Copy editing 101: Why a timeline matters

One of the most useful tools in a copy editor’s arsenal is the making of a timeline.

As an editor, one of your main tasks is ensuring that the text is coherent: that it flows properly, in a way which makes sense to the reader.

And one aspect of “flow” is the extent to which the sequence of events in the text makes sense.

Hatches, matches and dispatches 

For example, in editing fiction, checking sequencing means keeping track of what used to be called “hatches, matches and dispatches”. 

So, in a novel, if an important character dies (is dispatched) just before a baby is born (hatched), is that sequencing consistent all the way through the text? If the death happens in August, is the baby’s birth always described as happening early in September? And are those two events always described in the same time relationship to the marriage (the match) of the baby’s parents in the previous December?

The order of seasons also needs sense checking. In one book I worked on, a character is described early in the text as tossing and turning in the heat of a summer night. And then, three weeks later, she is described as visiting family and shivering in the midwinter-cold.

Impossible, right? Since the bulk of the novel concerned the events of the winter, the earlier reference to a summer’s night had to be changed so that it all made sense.

It’s surprising how often this happens, and not just in fiction. Dates of historical events can be wrong, descriptions of experiments can leave out important steps (important to the reader, but perhaps taken for granted by the writer).

And the way to spot these problems is to keep a timeline

How to do a timeline

When you start editing, open a separate document.

As you read, transfer your observations of timing-related items to that document, adding items in sequence as you go, and adding page numbers if needed:

Page 59 – Character X – born in 1979 

Character X  (described as being in early 20s) and Character Y (said to be aged 20) meet in 1987, middle of February

Their daughter born 1987 (a close-run thing but possible if birth is at end of year)

Son born 1990

It also helps to keep a list of names and places

As you go, make notes of how names are spelled, as well as names of places. (A search of the document will turn up all the instances of the name spelled Rene – but might not find Renee).

Could this all be done by AI?

As I’m writing I am wondering how I might use an artificial intelligence tool to perform these tasks. The first hurdle is that (as things stand now), you can’t upload documents to ChatGPT. If it’s a short document, you can copy and paste the text into the tool.  

Manuscripts from publishers often come in PDF format. Internet research suggests that ChatPDF might be worth trying. The free version limits you to 120 page PDFs, and a test I did with a sample document yielded limited results. But if I had a long manuscript to work on, I might be tempted to give the paid version a try (costs $5 a month at the time of writing)

For Word documents, the upload problem remains. I pasted a shorter text into ChatGPT (about 2500 words) and asked it to find all references to one particular person, which it did successfully.

I think the use of AI is worth pursuing (and I will be playing some more) – but since as an editor, your irreducible task is to actually read the document, the making of a timeline with your own fair hands is still the way to go.

Main picture: Daniel Thomas, Unsplash

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