I think we can all agree, it’s fun to fix a spelling error, or a grammatical mistake, or a comma that should be a semicolon. Rooting out these distractions in the reading experience brings deep pleasure. If your responses on our Book Editor Profile Quiz indicate that copyediting is in your future, you can look forward to the rewarding work of eradicating errors in trade books.

However – and this is important – copyediting is more than fixing mistakes. A lot more. Because as you’re on the lookout for an errant “accomodate” or a turned-around quote mark, you also have to keep your eyes peeled for dropped words. And factual errors. And inconsistencies in the timeline. Potentially offensive language. Oh, and don’t forget, the text has to make sense to the target reader.

When you do find a mistake, do you fix it and leave it at that? Or should you fix it and add it to the style sheet? Or maybe you should not fix it but query instead. Or . . . fix and query?

View of Your Brain While Copyediting Trade Books

Copyediting trade books is the mental equivalent of patting your head while rubbing your belly, skipping, and reciting the alphabet backward. You have to train yourself to pay attention on several levels, each of which is equally important.

When I’m teaching Copyediting Fiction and Nonfiction Books: Principles & Mechanics, this is the piece that is the most surprising to students: how complicated it can be to tie together a book-length copyedit in a reasonable amount of time. Of course, there are tricks, like using find and replace in Microsoft Word. But to some extent, you just have to practice, again and again, and train your mind to . . . well, juggle on a unicycle.

While copyediting, your mind should look approximately like this:

Add “singing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner,'” in French, and this is a reasonably accurate depiction of one’s brain while copyediting.

I love copyediting, and I am grateful every day that I stumbled upon this career. This is why I’m now teaching it to other people: I want to share the love.

Part of that mission is to find ways to demystify copyediting trade books so it’s more accessible and easier to learn. In my copyediting classes, I work hard to find just the right analogy, information flow, exercises, and brain hacks to help my students grasp the concepts and begin to master them.

Copyediting Decision Guide

My Copyediting Decision Guide is one such tool. This table is designed to help the burgeoning copyeditor apply a structure to the various types of errors they will find when copyediting, and from there, help determine what to do with those errors.

As you can see, it isn’t always straightforward. (See those cells with “Depends” written jauntily within?) But it gives new copyeditors a starting point, a way to classify the various scenarios they encounter, copyeditorially speaking.

This table helps the new book copyeditor determine when to fix a mistake, add it to the style sheet, and query the author. 

Yes, copyediting is challenging. And yes, copyediting is rewarding! It involves so much more than correcting spelling (not that fixing a spelling error isn’t one of life’s sweetest pleasures). It takes editorial judgment, tact, savvy, organization, endurance, and and and . . .

But if you’re a Grammar Guru (have you taken that quiz yet?), it might just be the toughest job you’ll ever love. (Or is it “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” per Chicago Manual of Style 7.60? And wait, do I need permission to use this phrase? Will non-Americans get the reference? What about Gen Zers? . . . Welcome to the copyediting mind.)

To download a PDF of the Copyediting Decision Guide, click here.