twiddling my thumbs. I like to decide what work I will do and when I will do it. Okay, and I also like being able to bunk off on a Friday afternoon sometimes when I manage to turn in a piece of work early.

Everyone works differently, and freelance editorial work suits some people better than others. But it sure works for me. I just wanted to raise a virtual glass to that fact. Anyone care to join me?


*Or ditchwater. I think the jury’s still out on that one.

What makes a freelancer tick? 2

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Copywriting, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 3 August 2013 | No Comments

It’s been a year (time flies!) since I featured on my colleague Liz Broomfield’s Small Business Chats series, where I talked to Liz about how I created Write Sense Media. A year later, I talked to Liz again about how things have progressed since summer 2012, what I’m doing now, and what I hope to be doing in a year’s time. You can read my interview with Liz here, and my original interview from July 2012 is here.

It’s been great having a chance to reflect on how Write Sense Media has progressed during 2012-2013 – a year of being busier than I probably ever have been in my working life! I’m passionate about my work as a copyeditor, proofreader and writer, and as a small business owner I hope to be able to continue and build on the success of Write Sense Media for years to come.

You can also read all of Liz’s interviews with all kinds of different small businesses owners here.

What band leader edited this?

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 10 March 2013 | No Comments

After Jo Fletcher Books’ wonderful ‘What builder edited this, then?’ blog last month, imagining how a somewhat crotchety builder might deal with editing a less than satisfactory manuscript, I was inspired to imagine my own profession-crossing scenario.

I spent a short stint a couple of years ago singing with a local big band. I’ve never really got the hang of sight-reading sheet music, and I was more than a little daunted by the deafening sound of assorted trumpets, trombones and saxophones blasting out a rousing rendition of the Family Guy theme tune.

I managed to get a couple of gigs under my belt nonetheless – one particularly proud moment in front of the historic Pittville Pump Rooms in Cheltenham – but I can still remember the band leader’s incredulous remarks to me on the many occasions I sang the wrong note or came in two bars early.

And so this blog, just for fun, is in tribute to my erstwhile, exasperated band leader. How would he edit my manuscript?

“Right, we want to start with this first sentence and just completely redo it. It’s the first thing your audience reads: you’ve got to get it right.

“I think this character’s voice needs working on. Yes, it’s fine, it will do, but is it really going to grab the audience and wake them up? I gotta say, carry on in that voice and the whole of them will be asleep before they get to the second page…

“Oh no. Hang on. You can’t have this. What did I tell you about mixing up your n dashes and m dashes? You’ve got to start using them correctly or you’re just going to come across as unprofessional.

“Why am I hearing clichéd descriptions of this character’s face when I should be finding out what they’re doing – what they’re up to? Let’s have some action in here, yeah?

“I tell writers this all the time and they never seem to listen. Why are you hyphenating all those adverbial phrases? Does the hyphen need to be there? Can you live without it? Yes? Then do.

“Look, it’s all about consistency. You can’t decide to call this character Fatima, then in the next chapter change her name to Latima. Your audience will never follow you. You’ll leave them languishing in the first chapter, not knowing where on earth you’ve gone to.

“No, no, no. Stop. No, just stop the whole thing. We can’t keep it going like this. It’s too dreary. You’ve got to give it some more umph. Are you trying to bore your audience with all that tedious background filler? Cos I tell you, if you’re trying to do that, it’s working.

“Okay, I know there’s a fashion these days for commas to go AWOL for no particular reason (laziness, that’s all I can figure). But you’ve got to understand that these words need punctuating. Like I say, your audience won’t be able to follow you. They don’t know whether you’re coming or going. We need a couple here and here – and here and here. It’s only logical.

“What I’m wondering is why you’re trailing off so weakly in this final paragraph. Yes, it’s the end of that section, but finish it with feeling! You’ve got to keep up the energy right up to the last word.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to stop again. The piece just doesn’t sound right. I don’t think you’re giving it all you’ve got. Do you want to be a writer, or don’t you? Okay, once more – from the top…”

Photo of Leonard Bernstein from The Well-Tempered Ear.

