Everything you wanted to know about copy edits

The copy edit on Behind Closed Doors is DONE, my friends!

And this time it was a complete delight. Yes, there were stressful moments. There was even a brief ‘I am never writing another sodding book as long as I live’ moment. But there were also many moments of abject joy, too, in seeing the plot tangles smoothing out, realising that things can be fixed, subplots make sense, there are no loose ends left. None!

I was very fortunate this time to get Linda McQueen as my copy editor. She worked on my first three books, and so she knows my writing well: she knows what mistakes I always make, and we are almost at the point where she knows what it is I am trying (and failing) to say.

Thanks to Linda, I am hugely proud of Behind Closed Doors again, and I think (hope) you will like it when it comes out. At the moment, the e-book and the large format paperback will be released in the UK on 29th January 2015, and in the USA on 30 March 2015. That may well change, but the good news is that it is on its way!

This time I’ve been able to pay more attention to the process, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how editing works, particularly with regard to crime novels, and I’d like to share this with you. (I should point out that these may well be bleeding obvious to most people, but for me they were real lightbulb moments).


Why Editing a Crime Novel is Particularly Tricky

I’ve always thought that writing a crime story is similar to investigating a real crime. After all, something’s happened, you need to find out what it is, and make sure there’s enough evidence for the perpetrator to be brought to justice. Simple, no? No. In real life, there are FACTS. However little the investigators know, something definitely happened and nothing they can do will change the facts of what actually took place. It’s as if the events surrounding the crime are bedrock, and the investigation floats somewhere above it, trying to get at the truth.

In a crime novel, there is no bedrock. You have ‘facts’ of what happened during the course of your crime, but they are just as shifting and nebulous as the investigation. Even with the assistance of a timeline, if something doesn’t work for the investigation, you can go back and change what happened. In other words, you are working on two shifting timeframes: the events of the crime, and the investigation. And if you change something in one timeframe, it will affect other things, in both timeframes.

In other words: NIGHTMARE!

(I think it would be good if I was better at planning…)

Secondly, My Editing Analogy

Occasionally someone asks me what the editing process involves, as there are many stages to it, and something Linda said made me think of an analogy to explain it.

Writing a book is a bit like building a boat. You finish writing it – so your boat has a hull, sails, oars, a rudder, everything it needs to get it on the water. You’ve been over it a couple of times yourself, and it looks pretty water-tight. Then you put it in the water – in other words, you show it to someone – and instantly it starts to sink. At this point you may well lose heart. But you still have such a lot of work to do! Your editor is the one who shows you where all the holes are, because you’ve been looking at it for so long you can’t even see the holes. In fact, some of the things your editor suggests might not even look like holes to you, they might look just fine as they are – so there is an element of trust involved too. Together, you go over the whole thing and plug all the holes, starting with the big ones and moving on to the little holes. Sometimes, in order to fix a hole, you find that you make new holes elsewhere. These, too, are sometimes hard to spot. For a time it feels as if your precious creation is more hole than boat. You go over the hull with your editor, fixing holes, making new holes, fixing them too, over and over again until you’re sick of the sight of the thing. But then, eventually, just as you start to think building a boat was a stupid idea and you wish you hadn’t bothered, it looks like there is no more water coming in. Yay! If you were to try and steer your boat now, it would work. It floats – kinda – and it isn’t going to sink spectacularly in the middle of the lake. If someone were to read your book now, it would be fine. But you’re not finished! It’s time to move on to the copy edit.

You move on to the copy edit because what’s happened is that, whilst you are floating, you are still sitting in your boat in a puddle of water. What the copy editor does is a different process: effectively she takes the boat out of the water, drains it, and finds all the tiny little holes that are still left. The only way she can do this is because all of the big holes have already been fixed. So there should be no more character development issues, no more dramatic changes – just little tiny issues that most people might not notice, but for the few who do, they are intensely annoying. Missing or extraneous punctuation, incorrect grammar, inconsistency, but more importantly inaccuracies – continuity errors, if you like – are all spotted and fixed here. All the little incidental things that add flourish to your boat are checked to see if they are letting water in. Thing is, when you’ve been working on the entire hull for such a long time, it’s almost impossible to see the little holes yourself anymore. And the same goes for the main editor – they’ve spent so long working on your characters, your story, keeping the suspense levels up – they might not notice that on page 16 you said your subsidiary character is an only child, but by page 255 she has an older sister.

Fixing these little issues is hard work and for a time it makes you panic a little, because if you missed all these holes, having worked on it for so long, how will your boat EVER be watertight? But you persevere, and you trust your copy editor to find all the tiny little cracks, and eventually you get to the stage where you are not fixing things, you are making the boat look pretty again.

And that, folks, is when you move on to the proofreader. There should be no more holes. But if your copy editor is human, there may be one or two tiny cracks that even she cannot see anymore, and now you need a fresh pair of eyes to find them.

I think after the copy edit you are proud and excited about your boat again. It’s no longer something that’s doomed to sink without trace; it’s not just finished, it’s perfectly functional, but even better, it’s beautiful and YOU MADE IT YOURSELF.

You made it, but it took a team effort to keep it floating…



  1. Fabulous post, Elizabeth! Really explains the whole process so well. It does get very tiring doesn’t it? I find my mind gets ‘saturated’ and I can’t see things clearly any more. It’s the continuity business that gets me. I try, right from the start of a novel, to make notes of everything like eye colour, character traits, shoe size etc etc – but there’s always something that slips through the net! Really looking forward to the new book – and congratulations! xx

    • Thank you Alison! Yes, keeping track of everything becomes impossible, no matter how carefully you’ve planned. As soon as you start to change things, there is a butterfly effect meaning that lots of other things need to change, too. So frustrating, and so wonderful when it’s all over with….

  2. Well all I can say is that you are doing a very good job filling all those holes and your finished project is more like a beautiful sailboat than a rowboat! I am also in the painful editing stage. It doesn’t help that I’m somewhat of a speed-reader, and miss some glaring mistakes. It’s great to be able to work with someone who understands you. I look forward to your next offering.

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