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Copy Editing – a Guide for Authors

My first commercially published novel, A Kill in the Morning came out in 2014, and working on it with a professional editor taught me about the process of copy editing. Since then I’ve copy edited a lot of work, including the stories in Revolutions and Revolutions 2.

There’s a lot of jargon and weird symbols involved, which can seem intimidating, but if you read through this guide, you’ll soon get the hang of it.

What is Copy Editing?

A copy editor tries to help the author express their meaning clearly by improving the style and accuracy of the novel. They also add instructions and information that will help the typesetter convert your manuscript into a completed novel.


When the copy editor looks at the accuracy of your writing, they:

  • Check all the names of things that the novel mentions. They might, for example, point out that a city mentioned in the story doesn’t exist.
  • Pick up any continuity errors. For example, if you’ve spelt a character’s name differently on page 10 and page 125.
  • Mark passages they think are unclear, or where more explanation would be useful. For example, if characters seem to travel from one place to another without the author mentioning that they’ve moved.
  • Note if the content appears to have potential legal problems, such as libel.


A copy editor will also make suggestions to help maintain a clear and consistent style. They’ll point out where you need to:

  • Define any acronyms or unusual words, or perhaps use a simpler alternative.
  • Correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • Use a consistent style for spelling and punctuation, for example, not mixing British and American English.
  • Avoid vague or confusing word choices.
  • Avoid repetition.

Typesetting Information

The copy editor adds information that will be useful to the typesetter, things like marking:

  • The start and end of chapters.
  • Quotes and epigraphs.
  • Headings.
  • Illustrations.
  • Special formatting.

Copy Editing versus Content Editing

Before the copy edit, A Kill in the Morning went through a content edit. The difference is that a content edit involves the structure of the story. The content editor might suggest, for example, that the novel would be better with a happy ending, or that you could rewrite chapter sixteen to make it faster paced. Content editing is like getting feedback on your novel from an experienced professional.

Copy Editing versus Proofreading

We copy edit before typesetting (the process that turns your manuscript into an actual book). We proofread afterwards. A proofreader is entirely concerned with the novel as written, not with any style issues. They look only for mistakes in spelling, grammar, punctuation and layout. For more on proofreading see How to Proofread Your Own Work.

Copy Editing Examples

Here’s part of a page of A Kill in the Morning, as sent to me by a copy editor at Transworld Publishers:

A Page From A Kill in the Morning


To show a word should be in italics the copy editor underlines it. See the orange number 1 in the picture, where they underlined La Rhin. The square next to it around the full-stop means ‘don’t italicise this’.

Tip: when to use italics

  • Names of books and newspapers, e.g. New York Times.
  • Names of ships, e.g. La Rhin.
  • Emphasis, e.g. ‘Sure, and I wasn’t helping those murdering atheists.’
  • Foreign language phrases, e.g. coup de main.


A hash means ‘replace this with a space’. See the orange number 2. The copyeditor has marked the dash in ‘top-left’ for replacement with a space.

A ‘smile’ means ‘insert a space’. See the orange number 6. The copyeditor has marked ‘onto’ to be changed to ‘on to’.


A dot in a circle means add a full stop. It’s the orange 4 in the fixture above.

An up arrow and a comma means add a comma.

A down arrow and speech mark means add a speech mark.

Upper and Lower Case

A stroke over a capital letter means make this lower case. See the orange 3 where the copyeditor has marked ‘Naval’ and ‘Ensign’ to be replaced by ‘naval’ and ‘ensign’.

Three lines under a letter mean make it upper case. It’s shown by number 5 above.

Here’s another page with some different copy editing marks:

Copy Editing Marks - Transposition

Recto and verso

‘Recto’ means back and ‘Verso’ means front. So the copy editor marks the title page with ‘Verso’ because we want the title to appear on a new page facing the front of the novel even if that means leaving a page blank. It’s marked by the 1 in the picture above.

