5 Pet Peeves of a Copy Editor

Graphic silhouette of a female copy editor at a keyboard with a cat.

I wonder how many words I have read in my decade of being a copy editor. A lot. Whether it’s fiction or non, educational, websites or memoir, I see some common issues in writing.

  1. The possessive apostrophe – It’s a shame its rules are so hard to remember!

Yes, I am addressing the dreaded it’s/its conundrum.

Apostrophes serve three functions.

  • They’re used for a contraction of two words to represent a missing letter/s, such as: don’t, we’ve, and of course the frequently used it’s, meaning ‘it is’.
  • To make a number, letter or symbol plural, e.g. Karen got straight A’s at school 😂
  • To show possession. E.g. ‘The clients of Karen are always happy’ is better written ‘Karen’s clients are always happy.’

It is this last use that trips so many of us up because ‘it’ has a foot in both camps. The contraction usage wins the battle of its’s apostrophe.

I haven’t found an easy way to remember this, only to know that ‘it’s’ always means ‘it is’. So when you’re writing a sentence, try replacing your its/it’s with ‘it is’. If the sentence makes sense, you know the apostrophe version is the one to use.

  1. Hedging words

These vague words are like sitting on a saggy cushion. They lack vibrancy and punch and sound like the writer is not sure about what he or she wants to say.

It began to rain. → It rained.

She started to brush her hair. → She brushed her hair.

Other vague words are: a bit, kind of, sort of, almost, perhaps, a little, somewhat, slightly.

Commit to the sentence and bring the pizazz back into your prose.

  1. There/their/they’re – it’s all going to be OK!

The incorrect use of these words is one of those common mistakes that sends us editors crazy! This is how I remember it:

  • There = a location. Here = a location. There has ‘here’ in it.
  • The above sorts out the difference between ‘there’ and ‘their’, which is the possessive.
  • ‘They’re’ can be confused with ‘their’ because the apostrophe can suggest this is a possessive. But no, it’s a contraction of ‘they are’. This is more likely to start a sentence, whereas the other two are less likely.

Maybe memorising this sentence can help: They’re going over there with their friends.

  1. Dialogue punctuation

This is a finicky edit to make if the incorrect punctuation is throughout the manuscript. The comma at the end of the spoken sentence goes inside the quote marks, followed by the dialogue tag, i.e. the ‘he said/she said’.

If there is no dialogue tag, the appropriate punctuation is still inside the quote marks, be it a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark. If there is an exclamation or question mark, the dialogue tag remains uncapitalised.

“Make sure you punctuate properly,” the editor said.

“I always punctuate properly”! said the writer. (incorrect)
“Are you sure?” said the editor.

“I know what I’m doing”. (Incorrect)

  1. Filter words

This is particularly risky in first person narration when the main character is telling the story straight from their viewpoint. Verbs like ‘I watched’, ‘I heard’, ‘I smelt’ only distance the reader from the story. It’s a form of telling not showing. We know it’s the first person talking, so it’s unnecessary to add these verbs.

E.g. I heard her coming down the stairs → She thundered down the stairs

I watched them score the winning goal → The player shot the winning goal into the net.

Scan your prose for sensory verbs that relate to sight, sound, taste, smell and touch like look, see, watch, hear, listen, taste, feel, smell and remove them. Get to the point of the action. The reader doesn’t need to know the narrator saw it, only what happened.

Fixing these errors will ultimately make you a stronger writer and will shave time off the editing process. It also makes for a happy, peeve-free copy editor… wins all around!

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