Here are the issues my colleagues and I spend the most time on in the main text, in reverse order of how much labor they require.
10. Spacing. Although unwanted spaces are surely the most pervasive blemish, I spend little time fixing them, because my cleanup macro does it for me. In one go, the macro eliminates thousands of spaces before and after hard returns and dashes, spaces between paragraphs, double spaces after a period, and line spaces at the ends of chapters. (Writers commonly put dozens of hard returns after the end of a chapter’s last paragraph, I suppose because they don’t know how to start a new page. I’m told that conversion from another word-processing application also can produce such oddities.)
9. Formats. All the hours and hours a writer puts into choosing pretty fonts and dingbats, putting text into columns, and decorating chapter titles with 14-point bold script: Zap! Gone in a few strokes.
8. Punctuation at the end of quotations. Again, the cleanup macro moves commas and periods inside the quotation marks where they belong (in American-style punctuation), which is a good thing, because otherwise I would look for another job.
In actual hands-on editing:
7. Disagreement with an antecedent. In complex sentences, a subject that’s several lines away from its verb can morph in the writer’s memory into a plural, especially if parentheticals pile up in between. Similarly, pronouns sometimes fail to match the referent and its verb, especially when a collective noun is involved: “The restaurant continues to advertise their cupcakes.”
6. Constructions that aren’t parallel. This usually happens when the writer putsneither or not only before a verb, and then fails to supply a verb for the matching nor orbut also: “The investigation could neither account for the missing cupcakes nor for the fact that there was a secret door in the back of the manager’s office.” Some readers can skim right past a sentence like that; others will shudder and check the spine to see who published the book.
5. Capitalization. Most frequently I find unwanted caps in job titles (pope, queen, president, dean, professor of political science) and academic disciplines (a humanities major), but they also pop up other kinds of words and terms (century, army, chess, chapter 2). Note that The Chicago Manual of Style, which I use, promotes a down style, lowercasing terms that other houses cap.
4. Numbers. Comprehending a paragraph full of numbers is challenging enough without having to cope with variation in styling (77 or seventy-seven) or punctuation (1023 or 1,023) or the styling of ranges (113–4 or 113–14 or 113–114).
3. Danglers and misplaced phrases. Although most of my writers avoid the obviously hilarious (“At a South Side bar they shoot each foreigner passing through the doorway cold, appraising looks”), their long, complex sentences sometimes take a wrong turn. Dangling is often the most efficient way to say something; thoughtful rewriting is labor-intensive, hence its place on the list.
2. Compound words/words with prefixes. Copy editors keep busy adjusting hyphens and spaces in compounds (long jump, long-term, longtime) and removing hyphens after prefixes (coworker, postwar, anti-intellectual).
And finally, the most common copy-edit:
1. Commas. I like commas and tolerate them more than most. (I would have put one in the last sentence if I’d thought it could survive.) But few writers pay attention to their use of commas, and in the typical manuscript they appear across the page like ash from a cigarette, falling where they may. Even with my policy of adding or deleting commas only when they offend a popular rule or endanger intelligibility, that is a great deal of the time.