• Paulette Bates Alden
  • The Reluctant Self-Publisher: Part 4--Copy Editing: The Best Money I Ever Spent (Or is it...
The Reluctant Self-Publisher: Part 4--Copy Editing: The Best Money I Ever Spent (Or is it Copyediting?)


Chapter One: JeanInga

Call me Inga.  I remember the dark and stormy night Ben was born, how it was the best of times, the worst of times.  I remember how they lay laid him on my chest all mottled pink and squirming, a tuff tuft of brown hair on his tiny billiard ball head.  When I rubbed my cheek against his tiny tender pate head, he clutched my finger with his tiny ones as of if to clam claim me. There he was in my arms, my baby boy, light of my life, fire of my loins, a miracle beyond comprehension.  A miracle because he exited existed!

At the risk of sounding like a know-it-all (Know-it-all?), I have wisdom to impart.

What you don’t know, you don’t know.

Breath-taking, isn’t it!  (Breathtaking?)

What you don’t know, you don’t know, and therefore you can’t catch or correct it.

Luckily, because I hired a copy editor for my manuscript, The Answer to Your Question, which I’m in the (long) process of self-publishing (not ready yet but soon . . .), I do not have to go through the rest of my life with people making fun of me because I wrote about a baby with a tuff of hair on its head. 

A tuff is a rock composed of compacted volcanic ash varying in size from fine sound to coarse gravel.  A baby with a tuff on its head would certainly give the reader pause.

What I meant was a tuft of hair.  Only I thought it was spelled tuff. 

Prior to copy editing, I had considered myself in maybe the 90th percentile of literacy.  Now I feel practically illiterate.   I’m nervous as a haint whenever I have to write something. 

Who would have known that coffeepot is one word. Even though I consistently write towards, as in The horse is running towards the barn, I learned that the preferred spelling is toward.  It’s not as if I didn’t run spellcheck (spell check? spell-check?), and I had readers who apparently don’t know a tuff from a tuft either. But people read for story, not to proof read (proofread?). Readers will catch things, but not everything. That’s what you need a copy editor for.

I debated long and hard about whether to spring for a copy editor. It’s expensive. I got a bid of $770.00 for my 300 page manuscript, at $35.00 an hour, about the going rate. I was really reluctant to spend that money. I went back and forth. I knew it was a pretty clean manuscript; a couple of people who had read the most recent draft told me it was fine the way it was. I asked the copy editor to copyedit the first twenty pages, for which I would pay her, even if we didn’t proceed.  I was pretty sure we wouldn’t.  If we did, she could add it to the final bill.

I got the twenty copyedited pages back. It wasn’t too bad. But not good enough. I had left out “on” in a sentence on p. 13. How this was possible as many times as I and others had read that sentence, I cannot say. I had written v-neck for V-neck and 11th Street for Eleventh Street. I thought T-shirt was tee-shirt. Sometimes I used ellipses in dialogue where a dash would have been better.

The copy editor suggested this rewording for a sentence: “I walked back to the living room on legs that felt like a sea creature's back to the living room, hoping I didn't look as bizarre as I felt." Apparently she didn’t want my character Inga walking on legs that felt like a sea creature’s back, even if Inga is feeling bizarre.  She put a space between each ellipsis so they looked better. She inserted lots of commas, which might be grammatically correct but which I felt free to reject because of the rhythm of the sentence or just my sense of how it should read. There weren’t a lot of things, but there were enough to make the decision for me. I needed a copy editor.

I told her when she hit $770.00 to stop, even if she was only on page fifty. But she came in on her bid, and honest to god (honest-to-god?), there was about one thing per page that she corrected.

Mostly hyphenations and compound words. If something should be hyphenated, I didn’t hyphenate it. If something shouldn’t be hyphenated, I made sure to use a hyphen.  My approach to hyphens and compound words seems to be to follow my instincts, which are mostly wrong. (Not to mention that some words can swing either way.) 

Here’s a little test for you:

Joy-ride, joyride or joy ride?

Good looking, good-looking or goodlooking?

nightgown or night gown?

Chevy pickup or pick-up?

simpleminded or simple-minded?

I got 100% of these wrong, along with about 300 others. Who cares, you might ask, if it’s peacoat, not pea coat, or stoplights, not stop lights. 

