Editor’s Corner with Suzanne Johnson- Stuff Copyeditors Want You to Know

Today we’re welcoming Entangled Copy Editor, Suzanne Johnson.  The copyeditor is a writer’s best friend.  He or she catches all the minute errors a writer often glosses over.  Ever wonder what a copyeditor wants you to know? Here’s your chance to find out!

Take it away, Suzanne!

I know what authors think—copyeditors sit around drinking black coffee, tapping red pencils against oversized dictionaries and style guides, waiting for perfectly formed manuscripts to arrive so we can rip into them and extract their souls. Yeah, yeah. Get over it. We only want part of your soul. You can keep a bit.

But, in the interest of transparency, here’s a quick, hit-and-run checklist of what makes my copyediting senses shudder like an English teacher on crack:

Directional Excess. Why say “sat down on the chair” when “sat on the chair” says it perfectly? Climbed up the ladder? Same thing. Do a search for “up” and “down,” and see how many you can cut. Do a search for “over” while you’re at it.

Which and That. As a rule, use “which” in a clause that follows a comma and “that” in a clause that doesn’t. There’s a more technical difference, but that rule usually works. I saw the ladder, which was propped against the house. I saw the dog that bit me.

May and Might. Might means it could happen; may means you have permission for it to happen. You might sit down (or you might not). You may sit down, because I said you could.

That. Do a search. I’ll wager at least half of your thats are unnecessary.

Pet words. As an author, I’m guilty of throwing really and just around indiscriminately, with no idea I’ve done it. I once used wound nine times on one page—just ask my crit partner. Every author has pet words she doesn’t see. Use a word-repetition program like Autocrit (or the program on the Savvy Authors site) to find pet words—or do a search for common violators such as really, just, only, and even.

Disagreement between pronouns and antecedents. I see this a lot, and it gives me facial tics. Each of the students is expected to bring their notebooks. “Each” is singular, and “their” is plural. No, no, no, no, no. *wrings hands*

Run-ons. Another common problem. A run-on sentence differs from a sentence fragment, which is a legitimate rhetorical device. Usually a run-on sentence is easy to spot, it uses a comma to separate two complete thoughts. That run-on sentence could be fixed by substituting a semicolon for the comma—except we hate semicolons on principle. The best fix is usually to break the run-on into two sentences.

Sure, I could go on, but you get the picture. Anal-retentive, you say? A tad obsessive-compulsive? Maybe. But I leave you with an effective reminder of how important those niggling little bits of grammar and punctuation can be.

Which is correct?

I helped my uncle Jack off the mule…or…I helped my uncle jack off the mule?


Suzanne Johnson, Copyeditor


On August 28, 2005, Suzanne loaded two dogs, a cat, a friend, and her mom into a car and fled New Orleans in the hours before Hurricane Katrina made landfall. Three years later, she wove her post-traumatic stress and love for New Orleans into the beginning of a new urban fantasy series that begins with the release of Royal Street on April 10, 2012, by Tor Books, the science fiction and fantasy imprint of Macmillan. Books two and three in the series will be released in fall 2012 and spring 2013. Suzanne writes urban fantasy and paranormal fiction from Auburn, Alabama, after a career in educational publishing that has spanned five states and six universities. Suzanne grew up in rural Alabama, halfway between the Bear Bryant Museum and Elvis’s birthplace, and lived in New Orleans for fifteen years. This means she has a highly refined sense of the absurd and an ingrained love of SEC football and fried gator on a stick.


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6 Replies on Editor’s Corner with Suzanne Johnson- Stuff Copyeditors Want You to Know

  • “Directional Excess”… ROFL I love your term! It’s my pet peeve – I am always taking out “down” “up” etc – in both the manuscripts I edit and in my own. ugh. What is it about those words?????

    Great post!

  • @Aubrie…Yeah, that second sentence is kind of gross! Don’t want to think about that too much.

    @Kerry…I do it, too, if I’m not paying attention. I think it’s because we’re so used to talking that way.

  • Brilliant.. English is a great language.. guess both answers could be right..eew depends on what you and Uncle jack were up to really ! 😉

  • Brava!

    As a content editor myself, I completely relate to your post. (As I type, I’m doing a fist pump. Whoot, whoot!)

    My favorite bugaboos are eyes that do things by themselves:

    His eyes followed her from the room. (like…puppies?)
    Her eyes flew around the restaurant. (Duck! Flying eyeballs! Waiter, waiter, there’s an eyeball in my soup!)
    His eyes landed on her breasts. (And bounced on the soft, fluffy pillows of her cleavage.)

    I also love the creeping hand syndrome:

    His hand crept up her thigh. (Ewww!)
    A hand touched her shoulder. (Eeek!)
    Her hand clenched around his neck. (Ack!)

    I won’t go into fingers, which have also been known to do odd things all by themselves.

    So please, allow me to add this directive to your writers: PLEASE make your characters, and not their body parts, perform the actions of your story. Otherwise, you never know…your sentence could end up being made fun of in a blog post. Bwahahahahahaha…

  • The advice above is ideal, not real. I peeked inside an Amazon listed book yesterday after reading this article. I counted 8 semi-colons and 5 colons on the first page, all were unnecessary. I stopped counting sentence fragments not in dialogue after 10, on the first page. Sentence fragments are legitimate if used for a purpose. The fragments I read had no purpose. That’s lazy writing, and lazier editing.

    Editors also advise writers to refrain from overusing gestures such a nod, head shook, and shrug. Again, peek inside any currently book, everyone is nodding, head shaking and shrugging.

    Editors should practice more what they preach.

    Referring to the above comment about eyes and hands—it’s common language. Babies ‘follow’ objects during first eye exams. Children follow the bouncing ball over song lyrics on TV, with their eyes, not with their bodies. At my last eye exam, my doctor asked me to follow his pen, so, “my eyes followed his pen.” And the other day my friend said, “I was doing fine looking at pictures until I landed on this one.” He did not physically “land on it,” his “eyes landed on it.” I understood him without thinking about it.

    Common language is common for a reason.

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