Clean copy: What it is, why it matters, and how to produce it

Submitting copy that needs little fixing is an editor's dream. Here is how you can start writing cleaner.

Clean

We’re all aware of the wellness trend toward clean eating. Gwyneth Paltrow has even promoted the benefits of clean sleeping. But long before these fads came into vogue, there existed a literary virtue known as clean copy.

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As both a writer and an editor, I’ve been in a position to see each side of the clean-copy coin. As a freelance writer, I have reaped the benefits of being a contributor who produces error-free prose, including a string of new placements and continuing assignments. On the other hand, I’ve personally experienced the editorial frustrations of struggling with raw copy from writers who apparently hadn’t bothered to look at what the magazine publishes – or even to have proofread their own work.

Not only is this time consuming for the copy editor and/or proofreader involved, but it’s also downright insulting. Basically, these writers[1] are saying: “I can’t be bothered; you do it.” In some cases, it seems like the writers have submitted little more than their notes. Don’t let this be you.

 What it is

The ability to produce clean copy is one of the most valuable skills that a writer can develop. But what exactly is clean copy?

For those who may be unfamiliar with the term, clean copy is writing that doesn’t need much work by an editor to make it ready for publication. And why does clean copy matter? Because, as more than one editor has told me, it makes their job easier (more on that in a minute).

Clean copy is what separates the professionals from the amateurs, the go-to writers from the wannabes. It endears you to the editors you write for, but it also makes you a trusted resource. After a while, you might even find yourself being consulted from time to time on matters of grammar, punctuation, and style.

It’s not necessary that clean copy be perfect (although that should always be the goal). When you submit a manuscript, you should feel confident that it could be published without any changes or proofing whatsoever. That is what makes it “clean.” And as William Zinsser, late author of the classic book On Writing Well, said: “A good editor likes nothing better than a piece of copy he hardly has to touch.”

Why it matters

Not too long ago, I got an email from one of my regular editors at a national consumer magazine. The subject line was: “Thank you for being a good writer.” In the body of her email, she wrote: “Hi M.T., just wanted to say that editing your piece was a joy. You make my job so easy. I only made one change – deleted an extra space.” For the icing on the cake, she ended this missive with a smiley face. It was the nicest email I had ever received from an editor in all my 25 years of freelancing, and, of course, it was gratifying to hear.

A couple of months later, I got another email from a different editor, also at a glossy consumer publication. In it, he said almost the exact same thing as the previous editor. “Thanks for making our job easier,” he wrote, calling my attention to the comments of the magazine’s proofreader, which had been forwarded for me to see: “No [corrections]. I was worried that I’d missed something – I don’t usually proof an entire article without finding something. Then I noticed the author and felt better!”

Hearing this a second time re-enforced just how important it is for me to produce error-free work. Both magazines are regular outlets of mine: The first is one of my newer markets; the second I have been contributing to for most of my freelance career. In both cases, the editors have continued to give me assignments because they know they can count on me and – unlike with other contributors – working on my submissions won’t give them a headache.

Yet a third editor once paid me a compliment that makes this latter point rather nicely. When starting each new issue, he would begin by working on something easy. In most cases, he told me, that “something easy” was my contribution for the month. He is since retired, but over the course of our long working relationship, I sold over 100 stories to him.

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The lesson? The more you make an editor’s job easy, the more they’ll want to work with you. Always strive to be the writer editors love reading.

How to produce it

So how do you go about creating clean copy? Well, it’s easy – and it’s not. The easy part is the effort. You have to care. You have to want to submit clean copy. You have to want to aspire to perfection. This is simply a matter of being diligent and applying yourself, employing the old writing saw of “revise and rewrite.” (This article went through numerous drafts before I considered it clean enough to submit.)

The next step is to get a good grammar book and style guide. It can be The Elements of Style. It can be The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook. It can be something less dry, like Patricia T. O’Conner’s lighthearted Woe Is I. Which one you choose isn’t especially important; what matters is that you learn the lessons it contains, especially the basic rules of usage governing the most common punctuation marks. This includes how to properly use a comma, a dash, a semicolon, and a hyphen.

Remember, clean copy is not just writing that flows well and is easy to understand. It’s copy that is properly formatted and styled according to the publication’s in-house guide. So you must study the magazine. See if it uses the serial comma or not (notice the usage in the paragraph above). If you’re not sure about a particular matter of style, ask the editor. Trust me; your editors will appreciate the effort and awareness that you put into your submissions.

As a writer, you’ll be happy with the results, too. Because your copy is clean, it will be published mostly unaltered – meaning that your words will appear under your name more or less exactly as you wrote them.

 

M.T. Schwartzman covers Alaska tourism and the cruise industry for consumer and industry publications. He also teaches adult-education classes on writing and publishing.

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[1]*You may wonder how these people get published at all. Usually, it’s because they have expertise in the subject matter and are writing for trade or business publications.