Monday, December 7, 2020

Copyediting is Subjective by Annette M. Irby


There are as many editorial preferences as there are editors.

Publishers generally have in-house style guides for their editors and authors. Their teams can reference those guides to answer stylistic questions, especially when trusted, outside sources vary or fail to cover the topic in question.

Below, I’ll share examples of preferences that may vary among editors and publishers.

Some fiction publishers prefer zero speech (or dialogue) tags in their authors’ manuscripts. Instead, to show who is speaking, they prefer only action beats. Here’s an example:

“Let’s go to dinner,” she said. (speech tag example)

She grabbed her bag. “Let’s go to dinner.” (action beat example)

Some editors/publishers prefer semicolons never appear in a fiction manuscript. I say, they have their purpose. Go ahead and use them, but perhaps sparingly. Same with colons. Your editor will let you know if it's nonnegotiable for their house.

Asked versus said after a question. Some editors prefer the word “asked” after a question mark in dialogue.

Example: “Could you pass the salt?” he asked.

Regarding POV (point of view): The current trend is “purist POV.” Each scene (or chapter) is in one character’s point of view. If you switch “heads,” you include a scene or chapter break, even if no time has passed, and you remain in that POV throughout that scene/chapter. This helps readers connect with the characters individually and relate to them on a deeper level.

The current trend for POV is also to avoid omniscient POV and to avoid what I call “collective POV.” Omniscient POV shares what is happening from a bird’s eye view. Similarly, “collective POV” is when more than one character’s experience is shared at once.

Example of a POV misstep: They all heard/felt/saw/experienced ___________. 

Instead, show what was heard/felt/seen/experienced from your POV character’s viewpoint. Conversely, you could show something came into view or made a sound. That approach helps readers know what other characters may have experienced, without sacrificing deep POV or violating POV expectations.


INCORRECT: They heard the car drive up. (“collective POV”)

CORRECT: Sam heard the car drive up. (our POV character's experience)

CORRECT: A car approached, its tires crunching on the gravel drive.

Serial comma. Also called the Oxford comma, this preference states there should be commas between every element in a series, including directly before the conjunction (“and,” “or,” etc.).

Example: Today’s weather may be sunny, rainy, or cloudy.

In elementary school we were taught that the “and” in a series was enough. But what about this example: “This morning, I had cereal, orange juice and toast for breakfast.” That sentence could be read that the person had orange juice toast (whatever that is). An editor’s number one job is clarity. Is the author communicating what they mean to say? Reworked with the Oxford comma, we have: “This morning, I had cereal, orange juice, and toast for breakfast.”

Some publishers prefer authors avoid use of “that,” but sometimes “that” is necessary for clarity. See the first sentence of the preceding paragraph. Try removing “that” and see if the sentence reads as well.

Double spaces after punctuation. Unless you’re writing a screenplay, use a single space after punctuation.

Rules and spellings change. Remember when the norm was two spaces after a period? (see above) Or when a comma came before too? Or when goodbye was spelled with a hyphen? Make fact-checking a routine part of self-editing because grammar and spelling evolve. And recognize that, for the sake of consistency, some publishers will remain loyal to outdated rules within their house.

Double versus single quotation marks. In American English, we use double quotation marks first and single if we’re already within quotation marks.

CORRECT: “What did she mean ‘over the hill’?” Carla asked.

To set apart a phrase when outside of dialogue, use double quotation marks. Here’s an example:

CORRECT: She hated that phrase. “Over the hill.”

INCORRECT: She hated that phrase. ‘Over the hill.’

Oftentimes the preferred dictionary (currently will include notes like “British” or “Chiefly British” in the English definition to help guide writers.

While reading, you’ve likely seen an editorial tendency that sticks with you. This happened for me with what I call the “priority comma.” For years I saw this consistently in a respected publisher’s novels.

Here’s what I mean. In a sentence where you have an introductory phrase, followed by two independent clauses joined by a conjunction, the priority comma would follow the introductory phrase and be excluded later in order to avoid comma overload. 

