February 15, 2018

Writing Craft: Master List of Copy Editing Skills

Notepad with text: To Do: Learn Copy Editing Skills

Last week we talked about how to know when we’ve learned enough that we can start our editing process. As we discussed in that post, we all have a natural tendency to underestimate where we are on the learning curve because we don’t know what we don’t know.

That means we might think we’re ready to start our editing process before we really know what we’re doing, which can lead to us wasting time and/or money. Not to mention our endless frustration and struggles if we jump the gun.

Instead, as mentioned last week, we need an intelligent guess at where we are on the learning curve before starting the editing process because any advice will be of limited use if we’re not ready to understand.

In that post, Step Two advised us to create a “master list of craft skills.” With that list, we might have a better idea of where we fall on that learning curve, and we’ll get ideas of what skills we should study next.

Me, being the perfectionist that I am, decided to try to take on this project of working up a “master list” that we all can use. But I’m just one brain, so I’m going to get things started, and we can add to this list with your help. *smile*

I’m going to break down this project into three posts, one for each phase of editing:

  1. content/developmental editing (fix story and character-level issues)
  2. line editing (fix scene and paragraph-level issues)
  3. copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues)

The craft skills we’re discussing come up both when we draft and when we edit. After all, whatever we don’t understand during drafting will need to be fixed in editing, and editing generally happens in the order above (as there’s no point in polishing words in a scene that might be cut or entirely rewritten).

We started with story development and line editing, and now we’re continuing with copy editing

What craft skills do we need to
understand and be able to apply
to perfect our writing?

What Is Copy Editing?

This phase of editing looks at the nitty-gritty: grammar and mechanics, word choice, verb tense, missing words, etc. We’re editing the copy—the actual text—on the page.

Do you know all these Copy Editing Skills? Here's a “master list”... Click To TweetMany of us learned the basics of copy editing in school: punctuation usage, watching out for homonyms, etc. Because of this familiarity,  readers often feel qualified to point out nitpicky errors in the books they review.

Between our school experience and seeing reviewers pick on these kinds of errors, copy editing might be what we first think of when imagining going through an edit process. In fact, far too many publishers will complete only a copy editing pass or will do only a surface-level pass of the other phases.

I’ve lost track of how many authors think their work has been fully edited simply because of a glorified spelling and grammar check. However, I hope given those mega lists on the other posts, we now know just how important the other editing phases are as well. *smile*

That said, similar to line editing, we can’t effectively evaluate copy editors if we don’t know what the rules are. A sample edit won’t tell us whether a copy editor knows their stuff unless we know whether their changes are right or wrong.

The Ultimate List of Copy Editing Skills


  • Yes, this list is hella intimidating. We don’t—and can’t—learn everything at once.
  • No, we don’t have to be skilled at all of these before moving forward in our publishing career. Many of these skills will be an ongoing learning process, and the advanced ones will only come with lots of time and practice.)

Don’t worry. This list gives us a map for our journey, but we’ll never reach the end because there’s always improvements we can make. There is no “done.” *smile*

We need to know:

Grammar Rules

  • how to use and tweak grammar rules for our voice (we need to know and understand the rules before we can break or use them with intent)
  • what makes a sentence complete or incomplete
  • when we might want to intentionally use incomplete fragments (voice, emphasis, etc.)
  • verb tense options (singular vs. plural, present vs. past vs. past perfect, first person vs. third person, etc.)
  • what subject-verb agreement means
  • what verb tense to use for our story (fiction is often written in past tense, but some genres/stories use present tense)
  • how to identify and fix unintentional shifts in verb tense
  • how to handle verb tenses in internalization (direct vs. indirect, first person vs. third person, etc.)
  • how to handle verb tenses in flashbacks (in a past tense story, flashbacks would be past perfect, but we might be able to structure sentences and paragraphs to transition to normal past and avoid dozens of “had”s)
  • how to construct and use compound nouns and compound verbs, especially with possessive use or mix of singular and plural
  • how to construct and use possessives (and common mistakes)
  • how to construct and use phrases and dependent clauses with main clause
  • when to use modifiers and when not to (unnecessary, hurts clarity, slows pace, etc.)
  • common mistakes with modifiers (too vague (“good,” “large,” etc.), dangling modifiers, drifting/squinting (too far from word modified for clear meaning), too many (if we modify everything, we’re emphasizing nothing), etc.)
  • the difference between cumulative and coordinate adjectives and how to punctuate each
  • how to identify and fix dangling and unclear modifiers
  • the rules for dialogue paragraph breaks (change of speaker)
  • what present and past participle phrases are and when we can (or should/shouldn’t) use them
  • common errors with leading participle phrases and trailing participle phrases, such as overuse, impossible simultaneous action, etc.
  • how to identify and fix comma splices and run-on sentences
  • how to construct and use gerund phrases
  • how to construct sentences with restrictive or nonrestrictive elements (including the difference between that and which)
  • how to strengthen our writing by tightening and combining phrases
  • the difference between fiction and non-fiction editing to follow the correct “rules”
  • what subjunctive mood is and how/when to use it

