Ten Things I Learned From Copy Editors

The other evening, I was reading a book, and a sentence stopped me cold.

“No!” she hissed.

I put the book down, wondering what had happened to all the copy editors.

When I was traditionally published, one of the most dreaded phases of the editorial process for me was the copy edit. Copy editors are fierce, in my experience, and they are precise. They ensure that the author writes exactly what he or she means. The book that I put down the other night was written by a famous author and published by a big publishing house. There were many similar issues throughout the story, which prompted me to write this post. On this Author Resource Thursday, I’ll share ten things I learned from copy editors – or ten ways I learned to more accurately express what I mean.

1. Dialogue tags
A dialogue tag is the bit that comes after the dialogue in quotes.

“I’ll be there soon,” he said.

he said is the dialogue tag. A dialogue tag should define the speaker, and is separated from the dialogue with a comma. Some authors believe that “said” is the only acceptable dialogue tag, while others use more expressive verbs to convey emotion. That’s a style choice, but if you are going to use expressive verbs, a copy editor will flag some of them. Here are some reasons why:

First, the verb you choose must be a verb that allows for dialogue to be expressed.

“Bring me that cup,” she pointed across the room.

Pointed cannot be a dialogue tag. It isn’t a verb that includes speech. Two possible corrections are:

“Bring me that cup.” She pointed across the room.
or
“Bring me that cup,” she commanded, then pointed across the room.

Second, the verb you choose must allow for the dialogue you’ve written. Some dialogue tags are on the boundary between verbs that convey speech and those that don’t. They work best for very short utterances.

“No!” she moaned.
is fine but
“We have to catch the train at nine,” she moaned.
is silly.
“We have to catch the train at nine.” She moaned at the prospect.
is better.

“Oh! I never thought to have a house of my own!” Mary gasped.

Could Mary really gasp all of that? Probably not. This is better:

“Oh!” Mary gasped. “I never thought to have a house of my own!”

Third, the dialogue must match the implication of the chosen verb. You can only trill a line of dialogue that includes a lot of l’s. The example at the top of this post would have been flagged because you can only hiss words that include a sybillant or an “s” sound.

“Yes!” she hissed.
works perfectly. The first example would need to be changed, perhaps to:

“No!” She hissed her next words. “She’ll see us!”

Alternatively:
“No!” she said.

Fourth, dialogue tags that describe animal sounds (growl, purr, croak, etc.) carry an extra layer of implication. Not only should the dialogue match the expectation set by the verb in terms of sound (you purr things with a lot of r’s); not only should the dialogue tend to be short; but these tags are often used to indicate “animal desires”β€”or an appetite for food or sex. When they don’t, it seems odd or even funny.

“I’ll have you now,” he growled.
is infinitely more plausible than
“The lace ruffle on that petticoat is the perfect flourish,” he growled.

2. Simultaneous Action
In colloquial speech, we often use “and” to indicate consecutive events, even though, strictly speaking, “and” means that the events are concurrent.

Joe went to the store and bought milk.

We know that these events occurred in succession – obviously, he couldn’t buy milk until he got to the store – but technically (and copy editors are all about technicalities), this sentence says that the two events happened at the same time.

Joe went to the store to buy milk.
or
Joe went to the store, then bought milk.

3. Wandering Eyeballs
This is a pretty common error and one that occurs a lot in romances, where eye contact is an important part of courtship.

His eyes slid over her.
Her eyes were cold.
His eyes locked with mine.

These are examples of “wandering eyeballs”. If we use active verbs with “eyes”, then the eyes are literally on the move. Read those sentences again and think about it. (Ick.) What is meant here is “gaze”.

His gaze slid over her.
Her gaze was cold.
His gaze locked with mine.

4. Date of First Use
The first time I saw this notation, I had no idea what it meant. A word was circled in the manuscript (this was back in the old days when we edited on paper) then in the margin were the initials D.O. F.U. and a four-digit number. I had to call my editor (yes, on the phone) to ask what it meant.

When you write a book in an historical setting, the copy editor will flag words that were not in use at the time of the book’s setting. The notation on the circled word is the year of first use, and often there’s a notation as to which dictionary is the reference. (O.E.D. for Oxford English Dictionary or M.W. for Mirriam-Webster.) The concept is that a word can’t be used before the recorded date of first use, which is often a literary source.

This becomes problematic for books set in the medieval era, especially as we often write about the aristocracy. The English court spoke Norman French until the 15th century (and they kept records in it for longer than that). The work of Chaucer (1343 – 1400) is often the date of first use source for English words, because he was the first poet in England to write in the vernacular. Marie de France (ca. 1160 – 1215) lived in England but wrote in French for her courtly audience. Here’s a cool post on Wiki about English words with French origins. I think it’s fair to use any of them from medieval French in a book written in English with a medieval setting – even if your setting is too early for Chaucer to have used them (or their derivations) in an English work. The dictionary that provides date of first use in French is Le Robert.

The concept behind date of first use is that a modern word used in an historical setting can jar the reader out of the atmosphere of the book and this is a valid concern. The mister and I were watching an historical movie a while ago in which one character asked the other “Are you okay?” after a huge sword fight. We nearly fell off the couch laughing, because the phrase was so incongruous and the characters didn’t notice. A fun example with the same phrase is in the movie Gosford Park set in the early 1930’s in England: the director from California stops his car beside that of the countess (played by Maggie Smith) and asks “Are you okay?” She recoils and says “Am I what?”, responding to both his familiarity and his use of an American colloquialism. So, take a hard look at your modern words, colloquialisms and any slang in your book, and ensure it doesn’t ruin the mood.

