10 Things a Copy Editor Hates

This morning I turned in my first draft of my pristine 157-page thesis for my MFA program. Pushed send, felt a sense of accomplishment, opened the document back up just, you know, for pride’s sake, and found this phrase: “This is a book to tell help writers understand the publishing process . . .” Really? “Tell help”? On page 1? Right there. In my thesis about . . . editing?

Let’s just say, humble pie isn’t very tasty.

facepalm

So to help myself feel better and remember that yes, indeed, I can edit and know a lot about it, here are 10 tips to help you with your own self-editing process, 10 things copy editors hate.

(1) Writers who press the space bar twice after the ending punctuation between sentences. 

See it?   Annoying isn’t it?   Because that is a no-no.

If you learned to type on a typewriter, you were taught to put a double space after your punctuation and between sentences. On a typewriter, every letter and punctuation mark and even space took up the same amount of space. So to clearly see the sentences and make a page readable, double spacing was needed.

But now our word processing software has typefaces that create proportional spacing, so that extra space is not needed. So stop doing it.

(2) Writers who quote sources and then don’t give me the source.

Lazy—and problematic. Same goes for Bible verses and no references or Bible version. (Please, thou shalt not do this.)

If you’re quoting a source, give it to me exactly. If it’s a book, tell me the author, title, publisher, date of publication, and page number. If it’s a magazine or journal, I need the title, the issue date, the article title, the author, the page number. If it’s on the Web, at least give me a hyperlink so I can find it and confirm all the needed information. If you’re quoting from the Bible or other religious text, give me all of the information I need, and make sure you’re quoting correctly.

(3) Writers who consistently use passive voice.

“The book was being written by a writer who wanted people to be inspired by it.” (Ugh.)

It’s lazy writing. You can spot passive voice if you find that you’re using a form of a “to be” verb over and over. In the above sentence, the “was being” and the “to be” are clues. If you change it up, you’ll find that you can use much more descriptive verbs: “The writer labored over the thesis, hoping that her words would inspire other writers.”

(4) Writers who add needless words.

“The writer wrote the sum of ten pages on each day of the seven-day weeks of the semester.” (Annoying.)

C’mon people. We’re way past the days when we were trying to stretch our writing to fill up the number of pages our English teacher required in our essay about The Great Gatsby. No more padding sentences. Good writing is succinct and to the point. Find the best verb, the best noun. Avoid adverbs. “The writer wrote ten pages every week during the semester.”

(5) Writers who dangle their modifiers.

“Sitting in a pile on the desk, the book writer looked at her manuscript.”

You have a dangling modifier if your modifier is not right next to the word being modified. In the sentence above, it sounds like the book writer is “sitting in a pile on the desk,” not the manuscript itself (although this could actually be true, depending on the book writer’s state of mind). These sentences sound right until you really look at them: “I saw the dead deer driving down the country road,” should be “While driving down the country road, I saw a dead deer.”

(6) Writers who don’t use the dictionary.

“I sat stationery as I wrote my letter on stationary.”

In the sentence above, the “stationary” words need to not be stationary; they need to be switched because they’re incorrect. If you’re unsure, look it up. If you’re even a tiny bit not sure, look it up.

(7) Writers who don’t understand commas.

Commas, put in the wrong places, are, and always, will be, annoying. (Yes, annoying.)

Commas are difficult, so don’t lose sleep over them. A copy editor lives and breathes commas and will make sure that your final piece has them placed correctly. But do your best. Check a grammar book or read a few articles online about commas to at least give you some groundwork.

(8) Writers who use random fonts and font sizes that change all over the place.

To impress whoever you’re submitting your manuscript to, follow the basic rules of submission: Times New Roman font, 12 point, one-inch margins, double spacing between lines. You can get away with a different font for your chapter titles, and you can bold or italicize where necessary, but other than that, stay clean and clear.

(9) Writers who write sentences that don’t have parallel elements, are mixed up, and because they are confusing.

Rereading your writing aloud to yourself can help you spot this one. It happens often when you’ve done some revising, so you need to go back and revise your revision to smooth it out and make sure your elements are parallel. “Writers who write sentences that don’t have parallel elements, are mixed up, and are confusing.”

(10) Writers whose subject /verb agreement aren’t correct.

This is a huge one. If I had a nickel for every time I fixed this. . . . Anyway, again, this error often gets introduced in the revision process where you’ve gone back and changed tenses or changed the number of subjects which then affects every other part of the sentence. So go back and read carefully to catch all of these: “Writers whose subject/verb agreement isn’t correct.”

But one thing I DO know . . . I always expect to find a random typo, no matter how carefully the manuscript has been self-edited. After a while, we just can’t see the forest for our own trees. After all, that’s what gives people like me job security.

I won’t stress (too much) about my typo on page 1. I’m sure there are more lurking in those pages. It’s funny but no matter how many years I put into this job, perfection still eludes me.

What’s the worst typo you’ve seen–in your own or in printed works?

8 thoughts on “10 Things a Copy Editor Hates

  1. This is your best post yet, Linda, and it is too funny for words!

    Self-editing is very, very difficult because we are sometimes in great haste to get the project finished. This haste creates hysterically funny typos, which I’ve found after uploading something to publish it. That means returning to the scene of the typo-crime and hoping that nobody saw ‘ten girl year old’ before I fixed it.

    Thank you!

    1. I remember you talking about that typo in a comment on a previous post–I actually quote you in my other book using that comment as an example. It is so difficult to get perfection. I don’t know if it’s even possible . . . Thanks for the note.

  2. Congrats on finishing that thesis!
    I have some of the same pet peeves, as you and I have discussed over the years. The quoting without naming a source is one of the worst. Editors have to spend hours fact checking, thanks to authors who do not provide what we need.

    1. Oh I KNOW! Remember us (at least in the days before BibleGateway.com) trying to figure out WHAT version someone was quoting from? Ha. Even with Bible Gateway it can still be such a pain. Ugh!

  3. Hi Linda! Lovely to be reconnected to your blog again. Long time since BSU days, it seems! My most memorable typo: I was a junior in high school, and taking an honors English class from a notoriously persnickety teacher. She famously and emphatically said she’d drop an entire letter grade off our final papers for any grammar (or was it punctuation?) error. I read, re-read, and re-re-read my paper; I printed several copies on our dot matrix printer and read the whole thing forwards and backwards. It was perfect, or so I thought.

    Right in the middle of page 1, I mistakenly typed a colon where I needed a semicolon, or vice versa. I knew the difference, but the drip under a period that makes it a comma is a small amount of ink. In my bleary, late-night proofreading, I missed it. My B paper was dropped to a C.

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