Copy editing 3: ensuring consistency of story

An editor will ensure your writing is grammatically correct, and that punctuation is used accurately, but what else will they do? In this series of posts I’ll be exploring other aspects of the copy editing stage.

The key to a copy editor’s job is ensuring consistency in the writing itself, in the characters and settings portrayed and in the story/piece of writing as a whole. Here I explore what’s meant by consistency of the story.

One important tool for that is the timeline. Laying out actions step by step gives an overall view of the story. This can pick up on problems like six consecutive days at school, an activity on the wrong day of the week, an unreasonable amount of time for an event, or a split timeline where one strand passes two days while the second has only passed one.

Is there a pregnancy that lasts an unexpected amount of time? Is it snowing in the middle of summer? Is there time to make that journey in that way?

As well as the timeline, the editor will be picturing the action and checking it all makes sense. Who is attending this meeting? Who has been sent out, and to where? Who knew that information?

Again, errors can occur even in trad-published books – I know one where a character is sent off on an important errand, only to be joining in the conversation with the main group a few minutes later! Your reader might not notice, but if they do it will jolt them out of the story, and if that happens too often you’ve lost them completely.

If your work has been through a developmental editor, issues like theme, action, tension, balance of showing and telling etc should all have been sorted out, but if anything is still outstanding the copy editor should pick up on it and bring it to your attention.

So at the end of this round, is your book ready for publication?

Well, no. You will need to go through the edited manuscript, check you’re happy with amendments made by the editor, deal with any queries raised or problems that need to be solved, and make any further adjustments that have come to light. So the story should then be complete, but a few errors almost certainly remain, whether because the editor had so much to do that they couldn’t spot every single problem, or because between you adjustments haven’t been made perfectly. Track Changes can leave a document in a mess, and it can be easy to leave problems like incorrect spacing, or have some of your changes create a knock-on effect elsewhere.

So then it’s time for the formatting/proofreading stage.

Copy editing 2: ensuring consistency of characters and setting

An editor will ensure your writing is grammatically correct, and that punctuation is used accurately, but what else will they do? In this series of posts I’ll be exploring other aspects of the copy editing stage.

The key to a copy editor’s job is ensuring consistency in the writing itself, in the characters and settings portrayed and in the story/piece of writing as a whole. Here I explore what’s meant by consistency of characters and setting.

As well as the language itself, your copy editor will be checking the characters. Didn’t that blue-eyed character have brown eyes in the last chapter? Why is that only child talking about her brother? Why is that man arriving on his motorbike then driving two people home?

Is your character Isaac or Issac? Sheila or Shiela? Did you change someone’s name partway through the writing, only to miss one or two occurrences? or even change a character from male to female throughout, but still have them chatting with their male friends in the gents’ toilets?

If his defining characteristic is cowardice, why is he suddenly risking his life to stand up something trivial? If he’s known for his generosity, why is he not being generous this time, when it could be expected? How can he know that character’s name when they haven’t been introduced yet?

If the setting is a bungalow, why is someone walking upstairs? If the bathroom is on the left, why are they now turning right for it? If their garden was described as a perfectly laid out, formal garden, why is someone creeping through the long grass?

Has your town changed names halfway through the story? Is it a town in one chapter and a village in another? Are they travelling on cobblestones in the first half of the book, to have the paths revert to muddy tracks in the second half? Has town C suddenly shifted to being on the road between A and B, rather than beyond B?

Again, the style sheet is a vital tool for checking descriptions and situations and keeping everything straight, and can be passed forward to subsequent projects.

Copy editing 1: ensuring consistency of language

An editor will ensure your writing is grammatically correct, and that punctuation is used accurately, but what else will they do? In this series of posts I’ll be exploring other aspects of the copy editing stage.

The key to a copy editor’s job is ensuring consistency in the writing itself, in the characters and settings portrayed and in the story/piece of writing as a whole. Here I explore what’s meant by consistency of language.

You might think that your writing is consistent, but have you really analysed it?