Punctuation Usage

  • how to use and tweak punctuation rules for our voice (we need to know and understand the rules before we can break or use them with intent)
  • proper usage of quotation marks for dialogue
  • when periods, commas, question marks, or exclamation points should go inside or outside quote marks
  • how dialogue punctuation varies with dialogue tags vs. action beats (connected by a comma or separate sentences)
  • punctuation rules for narrative interruptions of dialogue mid-sentence (commas vs. em-dashes)
  • when are commas required (and where do they go)
  • when are commas optional (and how we decide whether to use them—length of leading phrase, clarity of sentence or meaning, style sheet rules on serial/Oxford comma usage, etc.)
  • the most common mistakes for comma usage (splitting compound verbs, separating subject and verb, missing paired commas for asides and appositives, missing necessary commas for compound sentences, missing paired commas for nonrestrictive element, etc.)
  • how to properly use apostrophes for possessive (especially with plurals, compound nouns, etc.)
  • the difference between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes and when to use each
  • when words should be separate, hyphenated, or combined (will power, will-power, or willpower, etc.), especially with adjectives
  • how to write asides with either commas or em-dashes
  • how to use em-dashes for emphasis
  • the difference in reader impression of em-dashes vs. ellipses and when to use each
  • how to appropriately use punctuation for rhythm and micro-level pacing
  • the difference between colons and semicolons (and when to use each)
  • how to use semicolons correctly (and the most common mistakes)

The Importance of the Right Words

Sentence Structure

  • how sentence structure affects pacing and our voice
  • the four types of sentences (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex) and the grammar and comma rules for each
  • the different types of clauses (independent, dependent, relative, noun, adverbial, etc.
  • the different types of phrases (noun, prepositional, adjective, adverb, verb, appositive, etc.)
  • how to mix sentence structure (subordinate phrases, subject/verb/object, compound sentences, etc.) to avoid sense of repetition or monotone rhythm
  • how to ensure our main action (strongest verb) isn’t buried in dependent clause
  • how to identify passive voice and when/how to avoid
  • how to avoid using “It was…” or “There was…” constructions (which bury the point of the sentence in a telling, passive phrase)
  • how to check and fix parallelism errors (compound verbs in different forms, shared prepositions, etc.)
  • how some structures can be harder for readers to parse than others (unless we’re careful)
  • how fragments can be used for rhythm, voice, emphasis, etc.

Flow of Sentences and Ideas

Establishing Consistency and Accuracy

  • the difference between fiction and non-fiction style, such as for comma usage, etc. (fiction tends to follow Chicago Manual of Style rules, and non-fiction usually follows AP or APA rules)
  • what a style sheet is and what goes into one, such as:
    • default style (CMOS vs AP, default dictionary, etc.)
    • chapter formatting
    • when to use italics (and how to avoid overuse)
    • capitalization for unique words
    • numerals vs. spelling out numbers
    • use of serial commas
    • hyphenization and spelling
    • spacing around punctuation (em-dashes, ellipses, etc.)
  • how to follow a publisher’s style sheet
  • how to build and follow our unique style sheet (for self-published authors)
  • how to check the accuracy of any researched story details (real-world settings, character jobs or backgrounds, etc.)

*whew* Yes, this post took as long to put together as you’d think (if not longer…ugh). Hopefully with this list, we can get a feel for where we are on the learning curve as far as copy editing skills. And as a bonus, this list might help us know what to look at for self-editing our writing. *smile*

Have you ever created a master list of writing skills? Were you able to come up with a list for copy editing? Can you think of additional skills we should add to this list?

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Comments — What do you think?

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I have just joined a writing group- and one author directed me to this page. As a beginner, I did not realize how much there was to learn. Thanks for making this available freely.
I am pleased I am not the only one who feels overwhelmed. BUT could you recommend where I might start on your blog, assuming I know very little. I am under no illusions as to my competence level.
And now that I am subscribed to your blog post I get the highlights. Do you allow me to copy articles so I can learn?
Again, thanks

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Wow, lots of content! Thanks.


