top of page

A Copyediting Tutorial

A Session with Nora Tamada

I’ve always been a lover of the written word; my childhood was spent reading voraciously and filling my days with dreams of far off places full of magic and adventure. When I reached my early teens, I began noticing little mistakes or awkward phrasing in books that would break the spell of the story, and I would start thinking about how to fix or improve what had already been printed before I could continue reading. I did a little volunteer editing in my university days, but it wasn’t until I moved to Japan to become a teacher that I began editing in earnest. After unintentionally falling in with a translation company soon after arriving in Japan, I began editing all sorts of translated materials—working on everything from technical manuals to TV scripts—and I realized that editing was my true purpose in life.

My years of working in Japan had a significant impact on my development as an editor. My teaching background heavily influenced my commenting style as well as my belief that part of an editor’s job is to take advantage of teaching opportunities to help authors improve their skills. Between teaching and translation editing, I was set up to rapidly cultivate extensive line editing skills; combined with being a natural grammarian, I took to copyediting like a duck to water.

I spent many years happily working in nonfiction, marketing, and technical editing. Growing up with an author for a mother and seeing some of the ins and outs of publishing from a child’s perspective, I honestly thought I’d never want to work in fiction. Boy was I wrong. A few years ago, fiction work started coming my way, and I was shocked to discover that my deep, consuming love of story made editing fiction feel like a delightfully natural outlet for my skills. Rather than taking away from the pleasure of reading, as I’d feared, it gave me a different kind of joy that superseded any uncertainties I’d felt about getting into publishing. Luckily, I was introduced to Lou Aronica. Being able to work with him and the Story Plant’s authors has been very fulfilling.

Now that you know a little about me and my background, let’s talk a little about what copyediting is and is not: A copyedit is what you need after the completion of a developmental and/or substantive edit. It is the next-to-last step in the editorial process, dealing with the nitty-gritty of your text, and comes before the final stage of proofreading. The most common misconception I encounter is the lumping together of proofreaders and copyeditors when, in actuality, copyediting lies squarely between proofreading and line editing.

While copyeditors are indeed concerned with the mechanics of punctuation, spelling, and grammar, unlike proofreaders, that is not where our editorial duties end. We are responsible for making sure that style and formatting are in line with current standards, and we must be familiar with the guides that set these standards. In addition to all of this, any copyeditor worth their salt is able to tune into voice and flow and can make suggestions when they are needed—the task of pointing out issues that are not grammar related is where copyediting begins to step into the bounds of line editing. What this all really boils down to, for a copyeditor, is that the work required for each manuscript is the work required, no matter what the edit is labelled.

A word on the importance of following guidelines Because English is such a flexible language, it gives us a lot of leeway with how we can say things; this is key to allowing authors to have their own personal styles and voices, but is also the reason those of us in publishing need to impose so many guidelines. One of the main focuses for a copyeditor is consistency of style and adherence to style guidelines. Within fiction, The Chicago Manual of Style is our bible; being conversant with CMS and knowing how to navigate and implement its rules and guidelines is what truly sets us apart from other editors and is one of our most important functions. These guidelines are exceedingly important since they are what we rely upon to set the standards of universal style and formatting; without them, it would be much more difficult to clearly communicate meaning to the reader.

Title tells A great example of the need for consistency with certain universal points of style is the formatting of titles of works within running text. The visual cues of capitalization, italics, and quotes make it easy for us to communicate a lot of information to the reader without having to explicitly tell them.

I saw Her the other day. Thor isn’t at the theater anymore. Here we can see that the visual cue of italics allows us to communicate that these sentences are referring to movie titles rather than people.

The rules governing this type of formatting helps us to differentiate between interrelated titles: novels/novellas and chapters, albums and songs, periodicals and articles, and TV series and episodes. The set rule for formatting is the main, overarching title is set in italics and the title of the smaller work that comes under the main title is set inside quotation marks.

“Come Together” is my karaoke song of choice. “The Red Wedding” was the most shocking episode in season three of Game of Thrones. Sometimes I read the National Enquirer in the checkout line. There’s no room for confusion in the examples above, but we must rely upon the consistency of formatting rules to accurately infer what the title is referring to in the following: I still enjoy Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Here are a few other related rules for titles in running text: * An initial a, an, or the in the titles of books are italicized and capitalized with the rest of the title

* An initial the in the titles of periodicals are kept in lowercase and not italicized

I enjoyed reading The Catcher in the Rye. The crossword in the New York Times can be challenging.