Some spellings and versions of a word are style issues rather than actual errors. Are you sticking to one version of halfway, half way, half-way, or mixing and matching? Do you use sir or Sir? Is it a rear view mirror, a rear-view mirror or a rearview mirror? Is it the US, the United States or America?

Are you using tenses consistently, or are you mixing up present and past? In writing we tend to use past tense when telling a story, while in spoken language we tend to use present tense: “so I tell him no, and he says…”, so it is easy to get carried away and slip into present tense when a story gets exciting.

Are you using your pronouns consistently? We might talk about “you” or “they” or “it” when discussing some things, so again it’s all too easy to mix them up, with one paragraph talking about what “it” does and the next discussing “them”.

This style sheet can be passed forward to other projects as well, to ensure consistency between as well as within. This helps to avoid mistakes like the shocking one I found in a trad published sci-fi series from a famous author, where in book 1 the author invented a new term that was essential to the plot, making the meaning clear through the story, while in book 2 the spelling had been altered to a familiar word that completely lost its meaning in the story!*

These are just some of the issues around language that your copy editor will look at, building and using a style sheet to monitor decisions made, and then checking that the decision has been applied consistently throughout the work.

*The series is set in a world where everyone lives in space, one family per ship. To avoid issues like inbreeding, it’s the custom to zog a bride from a different ship. In book 2, they were suddenly talking about snogging brides!

What is Vanity Publishing?

Trad Publishing

Once upon a time, the publishing business was straightforward. You wrote a book, and you tried to find a publisher who was interested in it, or maybe you’d look for an agent who would find a publisher for you. Either way, your main work is done – you can hand over the manuscript to the publisher, who would then invest in it by way of editing, typesetting, proofreading, marketing and printing.

If you couldn’t find a publisher you would keep trying, or write another book and try with that one. Or you would give up trying.

Vanity Publishing

One alternative, if you have enough money, is to pay a publisher to publish your book for you. This sounds good in principle – pay a fee, hand over the manuscript and they will edit, format, proofread, commission a cover and publish the book.

The trouble is, this method can prove very expensive. After all, the company is making the bulk of its money from the author, not from book sales. So there are many horror stories about huge costs for very little return.

If you’re publishing your memoirs for your family, and have the money to spare but not the time or inclination to pick your way through self publishing, then this might be a reasonable solution. Just be aware of the implications.

If you intend to write a series of books, or want to learn the publishing business for yourself, then steer well clear of vanity publishers – on top of paying over the odds for work done, when you reach the point when you want to take control for yourself you could find it difficult to claim rights back.

So what should you be aware of? How can you recognise a vanity publisher? One view is that anyone who asks for money to publish your book should be avoided, but if you’re indie publishing that becomes a grey area (see service providers below).

Try googling the company name with “reviews”. See what other authors have said about them. Did they offer value for money? Are authors pleased with their service? Or do they feel they’ve paid out a lot of money for very little?

Ask around. Can you find another author published by that company? Can you find their books in bookshops? What are the reviews like for books published by them?

Did you find the company or did they find you? Anyone contacting you and offering to publish your work before they’ve seen it should be treated with suspicion. Do they care about the quality of your writing, or do they just want to part you from your money?

Indie Publishing

There’s a third route – indie authors are publishing their own work, but treat writing as a serious business. They invest in editing, formatting, proofreading, cover design, marketing, and do all the things that a trad publisher would be expected to do, but as they’re publishing their own work they keep all the profit instead of having to split it.

It is important, however, to recognise that if you’re putting out material that you want people to buy, you need to ensure it’s as good a quality as possible – this does mean paying out for editors, and having your work thoroughly proofread. While it’s possible to skip these steps, and a few people might manage this successfully without paying for services, the majority risk end up putting out a piece of work that is of low quality, damaging their reputation as an author and lowering the public’s expectations of books from outside the big publishing houses.

