5 Weird Skills You Need to Copy-Edit Novels

Sophie Playle

Being a freelance novel editor isn’t just about sprucing up sentences, fixing wonky grammar and annihilating typos. Nope! There’s a whole lot more to it!

Before you set up your editing business and start looking for clients, you’ll need to know what else is expected of you.

Here are a few things you might not have realised you’d be responsible for when taking on freelance editing work.

1. Checking prelims and end matter

Prelims (short for ‘preliminary material’ – also known as ‘front matter’ in publishing lingo) are the pages that come before the start of the main story. Think title pages, copyright pages, contents, etc.

End matter (also known as ‘back matter’) are the pages that come after the main story. Think acknowledgements, glossaries, about the author, etc.

As a freelance novel copy-editor, it’s your responsibility to check that all the right pages are there, that they include all the right content, and that this content is also edited.

If you work with publishing houses, they will likely expect this from you.

Self-publishing authors might not send you these things to check. If they don’t, you might want to ask that they do, since checking prelims and end matter is all part of editorial quality control.

2. Marking up for the typesetter

Marking up means using textual codes to show the person whose job it is to design the interior of the book exactly which parts of the text need to be styled, and styled the same way (e.g. chapter headings).

Marking up the manuscript to prepare it for typesetting is part of the copy-editor’s role.

These days, marking up electronic book files can be done in a couple of ways.

The more traditional way (that mimics editing on paper) is to use coloured, bracketed textual codes.

The more modern way is to use Word’s styles feature, to electronically tag the text.

Most publishing houses will expect you to mark up for the typesetter.

Most self-publishing authors won’t, usually because they’re unfamiliar with the needs and benefits of this process – but applying styles regardless (and explaining why) will certainly help them out when they come to designing their book files or passing them onto freelance typesetters.

So it’s a good skill to have.

3. Creating a style sheet

A style sheet is a reference document you create in which you record any manuscript-specific editorial stylistic decisions you make (e.g. Does the author use the serial comma?) and anything in the story you need to keep an eye on for consistency.

It’s super useful!

You’ll usually hand your style sheet over to the client so the author can quickly understand many of the editorial decisions you’ve made.

And further down the line, the proofreader will refer to your style sheet to help them do their final check, too.

As you can imagine, it takes skill to create a good style sheet.

4. Applying house style

House style essentially refers to the editorial stylistic decisions that a particular publishing house follows.

Self-publishing authors are much less likely to have created their own house style.

Even so, you should always ask before you start editing whether they’ve made any stylistic decisions you should be aware of – otherwise you might accidentally undo something the author has done deliberately.

You need to understand how the house style applies to the manuscript and how to make this work in tandem with your style sheet.

This will mean you’ll conduct your edit efficiently and to the client’s desired specifications.

5. Keeping an eye on legalities

Libel, breach of copyright, plagiarism, passing off …

Did you know it’s the copy-editor’s responsibility to look out for certain legal issues in a manuscript and alert the clients to these?

As a professional copy-editor, you aren’t expected to have the same level of knowledge as a lawyer. (Phew.)

But you should strive to understand the essentials of publishing legalities – and keep your knowledge up-to-date.

Learning how to do these things

If you want to be a professional copy-editor, you need more than just an excellent grasp of grammar and punctuation. You also need to know how to handle everything mentioned in this post.

So where can you learn this stuff?

Luckily for you, I have a comprehensive online course that teaches you exactly what you need to know and how to do it all.

And unlike many other courses that teach copy-editing, this one focuses exclusively on fiction.

Check it out here.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more: liminalpages.com

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