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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Kayleigh. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [Intro Music]
Chris: This is the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: And we have a special guest with us…
Chris: And Ariel is a senior copy editor at Mythcreants who works on our blog post behind the scenes and she has her own podcast called Edit Your Darlings.
Ariel: Today, we’re talking about a question I get asked a lot. I get approached by authors who think they just need a proofread or maybe a light copy edit.
Beautiful. And then I opened their document and maybe they could use some line editing and they’ve never even heard of that.
So, today we’re going to talk about what is the difference between line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, and how do you know which one’s right for you?
Wes: Do either of you have any idea why people just default to: “Hey, can you proofread this?”
Chris: Start with beginner’s hubris. Let’s be honest, writing is full of that. And there’s a culture around fiction writing, especially, that encourages it. It encourages people to be overconfident about their abilities, mostly because there’s tons of messages. It’s like just write with your heart and it’ll be brilliant.
You know, it sounds like it’s supposed to be encouraging and inspirational, but I don’t think that’s a good message to send. The point is that there’s a culture that encourages beginner’s hubris. So, if you overestimated your abilities when you started writing, it’s not your fault. Most of us have to go through a disillusionment stage.
You know, people are really happy with what they’ve written and they’re afraid of editing being heavier than they wanted. So they’re just like: “Okay, what if you didn’t really change what I wrote? But the misspelling is gone and the punctuation is corrected” and they don’t really know how much work and expertise is involved in copy editing.
To them, it’s just change a few punctuations and I’ll be fine. That’s definitely a reason and I think the word proofreading is just used a lot. It’s used casually by people like: “Hey, can you proofread my essay before I hand it into the teacher?”
So I think people are just used to that word, as well.
Wes: Which is kind of funny because, in a way, they’re almost asking for a beta read of it. I want you to read this and just tell me it’s okay.
Ariel: And maybe catch some typos, no big deal.
Chris: Especially when you get to the bigger levels of editing — content or developmental editing — does this person really want to pay me this much money for, you know, a pat on the back?
Send it to us, but they’re really hoping that we’ll tell them it’s brilliant. But it’s a very expensive pat on the back. Is that what you’re hoping to get?
Ariel: I mean, they were hoping to get a less expensive pat on the back but they’ll take this one.
Wes: When they ask for that, Ariel, do you find that they maybe just don’t quite know what goes on?
Ariel: When they’re asking for just a proofread, and I open it and it’s clear to me that it’s not ready for a proofread. You know, I immediately assume that they’ve never heard of copy editing and I direct them to: What are the different levels of editing and what do you do at each stage?
Chris: Maybe we should define proofreading. I think proofreading is based on the word proof. Proof is something in publishing where you see the documents that’s basically laid out for printing so that you can review it for last errors.
You’re basically coordinating with the printer off often. It’s basically a preview of it in its printed shape. It’s already been laid out and designed. All of that visual work has been done and in my experience in production work, it’s actually a lot easier to find, especially small errors, once it’s designed nicely. Right? There’s less visual distractions and the problems stand out more because everything else looks good and has been laid out nicely.
It’s very useful, once you’ve done everything else you possibly could, including copy editing, usually copy editing has already been done. Basically, you had a manuscript. This manuscript is perfect, it’s ready to print. Let’s lay it out. You take one last look at it before it actually gets printed and you can’t take anything back anymore. Just to find typos and whatever things are remaining that weren’t caught, because copy editing never catches everything. It’s impossible.
Wes: I would add that a proofreader is going to catch some things that a copy editor can’t. Because as Chris rightly points out, something has been designed. A good example of this is if the copy editor was working on a word processor and then it gets proofed and it’s put into something that maybe has two columns.
The proofreader might notice on the left margin of the column of text there’s the same word. That’s something a proofreader would notice that a copy editor could not point out because it’s an error that was introduced as part of typesetting and design, not related to editing.
Chris: When you get to the stage where a document has been designed, usually editing it is much more cumbersome and difficult. Because the copy editor is inexpensive. Copy editor does not usually have Adobe InDesign on a computer.
I mean, if they’re in house, maybe they do just for this purpose, but a lot of times somebody else is going in on a special design program to make these little tweaks. And if the changes are too big, suddenly all of the line breaks have to be re-managed in many documents.
If you carefully got rid of all of your widows and orphans. That one leftover word or a headline that’s an awkward place. You move like a paragraph… that can mean that you have to go over the entire document again and manage where all of your page breaks are.
Ariel: A single word can break in multiple places. And so if you are messing with a single word, it might change just the word or it might change an entire line. It might change an entire paragraph. It might change an entire page.
Wes: I remember learning about proofreading. Thinking about the times when I’ve spotted an error in a published book, and then thinking like: “Oh no, I’m not great. I didn’t catch this.” They knew: “Nope. We don’t have time. It’s too expensive.”
