Copy Editing for Authors: What It Is and Why You Need It

Abi Wurdeman
April 23, 2024

You’ve been told you need an editor. I know you have. If you’ve looked into self-publishing your novel, someone has told you that. It’s one of the most common pieces of advice for aspiring indie authors because not working with an editor is one of the most common and detrimental mistakes new writers make.

We got A’s in high school English and know the difference between your and you’re, so we figure we can trust ourselves to copy edit our own books. But as it turns out, it’s hard to read our own work objectively and catch our own typos. 

You know who doesn’t miss those overlooked errors, though?

Readers. Readers who leave reviews about “amateur” novels riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes.

You and your book deserve better. You deserve the assistance of a professional copy editor.

But what exactly does a copy editor do? And how are they different from all the other types of editors out there?

We’re about to cover that. We’ll also talk about the process of working with a professional as well as the tools and techniques that are available to you if you choose to do your own copy editing.

Like a good copy editor, we’re going to take this line by line. 

What is Copy Editing?

A person in a white blouse sits at a desk typing on a laptop.

Copy editing is primarily a form of mechanical editing. Rather than tackling big creative issues like plot development or overall writing style, a copy editor is concerned with concrete questions like “Is this spelled correctly?” and “Will the reader understand what the author means by this?”

They’re looking at smaller details, searching for things like:

  • Grammatical errors
  • Spelling errors
  • Punctuation errors
  • Wordiness
  • Confusing sentence structure
  • Misused words
  • Factual inaccuracies (to a degree)
  • Deviation from the overall style, tone, or voice of the written material overall

If you’re contributing to a pre-existing series or publication, a copy editor will also check to make sure your writing is in line with the established tone and style guide.

What Copy Editing Isn’t

A stack of thin, brown sheets of paper sit on a desk alongside an inkwell, spectacles, and lettering projects. The word "no" is written on the top sheet.

It’s easy to confuse copy editing with the many other forms of editing you’ll find in the publishing industry. Here’s what copy editing is not:

Developmental editing - Also known as content editing or substantive editing, this one gets confused with copy editing a lot. But the two are super different.

A developmental editor provides feedback on your story as a whole. They evaluate your plot structure, character development, the effectiveness of your themes… all that jazz.

Line editing - To be fair, this one is confusing. In the UK, line editing is the same thing as proofreading, which we’ll get to in a minute.

In North America, this type of feedback focuses on your use of language to tell a well-paced and emotionally engaging story. A line editor looks at things like syntax, word choice, consistency of tone, and clarity of voice. 

If it sounds like the line between this type of editing and copy editing is razor-thin, you’re right. There is a difference—line editing concerns itself more with the art of creative writing, while copy editing focuses more on rules and function. But there is some overlap, and it’s not unusual to find a copy editor whose services include line editing.

Proofreading - Proofreading comes after copy editing and is the last line of defense before a book goes to print. A proofreader checks for errors in spelling or grammar that might have slipped past the copy editor and fixes mistakes or inconsistencies in formatting.

Why is Copy Editing Important?

Profile of a person wearing glasses and sitting outside, reading a book.

When you put your manuscript through a round of copy editing, you’re essentially giving it a nice, shiny polish. You and this professional you’ve hired work together to smooth out any remaining rough edges so your reader can enjoy a seamless reading experience, uninterrupted by jarring typos or clunky phrasing.

Perhaps most importantly, you’ll release a novel that’s recognized as professional. No snarky reviewers will call you out for grammatical errors.

Of course, this is all if you plan to self-publish. If you’ll be publishing traditionally, professional copy editing might not be important. Not until you land a publisher and their in-house copy editor gets their hands on your manuscript.

You still want to clean up your manuscript as well as you can. But if you’re preparing to query agents or publishers, you probably don’t need to pay for copy editing services. Unless you struggle a lot with spelling and grammar, you’ll be fine with the combined editing efforts of your critique partners, AI editing tools, and your own glorious brain.

And you know what? As long as we’re talking about self-editing, we might as well dive into…

Effective Self-Editing Techniques

A red, blue, and yellow stick eraser.

I know I’ve emphasized the importance of hiring a professional copy editor about three times now. Nevertheless, it’s also important that you have a few tools on hand for handling this process yourself.

For one thing, the better shape your manuscript is in when you go into the copy editing phase, the smoother the process is going to go. It’ll be cheaper, too, if your editor charges by the hour.

Second, there will be times when you need to impress a gatekeeper without the help of a professional editor, like if you’re querying an agent or submitting your work to a literary magazine.

And finally, the self-editing process makes you a stronger writer. Huge win.

So let’s take a look at a few techniques for doing a little copy editing of your own.

Create Your Own Style Sheet

Most copy editors do this. A style sheet is your secret weapon for consistency. It’s where you lay out your style rules, facts about your fictional world, unusual spellings—all that stuff.

How do you know when to spell numbers out? Are you calling it “Chapter One” or just “One”? How do you spell that made-up disease you gave your orc, and what were the symptoms again?

Keeping a style sheet on hand makes copy editing so much easier. You don’t have to scroll back seven chapters to see how you did it last time. You’ve got a document right there to keep you aligned with your own writing style and storyline.

Dabble Tip: If you’re a Dabbler, Story Notes are a great place to create, organize, and store your style sheet.

Read It Out Loud

A person sitting at a desk, reading something off their phone.

Our eyes have this bratty little tendency to read what we meant to write rather than what’s actually on the page. It’s why so many typos slip past us even after multiple rounds of revisions.

One super effective workaround is to simply read your writing out loud. It’s so much easier to catch errors when you have to actually speak the words you wrote.

Dabble Tip: Dabble’s Read to Me feature takes this idea a step further. You can have a disembodied voice read your work back to you. And because that disembodied voice has no idea what you meant to write, you can trust it to read every error.

Give That Find Feature a Workout

As I write, I keep a running list of clichés and words I catch myself overusing. Once I get to the copy editing phase, I do a search for every instance of those words and phrases so I can replace them with something better.

This alone won’t make my prose sing, but it gives me one less thing to think about as I do the plodding work of reading and revising line by line. It also ensures I won’t leave eight million instances of “quiet smile” in my manuscript just because I’m so used to seeing it my eyes gloss right over them.

You can also use this trick for words you commonly misspell or mistype, especially if they’re mistakes your program’s built-in spell check is unlikely to flag, like “filed” when you meant “field.”

Common Errors to Look Out For

A pile of papers and notebooks with pages that have been copy edited in red pen.

If you plan to do your own copy editing, it might help to know a few common pitfalls to look out for—the kind of things a professional copyeditor would be alert to beyond the obvious spelling and grammar errors.

Here are a handful of mistakes we mortal writers are prone to making:

Inconsistencies - Glaring inconsistency isn’t just for timelines and character descriptions! We can make this mistake when we write “twenty-one” in one spot and “21” in another. 

Excessive adverbs and adjectives - In many cases, you can ditch an adjective or adverb and just use a stronger noun or verb. And if you can’t, you don’t need a whole string of descriptors to get the job done. One is good enough.

Overly complex sentences and purple prose - Copy editing is all about making sure the prose is clear to the reader while still remaining true to the author’s voice and style. Keep an eye out for unnecessarily long or complicated sentences that could be rephrased without compromising your writing style.

Misused words - Okay, so this error is admittedly pretty tough to catch—at least if you’re confidently misusing a word. But have you felt that shadow of doubt as you put a word in your manuscript? Like, “I think that’s right”? Even if you don’t want to stop your creative flow to look it up, add it to the list of words to search for come copy editing time.

Misused punctuation - Do you know what a semicolon is for? What about ellipses? Are you sure? A quick Google search can help you fix a lot of punctuation mistakes.

Of course, these are only a few of the common missteps you need to look out for if you plan to do your own copy editing. You can find even more here. And that doesn’t even include the funny little bad habits that are unique to you. (We all have them!)

But don’t let that overwhelm you. There are things you can do to nurture your self-editing skills and continuously improve your ability to review your own manuscript with an editor’s eye.

