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What’s the point of copy editing?
The purpose of copy editing is to point out or fix errors and inconsistencies in a piece of content, from mechanical or topical errors to infelicities of grammar, usage, syntax, and punctuation.
Anyone in the editing community will tell you this is easier said than done! In The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn talks about how the main responsibilities of the copy editor are also known as the 4 Cs—clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness—all in service of communication, the “Cardinal C.”
In this sense, copy editors and writers have the same goal. They’re on the same team. They’re both meant to be advocates for the reader in their own way.
My Guide to the Copy Editing Process
- What Is Copy Editing?
- Grammar and Usage Errors
- When Do You Need a Copy Editor?
- What Does a Copy Editor Do?
- Correlating Parts of the Book
- Permissions and Typecoding
- What Isn’t a Copy Editor’s Job?
- Copy Editing vs. Proofreading
- Copy Editing Process
- Clarify Expectations + Note Problem Areas
- First and Second Passes: Mark Corrections
- Verify Words on a Style Sheet
- Check Documentation
- Clean Up + Check Searchable Errors
- Frequently Asked Questions about Copy Editing
What Is Copy Editing?
A solid copy edit (or copyedit, one word, depending on your preference) should include a range of corrections and suggestions.
Authors and editors have different expectations for this stage of line-by-line editing, which is why many editors provide basic, moderate, and in-depth copy editing services.
Most publishers expect copy editors to perform a word-by-word edit to polish the story, making changes only when necessary for clarity, accuracy, and integrity.
Copy editing holds the tension of tightening the author’s language to communicate as clearly as possible without distorting the distinct and unique quality of the author’s voice.
Grammar and Usage Errors
A copy edit focuses on removing wordiness and smoothing out awkward phrasing.
Copy editors also correct grammar and usage errors such as misused words, subject-verb disagreement, redundancies and mixed metaphors, dangling modifiers, et cetera.
At its core, a basic copy edit should accomplish consistency and conform to an editorial style, which includes the following.
- Treatment of numbers/numerals
- Front and back matter
- Abbreviations and acronyms
- Use of italics and bold type
- Treatment of headings, lists, tables, charts, quotations, foreign language, footnotes, endnotes, et cetera
When Do You Need a Copy Editor?
After you’ve written initial drafts and self-edited your work, it’s typically best to find a content or line-by-line editor. Sometimes before content editing you need a structural editor or heavier substantive editing/developmental editing. Once your big-picture editing is finished, it could be time for a more meticulous copy edit.
Just remember, line editing and copy editing are not the same task. If you’re not sure what level of editing is needed, ask a professional editor to perform a sample edit to help you determine next steps.
A copy editor works on a project before pretypeset and typeset proofreading.
What Does a Copy Editor Do?
Correlating Parts of the Book
Aside from mechanical editing to ensure consistency and correctness in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and usage, a copy editor also pays close attention to correlating parts of the manuscript. This includes:
- Verifying cross-references
- Checking the table of contents against the manuscript
- Reviewing the numbering of footnotes, endnotes, tables, illustrations, and captions, et cetera
Permissions and Typecoding
A copy editor also reminds authors to pursue the necessary permissions needed to reprint quotations, tables, charts, graphs, et cetera, if it’s still under copyright. Sometimes a copy editor is expected to typecode the manuscript, too, calling out certain elements, including but not limited to:
- Part and chapter titles, subtitles, and numbers
- Headings and subheadings
- Table numbers
- Source lines
Copy editors are also fact-checkers, to a certain extent. For more complicated projects, fact-checking may be a separate stage of the publishing process.
But, in general, copy editors should verify accurate spelling of proper nouns using Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style, from names of people, place names, organizations, products, trademarked items, and website addresses to publication names and publisher names.
What Isn’t a Copy Editor’s Job?
Copy editors aren’t considered developmental editors or collaborative writers on a project. They should flag clunky or awkward writing in need of revision, but they should not rework the text as a ghost writer would.
