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13 July 2012 ·

Copy Editing vs Creativity

I’ve been copy-editing all day – that is, answering the copy editor’s queries. Emailing back with the solutions – with what I hope are the solutions –  I was a bit discouraged to see how short the document was, considering it was a day’s work. Or, six hours, to be precise – because I do feel the need to be precise, and correct, and maybe even a bit pedantic, because that’s what copy editing is. That’s probably why these three sentences have already been rewritten several times. (Three because I’m just counting the first three, not the explanatory fourth, or this explanatory fifth.)

But I think the real reason copy editing takes so long and feels so draining, is that we need to jump back and forth between the pedantry of noticing unintended rhymes (yes, even after reading aloud, a few creep in), or of the two words that have been repeated in one sentence, or the phrase that has been lovingly, sickeningly, reused six times in the book. My editor once told me that every author seems to have one word or phrase that they get stuck on for different books, but it’s little comfort. They’re often words I don’t even particularly like, and I have no idea why they’ve snuck in so persistently.

That unfinished comparison was of course a trick to see if you were paying attention with good copy-editing eyes. To start again: We need to jump back and forth between pedantry and creativity. It’s very easy to get stuck on replacing the word that seems to be the problem: replace ‘too’ with ‘also’ because you used ‘too’ in the previous sentence. Except that for some reason, ‘also’ just sounds awkward there. And you can’t replace the previous one because it’s the other meaning of too.

At that point you need to get up, walk away from the computer, let the dog out, call the dog back in from digging in the mud, wash the dog, wash the floor (okay, maybe the copy editing wasn’t six hours straight). But often the instant you walk away from the screen, you see a completely different, even simpler, and much better way of saying that very simple sentence.

(If you’re curious, this copy edit was on the fifth Rainbow Street Shelter series: STOLEN! A Pony Called Pebbles. ABANDONED! A Lion Called Kiki has just been released, so I think Pebbles will be published in November this year. With a bit of luck, we’ll even have finished the copy edits by then.)


  1. Meredith Costain Great post, Wendy - you've described this process perfectly! And yes, it can be very draining, especially when, by the time the copy edit comes in, you've moved on to another book and another set of characters is filling your headspace.
    August 15, 2012 at 8:21 am · Reply
  2. Wendy Orr Thanks, Meredith; nice to know I'm not the only one!
    August 15, 2012 at 3:29 pm · Reply
  3. Native English Writers Without creativity a person can not be a good copy writer. Creativity makes your content unique.
    August 19, 2012 at 11:25 am · Reply
  4. Wendy Orr A copy writer certainly needs to be creative, but I think copy editing: going over the text line by line, looking for possible confusions, unintended rhymes, word stacks or orphans, reusing a particular sentence structure several times in a row, etc uses a different part of the brain. Fixing these problems always feels more like a puzzle-solving exercise to me than the free flow of creating a story - but yes, of course it's still creative.
    August 19, 2012 at 11:30 am · Reply
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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio