Now that you have checked your WIP for continuity, addressed every plot hole, and finished all rewrites, it's time to put on the final touches by copyediting!
Now, just to be clear, the term "copyediting" usually refers to when an editor, not the writer, reads the manuscript looking for errors, and it actually does include a lot of continuity editing and fact checking. But this series is for writers editing their own work before another soul reads it (regardless of if the work will then be self-published or sent out to agents and editors). It is my belief that, for a writer, continuity editing should come long before the final stage of the editing process. Thus, for our purposes, I'm going to use "copyediting" to refer to correcting errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and other such things.
Obviously, this involves going through your manuscript with a fine-toothed comb, on the lookout for misspellings and typos. However, there are a few items to especially watch for, roughly broken down into the categories of spelling; grammar, usage, and style; and punctuation, spacing, and everything else.
- Spelling of made-up or unusual words: If you write fantasy or sci-fi, odds are you're using at least a few words that don't exist in the regular lexicon. Make sure you use consistent spelling for these. This is especially true for different forms of said words. For example, I chose to spell "Lesse" in Lesse's Moor with and "e" at the end, which is easy to remember. Yet, when spelling the adjectival form of that word, I used either an "e" or "a": Lesserian and Lessarian. I had to choose one to use throughout. This goes for non-made-up words as well. "Empyreal" of the Empyreal Palace is a real word (it means celestial), but it's not like I've known how to spell it from my youth, so I still had to double check it every time I came across it to make sure it was spelled correctly.
- British vs American spelling: If you spend a lot of time reading books from across the pond, you might have picked up some foreign spellings. As a child, I would always spell "gray" as "grey", because I liked it better, and to this day, that spelling sneaks into my writing from time to time. There are many such words in the English language (here's a list of some of them) that you should watch out for.
- Hyphens: Make sure that you know which words are hyphenated, and that they are always hyphenated in your manuscript. Pay attention to height and ages: "six-foot tall", "four-year-old" and so on. Keep consistent for made-up words as well. Will you use "mechano-magical" or "mechanomagical"? Whichever you choose, you have to use that spelling every time.
- Homophones and similar words: You might think that this is dumb to mention, since you, of course, know the difference between all the homophones in the world, but that's irrelevant. I know the difference too, yet I mix them up all the time in my writing. Some people picture the spellings of words even as they speak, and I am not one of them. I know the difference between "their", "they're", and "there" like the back of my hand; I still write the wrong one about a third of the time. Why? Because when I write, I'm picturing how the words sound and, moreover, how the scene looks, not how the text will appear on the page. That's what copyediting is for. Thus, here is a brief list of homophones or commonly mixed up words that you, like me, should be wary of:
Grammar, Usage and Style
- Subject-verb agreement: By the time you're at this stage of editing, your manuscript is likely a Frankenstein's monster of sewn-together old drafts, and that tends to lead to some weird grammar. Make sure your subjects and verbs agree. That means that if the subject is plural—they, policemen, the dragons, or whatever—the verb has to be one you use on plurals—were, know, have eaten. If the subject is singular—he, a policeman, the dragon—the verbs similarly have to match—was, knows, has eaten. If you're not too keen on grammar, read it out loud and see if it sounds right; even if you don't know all the proper grammatical phraseology, you know English and you'll be able to pick up on errors that you hear.
- Writing out numbers or not: Generally speaking, for narrative prose, you should write out the numbers zero through one hundred. For larger numbers, 101 to infinity, you can use numerals, but some guides suggest that numbers ending in two or more zeros should also be written out: two hundred, five million, etc. But I think you can get away with writing out larger numbers as well, like three hundred seventy-three; it looks nicer to me. Whatever you choose to do with larger numbers, stay consistent. Special numbers like years and addresses, however, should be written in numerals: 221 B. Baker Street, 1984, etc.
- Capitalization of titles of people: Obviously, if the the title comes right before the persons name, and is thus part of their name, it's capitalized: Queen Delilah, Doctor Mario, Professor Moriarty, President Coolidge. But what about when the title is by itself? Well, it depends on how you're using it. If the title is used to address the person, it's capitalized: "You saved his life, Doctor!" or "Well, Professor, it looks like your theory was wrong." Obviously special title have special addresses which are obviously capitalized: Your Majesty, Mr. President, etc. If, on the other hand, you are talking about the person, or the office in general, it's not (usually) capitalized: "The professor is getting on my nerves!", "That doctor is a quack", "The president has to be an American citizen". However, for certain fancier offices, if you are talking about a particular holder of that office, you do capitalize it. Now, I found a few competing sources on this, but from what I could figure, the only titles that work this way are Pope, King, Queen. Again, you have to be referring to a very specific person to do this: "The Queen has been slain!" "The Pope blessed the travelers". Some sources also said this could be done for the president's of countries, but other said not to, so... I guess pick which way you'll do it an stay consistent.
Punctuation, Spacing, and Everything Else
- Extra spaces: Get rid of 'em. This included two spaces after a period (for us old people who learned that that was the correct way to type!) as well as space at the end of paragraphs, between two words, and so on.
- Missing punctuation: Don't forget commas after opening phrases like "Well, you see..." or "Of course, I'd never say that," or when separating a name when being addressed: "Are you ok, Constance?". Double check that every paragraph has a period or closing quotation marks; somehow, these seem to disappear on me and I've never figured out why.
- Smart quotes, … vs ..., and m-dashes: This is almost getting into formatting territory, but I'm going to include it here anyway. Depending on what word processor you use to write your WIP, there might be some differences in how certain characters are automatically formatted. For example, some programs will turn quotation marks ( " " ) into smart quotes, i.e., one that wrap toward the text and have different opening and closing characters ( “ ” ). Something similar happens to ellipses, which may be typed as three periods (...) but turned into a single character (…). Finally, there is the m-dash, that long dash used in a way similar to a colon. When you type it by itself, it typically looks like two dashes (--), but if you type a letter, then two dashes, then another letter with no spaces between, it turns into a single character (—). I'm in favor of all of these automatic changes, as they look nicer, but depending on where you typed what part of my WIP, they don't always happen. It's a good idea to go though your manuscript and add them in, or set your word processor to change them automatically.
- Personal foibles: Finally, know thyself. Are there weird mistakes that you always tend to make? I myself tend not to use question marks (they are a silly punctuation mark and ought not exist!). I have to be careful to check that all of my questions are, in fact, marked as such. Maybe you tend to spell one particular word incorrectly, or are really bad at using commas. Know your weaknesses and make an effort to fix them while writing and catch them while editing.
Tips to Make Life a Little Easier
The greatest tip I can give you is to embrace your Find and Find/Change or Find/Replace functions of your word processor. You'll find these in your edit menu.
Find should be used to check homophones and commonly misspelled words. When editing, I'll Find the word "its" and go through my entire document to check each instance of this word to make sure it should not be "it's". then, I do the reverse, searching every instance of "it's" to make sure it should not be "its". I do this for each of the words that I, personally, confuse. Know thyself; if you never confuse "it's" with "its", don't bother checking it, but if you know that you often confuse "principal" and "principle", use the Find function. You can also use this to Find quotation marks and replace them with smart quotes if your word processor doesn't have the option to replace all quotation marks with smart ones at once.
And then there is my favorite, Find/Change. This should also be found in your edit menu, sometimes with the "Find..." feature and sometimes as a separate "Replace..." option. What Find/Change allows you to do is enter in some word, like, say, "Lessarian" and replace every instance of it with a new word, like "Lesserian". I use this to do a quick fix of made-up words and British to American spellings. I also use this if I have changed character and place names, so that I can replace every instance of, say, "Robert" with "Brother Roberto". It's also useful for catching double spaces, as you can Find " " (two spaces) and Replace them with " " (one space). You can also replace two dashes with an m-dash or the three-character ellipsis with a single character ellipsis.