What Copyediting Classes Taught Me

Editors have a tough time of it. They have to correct a writer’s work to adhere to whatever style manual the publisher mandates, whether it’s the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Style Manual, or some industry-specific guide such as the American Medical Association Manual of Style. They also have to make exceptions from these manuals per the publisher’s inhouse style guide and more exceptions per the author’s style sheet. Somehow, they have to do all this without insulting the author or altering their voice or tone, or the meaning of their words. And they have to produce something the publisher will print.

If this sounds like a tall order, it is. Everything I write goes through an editor and while the queries and red lines have decreased over the years, I suspect they’ll never disappear completely. There is just too much to know and most days, my brain can’t handle it.

Always the eager learner, last year I looked into some editing courses. In addition to simple proofreading, I could choose between light, medium, and heavy copyediting, or developmental editing. Always the glutton for punishment as well, I signed up for the University of California, San Diego’s twelve-credit program comprising four classes and culminating in a copyediting certificate.

Ten years ago I would have poo-pooed the need for such structured lessons. After all, I’ve been an avid reader and writer for decades. What more could there possibly be to learn? Nonetheless, I put my ego aside and jumped into the class discussion. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only student with an ego that needed checking. Apparently, inexperienced editors tend to think they know everything (and don’t mind letting everyone know) while experienced ones know they don’t (and probably never will). So those first few weeks of class were, shall I say… entertaining?

The typical self-proclaimed grammar nerd wouldn’t cut it in today’s English class. It’s not enough to know when to use there, their, or they’re; your or you’re; or even that, which, or who. Brag about your mastery of these words in a copyediting class and you will be laughed out of the whom (Ha ha! A little copyediting who-mor – I mean humor). That’s kid stuff you should have learned in grade school, and my first lesson launched straight into appositive phrases, demonstrative pronouns, adverbial clauses, and subjunctive moods. I swear that last one wasn’t even a thing when I was in school. If it were, surely, I would have remembered it.

Then there’s punctuation. Has there always been such a thing as hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes? I always just called those things “dashes.” Now I have three to choose from (yes, look at that – I ended my phrase with a preposition): the dash above the “p” key (for a hyphen), the Ctrl+Minus on my number pad (for the en dash), and the Ctrl+Alt+Minus (em dash). While I welcome these additions to my writing repertoire, the relaxed rules around some punctuation set my teeth on edge. For example, you would not believe what semicolons are getting away with these days. Remember when phrases before and after a semicolon had to be complete sentences and not simply clauses? Well, now there are exceptions. For something called “readability.” Yeah, I know. Blew my mind too.

If you aced English in high school or even majored in the subject in college, don’t think you’re ahead of the curve. A lot has changed and it keeps on changing. Think about it: the Chicago Manual of Style is in its seventeenth edition. So while you’re perusing a manuscript or online article, mentally judging the author’s writing, consider that what you think is right might not be right anymore. I was taught to never begin a sentence with “or,” “and,” or “but,” or to end one with a preposition (or to never split an infinitive, for that matter). Well, guess what? All OK now – as long as you understood when and why to break those old rules. I was also instructed in the careful use of commas to separate certain clauses and phrases. Nowadays, all those commas aren’t only unnecessary, they’re considered old-fashioned. This is referred to as “open” punctuation style, versus the “closed” style that was drilled into me years ago.

Finally, inclusive language is a huge topic in editing these days. When discussing gender, physical and mental abilities, race, religion, and an assortment of other topics, what’s in and what’s out changes daily.

I learned a lot in copyediting classes, and I’m looking forward to receiving my certificate from UCSD. I’ll update my resume, my LinkedIn profile, and my About Me page on my website. I’ll frame it, hang it in my office, and post a photo of it on Instagram and Facebook. I’ll keep all those textbooks handy, too, and all those websites bookmarked because there is no way I’ll remember everything I learned. Even if I did, it’s sure to change.

I will remember one thing: copyediting is hard. Really hard. And so my greatest lesson – after all the reading, writing, editing, quizzes, tests, and discussions – is this: I do not want to be a copyeditor. It may have taken me a year to figure that out, but it’s a lesson I will not forget. Period.

This blog first appeared as a column in the September 11, 2019 Gazette Woodmen Edition.

I Want to Write a Children’s Book


The children’s book market is as crowded as a library shelf. [Photo] ProjectManhattan/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve never had a children’s book published, or even written one. That doesn’t stop writers who are looking for advice on getting their children’s books published from contacting me.

What I know about getting a children’s book published is that it’s not much different than getting any other book published, with one caveat: It’s a lot harder.

The reason it’s a lot harder is that people think it’s easy to write one. There are a couple hundred words in a children’s book, versus tens of thousands of words in an adult novel or work of nonfiction. Books written for adults require a lot of research, too.

Since people think children’s books are easy to write, a lot of people write them. This means that children’s book publishers are overwhelmed with submissions – letters of inquiry, book proposals, and manuscripts – and most of them are not good. It also means there are a lot of good ones, too, so there is a lot of competition.

Children’s books are hard to write because every single word counts.

That’s true for any book, but because there are so few words in a children’s book, it’s even more true. If one of my books has 85,000 words and 8,000 sentences, I can bury a few bad sentences here and there, and most people won’t notice. In a children’s book, if you have even one bad sentence, people will notice. If there are only ten sentences in the whole book and one of them is bad, then 10% of your book is bad.