Example: On Friday morning, Estelle read three books(,) and then she went to the store.

You could omit the second comma to avoid overuse of commas. Some editors may see this as a “mistake.” For instances of preference like this, many authors include a “style sheet” with their manuscript submission to explain their editorial/formatting choices.

Two independent clauses joined by a conjunction. Some editors prefer a comma every time. Some publishers prefer no comma if the phrases are short. One publisher I know prefers no comma if the clauses relate to each other.

Example: She ran and he walked. (These are short phrases, but they’re also independent clauses. Still, a comma may look clunky.) 

Example: He declared that he had no choice and he wouldn’t change his mind.

Here “he declared” both facts: he had no choice and he wouldn’t change his mind. Since both phrases refer to what he declared, some publishers prefer no comma.

Capitalizing deity pronouns. As Christian writers, some of us feel pronouns referring to God should be capitalized: He and Him, You and Your, One, etc. Some editors feel it’s unnecessary, and many Bible translators have begun using lowercase letters for deity pronouns in the past few years. My opinion: Since characters can also be referred to as “he,” capitalizing the pronouns that refer to God lends better clarity. And clarity is essential. Also, I agree that capitalization reflects a respectful or even reverential attitude.

What to do if you disagree?

Decide which editorial styles are your absolutes, and which you are willing to live without. Some can be deal breakers for authors. Editors understand that, and your preference, as the author of the work, matters. Simply explain why it’s important to you. Send a style sheet with your submission. Remain respectful. The editing process is two-sided.

Useful and preferred tools that most editors/publishers use:

Chicago Manual of Style, latest edition (online or hardcover)

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, latest edition ( or hardcover) (not to be confused with the paid unabridged version, which gives different spellings and/or preferences)

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, latest edition (softcover)

For your best chance of submitting a strong manuscript, refer to these reference tools, follow the known rules as best you can, and study writing craft. Yes, you may find inconsistencies where M-W differs from CMoS. Don’t worry. You won’t surprise your editor. They’re sitting at their desks referring to their publisher’s style guide for moments such as those.

Write on, friends!

There are as many editorial preferences as there are editors. What's an author to do? @annettemirby #amwriting #amediting #AMIediting


A Christmas Duet
A Christmas Duet: a novella

Following a breakup, professional cellist Kate Fleming’s well of inspiration has run dry. Her musical ensemble is counting on her to write several cello and piano compositions for their next album. She’s rented a beautiful beach house on Whidbey Island for the Christmas season. But the atmosphere may not be inspiring enough.

Church music director Zach Tillmon would love to book a professional musician for the upcoming Christmas program. His number-one choice is out of reach. But perhaps the newcomer wouldn’t mind sharing her talents with the congregation.

When these two perform together, sparks fly. But their lives aren’t settled, so a romance is out of the question. Or is it? Join them near picturesque Puget Sound at Christmastime for a delightfully musical love story.

Find "A Christmas Duet" in the novella compilation: Melodies of Christmas Love. 
Melodies of Christmas Love: Boxed Set

Melodies of Christmas Love: boxed set

Novellas include:

“The Heart of Christmas” by Lynnette Bonner, “Love on a Mission in Millcreek” by JoAnn Durgin,
“The Bells of New Cheltenham” by Chautona Havig, “A Christmas Duet” by Annette M. Irby, “A Night Divine” by Dawn Kinzer, “To Hear the Angels Sing” by Lesley Ann McDaniel, and “Prairie Rose” by Sylvia Stewart.


Annette M. Irby has fifteen years of editing experience, including working in acquisitions. She enjoys mentoring other writers and has been writing since her teen years. When away from her desk, she can be found reading for review, snapping pictures of nature, or gardening. Her novel, Finding Love on Bainbridge Island, Washington, won the 2019 Selah Award. Her book, Finding Love on Whidbey Island, Washington, finaled in the 2020 Cascade Award contest. She is a long-time member of American Christian Fiction Writers. Married twenty-nine years, she lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest. Learn more here on her Seriously Write Page.