Ariel: When I’m proofreading,I really have to think about: Is this an error that is embarrassing? Is this something that absolutely has to change?
Chris: If you asked an editor for proofreading, that’s what you’re asking for. Which is not what most people mean.
Ariel: When you back it up to copy editing, Wes, you have a really beautiful, bulleted, double column list about what goes on in copy editing.
Wes: Oh, I do. Thank you.
Ariel: Oh, you do. Can you just read that really slowly to me?
Wes: We editors are not meanies. We all want your writing to be its best. We want to also, though, advocate for your readers while keeping your work credible and professional.
Copy editing is just massive. Following here are some of the vital tasks that we perform in addition to just correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Editors are the reader’s advocate. We want to make sure people can comprehend what they’re reading.
And so we also simplify complex language. We make sure that all important information points are covered. We, as Ariel mentioned, do our best to keep embarrassing errors from being published. We will, you know, depending on the writing, remove libelous statements.
We’ll make sure that the article chapter or book flows well. So with pacing issues, we’ll take out inconsistencies and wordiness. We will point out factual errors for writers to correct. We will, see previous podcast, remove bias and other discriminatory language.
If there’s jargon, we’ll probably cut it or, or query it and say: “Is this an important jargon?”
If there’s misinformation and disinformation, we’ll get rid of it, unless you work for not reputable places.
If there’s information holes, we will say: “Hey, please fix this. We don’t know what’s going on.” And if there’s quotes, those need to be properly attributed, as well.
Ariel: I love it. It’s such a beautiful list. The only thing that I would add to it that I think gets missed a lot when people talk about copy editing, about what they do, what the writer gets out of copy editing.
The most valuable thing, I think, is all of the work we do to put together the custom style sheet. Because that’s going to include the grammar exceptions we made to the standard style guide that we’re going off of. It’s going to include a list of all of the words that you feel are important to capitalize throughout your book or other proper names.
It’s going to include your characters. It’s going to include a timeline of events. So we can keep everything consistent and we know what day everything happened on. It’s amazing. I love style guides and it’s the best thing about copy editing.
Wes: It’s such a gift for the writer to receive that. I haven’t done nearly as many as you have, but I remember working for a client for a short book that he did. I gave that to him and he was like: “What is this?” I’m like: “It’s your book!”
Ariel: It’s your book. It’s your entire series sometimes. It’s super important for series, for maintaining consistency across each book.
Chris: That’s one thing I think people underestimate when they don’t know much about copy editing. They think that there is one standard that everything adheres to, like the Chicago Manual of Style that covers everything. When there are so many choices and the most important thing is consistency in the work itself. Those decisions have to be made and then you have to keep track of them.
Mythcreants has some weird things. One of the things that we do differently is we only italicize for emphasis, nothing else. Whereas most websites will italicize, for instance, the titles of books. One of the main reasons we don’t do that is because when we were starting out, we were so inconsistent about it. After a while, it was just easier to say we’re not doing it because that will at least make us for the most part consistent. If we start doing it now, it’s going to be a big departure.
The other reason is that we’ve always had a policy of, at least the first time a book title was mentioned, of linking it to that book. All of those titles were marked with links.
Ariel: What is line editing?
Wes: I wanted to consult some books and there was one in Words into Type and they talk about line editing in such detail, and then I was looking at the Copy Editor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn.
Words Into Type: Third Edition is from several decades ago, like the ’70s. It’s still a good reference for really obscure things, but Amy Einsohn mentions it in passing as: “It’s kind of still a thing, but you probably just mean heavy copy editing.”
As I defined line editing: You’re actually making heavy copy edits, but you’re forcing a type of style onto something. I think of a line edit as: Reporter goes out to get the scoop, brings it back in, and then that line editor has to make it conform to the style of the publication within a certain timeframe. So, I think of line editing more in that kind of news realm, instead of a fiction realm.
Chris: I think I approach line editing from kind of an unusual place, because I’m not a copy editor. But I do what I call line editing. I’m not even sure if there is a standardized definition of line editing.
I’m a content editor. As part of that, I often drill down to the level where it’s usually a little larger than copy editing. But now instead of futzing with the big sections or ideas in the work, I’m futzing with the individual statements.
Again, depending on whether I’m editing fiction or nonfiction. For a blog post, which is just simple so it’s easy to use as an example, content editing would be what I would consider: I want you to remove this section. I want you to add this content that’s not there. That would be directions that I would give the writer.
When I’m doing what I call a line edit, it’s like: I need this to sound professional and feel professional. I need the ideas to flow smoothly and I do this before I hand it off to copy editors. I do a lot of clutter cutting. Which also a copy editor would do. I move around… Sometimes I move full paragraphs, but I’ll do a lot of cutting entire statements or moving them. So again, could be a heavy copy edit.
