Category Archives: Copyediting

Proofing Your Own Writing

dental careAs a copyeditor, I receive manuscripts in various conditions. On occasion, I can tell that an author has gone back and read what he or she wrote, making some refinements. Such authors are like diligent dental patients, brushing and flossing before reclining in the hygienist’s chair—where torturous tools will be used to get those whites pearly. (I’m the ruthless dental hygienist in this scenario.) More often, I know I am in possession of a true first draft: the author has keyed the content and never looked at it again, perhaps assuming that a professional would follow behind, making the words shine. Such authors have done the equivalent of downing a bag of Cheetos in the dentist’s waiting room. But at least they’re in the right place to get the help they need.

Think of all the writing you do that isn’t reviewed by an editor—e-mails, letters, agendas, reports, blog posts, social media posts, etc. These communications reflect on you, and possibly your company, yet how carefully do you check them? Admittedly, seeing mistakes in your own writing can be difficult—and, while spell-check is a handy tool, it misses things. Comparing your compositions against this brief checklist can save you from a good number of linguistic missteps:

  1. Read what you have written. Make sure you have conveyed your points clearly and succinctly.
  2. Eliminate erroneous capitalization. Generally speaking, capitals are used for the first word after a period and for proper nouns. If you aren’t sure whether a word is a proper noun, consult Merriam-Webster. Here’s a cheat sheet of items that should be lowercase, unless they contain a proper noun: animals, foods, medical conditions, seasons, compass points, and general academic subjects. Capital letters are not used for emphasis. See my earlier post for additional capitalization errors.
  3. Ensure the proper use of tricky homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You know the ones I mean: your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; to, too, and two. I think it’s easy for your fingers, poised on the keyboard, to “hear” the wrong word as they take dictation from your brain. Here are some additional examples to watch out for: cite, sight, and site; for, fore, and four; rain, reign, and rein; palate, palette, and pallet; peak, peek, and pique; and right, rite, wright, and write.
  4. Delete apostrophes in plurals. Most nouns form their plural by adding or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding es. I know of only one case in which the plural of a noun is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s: for single lowercase letters. For example: “There are two c’s in cupcake.” See my earlier post for more on the subject.
  5. Change two spaces between sentences to a single space. Double-spacing between sentences suggests that you came of age in the era of the manual typewriter. Breaking this lifelong habit can be hard, especially as the life has been so long.

There’s one more thing, and I would consider it a personal favor: in your e-mails, after “Hi,” always use a comma to set off the recipient’s name (for example, “Hi, Thomas.”).

The use of commas to set off nouns of direct address is a sign of a truly refined character.

The Accidental Profession


The “vintage” Olivetti I learned to type on (not the actual machine but the same model, available on eBay)


Copyedited manuscript page

About a week ago, I read the description of an online workshop being offered by Writer’s Digest University, called “Introduction to Copyediting.” The first thing I noticed about the course outline was its random capitalization, which either ironically undermined the validity of the curriculum or was a sly statement on the importance of copyediting. The topics covered seemed to capture what a copyeditor does. For example:

  • “How to properly use Quotations”
  • “Proper use of Commas, Colons, and Semicolons”
  • “Avoiding Redundant Words”
  • “Keep an eye out for consistency”
  • “How to prevent a writer from making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes”

I wondered, “How did I manage to collect these skills?” Based on my experience, here are the steps to becoming a copyeditor:

  1. Be exposed to the word editor at an early age. My first-grade teacher asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said “writer.” The girl next to me said “editor.” I wasn’t quite sure what an editor did, but I felt it had something to do with books.
  2. Learn how to type. When I was about 12, I taught myself from a manual, on a manual.
  3. Have Mr. Thorn for English. Almost everything I know about grammar I learned in junior high.
  4. Edit your college roommate’s paper. When I was a freshman, my roommate asked me to look over an essay she was about to turn in. It was my first editing job. She got a B and was very happy.
  5. Apply for a job as a secretary. A week or two after graduating with a BA in English Literature, I answered a newspaper ad for a secretary at a publishing company. I aced the typing test. (See item 2.)
  6. Get promoted. Over the course of eight years, I worked my way up to the position of senior editor. One of my tasks was to manage the work of copyeditors; I observed what they did and became overly familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style.
  7. Go freelance. Eleven years ago, I began offering my services as a copyeditor.
  8. Learn something new every day. Each manuscript presents its own challenges, providing a constant education.

My first supervisor called publishing the “accidental profession.” While becoming a copyeditor may have been a bit random, certain things in my life pointed toward a career in publishing. As a child, I made tiny books to sell; I vaguely recall unloading one for a dollar. I remember being inspired by an arts-and-crafts toy from the drug store, the final product of which was a bound book about a grasshopper. In junior high, I produced an anonymous newspaper, calling myself the “Phantom Editor.”