Service Providers

Some companies offer a selection of services, such as editing, proofreading, formatting, cover design, to help you with your book. Like vanity publishers these make their money from the author, but unlike vanity publishers they don’t continue to make money through book sales, and don’t hold any rights over your material.

Here the main issue is of quality and value for money. What control do you have over the services? Are you handing your book over to an unknown editor, or are you in direct contact with whoever is working on your book? Editors can work very differently; while it can be reassuring to have a company overseeing a group of editors, you might feel detached from the work and prefer to find an editor you get on with, and can build up a working relationship with.

If you’re a member of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) then you have an excellent source of advice there, and can check for partner members, who have been vetted.

What’s a fronted adverbial?

With many people having to support their children’s learning through homeschooling, I’m seeing many cries of “what’s a fronted adverbial, anyway?” There seems to be an underlying feeling of “If I don’t know what it is, why are they expecting my child to know?”

The simple answer is that it’s far easier to learn about something if you can name it. Can you imagine the problems with learning about that type of question where you don’t expect an answer but you’re asking it for the sake of moving an argument on, if you can’t refer to it as a rhetorical question?

Whether you remember, years down the line, what it’s called, or whether they start calling it something different, doesn’t really matter. The point is whether at the time of learning you can understand what you’re being asked to do if you’re asked to make your sentences more interesting by using fronted adverbials.

We do the same in fiction writing generally. We talk about point of view, or POV. We talk about 1st person or 3rd person. We discuss omniscient versus limited. We throw around terms like protagonist, antagonist, adverbs, imagery.

And it will be the same in any other activity that you look into – each has its specific terms, and use of those terms is a big step towards understanding what they are and how to use them. Naming something gives you power over it. It grants the ability to discuss it and focus on it.

So that fronted adverbial? It just means that instead of starting a sentence with the subject (John kicked the ball), you start with a word or phrase that describes the action that follows.

So you might get:

Early in the morning, John kicked the ball.

Angrily, John kicked the ball.

Unaware that it was directly in front of a glass window, John kicked the ball.

In this way, you can vary sentence structure. You wouldn’t want every sentence to start that way, but it’s one of many techniques available, and the more a child has at their disposal, the more interesting they can make their writing. It’s far easier for a teacher to teach the children the name of the structure, and then encourage them to use it, than to try to refer to it without a name.

Work during lockdowns

How are you doing through this pandemic?

In some ways, it’s an ideal situation for writers – a once-in-a-lifetime experience, reduction in outside distractions, plenty of time to sit and ponder and to get those words down.

In other ways, it’s a nightmare – worry about the country, worry about friends and family, jobs, society… it can all crowd in, blocking out creativity.

I’m lucky. As I work from home, I’ve been able to continue working, and in between times I have my own writing to work on. My writing group has moved to Zoom meetings, and we even managed to finish publishing our third collection of short stories during the first lockdown, although we were unable to hold our usual launch party.

We have enough technology around us to make life easier during lockdown. We don’t have to travel to meetings when we can meet via a computer screen, and there are so many resources available to us if we want to learn something new.

But nothing can really replace the experience of meeting in person, chatting and sharing ideas, and just generally enjoying each other’s company.

Hopefully those days will soon return. In the meantime, stay safe – and if you want to write, then enjoy the opportunity, but if you’re finding it hard, just relax and accept that all things have their cycle and one day this will be nothing more than a story we tell to later generations.

Publishing news

I’m pleased to say that I’ve just helped my writing group publish their third collection of short stories, which is now available from Amazon or from local sellers. That’s three books so far, all featuring stories set locally. Beyond the Beach Huts and A Pinch of Salt all feature Whitstable heavily, while A Different Kind of Kent sets its sights a little wider, covering various corners of the county of Kent.

The stories cover a wide variety of genres, from historical fiction to fantasy, and showcase the talents of the writers, who meet every month to workshop pieces of writing.

Writers of Whitstable's 3 books - A pinch of Salt, A different Kind of Kent and Beyond the Beach Huts

Front matter in a novel

The most important part of your book is the story, but when you’re producing a book for print there are other sections to consider as well. Please note that here I am considering novels only – non-fiction books are a completely different issue.

