By Dame Jackie
We Dames like getting email, especially when it includes pictures of chocolate, or Matt Damon, or, best of all, Matt Damon AND chocolate. (Note: When I say “we Dames,” I am referring to me specifically; I can only assume the other Dames also enjoy chocolate. And Matt Damon.) One reader, Brandi, sent us the following:
“I’m looking for a Dames opinion on Copy Editing and Proofreading. Especially from a freelance type of perspective. I’ve tread the shallow end of the google pool on this and it makes me want to never read again. There’s just too much junk shoved up front of the search engine. Where should I start? What should I pay attention to?”
Brandi, I wasn’t sure if you were asking about becoming a freelance copy editor/proofreading, or if you should get the services of a freelance copy editor/proofreader. I’m going to tackle the “should I hire a freelance copy editor?” question.
(Note: I’m not talking about developmental editing/content editing, which focuses on the big picture. I’m not talking about book doctors, who provide a thorough analysis of a manuscript and suggest areas of improvement. Copy editing is all about grammar, punctuation, spelling and consistency; proofreading catches typos and other errors before a book goes to press.)
Question: Should I hire a freelance copy editor or proofreader?
My immediate reaction is “Hell, no.” But to be fair, I’ve been a professional copy chief for more than a dozen years, so let me temper that reaction, or at least explain it.
[Before anything else, a disclaimer: I used to be a freelance copy editor. I made it through two projects before I decided the freelancing life wasn't for me. And as I said above, I'm a copy chief for my day job, which means I manage the copy editing and proofreading for my company's magazine. All right, back to our regularly scheduled blog post...]
Words are a writer’s tools. They’re how we tell our stories. Without words, a writer is nothing. But like all tools, words are useless if we don’t possess the knowledge and skill needed to wield them. Every writer, whether first starting out or a multiple NY Times bestseller, needs to know how to string a sentence together. It’s simply inexcusable for an author not to know the basics of proper grammar.
“But Dame Jackie,” says my evil twin Skippy, “if that’s the case, why do commercial publishers provide a copy editor and a proofreader?”
Simple: Every story, no matter how well written, will have mistakes. A copy editor will catch most instances of grammatical errors and stylistic inconsistencies, and a proofreader will catch most of the errors that slipped through the cracks. Having a top-notch copy editor review your pre-published manuscript is crucial, as is having a proofreader sign off on the page proofs.
“All right,” Skippy says, “then why shouldn’t I hire a freelance copy editor to edit my work before I submit the manuscript to publishers?”
Because you still need to know the grammatical basics.
Here’s the thing: a manuscript needs to be as strong as possible before you submit it to agents or publishers for consideration. A story riddled with typos is probably going to be rejected out of hand, no matter how brilliant the actual story is. Part of your job, as a writer, is to know how to write a grammatically sound sentence and to spell words correctly. There are no short cuts here. I’m not saying your manuscript needs to be absolutely perfect in terms of grammar, consistency and style before you submit it — but it needs to be as perfect as you can make it.
Uh oh. Skippy’s getting agitated.
“But learning how to copy edit my own work is hard,” says Skippy.
Oh, and writing a good book is supposed to be easy? I didn’t know that.
“Can’t I just hire someone to do it for me?”
Sure. But be prepared to pay a lot of money for it.
“I’m willing to pay,” Skippy insists. “I don’t have the time to study the rules of grammar. I’m too busy writing my story.”
Your call, snowflake. I think it’s a waste of your money. If you don’t learn the basics of grammar, you’re always going to have to pay a freelance copy editor to review your manuscripts.
If you decide to become your own best copy editor — and I strongly recommend that you do — there are a number of terrific style guides you can use. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the bibles of the publishing industry — and now it’s available online. I made my bones with the Gregg Reference Manual (also now available online). Other guides include Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and the AP Stylebook (ditto online).
Of course, you can go ahead and hire a freelance copy editor. If you do, please make sure you’re completely clear on the fee and payment structure and the amount of time needed for the project. Caveat emptor.
The way I see it, mastering the basics of grammar isn’t optional, not if you’re serious about using words in your career. And once you know the rules, you can bend them as you see fit.
So take the time to read up on the punctuation staples, such as the comma, the colon and the semicolon. It can only help. Unless you’re on Twitter, in which case all bets are off.