I do. 

I intend for my self-published novel to be as professional as if it were being published by a press with the highest possible standards. After all, it is. Radiator Press. 

It goes without saying—although here I am saying it—that one needs to have a manuscript edited before publication.  Not just copyedited, but edited by a knowledgeable, experienced reader/critiquer who can point out mega things like structure, pacing, characterization, where to begin, what to put in and what to leave out. You know that already. But if you’re anything like me, you also need someone to catch the picky, micro things a copy editor picks up. 

Confession: I did not have my novel professionally edited. It was another whopper of an expense in an already expensive endeavor, and with the choice between that and copyediting, I decided to go with a copy editor.  I’m an editor myself, but not for one moment did I think I could critique my own book adequately (just like I couldn’t copyedit it adequately).  It’s the equivalent of a surgeon operating on herself.  But I’ve been knocking around the writing world so long as a writer, teacher and editor that I had some good writer/reader/friends who could give me critical feedback, sometimes in exchange for my reading their books.  I had various people read various drafts, and they were invariably helpful in ways large and small.  My agent also edited it closely, based on comments we had gotten from editors.  And Jeff, my husband, is not only a superb editor but a Christian martyr for the numbing number of times he edited the thing over several years. 

No one is more cognizant than I (me?) that not everyone can afford an editor and/or a copy editor.  I’ve got one foot in that camp myself. (And if you’re like me, which I hope you’re not, right in the middle of writing all these checks for self-publishing, you’ll break off part of a molar and need a crown to the tune of $990.00; I’m not saying it goes with the territory of self-publishing, but you might consider eating only soft foods until your book is out . . .Your teeth are under a lot of pressure from all that grinding.)

So don’t feel bad if you can’t afford editing, and don’t feel doomed to a manuscript that is full of big boners or small typos and tuffs. Do the best you can yourself.  But then before you send it out or self-publish it, find people who can read your work to see things you can’t see yourself–because what you don’t know, you don’t know. 

But someone else will. 

There are actually some helpful rules regarding hyphens.  I must have missed school that day. These are from http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/hyphens.asp:

  • Look it up in a dictionary.  If you can’t find it in the dictionary, treat the noun as separate words.

Examples: eyewitness, eye shadow, eye-opener.  (Note: all these words had to be looked up in the dictionary to know what to do with them!)

  • Phrases that have verb, noun, and adjective forms should appear as separate words when used as verbs and as one word when used as nouns or adjectives


The engine will eventually break down.  (verb)

We suffered a breakdown in communications. (noun)

Please clean up your room. (verb)

That superfund site will require specialized cleanup procedures. (adjective)

  • Compound verbs are either hyphenated or appear as one word. If you do not find the verb in the dictionary, hyphenate it.


To air-condition the house will be costly.

We were notified that management will downsize the organization next year. 

  • Generally, hyphenate between two or more adjectives when they come before a noun and act as a single idea.


Friendly-looking man (compound adjective in front of a noun)

Friendly little girl (not a compound adjective)

Brightly lit room (brightly is an adverb describing lit, not an adjective)

Correct test answers (I think): joy ride; good-looking; nightgown; Chevy pickup; simple-minded or simpleminded. 

And when I ran spellcheck on this draft, it preferred pea coat despite my dictionary spelling it peacoat. Go figure. 

Good luck!

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  • Elisabeth Zguta Publishing

    I just stumbled across this software for editing - there is a free trial.  Just wondering if anyone has ever used this?

    Perfectit - editing software demo

  • Deidre Ann Banville

    @Carol...I'm not sure where the editor was from...if you need to know I will look it up for you, but she also did the grammar checking, flow, etc. she was great and not expensive...great idea about your book club editing...I had a bunch of friends who also edited mine...but I made them buy the book too! lol...just kidding...

  • Carol Hogan

    Hi Diedre, I'm just wondering where in Canada your editor was. I live in Blaine, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest near the Canadian Border, just 30 miles from Vancouver. I'm almost at the point that I'd like to start thinking about a developmental editor. 

