by Dori Harrell

When it comes to fine-tuning a manuscript, there can be as much art involved as science. If you insert a comma before that dependent clause, even though conventional wisdom says no comma is needed before a sentence-ending dependent clause, will it reveal the author’s true intent? That introductory phrase is five words, but a comma might interrupt the intended flow. The semicolon is a perfect between the two independent clauses—but the author has overused them and you’re trying to reduce them.

To top it off, the expectation that you’ll deliver an error-free copyedit is uppermost in your mind, even though almost no editor anywhere, ever, delivers an error-free copyedit.

As you face the fulfilling task of helping an author make his or her work shine, there are concrete steps you can take to improve your copyediting skills and to deliver a higher-quality copyedit.

  1. Read CMoS chapters 5 and 6—again. And again. I know it seems daunting, but the grammar in chapter 5 and the punctuation in chapter 6 will keep you updated in how to apply those elements to storytelling or to a nonfiction persuasive or devotional book.
  2. When you come across a hyphenated noun, unless you know for certain it’s hyphenated, look it up. You’ll be surprised how often you guessed wrong. High-five or high five (as a noun)? Half-truth or half truth? Work-out or workout? Half-circle or half circle?
  3. Look it up … look it up … look it up. Subscribe to the style guides online. The bottom line is, the search tool makes it so easy to run a search that you will likely be more inclined to look up questionable spellings, hyphens, and style elements if you subscribe to the style manuals online. I subscribe to Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster, and Associated Press Stylebook online. There might be nothing like holding a style manual in your hands, but if you’d really like to deliver a higher-quality copyedit, subscribe to the online versions and use the search functions.
  4. Develop a philosophy for applying commas, probably the most misused punctuation mark ever, that will allow you to insert and delete commas consistently edit after edit. Your philosophy might be different, but it helps to have a comma philosophy—leaving enough flexibility for the art of comma placement where needed—that can be applied to every edit. My simple philosophy is this:
    1. If there’s a rule, use a comma (serial comma, comma before conjunction joining independent clauses, etc.).
    2. Use a comma if one is needed for clarity, such as with restrictive and nonrestrictive elements. 
    3. If a comma isn’t needed, why use it? Don’t litter a manuscript with commas.
  5. Develop a final checklist, and run that checklist before you return the edit. Elements to include on your final checklist:
    1. Double spaces (replace with one space)
    2. Double periods (replace with single period)
    3. Double commas (replace with one comma)
    4. Space before quotation mark (remove space)
    5. Space before em dash (and after) (delete space)
    6. Period or comma outside quotation marks (set period or comma inside quotation mark)
    7. Space before a period (close up space)
    8. Space before a comma (close up space)
    9. Number ranges with hyphens (replace with en dash). A search with ^#- [on a PC] will turn up those hyphens. 

Make your checklist as detailed as needed to ensure you pick up all those pesky elements that get left behind when copyediting.

Author, speaker, and editor Dori Harrell owns Breakout Editing and edits full time. As an editor, she releases multiple books a year. Her client list includes best-selling writers, indie authors, and publishers. She also serves as a managing editor of a Christian press. An award-winning writer, her novel, A Christmas Hallelujah, was released in 2017.