Editorial Survival Kit

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Grammar, Proofreading, Punctuation, Spelling by Sally Evans-Darby on 27 January 2013 | 5 Comments

Editorial Survival Kit: 6 Things I Can’t Live Without

Ask any freelance editor, proofreader, or other form of word-wielder: there are some things in the world of editorial freelancing that we just can’t live without. They make up the editor’s survival kit: often a mish-mash hodge-podge of stowaway items that make life just a little bit easier. The editor/proofreader’s desert island miscs.

As an editorial freelancer, there are a few things that I would be pretty lost without, and I’m curious to find out what would go into others’ survival kits too. Here is a top 6 list of mine; leave a comment below and let me know what you can’t live without.

1. OED, King of dictionaries

This one has to come at the top of my list because without its reassuring bulk I would feel ever so slightly bereft. It sits at the left of my computer and I’m forever thumbing through it looking for Oxford’s view on a particular stylistic issue or to find out, say, if premiss really is an alternative spelling of premise. (Turns out it is. I still prefer –mise.) It can also be a source of pleasurable procrastination, between jobs for example: open the dictionary at random and see how many new words you can learn.

Of course any editor worth her salt needs more than one dictionary to reference depending on the client and style guide, but the OED happens to be my personal favourite, even with its penchant for ‘-ize’ endings.

2. Helpful references

As well as my trusty OED I have a collection of editorial and language reference books, which I’m constantly adding to. Such texts are a must-have if you need to quickly check the received wisdom on hyphenation or gather a consensus on whether it is okay to use ‘different than’ as well as ‘different from’ (it is). Plus there’s simply something pleasurable in surrounding oneself with books on the subject you are interested in.

My favourite go-to books at the moment are: the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005), and the Penguin guides to punctuation (R.L. Trask, 1997) and grammar (R.L. Trask, 2000).

3. Googling away

Okay, so this might not be the most fashionable thing to say, but I love Google. I love that it allows me to quickly check facts with minimum fuss. For things like checking the state abbreviation for Maryland (it’s MD, but I always think it’s MA) when editing a reference list, it’s immensely helpful.

And no, I don’t mind that ‘to google’ is now a verb listed in the OED. It’s a nice word and there’s nothing wrong with it being there (such a travesty must rest heavily on the minds of those like Simon Heffer).

4. Wordly wisdom

Word has many features that seem specifically and helpfully engineered for the jobbing editor (macros, format painter, and the most obvious: Track Changes). But the one that really comes in useful for me is its customisable dictionaries. When working with more complex or scientific texts, customising the in-built dictionary so that it lets me know that ‘gluecopyranosyl’ should be ‘glucopyranosyl’ is pretty useful. It’s much easier to read and spot the errors in a verbose document without red squiggly lines under every out-of-the-ordinary word.

5. Perfecting it

I was rather sceptical about such software at first, but I can now admit that I am a PerfectIt convert. PerfectIt is a nifty little Word add-in that performs a last-minute consistency check of your document, pointing out things that are easy to miss (especially in longer texts) such as use of capitalisation, hyphenation, how bullet lists are formatted, etc.

My first reaction to such a whizzy idea was along the lines of “but it’s my job as editor to spot those things; I shouldn’t be relying on a bit of software to do it for me”. The thing is, as long as you don’t come to rely on it, it can be a very helpful quick last check of a document before sending it off to the client.

Some might feel their editorial egos will be punctured if a computer programme is doing this for them, but I prefer to look at it this way: I do all the work, spotting inconsistencies and incongruities down to crossing the last tee – then, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything (I am human after all), I perform a PerfectIt check before sending it off. Why risk missing something out of pride? Also, it’s rather gratifying to perform the check and have it return no inconsistencies.

6. Caffeine ahoy

Finally, coffee is something that I just can’t live without. I know, it’s probably bad for me (on the other hand, maybe it’s really good for me). But in those first few hours of a Monday morning fug, nothing beats it.