The front matter is everything that comes before the main story.

This must include:

  • title page
  • imprint page

It may also include any or all of these:

  • half title
  • dedication
  • about the author
  • praise/reviews
  • list of previous works
  • acknowledgements
  • author’s note

Fiction books do not usually include a table of contents.

Some of this content is necessary, while others are optional. And there are conventions as to whether the content appears on a recto (right-hand page) or verso (left-hand page).

The Title page consists of the title, any subtitle, author’s name (but without the word “by”) and maybe the publisher’s name/logo. The title page is always recto.

The imprint page contains information about the publisher, copyright declaration, any other legal declarations, information about the printer, any information about design etc. This is always verso, on the back of the title page.

The half title consists of the title of the book only, usually centred on the page. This dates from when printers would have stacks of books sitting around waiting for their covers, and they would need to be labelled so they could be identified easily! If a half title is included it is the very first page of the book, and therefore recto.

The Other Books section is most often included as a verso page, and this is often a good pair with the half title. This is a good opportunity to provide information such as the order of a series, or to direct your reader to other series you may have written.

The Dedication is usually recto, giving you the opportunity to dedicate your work prominently to someone special or who has played a part in the creation of the book.

The About the Author section may be at the very front of the book, as an alternative to the half-title. Alternatively, you may prefer to put it amongst the end matter.

Praise/reviews often appear before the title page if used. Again, this can provide an alternative to the half title for pairing with the Other Books page.

Author’s Note and Acknowledgements may both be included within front matter or back matter, but if they appear as front matter it is more common to start them on a recto.

All this means there may well be blank pages included in your front matter. This should be considered along with your printer’s requirements – if the printer prints in 16 page signatures, then your page count will made up to the next 16 count with blank pages if necessary. If the choice is between having extra front matter or extra blank pages at the back, I would choose the front matter. If the choice is between extra front matter or fewer pages and therefore lower cost, that might change the decision!

The main content of your book should always start on a recto. Some books follow the convention of starting every chapter on a recto, leaving the previous verso blank if needed, while others will start the chapter on whichever side of the page it falls naturally. Either way, the norm these days is to always start each chapter on a new page, with a large heading partway down and the text itself starting at about the 1/3 mark.

Why not pick up a few books from your bookshelf and take a look at the front matter? That will give you a feel for the standard layouts and content.

Indenting via Styles

To apply an automatic indent to your style, right-click on the style name and select Modify…

Choose Format/Paragraph from the bottom left corner of the dialog box.

In the next dialog box set Indentation Special to First Line and size to 0.5cm (the default of 1.27cm/half an inch is too big and will leave unsightly gaps).

Click on OK.

All styles based on Normal will update to include this, so you might need to modify headings etc to remove the first line indent so they line up properly.

Submitting your manuscript

I do a lot of work with formatting and proofreading manuscripts for print or ebook, and find the same problems cropping up again and again, so here’s some suggestions to make life easier for yourself and for your formatter:

  1. Don’t get too fancy with your formatting.
    Times New Roman 12pt is straightforward. Paragraphs should be indicated with either automatic indenting or automatic spacing between – this should be done via the Styles function, preferably, as any change that overrides the styles function could cause issues throughout the file. Using tabs or spaces to indent, or leaving blank lines between paragraphs, is not a good idea. If you don’t know how to indent/space automatically, your best option is to leave the text un-indented and let your formatter deal with it.
  2. Be careful with versions.
    Make sure your file versions are clearly labelled, and make sure you are sending the right version to your formatter/proofreader. And don’t keep sending updates once you’ve sent them a file! If they have to start all over again with a new version you’re increasing the time taken and almost certainly increasing the cost involved.
  3. Give any changes and respond to any queries as clearly as you can.
    Gather all corrections together and provide them in a single clear list, with indication as to what is wrong and how it needs to be put right. Text to search on is always useful.