How to Improve Your Self-Editing Skills

Hands wearing old rings and black nail polish write in a notebook.

One great way to advance your copy editing abilities immediately (or immediately-ish) is to step away from the manuscript.

Take a break and work on something else for a few weeks after you finish your first draft. Take another break when you complete substantive editing. Do it again after line editing.

Like reading your work aloud, taking a break away from the material allows you to see it with fresh eyes. You’re able to read what you actually wrote—typos and all—instead of what you thought you wrote.

In the meantime, proactively exercise your weakest writing muscles. 

Let’s say there are a handful of clichés you keep leaning on to describe a scene or character. At the beginning of each writing session, pick one and spend five to ten minutes writing alternative phrases that paint the same image. Come up with new metaphors or use different senses to bring the moment to life.

Finally, be an active reader. Notice the choices your favorite author makes. Pay attention to the length and structure of their sentences. Make a mental note of any word choices that stand out to you. It’s even worth observing how they use punctuation. 

The more you absorb great writing, the more successful your copy editing efforts will be.

Editing Tools and Resources

A person holding a book sits t a desk and smiles over their shoulder.

After all that, you might be relieved to learn that you don’t have to handle all these self-editing efforts entirely on your own. There are plenty of tools that can help, especially when it comes to copy editing.

For one thing, you can always refer to style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook. If you do any writing for a specific publication, ask what style book they’d like you to follow. They might even have their own style guidelines.

Then there are the tech tools. ProWritingAid and Grammarly find grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes. They can also offer style suggestions and even tailor their recommendations based on your genre.

If you tend to overcomplicate things in your writing, Hemingway Editor can be a huge help. The online version is free, and it flags style issues like excessive adjectives, convoluted sentences, and passive voice. 

Even your novel writing software can ease the stress of the copy editing process. For example, Dabble features a built-in spelling, grammar, and style checker powered by ProWritingAid. It also supports integration with ProWritingAid and Grammarly if you have your own subscription to those AI editing assistants.

It’s still important to get human eyes on your manuscript. While these tools have gotten very good at what they do, they can still misunderstand the style nuances that a skilled editor will recognize. As always, tech is a handy tool, but it’s not a replacement for an actual person.

The Professional Editing Process for Authors

Two smiling people talk together at a table in an office looking out onto the city.

Now that we’ve thoroughly examined what it means to handle all your copy editing yourself, let’s bring the professionals back into the mix.

What does it look like when you work with a copy editor? Or any editor, for that matter? And when is it time to bring a paid professional into this process?

We’ll take this step by step.

First, you complete your first draft. You’re working with a full manuscript now.

The next step is still you. You do not want to bring your rough draft to a professional editor. 


Because at this phase, there are still plenty of fixes you can figure out on your own. You’ll start by addressing any major issues with your story—things like glaring plot holes, flat secondary characters, and poor pacing. 

After a few rounds of higher-level edits, you’ll be able to get into line editing and maybe use some of those copy editing skills you’ve been building. But you don’t need to go too crazy polishing your gem of a manuscript at this point. Basic tidying is enough. Fix glaring typos and reword anything that immediately stands out to you as poor writing.   

Along the way, you’ll hopefully get some free help in the form of critique partners and alpha readers. You might use beta readers at this stage, too, though many authors hold off on beta readers until after they’ve received professional content editing.

That’s theoretically the next step by the way: content editing. 

Bringing in Professional Editors

Once you’ve taken your story as far as you can on your own and with all that free help, you’re ready to reach out to a developmental editor. They’ll give you feedback on your overall story.

(Little side note: you can also consult a developmental editor earlier in the writing process if you’re having doubts about the strength of your story or its potential in the market.)

Once you’ve applied that feedback, you’re ready to get into the nitty-gritty. That means line editing, copy editing, and proofreading in that order.

How Do You Do All That Without Going Broke?

Hands open an empty pink wallet.

This is where I tell you that you don’t have to hire all four of those editors. As I mentioned before, line editing and copy editing often come as a package deal. You also might be able to handle some aspects of the editing process yourself or with the help of a grammatically gifted critique partner who really goes above and beyond. 