I feel like a lot of times copy editors, they’re trying harder not to step on a writer’s toes.
Whereas when I’m giving somebody direction at the large, big-picture level, whether it’s a blog post or a story, and I’ve already given them advice on how to structure their plot, and then I get down to one paragraph in the story.
When I know that the purpose of this plot element in this section is to create tension but I see that the way that they’re implementing in this paragraph is downplaying that and it’s going to make that less effective. I will do line editing to try to bring out the tension there.
I do sometimes actually add words that I’ve written myself, but they’re almost always things like transitions. If I move a paragraph from one place to the other, oftentimes it doesn’t just fit there seamlessly. Some of the transitions have to change in order to fit seamlessly. So, I will go in and add a transition, but it’s not usually, you know, a big idea. I’m not usually adding additional ideas to their piece, I’m just making it flow smoothly from one paragraph to the next. And, of course, it would be marked for the writer to review.
I’m looking at the content, but now drilled down to a small, fine level. I’m making sure that the same argument is not made twice, for instance. Where it’s like redundancy at the wording level would be: “Make sure you don’t use this same word too many times.” What I would consider personally aligned editing level is: “Okay, you already said that in the intro, so I’m going to strike it out here because you don’t need to say that same thing twice.” I might strike out several sentences for that reason.
Ariel: There’s so much power in line editing. It shapes a piece so much, and that’s why it’s so important to make sure that you and your line editor are on the same level.
What really line editing comes down to for me is voice. They are making sure that the voice of the piece is consistent throughout. So if an academic tone has snuck in, in chapter three, for no good reason, your line editor is going to change that to make it fit the rest of the piece.
Chris: Yeah, removing academic-ese, as I call it, is a big thing that I do for nonfiction works in line editing. That usually involves a lot of clutter cutting and jargon.
Ariel: As often as I’m asked to do just a proofread, I’m also really delighted when I get an author and he was like: “Please, please tear my work apart with your line edits” and I can come back and just be like: “Your voice is so good. I don’t want to mess with that, let’s do a copy edit.”
Chris: And I’ve seen you do that a number of times. When we get a quote request in from people who want to hire Ariel for copy editing — you can hire Ariel for copy editing through our site, by the way — sometimes you come back and you’re like: “I know you asked for a line edit, but actually I don’t think you need that much.”
Which that’s gotta be a nice ego boost for a writer to hear.
Ariel: I will say that line editing is more expensive than copy editing because it takes more time and it takes a lot of skill.
Wes: It takes a lot. If you feel predisposed to line editing, you might just be a writer. Those of us who don’t feel drawn to it might just be editors.
Chris: What you said, Ariel, while you’re in a big position of trust as a line editor, it’s absolutely true. I think that’s why for me, it goes as part of the content editing. Because content editing is bigger picture than line editing, I’m in that position to basically be almost an art director and I know what the bigger picture goals are and there’s always reviews by the writer, every time. They see all of my changes and I invite them to push back and be like, actually, I don’t like this change.
Wes, do you ever do line editing?
Wes: Well, certainly not for Mythcreants. The last time I did some freelance work, I got a series of short stories. They weren’t connected, but it was just like a bundle of short stories by the same writer and I went through planning to copy edit, and then I channeled my inner Chris and Oren and ended up doing my first real run at content editing. Doing a whole lot of querying, rearranging and suggestions related to like through lines and characters and stuff like that.
So, no, I haven’t done a lot of line editing because I don’t think I’ve been in that sweet spot where I think I would do it. I don’t know if I’d be comfortable.
I’m getting more comfortable at bigger-picture edits with content and developmental stuff, but I’m still most comfortable in just straight copy editing. There’s definitely a scale tipping point where I’m just going to write a query and I’m just going to say: “Hey, maybe this would be a good idea.”
Chris: I kind of suspect that even though I do something that I would consider to be the line editing at a level and Ariel does line editing that our line editing is a little different because of my content editing down and Ariel’s copy editing up. Again, I’m looking at more content issues when I do a line edit, then Ariel would be, whereas Ariel’s probably looking at more style and consistency. Do you think that’s right, Ariel?
Ariel: Wes has helped fully included the different levels that Mythcreants copy editing talks about with light, medium and heavy.
When we do a heavy copy edit, in addition to all of the things we do for regular copy editing, we talk about issues with characters, themes, plots, problematic messages, stereotyping. We might reword sentences, rearrange paragraphs or mark content for deletion as needed.
I am looking at: Does this character feel real? Is this line of dialogue believable? And if it’s not, I make a suggestion or I might just let the author know that: “Hey, there’s some room for improvement here.”