    Speaking of editing, my son's fiancee is a published author with about 23 books to her credit. But she make silly typos when she gets tired, and has a real problem seeing them. We arranged for a couple of members of my book club to read her work and find the typo's, and it works like a charm. She sends them gift certificates as payment so its a win-win for everyone.

  • Deidre Ann Banville

    Karen, you are singing to the choir on "editing"!!! I did the same as you, except my book is published now....edited it about 100 times, had a friend edit it, hired a wonderful girl in Canada to edit it, she did a great job, and I get a book review, very good one, with a side note: YOU HAVE MINE INSTEAD OF MIND!!!! Well, it is still being published and I AIN'T GONNA GO FIND IT AND CHANGE IT!!! It will be my beginner's trademark...my signature, in my second book, I think I will misspell it AGAIN!!! Who cares, I'm publishing it and giving myself a RAISE!!!! lol

  • Karen Lynne Klink

    I was an English minor in college, edited governmental reports and doctoral theses, but when trying to edit my own writing, I STILL miss mistakes.  Silly stupid mistakes, of which I know better.  There's something about trying to edit your own work; I think you see what is in your head rather than what is actually on the page.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    For those of you who might be looking for a copyeditor or proofreader or indexer (or whatever), I highly recommend the Editorial Freelancers Association.  There is a searchable directory of freelancers there, and you may also be able to find what you're looking for by posting to the Job List.

    By the way, EFA isn't just for those of us in the business of *editing*; we have plenty of writer-members, too!  You might want to consider joining.  :-)

  • Lesly Devereaux JD,MDiv

    Useful information as I conclude the final draft of my book

  • Elisabeth Zguta Publishing

    Paulette - the list was from a self employed copy editor, who said she does not make all the spelling corrections etc., only the obvious catches along her way.  So I understood her list to mean we need 2 edits:

    • #1 hire a good copy editor to help with content (story flow & style, fact checking) / then revise accordingly
    • #2 hire a proof reader in the end to make sure all spelling etc. is correct (including the revisions added)

    I beleive many self-publising authors have a hard time believing they need both...

    all we need to do is take your test, lol.  I too would like more information from any editors in the group.


  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Hi, Elisabeth, 

    This list is helfpul and interesting. I felt I should define what a copy editor does, but since I didn't feel I really knew I didn't!  I think some do more heavy lifting than others, as your list suggests.  I wonder if copy editing on your list means what an editor at a press does, as she works with an author to finalize the manuscript, which can involve more major revisions than what my copy editor did, not that I wanted her to.  I myself don't really know the difference between copy editing and proofreading.  I think of proofreading as being just picking up spelling errors, but maybe that's wrong. Maybe some of the actual copy editors out there can help enlighten me in terms of defining these terms. I suspect the work differs considerably from person to person. And also, I've wondered what makes a copy editor qualified?  Is there copy editing school?  Or what?  Hmmmm.  Thanks, Elisabeth. 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Thank you, Sharon, for your kind and supportive comment.  I'm really aware that I am lucky that I could afford (sort of--I don't really feel I can but have to) the things I've put money into on this self-publishing project.  But it is definitely out of reach for many, especially writers.  So maybe someone can't afford a professional copy editor, but that's not the end of the story.  Maybe high school English teachers who are grammar experts or English grad students, who would concentrate on the proofing side of things, and do it on the cheap or for free.  Another set of eyes will yield some good catches, even if not all. And that's better than nothing. 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Carol, I feel the same way.  It is aggravating to see errors in a published book.  I like it that you're pointing this out.  I'm with you. 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    omg, Pamela, that a "great" story.  A great cautionary tale!  And thanks for including the website where you were happy with your copy editor.  I love it that you shared this story.  Thanks! 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Hi, Stephanie,

    I got my copy editor through word of mouth, which is how I like to get a lot of things.  I live in Minneapolis where we have a lively literary community, with several excellent small presses (Graywolf, Coffeehouse, Milkweed).  The same copy editor did my first two books (one of which was for Graywolf), but she was busy so she referred me to Mary Keirstead, [email protected]. I asked Mary if I could pass along her name/email and she's fine with it. Tell her I sent you if you query her.  But there are a number of good suggestions for copy editors showing up on the comments part of the post, so you might peruse them.  If you know of a good small press, you might ask who they use as a copy editor, since a lot of copy editors are free-lancers (freelancers?).  I liked Mary because she "got" that I had one sort of illiterate character who would use "of" instead of "have" and stuff like that, and she didn't mess with that.  She had a light hand in terms of changing anything much.  She kept track of a pregnancy time-line for me, because I had lost my mind trying to track it through many chapters myself; she caught that I called a minor character Angela one place and Angelina another.  I think various copy editors work at various layers so be clear on what you're after.  And be sure and get referrals, or do as I did, ask to see a sample of maybe 20 pages of your manuscript to assess whether you like the way they work.  Hope this helps!   