If you see a children’s book written by someone who is not a writer, say, a famous actor or singer, do not assume the person – in addition to their celebrity – is a talented writer. People with that kind of money hire other people to help them write books, and get them published. They may have the original idea, and it may be a wonderful idea, but writing is harder than you think, and often times the easier a book is to read, the harder it was to write. Good writers know how to make writing that’s easy to read, and celebrities can afford to hire the best writers to help them write their books. 

Publishers like to publish books “written” by famous people, because (a) the celebrity worked with a really good writer, and probably an illustrator, too, to get the words and illustrations just right, and (b) they don’t have to worry so much about marketing the book, because the celebrity will do it for them. I applaud anyone who writes a book, no matter how they got it done, but I think this practice gives the general public the impression that anyone can write a children’s book, when that is just not true. Sometimes it takes hours to write one sentence. This has nothing to do with “writer’s block,” which is a whole different thing. It just takes that long, sometimes, to get a sentence exactly right.


When anyone asks me for advice, I am happy to provide it. I may not be an expert and I let them know that, but I am happy to provide them with the information I do have. So when I get an email or a letter from someone who wants advice about writing or getting published, I always reply.

It takes a while to write a letter, so from now on I’m going to post them here on my blog. That way, the next time someone asks me for advice on how to get their children’s book published, I can point them here. This will save me a lot of time, so I can get some writing done.


Hi Andrew,

I read your letter of inquiry and book manuscripts. I really liked the books. The stories are fun and I can see how a kid would enjoy reading them. I also liked the fact that you included some information about yourself in the letter. Rather than edit them, I’m going to give you some advice. The reason I don’t want to edit them is because there is not enough to edit. A publisher is going to want a lot more information.

First, here are some things you should know about the publishing industry. 

  • The publishing industry, and especially the sector for publishing children’s books, is extremely competitive. This means you have to do everything right, or you will not get a contract.
  • The letter of inquiry is good, but generic. Every publisher will want specific information in your letter of inquiry. Likewise, every publisher wants to see specific information in a book proposal. The information they want to see varies from one publisher to the next.
  • Depending on the publisher you reach out to, they may want to see (a) a letter of inquiry, (b) a book proposal, or (c) your actual manuscript. Some companies don’t want to see a manuscript at all until they’ve read the letter of inquiry or book proposal, and then they will let you know if they’re interested in seeing your manuscript.
  • This may sound like they’re being “picky,” but publishers get thousands of letters and proposals, so they don’t even read most of them, and if you send them something they don’t want or didn’t ask for, they won’t read it. They’ll just send you a form letter or email rejection.


Here is my advice. 

  • Go to a bookstore and check out the children’s book section. Find books that are similar to yours – not ones that necessarily  “look” like yours or have a similar story line, but books that are about the same word count, and written for the same children’s  age range as your books.
  • The publishers of those books are the publishers that you want to be targeting. Every publishing company is interested in specific types of books, so if your book isn’t their specific “type,” they will not be interested.
  • Get a copy of Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market 2016. “Writer’s Market” books are a listing of publishers. Look up the publishers you are targeting. When you find one, it will show you exactly what they want to see from you. Like I said, some publishers want a letter of inquiry, some want a book proposal, and some will look at a manuscript. Some do not accept work from new authors at all, and some of them will only accept work from an agent. Knowing this upfront will keep you from wasting your time contacting the wrong publisher with the wrong information.
  • The listings will also give you pertinent information like the name of the person at the publisher to contact, usually an acquisitions editor. This is extremely important, because if you send your stuff to the wrong person it will just get thrown away. People at publishing companies are inundated with inquiries, so they don’t go out of their way to read everything.
  • The listing will also tell you how to contact them. Some of them will accept email, and some will want hard copies.
  • The listing will also tell you the format to use for your work. Again, publishers are very picky. They may want everything in Times New Roman, 12 point font, double-spaced, and if you don’t send it that way they will not read it. I’m not kidding.
  • Once you’ve found a publisher that is interested in the type of books you write, and that is accepting work from new authors, follow the instructions on who to contact at the company and how to contact them.

My first book proposal was 13 pages long and included a lot of information, because that’s what the publisher wanted to see before they would even look at a manuscript. I’m telling you all this because I know how hard it is to get a book contract. It took me a long time. I will tell you that if you send a generic letter of inquiry without “doing your homework” about the specific publisher you are targeting, your work will not get read. If you send them a bulleted list of the manuscript, they will not read it. That’s just how it is.

Start with the letter and manuscripts you have prepared, but then follow my directions. You can buy a Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market on Amazon for about $20. I have several of them (they have different versions) and they are invaluable! In addition to the listings, they include a lot of great information about the market, getting an agent, and getting published.

Also, think about joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They have local chapters, and there’s one in your area.

I have a sister who has been trying to get a children’s book published for a couple of years, and she said the information she received from her local chapter has been very helpful. I don’t trust advertising for groups like this, but I trust my sister, and if she says it’s worthwhile I believe her.

After you do all of the above, and you have the right information for a specific publisher, written up in the proper format, and you would like me to look at it, feel free to send it on. I love to see new authors get published, but I also know how difficult it is. You have to do every single thing the publisher’s way, or your manuscript will not be read, no matter how good it is.

Good luck.