Seventeen Steps to a Clean Copy

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“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon,” Robert Cormier, author of The Chocolate War.

The editing process can be intimidating. Like any art form, it’s also a craft that can be learned and improved with practice.

My experience as managing editor of a medical journal helped me develop a thorough system of copy editing. Some of it doesn’t translate well into other writing styles, so I’m focusing on the aspects that do. The process is not pretty or sexy.

The seventeen editing system is a list of items I checked to ensure that the manuscript was factual, used proper grammar and followed our publishing style. I didn’t read every manuscript times, but would combine several steps to maximize my time and effort.

These steps may not cover every aspect of your writing project, but it may help you develop your own consistent style, which can generate clean copy regardless of what you write. Use these steps to edit yourself right into more publications!

  • Capital letters (all proper nouns)
  • Begin parenthesis/quotations – end parenthesis/quotations
  • Names and titles consistent – you can’t check names/titles too many times
  • References in order
  • Commas (especially before “ands,” and “which”)
  • Page endings (in galleys – check for lost words between pages)
  • Contractions (consistent use)
  • Very, really, just, that and then (most can be removed without changing meaning)
  • Read aloud, and read backwards for spelling
  • Perspective (consistent use of first or third person)
  • Subhead styles match (first letter upper case, all others lower, no punctuation at end)
  • Mark the end of every line that has changes (helps them stand out on hard copies)
  • All question marks addressed and answered*
  • Consistent use of present or past tense
  • Correct use of hyphens, especially for compound modifiers
  • Sentence fragments and run-on sentences eliminated
  • Numbers (consistent use, check publication style manual)

*When a question arises while my writing is going well, I don’t want to stop and look it up. I mark the spot with three question marks in a row. Later, when I’m editing, I do a search for three question marks, and can go back to each question and answer it before I turn in my assignment.

 Mary Horner, contributor to Volume 14 of Kansas City Voices, is a freelance writer, editor, and author. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

 

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