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A Method for Copy Editing

By Keegan Waller

I think the best piece of advice I’ve gotten in all four (or five, but who’s counting?) years I’ve been in college is to “write with the door closed, edit with the door open.” It’s one of those cliché pieces of advice that probably every English major hears in almost every class they take, from freshman composition to advanced creative writing. And yet, that one sentence has helped me both overcome bouts of writer’s block and become a more thoughtful, thorough editor.

Writing is the easy part for most of us. I write because I like stories, and I have plenty of stories in my head, even if they aren’t always as good as I wish they would be. For me, and for quite a few writers, editing is the hard part. When I edit, the story is no longer just for me, and I have to set aside my ego and personal bias and begin to consider how others will react to the story. I have to consider how characters will be perceived, if their motivations and backstories are coming across on the page or if their rich lives are only in my imagination. And, maybe most importantly, I have to make sure my writing is polished and flows well at the sentence level.

This is the most tedious part of editing, and I have an awful habit of missing small issues that could seem glaring to anyone else reading. Some people rely on Grammarly or other software to help them with copy editing. Some people read their pieces out loud in order to hear any mistakes that they may gloss over reading out loud. Personally, I still do what my freshman composition teacher told me to do. He called it “zebra editing,” and the basic idea is to highlight every other sentence throughout the piece, and then read it backwards, sentence by sentence. When I do this, I am able to slow down and really think about what might not be working in each sentence. Do I really need that adverb? Can I find a better verb for that sentence? Is the tense consistent throughout? What I originally thought was tedious and unnecessary, I now find actually saves me time, since I only have to do one final read-through for grammar and sentence issues. If you dread copyediting as much as I used to, give zebra editing a try!

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