Copy Editing vs. Proofreading
Copy editors are not proofreaders. In fact, copy editor and proofreader jobs are quite different. Although many copy editors are good proofreaders—and freelancers offering quality copy editing services should flag typographical errors—copy editors and proofreaders use two different “lenses” when providing a second pair of eyes on a manuscript.
This means the copy editor job description doesn’t include fixing errors introduced during the typesetting, formatting, and final stages—that’s the proofreader’s job.
Even so, the copy editor salary or hourly rate is usually higher than proofreader rates, at least according to data from Venture Research Associates in April 2020.
RELATED: How to Become an Editor for Books in 2023
Copy Editing Process
Clarify Expectations + Note Problem Areas
Make sure to ask expectations of your production editor, author, or client. Sometimes project managers will have a running list of problem areas or tasks you will need to focus on as a copy editor. Keep these items top of mind as you edit, and return to your checklist often.
First and Second Passes: Mark Corrections
If you’re working with a Word document, the first step in your editorial process should be marking corrections using the tracked changes feature. Unless the production editor or client describes a different method of communication, you should raise queries in the comment bubbles.
Not sure the best way to query an author during a line-by-line edit? Check out my e-course, Freelance Editing 101: Launch or Grow Your Editorial Business. I discuss querying as well as other editor habits and healthy editor-author communication!
Verify Words on a Style Sheet
In your copy editing process, make sure to verify every word on the style sheet provided to you. If the client or production editor doesn’t give you a style sheet (honestly, red flag), create one. The proofreader will need one after your copy edit.
You should double-check stylistic information and ensure that it adheres to the house style you are using or The Chicago Manual of Style. When you finish the copy edit, return the electronic style sheet, with tracked changes visible, to the production editor or your main point of contact.
If you can’t verify spelling with standard sources but you can verify it with another source, such as a separate dictionary, include the source in your style sheet.
Typically, the final step in a copy edit is reviewing the content and style of footnotes and endnotes, as well as extracts and quotations, though some copy editors like to do this first! Query any missing superscripted numbers, check superscripted note numbers in the text, and make sure everything is correct and aligned.
Clean Up + Check Searchable Errors
Common, searchable errors can make their way into any manuscript. Search for author stylistic preferences, word and sentence repetition, numbers, misspellings, variant spellings of certain words, proper nouns, and more.
You can make some formatting changes with tracked changes off, such as double spaces and straight apostrophes versus curly apostrophes.
Frequently Asked Questions about Copy Editing
What are the principles of a copy editor?
The principles of a copy editor are to maintain clarity, coherency, correctness, and consistency while making word-by-word corrections to grammar, usage, punctuation, and syntax. Accuracy and integrity are the main goals of any copy editor.
Will copy editing fix all the errors in my copy?
Copy editors should fix or at least address mechanical or topical errors, but human error can happen, which is why proofreaders will often catch what copy editors miss. In general, copy editors make word-by-word corrections to most if not all errors in grammar, usage, punctuation, and syntax.
What are the 5 Cs of copy editing?
These are the chief concerns of every copy editor: correctness, consistency, coherency, clarity, and communication. Ultimately, these 5 Cs demonstrate the importance of copy editing.
What are the types of copy editing?
There are many different types of copy editing, from fiction or nonfiction copy editing to SEO copy editing, business or sales copy editing, technical copy editing, and medical copy editing.
Some editors perform light, medium, and heavy copy editing services, depending on the level of editing needed for a certain project.
RELATED: Editor Talk: 4 Types of Editing
What are the best copy editing courses?
Copy editing practice and building confidence takes time, and the best way to gain experience as a copy editor is through reputable copy editing courses. I highly recommend getting an editing certificate through the University of Chicago Graham School, but you can pursue editing education a number of ways.
Associations such as The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), ACES: The Society for Editing, and other groups offer courses, webinars, and other training resources to learn the craft of copy editing.
Want a principles of copy editing PDF and editing checklist? Snag one here before your next editing project! And don’t forget to check out my e-course, Freelance Editing 101: Launch or Grow Your Editorial Business.
This post was all about the principles of copy editing, copy editing vs. proofreading differences, the definition of copy editing and what’s expected for copy editor jobs, and much more.
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