* Titles of book series are capitalized in headline style, but are not italicized * Titles of short stories and essays are enclosed in quotation marks * Titles of poems are enclosed in quotation marks, but collections of poems and very long poetic works are set in italics

The Dragonbone Chair is the first book in Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy. “The Telltale Heart” was the story that made me fall in love with Poe as a child. Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” is in the collection Leaves of Grass. Dante’s Inferno is the first part of his epic poem The Divine Comedy.


Exercise 1: Titles of Works Decide whether each of the following titles should be formatted with italics or quotes. 1. Dark Side of the Moon 2. Material Girl 3. Top Ten Styles for Summer 4. The Wall Street Journal 5. The Trouble With Tribbles 6. The Iliad 7. GQ 8. Doctor Who 9. Last Forever, Part 2 10. Cosmos

Exercise 1 Answer Key 1. italics, 2. quotes, 3. quotes, 4. italics, 5. quotes, 6. italics, 7. italics, 8. italics, 9. quotes, 10. italics


The numbers game Another guideline that plays a prominent role in how things look on the page, yet is sometimes subtle in its influence, refers to the need to spell out numbers if they are the first word in a sentence; this rule is very straightforward but can sometimes prove difficult to put into practice. While there isn’t any issue when using numbers that are supposed to be spelled out (zero through one hundred and larger round numbers), the use of large numbers and dates at the beginning of a sentence often leads to the need to restructure or recast the sentence.

Two cats meowed from the porch. One thousand chickens crossed the road. 1929 was a dark year in American history. The year 1929 was a dark time in American history. 214 people came to the concert. There were 214 people at the concert.


Exercise 2: Sentences Beginning with Numbers Recast each of the following sentences to avoid beginning them with numbers. 1. 1984 is still a relevant novel. 2. 2 million dollars is our goal for this year’s sales. 3. 7:00 a.m. is my usual wakeup time. 4. 162 people have signed up to take the seminar. 5. 2005 was the year everything changed.

Exercise 2 Answer Key (Your answers do not need to match exactly, but may look similar to these answers.) 1. The novel 1984 is still relevant. 2. This year’s sales goal is 2 million dollars. OR Two million dollars is this year’s sales goal. 3. My usual wakeup time is 7:00 a.m. OR Seven a.m. is my usual wakeup time. 4. There are 162 people who have signed up to take the seminar. 5. The year 2005 was when everything changed. OR Everything changed in 2005.


Colons need more than a diet high in fiber Now that we’ve gone over a few points of style, let’s turn our attention to some punctuation rules. Colons are one of my favorite pieces of punctuation, and although their function is very specific, they can be used to great effect. The technicalities of colon usage: Colons are often used to introduce elements (which usually look like lists) or series of elements that illustrate or amplify the text that precedes the colon. They can also be used to introduce related sentences, like the colon used at the beginning of this paragraph. When any item in a series of elements requires internal commas, semicolons are used to separate the elements to avoid reader confusion.

The store sold three kinds of chocolate: white, milk, and dark. He made his motives clear: fame, fortune, and women; the ability to work for himself; desire to prove his father wrong.

Colons are also used to emphasize the text that follows them.

This is what I need from you: honesty and respect. King Midas only cared about one thing: gold.

Capitalization rules for text that follows colons can sometimes feel inconsistent, but the rules themselves are easy to navigate once they are understood. When used in a sentence, the first word following the colon should be lowercase unless it is a proper name.

What I love about summer: cherry season and warm evenings spent relaxing on the porch. To name a few of my favorite female authors: Lynn Flewelling, Robin Hobb, and Joan D. Vinge.

When a colon introduces two or more sentences, an extract/quote, or when it introduces a direct question, the first word following the colon is capitalized.

Let’s divide the dish duty: You do the dishes after breakfast. I do the dishes after dinner. Then she read aloud: “Once upon a time . . .” First question: What is your favorite color?

It is important to note that colons should not be used after linking verbs and prepositions.

Items on the agenda today are: review goals and brainstorm new products. Today’s agenda items: review goals and brainstorm new products. OR Items on the agenda today are to review goals and brainstorm new products. I am scared of: insects, clowns, and ghosts. I am scared of insects, clowns, and ghosts. I am scared of these three things: insects, clowns, and ghosts.