So what would you put in your editorial survival kit? Let me know by posting below.

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Email Etiquette for Freelancers

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Copywriting, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 28 October 2012 | 4 Comments

As a freelance editor/proofreader/writer, chances are a considerable chunk of communication with your clients is done by email. Depending on how you and your clients use it, email can either be your best friend or your worst enemy. Here are a few quick ways to make it work better for you and your freelance business.

Hit the reply button

It’s something that should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Reply to the emails you receive. If someone sends you an email, regardless of whether they’re a prospective client you can’t wait to get back to or an enquiry you don’t think is going to lead anywhere, have the courtesy to reply. Even if you don’t have time right away to respond fully, at least acknowledge the email and let the enquirer know you will get back to them soon.

Take care of your cc

If it hasn’t happened to you, it’s bound to have happened to someone you know: the dreaded email sent by mistake thanks to a mis-typed cc. Only last week this was highlighted when a humiliating email was accidentally sent to an engaged couple by their wedding planner, telling them what she really thought of them.

Before you press send, make sure you are only sending the email to those you wish to. Emails generally can’t be brought back, however much some email programmes might make you think that by pressing the magic ‘recall’ button your email will zing itself back to your outbox.

Get on the right terms

Take care when it comes to how you address your email. It’s generally good practice to take your client’s lead on whether to use ‘Dear’ or ‘To’, or ‘Hi’ or ‘Hey’ on the informal end of the scale. And always double-check you have spelled your client’s name right.

Also, watch out for possible gender confusion when using a title (Mr or Mrs) to address an email. I once addressed an email to a ‘Mr Chris Taylor’, mistakenly assuming Chris was a Christopher. Turns out, Chris was a Christine, and didn’t very much appreciate being called a Mr.

Sign off with style

Make sure your emails look as professional as possible by creating an automatic signature to sign off your emails. This does not mean writing your name in 20pt pink letters with an ‘inspirational’ quote from your favourite song underneath. It really just needs to be your name in full, your trading name if you have one, your web address and phone number, and perhaps your postal address and a few social media buttons for good measure.

Proofread it!

This becomes particularly salient if you are a freelance proofreader; a proofreader whose emails are littered with spelling mistakes is not the sort of proofreader anyone wants to hire. Always check your email for sense, common typos and grammatical ambiguities before you hit send. All too easily, confusing messages such as ‘it is not ready’ instead of ‘it is now ready’ can slip through the net. And that goes for every last word down to your own name at the bottom. I’ve almost signed off my emails as ‘Salty’ rather than ‘Sally’ on many an occasion – so take care to check thoroughly.

Do you have any tips for freelancer emailing? And as we’re nearing Halloween, how about sharing some of your favourite email horror stories? Leave your comments below.

Editorial freelancers: next steps

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 28 August 2012 | No Comments

Kicking your freelance editing career into gear

This week, I’m proud to be featured on the Publishing Training Centre blog with an article on getting your freelance editorial business moving full steam ahead once you’ve successfully completed your training.

I completed the Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning course with the Publishing Training Centre, and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone seeking a career in proofreading or copyediting. I say copyediting too because it’s a great foundation for any sort of editorial work, featuring as it does such very thorough and uncompromising grounding in the proofreading side of the publishing industry. It’s also a widely recognised and respected qualification so is likely to boost your chances of securing freelance editorial work, or progressing your career in-house.

If you’d like to read my thoughts on what to do next after completing your PTC training, you can read the article here.

What does a copyeditor do?

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 15 August 2012 | No Comments

Find out what goes on behind the scenes when you hire a copyeditor

You’ve prepared some text and you’re nearly ready to send it out into the public domain. Perhaps you wrote it yourself, you commissioned it, or your team of writers has put it together. You’re proud of it and can’t wait to see how it fares out in the big bad world.