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Connie, I just mentioned www.kickstarter.com to L.A. below.  It's worth looking into.  I'm going to try to use it to ask for money for publicity.  You can see what people are asking for.  Again, it is another thing that takes time and effort.  You can see what you think and whether you might use it.  Good luck! 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    You know, L.A., I think you bring up an excellent point: impatience.  I have found myself impatient with taking the time to go through the learning curve, hire various people, try to get things right.  I'm an impatient person!  But haste makes waste, or so it's said.  I imagine you know about www.kickstarter.com.  You can ask for money for a project like publishing there. Even if you 're not ready to publish, you might check it out so you can get familiar with it.  It might help with the hiring of an editor part. I hear you about the money! 

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Hi, Joanne, 

    Thanks for the great tip about Grammar Girl.  I'm going to sign up for the newsletter!

  • Elisabeth Zguta Publishing

    Hi Paulette -  I was in a discussion in LinkedIn  and an editor made this point below and I thought it might be helpful.  All the proof reading, editing etc. that needs to get done can be confusing, and this quick overlook is helpful to keep the process organized (in my head anyway) so I thought I would share.

    Typically, proofreading should NOT be done before layout. Copy editing should...
    This is an over-simplified list, but represents the typical/recommended process:

    1) author's final draft
    2) copy edit & revisions
    3) layout
    4) proofread
    5) publish

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Your clever way of using lessons from your experience to illustrate your point is convincing!This device kept me reading what might have otherwise sounded preachy, sending me clicking away after three sentences. I agree with the importance of a professional edit, and appreciate that you point to a viable alternative route for those who truly can't afford the turnpike toll.

  • Carol Hogan

    Paulette, you are absolutely right. Those are the errors that stop me from reading an otherwise good book. Thanks for the timely advice. Aloha,

  • Pamela Olson

    When I self-published my first book, I wrote on my blog (or Facebook or somewhere) that people were encouraged to send me a note if they found any typos. After working on the dang thing for four years, I figured there may be ten or twelve that I missed along the way.

    Not so much. One reader alone sent in two dozen. When the final tally came up, it was near 50. Red-faced, I put a second edition out quite fast! (CreateSpace even let me do it for free, if I recall correctly.)

    Then I got a publisher and a real copyeditor had a go at it. And found at least 50 more. She also tightened the book up in a million places without losing the essence of what I was trying to say. Good copyeditors are truly a godsend. Here's the website of the one I was lucky enough to work with: http://sonic.net/~kjn

  • Paulette,


    I love this post.  It is helpful.  And how did you find your copy editor? Suggestions? 


    Thanks & Regards,


    Stephanie Renee dos Santos

  • Connie Cockrell

    Good advice, thank you.  The cost also has put me off.  Maybe I can make myself do it the next time.

  • L. A. Howard

    I think this is my biggest fear whenever I think of publishing, that I won't be able to afford a proper editor.  x_x;;;  Or that I'll get impatient, publish without an editor, and then watch my book bomb because the language or wording is far too confusing!  

  • Joanne Tombrakos

    I felt the same way after I used a copywriter for my first book. They are definitely worth the money. I also now subscribe to a great little free newsletter called the Grammar Girl that offers up some great tips.

  • Paulette Bates Alden

    Oh, Hope, I too was an English major and I can't recall anyone ever, in high school, college, grad school, EVER saying word one (word-one?) about hyphenation.  I also think the rules keep shifting, there are different style books, and two different copy editors might come up with two different versions of the same hyphenated word and both be right.  It just felt good to me to have someone else who does know stuff I don't know go through my manuscript and at least be consistent and right about things that aren't as shifty as some hyphenated words.