Part title

If you have divided your novel into parts, then the copy editor marks them as ‘Part Title’. For example, A Kill in the Morning has three parts – Contrivance, Confrontation, and Consequences. The 1 in the picture shows a part title.


Transpose means swap around. The elongated sideways S shape shows where to split the transposition and the TRS in the margin is an extra reminder. In the picture above it’s shown by the number 2. So instead of reading ‘The Law of the Jungle by Rudyard Kipling’, the copy editor is saying it should read ‘Rudyard Kipling, The Law of the Jungle’.


Roman or ROM shows that something that’s italic in the manuscript should be normal (Roman) text. It’s number 5 in the picture above. So instead of reading ‘Rudyard Kipling, The Law of the Jungle’, the copy editor is saying it should read ‘Rudyard Kipling, The Law of the Jungle.’

N dash and M dash

Copy Editing Marks - Dashes

An N-dash is a short dash and an M dash is a longer one. The default is an N dash. M dashes are used to mark an interruption.

Tip: how to add an M-dash in Word

In Word for Windows type CTRL and –

In Word for Mac type Option and –

My copy editor has only marked M dashes with an M in a circle and added a note for the typesetter at the front of the manuscript to assume N-dashes except where marked.

So number one in this picture is an N-dash, and the lines mean to add spaces either side. Number 2 is an M-dash and the ‘smiles’ below mean ‘don’t add any spaces’.

Insertion, Deletion and Replacement

Copy Editing Marks - Alteration

Above is a basic misspelling.

Posessive Apostrophe MarkThe numbers show the marks for:

  1. The two lines a bit like an equals sign shows not to add a space before the additional ‘s’.
  2. The insertion mark shows to add an ‘s’ at the end of Mercedes’.
  3. An instruction to the typesetter to note that this is the end of a chapter and so to start a new page.

Copy Editing Marks - InsertionThe numbers show the marks for:

  1. Replace the German ‘ß’ with ‘ss’.
  2. Delete ‘chained’ and replace with ‘chains shackling her’.
  3. Insert a space.

Copy Editing Marks

Here’s a handy reference list of copy editing marks:

Copy Editing Symbols Guide

For a quick reference to the copy editing symbols in PDF format click here or on the image above. You’re welcome to print the guide out and refer to it.

How to copy edit your own work

It’s difficult to copy edit your own work, but if you’re self-publishing, you might not be able to afford to hire a professional copy editor.

To an extent, you can use the tips in getting feedback on your novel to help you, but you will also need to copy edit for yourself.

Some tips are:

  • Perhaps you can swap copyediting with another author. It will involve you in a lot of work and you need to trust each other.
  • Automatic critique software can help you find some types of errors.
  • Take a break after finishing drafting and before beginning copy editing. You need to see your work in a critical light.
  • Imagining that you have been told you have to cut the length of the novel by 20% can help you tighten the novel and remove digressions.
  • There’s a danger of glossing over the words, sentences and even paragraphs because you have seen them so many times before, but any reformatting of the work helps you see it anew, so read it on different sized screens, e.g. on a laptop, on an iPad and on a Kindle and also print it out.

Books on copy editing

In the UK, both Oxford and Cambridge universities produce a guide to copyediting.

Hart’s Rules, the Oxford guide to copy editing, is available on Amazon UK here.

Butcher’s Copyediting, the Cambridge guide to copy editing, is available on Amazon UK here.

Writers in the USA commonly use the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s available on Amazon here.

It works!

I was talking to a friend of mine a couple of days ago. He read an early draft of A Kill in the Morning and had just finished rereading the commercially published version, with all the copy edits and proofreading. He said that the final version is much faster and smoother to read than the early draft. So all the copy editing paid off!

You can read the opening here: The first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning.

Copy Editing Help

If you’d like help with your copy editing, please email me. Otherwise, feel free to share the article using the buttons below.