Most of my career, I’ve been a copyeditor for large NYC publishers, an intellectually stimulating but also somewhat straightforward task. It starts with this injunction:

A copyeditor must never fix or improve the author’s style.

(What is style? See Dave Hood’s excellent breakdown of style, tone, and voice.)

Copyediting entails:

  • Fixing spelling, punctuation, and grammar
  • Ensuring consistency with the Chicago Manual of Style, the house style guide, and the author’s own style (usually while creating a style sheet)
  • Fact checking (often but not always)
  • Checking for continuity (do the main character’s eyes stay sky blue or turn to cloudy gray halfway through?)

When you’re copyediting a manuscript for a publisher, you can assume the major decisions have been made, both at the story level and at the language level.

But it’s not so cut-and-dried when working with independent authors. When copyediting a manuscript for an indie author, you might find yourself veering toward a line edit.

Line Editing Defined

Line editing is editing for language, as opposed to story. When you’re line editing, you can and should improve the author’s style, including attention to:

  • Sentence structure (syntax)
  • Word choice (diction)
  • Tone and mood
  • Tense
  • Point of view consistency
  • Rhythm and cadence
  • Whether dialogue is snappy enough (or not too snappy, depending)
  • Even rewriting short passages (with plenty of author queries added) to heighten or release tension

The storytelling elements have been workshopped and edited: how much to flesh out a character, the balance of scene versus summary, the details of the plot, and so on. Now, in the line edit, you’re taking what you know about those storytelling decisions and expressing them through language. You’re acting somewhat like a teacher of English composition — without the red-inked “No, no, no’s!” in the margin.

(Some indie editors do away with the distinction between line editing and copyediting altogether, to avoid confusion for the author. They instead refer to line editing as “heavy editing,” copyediting as “medium editing,” and proofreading as “light editing,” or some variation on this breakdown.)

What Indie Authors Expect from Copyediting

In the last few years, I’ve been working more with independent authors than publishers. I get closer to the authors, for sure, and also closer to the projects.

But I’ve learned that my old copyediting battle cry — “Never fix or improve the author’s style!” — doesn’t fit anymore. It’s unusual for an indie author to see the dividing line between fixing style and fixing grammar/punctuation/spelling. To them, it’s all editing.

Practically, this means editors should be clear in their own minds about what they’re doing at each stage: first developmental, then line, then copyedit, then proofread. (To help make sense of these categories, see our breakdown of the seven editorial roles.) But when you get to the copyedit, you might still be polishing the style.

(Note that there’s a confusing double usage of “style”: it’s either an element of fiction like tone or narrative voice, or it’s the style of hyphenation, capitalization, numbers, and so on laid out in a style manual. Why we need to use the same terms for these vastly different realms, I’ll never know. For a clarity-loving people, editors sometimes tolerate a lot of muddiness.)

Guideline for Editing Indie Authors

It will save you hours of frustration and likely lead to a better overall edit if you stick to one level of editing at each pass. In other words, while reading the book for the first or second time to identify theme and get a feel for pacing (the domain of the developmental edit), don’t bother changing “towards” to “toward” or tuck the punctuation within quotation marks (copyediting concerns).

However, there is an exception to this for working with indies: be prepared to take care of all levels of language matters at the copyediting stage, not just the mechanical ones. If you’re accustomed to working with publishers, as I was, this will be a challenge. But it’s also liberating — you can try your hand at slashing adverbs, punching up verbs, and editing for musicality. And if you find yourself cleaving to the more rote type of copyediting, try my mantra for copyediting indies:

I CAN fix and improve the author’s style! I can and I will!