Saturday, March 9, 2013


I had hoped to write this post before finishing the copy editing on the first volume of The Quantum of the Past, but that work proved to be very difficult to complete.

But at least I can discuss why that is.

The term "copy-edit" is rarely used in self-publishing, mostly because of the vast number of works in ebook format. Long ago, to copy edit meant that you were going to prepare a text for the printer. The concern of the copy editor was with language, grammar usage and the like.

All of this is done before the manuscript is set in type, creating a proof. After that step, the author performs a "proof reading," or a reading of the proof. The term "proofreading" means something completely different now; it is more synonymous with revision and edit, as a layman might use those words.

And because I self-publish, the term has taken on a new meaning. I'm not preparing the text for print, but for publishing. The same concerns are there, however. I look at the language as an entity in itself.

Ideally, a copy editing session involves only the text and how it reads. This is not the case, however, and I often find myself fixing errors. Also, there is a certain obsession a writer must fight; eventually, I had to say, "enough," and be satisfied with what I could accomplish. I will say that these changes I make are small, and have more to do with correcting than with editing. The vision of the novel remains the same. The plot remains the same.

When I copy edit, I refine the work to the best of my abilities.

Here are the things I try to tackle when I copy edit:

  • Readability
  • Refining the text


Readability is a characteristic of prose. This characteristic is a way to determine the difficulty with which a person can understand written language. Mind you, I don't dumb down the text to do t his; that would be a mistake.

To me, readability is what makes a text flow. I won't say that everyone ought to aspire to have the most readable text. Depending on the writer's intent, the density of the prose may be difficult to understand. Or maybe the writer just doesn't care for readability. I've read all types.

Why do I care about readability? One of my writing teachers once told me something that made sense: A novel is like a writer inviting someone over to their house. You play host when you have friends over. What type of host am I?

I would like things to be clean; although I wouldn't want cleanliness to be off putting, obsessive.
I would like their experience at my place to be memorable within certain boundaries.
I would like it if my friends went home hoping to visit me again soon; but maybe not too soon since I prize my privacy.

In short, I'm very hospitable.

I thought about that analogy as I cleaned up the text during the copy editing. My hope is that the reader will glide through the text and get stuck on the subject matter. To do that, I have to eliminate certain things.

Bad habits:

If you recall, I said during the posts on editing that the writer is the worst editor of his work. Luckily, this isn't the case for copy-editing. Part of that has to do with your bad habits. Who knows them better than you do?

During those late-night workshops I've attended, what emerged was a flurry of bad habits. These were behaviors I displayed in the text that were unique to me, which were problematic enough for someone to point them out.

One of my bad habits is a reliance on the contraction of the word not (wouldn't, couldn't, can't, won't, etc.)--if you doubt me, just look through this post and see how much I use "not." Here, I won't say that negations are "wrong" in a manuscript--that word holds no true meaning. The word I would use is excessive.

Using the word not frames a statement in a certain way. In some cases, it is plain laziness. Really. It is. One thing I discovered as I write a rough draft is that my brain will come up with the easiest ways to express ideas.

"He did not find her."

That's not bad on its own, but when I have ten of those suckers in a page, I begin to worry. Why?

  1. It tells me my vocabulary is limited.
  2. It tells me that my creativity is not kicking in.
  3. It tells me that I am careless.

The sum of all of these things is an unbalanced prose. This refers to text that overuses one element or another. You've seen these sometimes. Now, an unbalanced prose can be desirable for a certain end: It creates focus (like the repetition of darkness in Heart of Darkness); and it is helpful when trying to create a certain effect.

Note: Having an unbalanced prose doesn't mean that the story is unbalanced.

Of course, a manuscript never leaves my computer until I go over it extensively. Now, I could have found these undesirables during the other processes (revision, editing), but that would have overloaded me. My brain can only focus on so much at a time.

How else could I say "He did not find her"?

"After an extensive search, he failed to find her."
"He gave up, convinced he would never find her."
"She was gone for good and it left him bitter."

Note: The location in the text of the contraction limits the ways in which I can rephrase them.
Note: Notice the content of the sentence doesn't change, only the way I phrase them.

Refining the text

Why bother doing this? If it's readable, then that should be enough. What does it even mean to refine the text?

In the context of copy-editing, refining (to me at least) is the process of analyzing the linguistic and structural patterns in a text, singling out problematic patterns, and using strategies to alter them.

It sounds a lot like revising and editing, you use strategies to alter problematic elements. And here is the heart of all of these posts on revising, editing, and copy-editing:

When a writer revises, he/she alters the elements of fiction to bring them closer to the vision of the novel--that they have in their minds. Depending on their talent and patience, they may succeed greatly. They may also change the story as the revision process goes to add complexity or remove confusing aspects of it. A writer may decide to rewrite their manuscript during the revision process if they cannot shape it to a satisfactory state.

When an editor edits, he/she looks for areas of the manuscript that are problematic because they are examples of clumsy writing or because they are not in line with the vision of the novel. They may suggest the story be rethought to strengthen the vision or they may ask that it be re-written.

When someone copy-edits, they analyze the language to see if it serves its function as a medium to tell a particular story. A copy-editor will not suggest that the writer rewrite the story. A copy-editor will not suggest that the writer change an aspect of the story to go in line with the vision. But a copy-editor may ask a writer to rephrase sentences or reshape paragraphs so that their meanings and contexts are not in conflict with one another.

In practice, refining the text requires multiple readings that ask the writer to look at what sentences say (content), versus where they are at (context). This is done blindly, without regard for the vision (it is assumed that the novel is as close to the vision as it will be). Paragraphs are fluid things that may grow or shrink, depending on their content. Here, it helps to remember the most basic premise of the paragraph: It is a collection of sentences that deal with a single topic.

Naturally, this is not a step for everyone. I have a certain personality with idiosyncrasies that tell me that certain things must be done.

Here is an excellent resource for understanding the paragraph. In the future I will post on the construction of a paragraph in fiction, or a modification of the rules of proper grammar usage.

On the limitations of human writers

I want to tell you that I followed all these wonderful steps I made up and that at the end the novel is better for it. But I can only do so much alone. And this is true for other writers. Besides that, every story presents its own set of challenges that are unique to it.

Old strategies must be revised. New strategies must be formed.

In the end, my revision, editing, copy-editing process is a fluid set of rules. Of course, there is no requirement for me to be perfect right away. I'm sure I'll ease into a system as I grow older.

I like to think that I succeeded in places and failed in others. If I was effective, I succeeded more than I failed. The horrifying thing is that it is irrelevant if I think my efforts paid off in the text. Readers may not pick up a single ecopy of The Quantum of the Past; some may not get through the samples that Amazon and Barnes and Noble give their readers.

What does this mean?

It means there are no guarantees. And I'm fine with it.