(You will have to make it up to them, by the way.)

Being an indie author means making tough budget decisions, especially when it’s your first book. 

It’s like any business. You have to set priorities, take stock of what you do exceptionally well, note any potentially free resources available to you, and use that data to decide how to spend your money.

I can’t tell you what’s going to work best for you. What I can say is that you don’t want to forgo quality editing. You don’t have to shell out thousands for four different editors. But you also don’t want to release a book riddled with grammatical mistakes and poor punctuation.

Weigh your options and find your sweet spot. Or follow my editor’s advice: if you can only go with one editor, make it a copy editor, as they’re both affordable and understand the technical rules new authors know the least about.

Working With a Professional Copy Editor

A smiling person talks on the phone while working on a laptop in a park.

Let’s say you decide to work with a professional copy editor. How are you supposed to find this person? What do they need from you? And how can you make sure you’re getting your money’s worth from their editing services?

All good questions. Here are a few tips that will help you get through this process smoothly and make it worth your investment.

Find Your Perfect Copy Editor

The first step is to find someone who’s not only good at copy editing but is also a great fit for your project.

There are plenty of databases online where you can find copy editors, but it’s always good to start by asking around your writing circles. Check in with fellow writers in your genre. Is there a copy editor they love? What did they enjoy about working with them?

Get to know an editor’s background before you hire them. What types of projects have they worked on in the past? Are they familiar with your genre and format? Do they have testimonials from previous clients?

Gather all the information you can to find the pro who’s right for you.  

Set Expectations Upfront

When you find your copy editor, make sure you’re both clear on what you expect from one another. Discuss when and how much you’ll pay them, as well as the anticipated timeline. Ask what they need from you in order to complete their work and meet their requests in a timely manner.

Provide Essential Information

Take a minute to think like a copy editor. What do they need to know in order to edit your specific story? Or, to put it another way, where is there a risk that they might accidentally edit your work incorrectly? 

Are there unusual names in your story? Any terms you invented as part of your worldbuilding? Do you have a character who happens to use poor grammar

Share this information with your copy editor before they get to work. That way, they can not only avoid correcting something that wasn’t actually wrong but they can also catch it when you misspell “Claabadaara, Guardian of the Xxore Realm.”

Pro tip: All those unique and unusual words should be in your style sheet. If you make one as you go, you can make your editor’s day by passing it on to them with your manuscript.

Finalizing Your Manuscript

Close-up of a sheet of paper in a vintage typewriter with the words "rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite" typed on it.

Once you’ve applied your copy editor’s feedback, you’re only a few short steps away from being ready to send this book to print! Or publish it as an e-book. Whatever you’re planning to do with it.

The next step is to read it from beginning to end for the eight billionth time and make sure you’re happy with the way it flows. Assuming you are, go ahead and format your book for publication and do a final round of proofreading. Once again, you can hire a professional to do this.

After that final step, there’s nothing left to do but finalize your cover design, get your marketing in order, and publish your book, confident in the polished product you’re releasing into the world. 

One Last Tip…

In case it hasn’t sunk in by now, I’ll tell you outright: copy editing is tedious. Most forms of editing are, unless you’re the type who loves going over every word and comma with a magnifying glass. 

But enduring the tedium will pay off big when your readers are able to fully enjoy your magnificent story, undistracted by errors and clunky sentences.

Plus, you can make this process a little easier on yourself by using a creative writing program that helps you stay organized from the very beginning.

I’ve already dropped a few hints about Dabble features that set you up for faster editing and help you catch mistakes along the way.

And I didn’t even mention the comments feature that makes it easy to remind yourself that you wanted to come back and fix a convoluted sentence. Or the highlighting tool you can use to color-code issues like repeated words, clichés, or inconsistencies.

Add those things to Dabble’s pretty-darn-fantastic plotting and productivity features, and you’ve got a writing tool that streamlines every step from brainstorming to formatting.

Want to check it out for yourself? Click here to start a free 14-day trial, no credit card required.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.