Whereas if I was just copy editing, you know, I would make sure that it’s legible. copy editing makes it readable; line editing makes it pleasant to read.
Chris: At Mythcreants, we have a light edit, a medium edit and a heavy edit. The heavy edit is basically what we’re talking about as far as line editing goes.
You can kind of choose what level you think is right for you and we have examples even, but then we have a whole core process because again, depending on the state of your prose, the amount of work that needs to be put in by the copy editor can be really different.
You need somebody to actually look over it. And Ariel specifically will give you advice about what level she thinks you need.
Ariel: I’m interested in the way that Wes approaches copy edits too, and finds stuff each week that’s already gone through me. I talked about this a little bit on my podcast, and I reached out to Wes for commentary on this. It still felt incomplete to me because I didn’t get to hear it in his voice.
Chris: For some context, every Mythcreants blog post is copy edited twice. This, most of the time, would be considered unnecessary.
The main reason that we do it is because when we first started our editorial process, we didn’t have professional copy editors on board. Even so, we keep doing it because a second copy editor can always find stuff because it’s just impossible for one editor to catch everything, especially in one look.
There’s somebody who’s on copy edit one, and they do most of the work on the fees and then there’s somebody who’s on copy edit two and they’re looking at a piece that’s already been copy edited, and they get to read it and make a few tweaks here and there.
Wes, Ariel wants to know how you continue to find things to change in work that she has already copy edited.
Wes: To be fair, when Ariel asked me to send her examples: Some weeks I barely touch it and some weeks there’s just more and it just depends. copy edit two, we mentioned all those things: checking facts and accuracies and stuff. You guys all know there’s posts that deal with a lot of proper nouns and Ariel generally gets all of them, but sometimes they slip through.
That’s something that I’ll make an effort to double-check. Other things in copy edit two that I find that usually slip by: “Today we will look at this kind of thing.” I always cut those “wills.” I chop them right out. That might have more to do with me than anything.
Chris: We’ve had discussions about what tense the blog posts should be in.
Wes: I like to keep numbers the same. I pulled up an example I sent Ariel. The original line read: “It’s very common for storytellers to accidentally make their big conflict too easy.” I edited that to make it conflicts, because we’re talking about storytellers.
It happens all the time, we try to do multiple subjects, but then we have a collective singular predicate that I think is odd.
Ariel: I think we argued about this in our copy editing class, because I would still argue that those storytellers each have one big conflict.
Wes: But we’re, especially in this case, we have plural storytellers with plural pronoun “they’re” possessive.
Ariel: Or is it a singular pronoun.
Wes: There’s no antecedent for that.
Chris: I think I see what you’re saying, Wes. It does seem that it should be plural. That would be technically correct. I can’t help but feel in some of these cases, not all of them, that occasionally when I try to make it consistently plural, it just sounds off. Like, there’s a word that I’m not used to hearing in plural.
We help organizations with their missions. That just sounds a little strange to say missions instead of mission.
Wes: I would say mission statements.
Chris: But it’s not their mission statement because the mission statement is the actual statement about the mission. Their mission is what they actually do. That’s a content change that’s incorrect.
Wes: I have found that as much as I am a stickler for this, it depends. It very much depends on what the noun is. I’m happy to concede on some of these things, but in some cases when it’s just like plural, plural, singular, I’m like what’s going on? This can easily convey that we contain multitudes.
Chris: And I’ve caught myself doing that too, and try to correct myself.
Ariel: Different copy editors have different backgrounds and have different things of grammar that they care so much about.
I think that the differences in our approaches and the differences in what we’re each going to find, speak to our background every bit as much as it speaks to what is actually staring at us on the page.
Wes: Ariel and I certainly have some differences, but we both abide by the code of: Do not introduce error. Feel free to introduce things that might be worthy of discussion, but that’s the golden rule of editing.
Chris: The wonderful thing about having more than one copy editor is when something is brought up, you can get another opinion. And there can be a discussion and for a blog about writing, that’s fascinating.
I’ve learned lots of things from the two of you about writing. And if I write a blog post about wordcraft, I have two copy editors who know more about grammar and punctuation and literary devices and what they should be called than I do. That’s a huge bonus for us.
Wes: We’re just all trying our best and no piece of writing is ever done.
Chris: We’re at time, so we’ll bring this to a close.
Before we go, I’d like to thank a few of our patrons. First, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek; Ayman Jaber, an urban fantasy writer and connoisseur of Marvel; and Danita Rambo, who lives at therambogeeks.com.
Thanks for listening, we’ll talk to you next week.
Ariel: If you have a story that’s not quite working, we’re here to help. We offer consulting and editing services on Mythcreants.com. [Outro Music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?