I’m sure there are doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts, professional athletes, rock stars, actors, architects, teachers, artists, and writers who always knew what they “wanted to be.” And perhaps people who pursue advanced degrees or seek vocational training have a pretty good idea. But I imagine that the majority of professions are accidental. For example, the other day, I found myself musing, “Who sets out to work at a property management company?” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I wonder if my precocious six-year-old classmate ever became an editor. Or a property manager.

Random Acts of Capitalization

Did you know that the phrase “less is more” may have originated from an 1855 poem by Robert Browning? In the 1960s, “less is more” was adopted as an axiom of minimalist architecture. It has since served as a guiding principle in various contexts, including interior design, advertising, and corporate communications. The “less is more” philosophy also applies to an oft-misused element of written English, capitalization.

lowercaseCopyeditors haven’t always tracked changes in word processing documents. As recently as the 1990s, we marked up hard copies of manuscripts with red pencils (by the dim glow of kerosene lamps). The protocol for indicating an improperly capitalized word was to strike through it with a forward slash. For me, this dramatic gesture was often accompanied by the thought, “Why? Nooo!” So, why do people seem to think that capitalizing with abandon is such a capital idea?

We are taught in school that certain words are meant to be capitalized, such as the first word in a sentence or quotation, the pronoun “I,” proper nouns, days of the week, months of the year, and holidays. I believe that writers, both casual and serious, are worried they will fail to capitalize when they should. So they overcompensate, introducing capitalization where it isn’t appropriate.

Following are some of the more common capitalization mistakes I encounter in my editing, with the corresponding rules from The Chicago Manual of Style. In the examples, the incorrectly capitalized letters are bold.

Error: Capitalizing important words.

  • Example: “The book is about Jazz Musicians.”

Rule: Initial capitals, once used to lend importance to certain words, are now used only ironically.

An example of the ironic use of initial caps might be, “Last night, she and her boyfriend had The Talk.” Interestingly, Shakespeare is said to have capitalized words, in the original text of his plays, that he wanted his actors to emphasize. Another tidbit: in German, all nouns are capitalized.

Error: Capitalizing titles and offices when they appear after or replace a personal name.

  • Example: “George Washington was the first President of the United States.”
  • Example: “Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, played a major role in the naval history of World War II.”
  • Example: “I spoke to the Rabbi.”
  • Example: “She served as the Chief Financial Officer of Vandelay Industries.”

Rule: Civil, military, religious, and professional titles are normally lowercased when following a name or used in place of a name.

Titles appearing before a personal name are capitalized, such as “President Lincoln.” There is an exception, however, for titles used “in apposition”—such as “American president Abraham Lincoln.”

Error: Capitalizing words like army and navy when used on their own.

  • Example: “Elvis joined the Army in March 1958.”

Rule: Words such as army and navy are lowercased when standing alone, when used collectively in the plural, or when not part of an official title.

So, “the army,” “the armies,” and “the United States Army” would be correct.

Error: Capitalizing academic subjects.

  • Example: “He is majoring in Comparative Literature.”

Rule: Academic subjects are not capitalized unless they form part of a department name or an official course name or are themselves proper nouns.

So, “Gender Studies Department,” “Cake Decorating 101,” and “Spanish” would be correct.

Error: Capitalizing seasons.

  • Example: “Santa Barbara holds an annual parade celebrating the Summer solstice.”

Rule: The four seasons are lowercased.

The four seasons are capitalized, however, when used to denote an issue of a journal, such as “Journal of Cupcake Science 2 (Summer 2015).”

So remember, when it comes to capitalization, less is often more. Your overworked Shift key will thank you.

Avoid Clichés Like the Plague

fire hydrantMy dog Cota regularly pees on a particular fire hydrant during our daily walks. Each time he reenacts the hackneyed image of a pooch relieving himself on the faucet that allows firefighters to tap into the municipal water supply, I shake my head and mutter, “So cliché.” A cliché can be a theme, characterization, or situation—such as man’s best friend urinating on a “Johnny pump”—that appears so often in film, television, literature, or art that it becomes boring.

Another type of cliché, which I encounter frequently in my work as an editor, is a sentence or phrase that conveys a common thought or concept—but that has become stale through overuse. An example would be “man’s best friend” in the previous paragraph. While such expressions may have been clever or compelling when they were introduced, they have long since lost their novelty and impact. Because clichés are dull by definition, I will offer just a sampling for illustration:

  • The whole ball of wax
  • The bee’s knees
  • Break the ice
  • Bury the hatchet
  • The elephant in the room
  • A fly on the wall
  • Jump the gun
  • Know the ropes
  • Barking up the wrong tree
  • Raining cats and dogs
  • Run circles around
  • Turn on a dime

Like me, you may have rolled your eyes, snickered, or experienced chest pains at the banality of these sayings. But I encourage you to pause and consider them. At one time, these word combinations colorfully and inventively captured ideas.