But you know it’s not quite ready to meet its public yet. Some inaccuracies may lurk in those carefully spun words, some slightly smudgy logic, some expressions that don’t quite sound right. This is where (ta-da!) the copyeditor comes in. He or she will take a magnifying glass to your every word and phrase, and make them better without compromising on your voice and style.

Sometimes the job of the copyeditor can seem a little shrouded in mystery. They improve your text – but how do they do this? Is it magic?

No, it’s not magic. It’s a simple, timeless formula that, on a whim, I shall call CE = A + C + C:

Copyediting = Accuracy plus Consistency plus Clarity.

These are the big three that I look out for when copyediting, and they are what make all the difference to the success of your text.


Any text entering the public domain must be as accurate as possible. A lack of accuracy reflects badly on whoever has published it. Generally, many of the things a copyeditor does fall into the accuracy camp, and can be divided as follows:

•    Spelling. Yes, spelling does still matter. It’s the difference between referring to your public duties and your pubic duties (this error happens more than you’d think). But it’s also about ensuring place names are spelled correctly, either US or UK spelling is used consistently, and those oft-typed but hard-to-spot typos (learn/lean, complied/compiled, and/an) are eradicated.
•    Punctuation. This isn’t about the copyeditor imposing their own sense of how commas should be used on your writing: it means getting a sense of how you use punctuation, then bringing the overall punctuation of the piece up to the best possible standard. This could be adding in a missing closing bracket, or replacing a comma with a semi-colon, or changing quote marks to speech marks.
•    Grammar. Sentences might need to be tightened up in terms of how they read grammatically. There might be a confusion of tenses, a singular verb after a plural noun, or a bullet-pointed list whose bullets don’t follow grammatically from its ‘stem’.
•    Facts. A good copyeditor is always questioning, and never assumes anything. If an assertion seems spurious, such as ‘SOS stands for save our sisters’ (actually, SOS didn’t originally stand for anything and was just three easy-to-remember letters in Morse code), the copyeditor will check it out – and if they can’t resolve it on their own, they’ll raise it as a query with you.


A lack of consistency can trip the reader up, and makes whoever has published the text look slapdash and careless. A copyeditor will be looking out for the following things:

•    House style. If there is a house style, it must be applied consistently throughout; and if there isn’t one, the piece must nevertheless read fluently and consistently. A character’s name spelt ‘Macsweeney’ in one paragraph and ‘McSweeney’ in the next is just going to confuse your readers. Are these two separate characters, or could the author simply not decide which one they preferred?
•    Additional material. A copyeditor will check any additional material such as contents pages, footnotes, bibliographies, running headers, tables, references and so on, to make sure they are presented consistently. Any numbered sequences must run on correctly. Tables must be set out each in the same way with a logically corresponding caption. A reference list must cite authors, if not in a prescribed style, then at least consistently. A copyeditor will check all these things and apply consistency throughout.


This last one is about making your text as clear, readable and concise as possible. A piece of text can have perfect spelling and consistent layout, but still not flow logically or read fluently. A copyeditor fixes that in the following ways:

•    Improving readability. This can range from dividing up over-long sentences, to saying things in one word rather than three, to eliminating redundancies (on a weekly basis = weekly, utilise = use), to breaking up chunky paragraphs. It also involves looking at tone – is an informal word used in an otherwise formal piece? – and making the prose sound as natural and well written as possible.
•    Getting the ‘write sense’ (I promise that will be my only personal plug!). By this I mean making sure the text at hand is saying what it means to say; that it makes sense and reads logically. This might involve checking with the author whether they meant that a character is poring or pawing over a set of photographs (more likely to be the former, but depending on the context…), or whether something is continually or continuously moving. It also looks at continuity – if someone leaves a scene, why are they speaking again in the next paragraph? If something was originally described as a pale-blue, why is it now a pale-green?

A good copyeditor applying the ACC formula will bear all these things in mind while reading your text, whether that text is web content, a novel or a scientific manuscript. And your text will be all the better for it. Whether it’s near the publication stage or still needs to be reworked by the author, it will come out bright, shiny and polished to perfection.