5. Who Said That?
It’s tedious to read a book in which every line of dialogue has a dialogue tag. At the other end of the spectrum, if the author leaves out dialogue tags, it can be easy to lose track of who is saying what. Sometimes authors use stage directions to indicate who is speaking, and discard the dialogue tags. Another convention to add clarity is to put each character’s dialogue in a separate paragraph.

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it. “I’ll get the car.” He grabbed his keys, then went to the door. “Hurry!”

If this is all in one paragraph, you might be uncertain who said what, after the word said. Here are three options:

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it. “I’ll get the car.”
He grabbed his keys, then went to the door.
“Hurry!”
In this example, she says all the dialogue.

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it. “I’ll get the car.”
He grabbed his keys, then went to the door. “Hurry!”
In this example, he says only the last line.

“We have to leave now,” she said. “If not, we’ll be late.” She closed her suitcase and locked it.
“I’ll get the car.” He grabbed his keys, then went to the door. “Hurry!”
In this example, he has two lines.

6. Orient the reader
Using paragraph breaks in dialogue is one way of orienting the reader, so he or she can remain immersed in the story and not stop to think. Another place to orient the reader is after a scene break. A scene break occurs when an interval of time passes and/or the point of view character changes. I learned from copy editors to make it clear in the first sentence which of those things have changed.

The store was busier than expected.
As the opening line of a scene, this sentence tells us where we are, but not when or whose point of view we’re sharing.

Joe waited until the morning to go to the store. It was busier than he’d expected.
This potential opening, describing the same thing, ensures that the reader knows exactly where we are, whose perspective we’re sharing and how much time has passed.

(I also learned from copy editors to eliminate scene breaks when the point of view hadn’t changed or there wasn’t an interval of time passing.)

7. Unique and other Absolute Modifiers
Editors are usually the ones who comment on the author’s use of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs), particularly if the author in question has the dreaded Adverb Disease. Copy editors, however, will always flag modifiers on words like unique.

The word unique is an absolute modifier, which means that it accepts no modification. Something cannot be truly unique or very unique or utterly unique. It is unique or it is not. Period. Other absolute modifiers are perfect, final, total, and complete. Modifying these words is a colloquial use – a copy editor will probably let almost pass as a modifier, but otherwise, the modifiers should go.

8. Parallel Structure
Parallel structure (or parallelism) means that the words in a list are in the same format. The similarity of structure makes it easier for us to process the information being presented. We do this intuitively in its simplest form, but in more complex sentences, we might muck it up.

Her hobbies included crossword puzzles, hunting vintage patterns and growing prize petunias.
This is not parallel structure. There’s no verb in crossword puzzles as in the other two hobbies.

Her hobbies included solving crossword puzzles, hunting vintage patterns and growing prize petunias.

I notice the lack of parallel structure often in book titles, too. When books are in a linked series, it’s easier to perceive the connection if the titles show a parallel structure. The Beauty Bride, The Rose Red Bride and The Snow White Bride, for example, are clearly a set. Beguiled, Addicted to Love and The Frost Maiden’s Kiss don’t appear to be a set. They aren’t πŸ™‚ but if they were, I’d think about changing the titles to a parallel structure.

9. Misplaced Modifiers
In English, a modifier (like an adjective or adverb) usually modifies the closest candidate (noun or verb) in the sentence. For example, moving the word brown in this sentence changes the meaning because it changes what is being modified:

The brown horse ate the grass.
The horse ate the brown grass.

We intuitively get this right in simple sentences and with single word modifiers, but with modifying clauses, it can get more complicated:

Josie answered the door to find the police on the porch in her pyjamas.

Who is wearing Josie’s pyjamas? While it’s possible that the police have dressed for the moment, it’s more likely that this is a misplaced modifier.

In her pyjamas, Josie answered the door to find the police on the porch.
Josie, in her pyjamas, answered the door to find the police on the porch.

If the police really were on the porch in Josie’s pyjamas, I’d still move the modifier and use a stronger verb:
Josie answered the door and was astonished to find the police in her pyjamas on the porch.

10. Split infinitives
In English, the infinitive form of any verb is two words: to write. Putting another word in the middle is calling splitting the infinitive and is incorrect. Colloquially, though, we split infinitives all the time.

Jason wanted to just be alone.

I find that moving the offending word often changes the meaning of the sentence, so you may have to be more creative with choices in this situation.

Jason just wanted to be alone.
All Jason wanted was to be alone.

Splitting the infinitive is something I still do, because it is such a common colloquialism. (Consider: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” That example is hard to forget.) Like most colloquialisms, I think it’s fair to let a split infinitive stand in dialogue. It’s an accurate representation of how people actually speak and using colloquialisms in direct speech can make your characters more personable and realistic.

There’s a short list of things I’ve learned from copy editors.

In reviewing edits, by the way, the author has the right to accept or over-ride any suggested changes from the copy editor. When the author wants the suggested editorial change to be ignored, he or she writes STET beside it, which means “let it stand” or stick to the original version. So, it’s entirely possible that there was a copy editor on the book that prompted this post, and that the author put a stroke through the correction and wrote STET in the margin.

Happy writing!