To demonstrate this point, I have collected clichés from outside the United States. Unfamiliar to us, they sound more exciting than our own clichés. Yet to the people who live in the originating countries, they are undoubtedly corny and tired.

  • Box of fluffy ducks (New Zealand, meaning, “I am fine; I am happy or doing well.”)
  • In fine fettle (Canada, meaning, “in good health” or “in good condition”)
  • Don’t piss on the chips (England, meaning, “Don’t put a damper on things.”)
  • There is no cow on the ice (Sweden, meaning, “There is no need to panic yet.”)
  • A face like a dropped meat pie (Australia, self-explanatory)

You should ditch clichés because they are unoriginal, ineffective, and lifeless—undesirable qualities for written and oral communication. As Oxford Dictionaries explains, “When you’re writing on a more formal level, it’s better to try to avoid using clichés. They tend to annoy people, especially if they’re overused, and they may even create an impression of laziness or a lack of careful thought.” To me, clichés are instances of imprecise language; as such, they undermine the authority of the author, who appears unable or unwilling to state a point directly. Further, I have in mind the difficulty of translating clichés into other languages (i.e., if the book is enormously successful!), as they may not be understood by other cultures.

There are exceptions. I think clichés are generally acceptable in casual writing and conversation, social media posts, jokes, headlines, book titles, and blog posts about shunning them.

How do you remove a cliché from a business letter, college essay, public speech, work intended for publication, or other piece of formal writing? The first step is to recognize it. Clichés are so ingrained in how we express ourselves that integrating them into what we say is natural. When I identify a cliché in a manuscript, after weeping inwardly, I take the following steps to eradicate it:

  1. I think about the cliché’s meaning.
  2. I think about what the author is trying to say.
  3. If the cliché, despite its imprecision, reflects what the author is trying to say, I “translate” it back into the notion it represents.
  4. I rewrite the content accordingly.

Here are some examples (with clichés and their replacements in bold):

  • Before: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to come out of the woodwork.
  • After: After you win the lottery, former acquaintances tend to appear suddenly or unexpectedly.
  • Before: The new company was in the fast lane and picking up speed.
  • After: The new company was taking aggressive action toward success.
  • Before: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it stopped me in my tracks.
  • After: My sister made an ordinary remark, but it struck me as profound.

At the end of the day, people are sick and tired of clichés. Give the people what they want—a breath of fresh air.

Should Authors Also Be Writers?

Last year, I received an assignment to edit a self-help book. The goal was to prepare the manuscript for acceptance by the publisher that had contracted with the first-time author to write it—although the expectation was that it would come back for further revision. The job included both developmental editing and copyediting. Developmental editing involves modifying a book’s structure and content; copyediting consists of fixing punctuation, spelling, grammar, and style. I introduced extensive changes at both levels, making the organization more reader-friendly and rewriting virtually every sentence.

After the manuscript was submitted to the publisher, I awaited word of its reception. Five months later, having heard nothing, I checked Amazon: the book would be coming out in November 2014. I took satisfaction in the fact that the manuscript had apparently been accepted. I checked back this month and was able to preview parts of the book (which had received all five-star reviews); I was gratified to see that my changes were intact, from the table of contents to the section heads to the text. Not to overinflate my role, but I made the author seem like a capable writer. Ironically, she never knew my name or that I, as a ghost editor, even existed.

Jane AustenThe situation brought to mind some news that emerged in 2010 about Jane Austen—that the words of the revered novelist did not, in fact, come “finished from her pen,” as her brother Henry asserted in 1818. As NPR reported, she “may have simply had a very good editor.” According to Austen authority Kathryn Sutherland, of Oxford University, “The English that she is known for is this polished, printed Johnsonian prose. And it’s not there in the manuscript.” (“Johnsonian” refers to the literary style of distinguished English writer and critic Samuel Johnson, best known for his influential Dictionary of the English Language.)

If Austen was a “sloppy writer” whose books were “heavily edited for publication,” does that mean authors—even beloved ones—don’t have to know how to write well? And it’s the editor’s job, if necessary, to create that illusion? Consider the portrayals of writers in film and literature. They typically experience writer’s block or some other setback related to their writing, become inspired by the struggles in their lives, and triumphantly complete their manuscript. As they type “THE END,” do we think, “Now it’s off to a good editor!”? Rather, we think it’s the end of the story.

We don’t really want to know how the sausage is made.

I Don’t Really Like Talking about My Flair


This post is dedicated to anyone who has asked me about my job and received a perfunctory answer.

