Copy Editing Wizardry Tricks by Helen Boswell

Posted by on Aug 21, 2014 in Editing Wizardry, Pen and Muse Summer School, Writing | 1 comment

Copy Editing Wizardry Tricks by Helen Boswell

First of all, huge hugs and a big THANK YOU to the lovely writers at Pen & Muse for asking me to contribute to their Summer School series! I’m excited to be part of it, and it happens to coincide with me going back to work/school in my other life, so I’m already thinking about lesson plans.




By way of introduction, I’ve self-published three novels and traditionally-published one non-fiction book and one laboratory manual. I worked for about a year as a freelance copy editor for other self-published authors, and I’ll be bringing to the table some of the ideas and tools I have on the subject. These aren’t tricks by any means, because unfortunately, there is no copy editing magic wand… Dang it.


What is copy editing, and why is it a big deal?

Copy editing is different from content editing (an equally important step), though the two have some overlap. Copy editing involves making sure each and every word in your MS is correct in the following areas: grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency in style. This is usually the last step before publishing, after revisions and content edits are in place.

Your ultimate goal in copy editing is to make sure that your sentences are correct and also say what you want them to say. Regardless of whether you choose to copy edit yourself or hire someone to do it, you need your meaning to come across clearly in each sentence of your MS. If not, the results could be potentially disastrous.



Example of why punctuation matters. (It matters a lot.)



Copy editing Tips:

1. Read your MS as you would read a book.

I use this method for both revisions and copy editing. You’ll catch a lot more errors as you read through your MS if you read it as a book than if you read it on your computer. I’m assuming that you wrote your MS on your computer or tablet and that you’re used to seeing it this way. Our brains do a marvelous job of filling things in for us when there are errors, and this cool article published in The Guardian explains why we do this. Incidentally, this is why you can read something fourteen times and not spot a glaring error; sometimes we just need a different perspective to see it! When you read, pay attention to clarity and consistency as well as grammatical/spelling errors (see point 2 below).

Do you enjoy reading paperbacks? Print out your MS (a lot of local printing services will even bind your MS at an additional nominal fee), go take it to your favorite chair with a highlighter, and sit down to read. Are you an ebook reader? There are several programs you can use to convert your document into the ebook format of your choice (I recommend Scrivener or Calibre). Pages for Mac will also export your MS into a relatively clean ePub copy for your copy editing enjoyment. The major benefit to either of these methods is that you can highlight the changes as you go without actually getting bogged down in the edits as you might do if you were reading it on your computer. Here’s an example of what I mean from the copy edits of one of my own books:



2. When in doubt, look it up.

Our parents and teachers started teaching us things like grammar, spelling, and punctuation from the time that we could speak and write. Some of us struggle with these subjects, and others have an affinity for them (i.e., the proverbial “grammar Nazis” and spelling bee champs, myself included *cough*). However, the point is that we had to learn it from someone or somewhere, and there are lots of resources out there that you can use to refresh your memory of the “rules” or even learn something new.

I admit that I pored over my dog-eared copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements to Style when I was back in graduate school (because my advisor was also a grammar Nazi and was always standing over my writing with a pen dripping in blood). But as this is summer school, I’ll refer you to two much easier web resources: Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips and I’ve found the tips on both of these sites to be both accurate and helpful, and I’ve included a few examples of things that I’ve looked up before on these sites because I had to remind myself or simply didn’t know! Even if you have the slightest amount of doubt whether something is correct, LOOK IT UP. In this business, copy editing is something we can actually exert a fair amount of control over, so I always employ the “better safe than sorry” strategy.

The difference between “blond” and “blonde”

When to use “backyard” vs. “back yard” (and similar words)

Does it matter whether you use “backward” vs. “backwards”? (and similar words)

Another common mistake I find when copy editing manuscripts (Source:



If you have another favorite site you use to check grammar, please leave it as a comment below!


3. Catching errors: other pairs of eyes.

Think you’re in the writing/publishing gig alone? Wrong! You aren’t, and nor should you be. You NEED other perspectives and other pairs of eyes to help. The extent to which you involve others in this process depends on your own level of comfort and expertise. You may decide to do the bulk of copy editing yourself and ask for a trusted critique partner or other individual to go through and look for things you may have missed (ideally, copy editing should be done by a fresh pair of eyes, not someone who has read the copy before). You may decide to hire a copy editor to go through it for you (but please note that copy editors are humans too, and that they sometimes miss things).

Regardless of how you choose to copy edit, remember that the goal is to put the very best work that you can out there. Remember, copy editing should be one of your very LAST steps, and doing it well is important.

I’ll put it another way: reading a story that has a wonderful plot, character development, and story elements that’s also copy edited well is just like getting extra whipped cream on your macchiato.

Or an extra cherry on top of a sundae.

Or a bonus chocolate bar with that chocolate bar.




About the Instructor: Helen Boswell

Helen Boswell is the author of the YA urban fantasy Mythology series (MYTHOLOGY and THE WICKED) and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. She loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. Originally from upstate New York, Helen spent much of her early adult life tromping around in Buffalo, NYC, Toronto, and Las Vegas, those cities now serving as inspiration for the dark and gritty urban backdrops of her stories. She loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. Helen dedicates her time to raising her family of two boys, teaching college students, and of course, writing. She no longer does freelance copy editing because she wants to dedicate more time to writing, but she is always happy to answer questions about grammar from other writers. Where to find Helen: Website: Amazon: Facebook: Twitter: Tumblr:

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One Comment

  1. This step right here is the one I’m most adamant on getting right. I’m editing next month and then going to see if I can find a copy editor. :) Thanks!


  1. Pen & Muse Press Summer School 2014 Syllabus - @PenandMuse | @PenandMuse - […] Copy Editing Wizardry Tricks by Helen Boswell […]

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