Exercise 3: Colons and Capitalization Complete each statement on your own following the rules given above. Use each of the rules at least once in your answers. (Note that there is no answer key for this exercise, so try to line your answers up with the examples.) 1. What I love most about writing: 2. I am thankful for these: 3. There is one question I hate more than any other: 4. The sales clerk told me: 5. A typical teenager’s morning routine: 6. My sources of inspiration are these: 7. These are a few of my favorite things: 8. How to make a great sandwich: 9. How I like to spend my free time: 10. If I could ask the president one question, it would be this:


Don’t quote me on that To wrap things up, we’ll go over my least favorite punctuation: scare quotes. This is editorial terminology for the quotes used to set apart words or phrases that are not part of dialog (although they can be used inside lines of dialog). While they can be very effective when used correctly, or sometimes even necessary to clearly impart your intended meaning to the reader, the overuse and misuse of scare quotes is one of the most common issues I see in both fiction and nonfiction—this can be particularly problematic when scare quotes are used near sections of dialog. I think one of the main reasons for this is the lack of understanding of what their specific function is; many writers often mistakenly use scare quotes to add emphasis, but CMS rules 7.55 and 7.57 state that:

“Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard (or slang), ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed scare quotes, they imply, “This is not my term” or “This is not how the term is usually applied.” Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused. Quotation marks are rarely needed for common expressions or figures of speech (including slang). Reserve them, if at all, for phrases borrowed verbatim from another context or terms used ironically.”

Only “nerds” nerds will get this reference. His “apology” was totally insincere. He said, “She seemed to like the idea, but wanted to ‘marinate’ on it for a while.” After meditation or Indian buffets, I always feel as if “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

It is also important to know the rule against using scare quotes around words or phrases introduced by so-called. Since the expression itself indicates irony or doubt, the use of scare quotes becomes redundant. Of course, because it’s English, there is an exception to this rule: if it is necessary to call attention to only one part of a phrase introduced by so-called, quotation marks may be helpful.

His so-called “teacher” teacher failed to teach him anything new. These days, so-called “running” shoes are more likely to be seen on the feet of walkers.

If you think you may have a tendency to overuse or misuse these types of quotes, here are a couple tips to help you avoid this: 1. Ask yourself if the word or phrase in question is being used in a normal way. If you are trying to add a sense of emphasis, use italics instead—just keep in mind that you don’t want to overuse italics either. 2. Read what you have written aloud and whenever you encounter a scare quote, make a finger quote gesture. If making finger quotes feels natural, then the scare quote is likely appropriate; if you find yourself making the gesture too often, or if it feels unnatural, then the quotes may be inappropriate. This is also a good trick for helping you become more consciously aware of your use of scare quotes and their impact on your writing.


Exercise 4: Scare Quotes Read the following paragraphs and choose which scare quotes are appropriate. Emily’s morning “ritual” was so stringent that she almost seemed to suffer from “obsessive-compulsive” disorder. The bed had to be made to her exact “specifications” and the pillows arranged “just right” before she took a precisely ten-minute shower and dressed in the outfit she had laid out the night before. She didn’t care if her father referred to her as his “little robot,” she thought it was a “cute” nickname and he used it with affection; however, she didn’t like it when her so-called “friends” teased her about it.

Her siblings called her a “neat freak” because everything had to be “spotless” or else Emily would “freak out.” Her youngest brother liked to “accidentally” spill things in the kitchen when she was busy “helping” her mother prepare dinner. When it came to “chores,” her brothers tended to be “lazy” and usually did a “lousy” job since they knew Emily would “pick up” behind them. Emily didn’t “mind,” though she was aware of their “habit.” She enjoyed cleaning and felt it really was a state “next to Godliness.”

Exercise 4 Answer Key Only accidentally must be used in quotes to give the word the appropriate inflection. If so-called was deleted, then quotes would be needed around friends, but as written, the quotes are incorrect.

Quotes used with both little robot and next to Godliness are subjective and could be included or deleted depending on preference and prevalence of quotes in surrounding text.

All other quotes are inappropriate and should be deleted.


A final word

I hope this tutorial has helped to shed some light on a few of the things copyeditors do and perhaps helped you perfect or understand some writing technicalities. I understand that it can be hard, even intimidating, to have someone edit your labor of love, but it is essential to have a fresh eye that is trained and knowledgeable go over your work before it’s presented to readers. Please remember, we editors are here to help facilitate your writing and make each book the best it can be.


About the Author…

Nora Tamada is a freelance editor who works across multiple genres in adult, new adult, and YA fiction. She also enjoys editing nonfiction, with particular interest in memoirs, philosophy, psychology, and self-help. She is passionate about her craft and dedicated to helping her clients actualize their best work. Her editing style reflects the deeply ingrained belief that an author’s story should be told in their voice to preserve the unique spark they bring to the page.

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page