(I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who has inquired politely about my hobby, only to have me babble on about coconut flour, baking times, and buttercream, while gesticulating wildly and searching my phone for cupcake photos.)

In the cult classic Office Space [interject your favorite quote here], Jennifer Aniston’s character, Joanna, works at a T.G.I. Friday’s–inspired restaurant called Chotchkie’s, where the servers are required to wear 15 “pieces of flair” (buttons). Joanna dons the bare minimum, to the disappointment of her boss. He compares her unfavorably to her overly eager coworker Brian, who wears 37 pieces. When Peter, the movie’s protagonist, questions Joanna about her buttons, she replies, “I don’t even know what they say. I don’t really care. I don’t really like talking about my flair.”

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tend to shut down the conversation in a similar way. Gritting my teeth, I mutter, “I’m a writer and editor.” In response to the follow-up question about the kinds of materials I work on, I sputter, “Anything that needs to be written or edited.” (It’s a good thing the work seems to flow in, because can you imagine how successful I’d be in a job interview?) Why am I reluctant to talk about what I do? Am I afraid I’ll bore people? Is it hard to explain what I do? Do I not know what I do?

Since going freelance 10 years ago, I have worked on a range of published things, including textbooks, nonfiction books, novels, and Web sites. My regular tasks include writing, rewriting, researching, developmental editing, copyediting, fact-checking, proofreading, and production proofing. While major institutions offer courses and certification programs for those seeking employment in editing, I continue to learn through observation and experience. (Besides, according to my first boss almost 25 years ago, publishing is the “accidental profession.”) I can’t say much more along these lines, for fear of becoming tiresome to myself. (That’s what LinkedIn is for, right?) But I do want to talk a little about how I approach my projects.

My efforts start with trying to see beyond the material to its perfection. Then I attempt to bring the words I am writing or editing as close as possible to the ideas they represent. The disheartening news is that because each word is a choice, and perfection would require all correct choices, perfection appears to be mathematically improbable. Still, I want the final product to reflect very nearly exactly what the author (or I) was trying to say, in its most eloquent form. Ultimately, however, I am the reader’s advocate. With every sentence, I ask myself, will the reader understand, benefit, and be engaged? Authors want to reach people, and I am responsible for facilitating that.

As a final note, if you can’t stand when people drone on and on about their jobs, I am the perfect dinner companion.

I Am Not Silently Correcting Your Grammar

The word editor has been in my job title for over 20 years. People seem to think I am always editing, even in my spare time. But when the clock is off, I remove my editor’s hat. It looks like this:

Copy Editor Hat

(Not really, but I might order it.) Aside from authors who pay me, the only people whose grammar I might summon the energy to correct are TV newscasters.

It’s another story, however, when I have that proverbial red pen in my hand. It looks like this:

Track Changes

Indeed, when I am asked to make a manuscript as morphologically and syntactically sound as possible, I take no prisoners. Here are some of the errors I eradicate most frequently:

  1. Two spaces between sentences. The number of spaces used between sentences has a fascinating history (if you’re into typography—who isn’t?), but single spacing has been the accepted printing convention since the mid-twentieth century. For instance, the following spacing is incorrect: “I like cupcakes.  They are yummy.” Fortunately, this gaffe is easily fixed with a little “find and replace” action.
  2. Missing serial comma. It says in the bible (The Chicago Manual of Style), “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction.” Here is an example of the profound confusion caused by a missing serial Cupcakescomma: “I am making the following flavors of cupcakes: strawberry, orange and chocolate and banana.” So, in addition to strawberry cupcakes, am I making cupcakes that are (1) orange and (2) chocolate and banana? Or (1) orange and chocolate and (2) banana? Either way, it looks like I’m making cupcakes.
  3. Random capitalization. I wish I could get inside the head of the writer who, without warning, capitalizes words that should be lowercase. If I were editing a book on baked goods (please send me manuscripts on baked goods—or just baked goods), I might find a sentence like this: “A Cupcake is a small cake designed to serve one person, which may be baked in a paper or Aluminum Cup.”
  4. Dangling modifiers. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that describes a word not clearly stated in the sentence—often to humorous effect. For example, “Standing at the dessert counter, my eyes took in the rows of colorful cupcakes.” In other words, my eyes were standing at the dessert counter—which is absurd, because eyes don’t even have feet! Here is a possible reworking: “Standing at the dessert counter, I ogled the rows of colorful cupcakes.”
  5. Pronouns with unclear antecedents. I often encounter pronouns that could refer to more than one noun in a sentence. For example, “After putting sprinkles on the cupcakes, I sealed them in a container.” We don’t know if “them” refers to “sprinkles” or “cupcakes.” We only know it refers to something good.

The law of irony dictates that if you write about editorial pet peeves, you will make a stupid mistake and have it pointed out to you—which is where a comforting cupcake comes in.