[…] Over the past two weeks, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy editing. […]


This is so good, Jami! Just catching up on my inbox! Thanks for sharing this 😀


[…] is a large part of making our stories great. Jami Gold shares her master list of copy editing skills, and Janice Hardy teases apart the difference between a revision, a rewrite, and a […]

Julie Glover

Hi, Jami! I had this post tagged for a while to come back to, because I knew I’d need sufficient time to cull through this whole list. It’s FABULOUS. And a little scary, I’m sure, for some. However, as a copy editor, I’ll confirm that writers should learn a lot of this stuff, but they don’t have to get it all correct. That is why you hire a copy editor. I know grammar very well, but I make plenty of mistakes too and wouldn’t think of publishing a book without having it copyedited. The only additions I thought of based on issues I’ve seen: 1. Avoiding overuse of names. You could put that under repetitive words, of course. Yet somehow writers don’t seem to notice names the same way, and we too often have a tendency in dialogue to use names. However, listen to real conversation, and you won’t hear that; if two people know each other, they rarely verbalize names. 2. When to hyphenate adjectives. Is it “blue tinged” or “blue-tinged”? What about “well-bred” or “well bred”? It gets confusing, and only a few such examples actually appear in dictionaries, so you need to have an overall sense of when to add the hyphen and when to leave it out. 3. Which style manual controls fiction. Separate from a style guide, a style manual provides general rules to follow. We recognize these as the AP Stylebook, the MLA Handbook, the Chicago Manual of Style, etc. If you’re used to…  — Read More »


About names: I knew someone who had been in the military. He wrote a mystery. Apparently, many in the military use last names and use them often. He did in his story and was dinged for it by a reader for a small publisher. Probably a good thing to know if one is writing a story set in the military, but for most instances, your point is well taken.

About references: Why the Chicago Manual of Style? My sister recently took me to task for following old-fashioned punctuation. She said the norm is now to use far less. As a result, I removed a bunch of commas. I found some guidelines for AP style in a few articles.

Julie Glover

CMS is just the typical industry standard for books. AP’s rules are for journalists who historically needed to free up space for copy; thus, fewer commas, more numerals, etc. But the newspaper and media standard tends to read more choppy than we would like for the flow of stories.


OK. I decided I should buy this Chicago Manual of Style. But, I can’t find it on Amazon. I found an ebook for CMS that says it is the typographical CMS.($4.00) Also a book by Kate Turrabien that says Chicago style for students and researchers. I found a book by Bryan Garner The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. In parentheses, the latter two say Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing.

Julie Glover

Oh, I wouldn’t buy the book, because it will go out of date. I have a subscription online through the Chicago Manual of Style website (just Google it). CMOS updates their rules regularly and includes a forum for asking questions that you cannot find within the manual. Hope that helps!

Varina Suellen Plonski

O. M. F. G! I just got off from a year-and-a-half stint as a proofreader for a large, well-known finance company. So you know I have a major clue (I thought!) about this.
Not according to this article, I don’t!
In school I pretty much subscribed to the Professor Henry Higgins school of thought embodied in the the quote, “The French don’t care what you say, exactly, as long as you pronounce it correctly.” For my purposes, I didn’t need to know what you called it (i.e., the part of speech) so long as I knew how to use it in a sentence.
Consequently, I can’t tell the difference between a pluperfect and a participle without looking both up. And then promptly forgetting it as soon as my need is done.
I stopped by this article because I’m nearly finished with book 1 of my series. I need to do a proofread before ending it off to my beta buddies and starting on book 2.
Boy, have I got a lot to learn! Starting with this question: What is the/Is there a difference between proofreading and copy editing? got nothin’ on copy editing! 😉

Varina Suellen Plonski

Okay, my bad – apparently does have an entry for copyedit! Seems like proofreading is just (“just!”) spelling, punctuation and grammar, whereas copy editing has all that and content, style, etc. So i was hired to proofread for that job, but also did copy editing as well. Boy, did they need that!

Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great list! You do say to find and fix unclear pronouns – but I would add, do a search for ‘it’ and remove almost all instances, especially at the start of the book or chapter. The amount of books I’ve read that start with “It was…”
Also check all tenses agree.
Personally I don’t read long passages in italics, as they are too hard on the eyes. Find another way to highlight your dream etc. or leave it out of the telling.

Sieran Lane
Sieran Lane

What about the skill of deftly using punctuation to create the sentence rhythms you want? It’s sort of like using punctuation to create voice, but more specifically for prose rhythms.


[…] copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues) […]


[…] copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues) […]


[…] Also, I’ve seen both traditionally published and self-published books with these issues, so we can’t assume that our editor is aware or skilled enough to catch them. (Yet another reason why it’s good for us to learn as much writing craft as we can.) […]


[…] A few weeks ago, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy editing. […]


[…] other stages of the process—line editing and copy editing—involve smaller changes, a few sentences here or a word there. If we screw it up, it won’t […]


[…] copy editing (fix sentence, word, and grammar-level issues) […]


Wow! You’ve done so much work to compile these lists. I’ve only just started to read them but I can already see how useful they’ll be. I appreciate the effort you’ve put in to producing them. I admire your dedication and passion for the craft. I view the mastery of writing and editing as a lifelong learning journey. Thanks to you I now know what I don’t know, which is a whole heck of a lot. *Smile*
But I relish the challenge of building my knowledge.

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