The Copyediting Checklist: A Recipe for Clean, Clear Writing

by Krystal N. Craiker
published in Writing

The Copyediting Checklist: A Recipe for Clean, Clear Writing 

Copyediting is the final step of writing, the one that takes your manuscript from really good to almost perfect. A lot goes into a successful copyedit—it’s more than just a quick spell-check. Today, I’m introducing the copyediting checklist you need to polish a manuscript.

What Is Copyediting?

Before I dive into the copyediting checklist, it’s important that we’re all on the same page. What is copyediting and how is it different from line editing and proofreading?

You can think of the copyedit stage as being between line edits and the final proofreading. 

Line editing focuses on stylistic choices like flow, voice, and word choice. A line editor may make notes on spelling, grammar, and consistency, but that’s a secondary focus. 

Copyediting checks spelling and grammar, syntax, punctuation, consistency, and other details that might otherwise be overlooked.

A proofreader only focuses on mechanical and formatting errors. A good copy editor will have corrected almost all errors, but a proofreader will ensure nothing went awry during formatting.

Many editors use the terms copyediting and proofreading interchangeably, so if you’re hiring a copy editor or proofreader, always ask if they edit the pre-formatted draft or the proof copy.

The Copyediting Checklist

Quality copyediting requires multiple passes over a document. During each individual edit, you should only look for one or two types of mistakes to ensure that you pick up on as many errors as possible.

You can do multiple passes through the complete manuscript, or you can go through the copyediting checklist with smaller chunks of text, like pages, scenes, or chapters. Some steps, however, will require you to look at the manuscript as a whole.

I’ve put the 11 steps of the copyediting checklist in a logical order that I’ll explain as we go. But if you notice a huge, glaring error that belongs to another step, go ahead and fix it. This way you won’t accidentally overlook it on your next pass.

1. Check Your Style Requirements

Before you start copyediting, note the style requirements. Nonfiction books will probably align to a specific style manual, like the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. 

Manuals aren’t the only style requirements. If the author of the book represents a company or you’re working for a publishing house, they may have a specific style guide. If the style guide doesn’t have an answer, the company should let you know which style manual to use.

Authors of series may have an additional style guide that they’ve built to ensure continuity. 

Also, be aware of which type of English the writer wants you to use. Sometimes a British writer may need their work copyedited for an American audience or vice versa.

An author may also give you a style sheet for their new book. A style sheet might tell you how to format chapter titles and numbers, how to capitalize unusual words, or how to deal with certain abbreviations. 

My style sheet always details which words I would prefer to use British spellings for even though I’m an American writer.

If you’re copyediting your own work before passing it off to a professional, it’s still a good idea to create your own style guide. This makes it easier for you to check consistency in later steps of the copyediting checklist.

2. Fix Spelling Errors and Typos

Spelling errors are the easiest to detect and fix. Correcting these egregious mistakes first is a great way to familiarize yourself with the manuscript so you can see what you’re working with.

3. Check Grammar and Mechanics

Grammar is next. Fixing grammatical errors will save you time on the next step by cleaning up any strange syntax or readability issues.

Keep an eye out not just for basic grammar errors, like subject-verb agreement, but also harder-to-spot ones, like squinting modifiers. 

You should also look for mechanical errors at this stage, such as incorrect capitalization or hyphenation.

4. Improve Syntax and Readability

Once you’ve cleaned up the spelling and grammar, it’s time to make sure your sentences flow well and are easy to read. You’ve probably already fixed any run-on sentences and sentence fragments in the previous step, but those aren’t the only hard-to-read sentences.

Check for sentences that might be grammatically correct but still too long. Read for strange wording and word order. 

A great way to check for readability is to either read out loud or use a text-to-speech feature. You’ll catch many syntax errors you may have missed before when you hear it read to you.

5. Correct Punctuation

Why is correcting punctuation the fifth item on this checklist? Chances are you’ve probably already corrected some punctuation errors in the previous steps. But if you’ve combined, shortened, or re-ordered sentences, you also might have accidentally added punctuation errors.

Do a pass to make sure that after all of your spelling, grammar, and syntax improvements, your punctuation is still correct. No one wants to edit in a mistake when they are trying to edit all of them out of the manuscript!

6. Do a Light Fact-Check

Copyediting will require some light fact-checking; in-depth fact-checking is another job entirely. 

Check that you have the correct spellings of places and people, and double-check dates as these are easy to mistype.

If a statistic or definition looks like it might be incorrect, check it out, but don’t spend too much time on each issue. If you can’t verify it quickly, leave a comment for the author or publisher to do an in-depth fact-check. 

7. Check for Consistency

The cliché “consistency is key” is especially true for copyediting. It’s easy to mix up details when you’re writing or editing an entire manuscript. Consistency is arguably the most important step on this checklist.

Consistency includes spelling, grammar, and mechanics, such as: 

  • Do some ellipses have spaces between the dots when others don’t? 
  • Does a place name change spellings halfway through? 
  • Does the cookbook switch back and forth between “Tbsp” and “tbsp?”

Consistency also relates to elements in a story. For example, in my first book, a minor character changed names three times in my first drafts. I recently read a book where a major character’s surname was misspelled in the final chapter! 

If a character was blue-eyed at the beginning but later has green eyes, a copy editor will find this mistake. If you’re copyediting a series, be sure to check any details against a book bible or previous books, and when in doubt, ask the author for clarification.

Because consistency is all about the details, it’s easy to miss some errors. ProWritingAid has a Consistency Report that will ensure you catch as many mistakes as possible. (It still can’t pick up when an author changes a character’s name three times, though.)

8. Align to the Style Guides

Those style manuals, guides, and sheets that we looked at in the first step should be on the forefront of your mind as you edit. Revisit the style guides often and double-check any rules you might have overlooked.

9. Look Over Formatting

A copy editor is there to make sure the manuscript looks good, which means certain formatting issues are in your wheelhouse, too.

Here are some formatting elements you should consider:

  • Page number format and position
  • Chapter title consistency
  • Scene break consistency
  • Curly quotes vs. straight quotes
  • Tables and graphs
  • Image and image captions
  • Bold, italic, and underlines

This is the time to make sure the formatting looks clean, matches the style requirements, and is consistent across the entire manuscript.

10. Check Sources and Links

If an author has a bibliography, footnotes, or endnotes, you’ll need to check these for spelling, style manual requirements, and consistency. 

Ebooks might also have hyperlinks to webpages or different parts of the book, so you should make sure that all links work and are formatted correctly.

11. Do a Final Pass for Spelling and Mechanics

You’re almost finished! You’ll need fresh eyes for this step, so take a break from editing the document for a day or two.

Now it is time for the last pass to check for any errors you overlooked the first time. This includes spelling, grammar, and mechanics, but you might also see consistency or style issues you missed. 

Fix anything that is less than perfect before saving all your changes, writing your editor’s letter, and sending it back to the author or publisher.

Find Your Copyediting Flow

This copyediting checklist is a starting point for copy editors and authors. If you’re new to copyediting, it will take some time to find your perfect workflow. Experiment with each step and try different ways of making multiple passes.

And remember, copy editors are crucial to the writing process and the publishing industry. Copy editors are powerful: you’re turning extraordinary stories into extraordinary books.

Krystal N. Craiker is a fantasy author and freelance writer for ProWritingAid. She is the author of the Scholars of Elandria fantasy series. When she isn’t writing, you can find her playing board games and volunteering. Krystal lives in Texas with her husband and two adorable dogs.

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