What Is Copy Editing?

You pound on the door of your doctor’s office with a rumpled manuscript in tow. When it finally flies open, you scream, “Doctor, my copy is bent out of shape! Can you treat it?”

He turns to you and says, “Sorry, we don’t treat wounded words. A copy editor, however, can save your content and your proverbial neck with her red pen.”

“A what?” you ask. “What is copy editing? And what does a copy editor do?”

“That is for you to find out,” the doctor says, closing the door and leaving you alone in the hallway with your unedited thoughts.

If you’re in the dark about copy editing, read on to find out what it involves so you know what to expect when working with a copy editor.

What Is Copy Editing?

Copy editing is the process of reviewing and revising written materials before publication. These materials can include:

  • Blog posts
  • Articles
  • Web copy
  • Website buttons, menus, and other UI elements
  • Advertising banners
  • Brochures
  • E-books
  • Print books
  • Newsletters
  • E-mail blasts
  • Academic articles
  • Essays

The revision mainly involves eliminating mechanical issues and raising inconsistencies in mechanics, style, or facts to ensure that text meets the five C’s of writing:

  • clarity
  • correctness
  • concision
  • comprehensiveness
  • consistency

Following the edit, words that provoked a “Huh?” will elicit a “How interesting!”

What Does a Copy Editor Do?

Now, you know the answer to the question: “What is copy editing?” But you might be asking, “What does a copy editor do?”

The mystique surrounding the low-profile profession has manifested all manner of illusions among writers about what a copy editor does.

To some, the editor is a cruel butcher who ruthlessly hacks away at your impassioned prose until it’s little more than a nugget of bland sentiments.

To others, the copy editor is a yes-man who runs a spell check on the content but more or less accepts and praises it as the thing of beauty you think it is (even if it actually looks like the thing in the Black Lagoon that the Creature from the Black Lagoon is afraid of).

In truth, a good copy editor is neither a bully nor a brown-noser, but rather a straight-talking friend whom you can always rely on to relay the truth about whether your words work or don’t.

In fact, the copy editor is a mutual friend of both the writer and the reader. She strives to bring out the best in the writer, but also advocates for the reader. Responsibilities vary by copy editor, but usually include some variation of the following:

  • Correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation
  • Flag redundancies
  • Ensure sentence continuity and concision.
  • Suggest alternate wordings for awkward phrasings, inappropriate jargon, cliches, and weak words
  • Review citations for completeness
  • Ensure that mechanics, facts, and style are internally consistent and that style adheres to style guidelines
  • Verify that images and tables are consistent with image and table descriptions
  • Raise ambiguous or illogical phrases or sentences
  • Highlight the need for substantive editing. Substantive editing involves raising issues about the logic, appropriateness, usefulness, and implications of the ideas presented, and, if needed, rewriting or restructuring certain portions of text to improve organization and readability

Some copy editors additionally perform the following tasks:

  • Do fact-checking of easily verifiable information, such as math. The scope of fact-checking varies by editor. Some copy editors perform fact-checking as part of substantive editing rather than copy editing. Larger publications may enlist dedicated fact checkers for this purpose. Accuracy is ultimately the responsibility of the writer and/or publisher.
  • Flag potential issues of plagiarism or libel. The scope of this review varies by editor. Some copy editors perform this review as part of substantive editing rather than copy editing. The legality of content is ultimately the responsibility of the writer and/or publisher.

What Doesn’t a Copy Editor Do?

I am not putting the thoughts into his head, but helping him unfold those already there.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Knowing what a copy editor doesn’t do is as important as the answer to the question: “What is copy editing?”

A copy editor won’t feed your cat, repair your roof, or pick up your dry cleaning. Beyond that, there are certain editorial tasks that traditionally fall outside the scope of copy editing, including:

  • Writing. Your copy editor is not your ghostwriter. The ideas expressed in the copy should spring forth from the writer’s brain. To quote Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, “I am not putting the thoughts into his head, but helping him unfold those already there.”
  • Substantive editing. A copy editor usually won’t substantially rewrite or restructure content as part of copy editing.
  • Proofreading. This is a task performed after copy editing (more on the differences later).
  • Photo research or obtaining the rights to photos. Some publications enlist dedicated photo editors for this purpose.

How Does Copy Editing Fit Into the Writing Process?

When is it time to cue the music for the copy editor to enter the stage? Copy editing occurs in the fourth step of the writing process, which usually entails:

  1. Pre-writing: This is everything you do before you write, such as defining the content’s purpose and scope, brainstorming and fleshing out a topic, researching it, and settling on a structure.
  2. Drafting: This is when you put finger to laptop key and crank out a rough draft that takes into account what you learned during pre-writing. This stage prioritizes substance over style.
  3. Revising: This is when you give your rough draft a hard look and self-edit it. Add, delete, or replace information to more clearly and convincingly convey your points. Likewise, rearrange content to improve its structure and flow.
  4. Editing: The writer entrusts his self-edited content to a copy editor. Following the edit, the copy editor who may also proofread the work or pass it off to a dedicated proofreader.
  5. Publishing: The time has come to publish the corrected content in print or to the web.

What’s the Difference Between Copy Editing and Proofreading?

Copy editing and proofreading are often confused. While both types of editing are integral to the writing process, they differ in key ways.

Here are the main differences between copy editing and proofreading:

  • Copy editing is the first step of the editing phase of the writing process. Proofreading is the second, and final, phase. A copy editor is the first line of defense against author errors. A proofreader is the last line of defense, catching errors by the author that the copy editor may have missed or introduced during editing.
  • Copy editing is done before the text is printed. Proofreading is usually done on a proof, a printed copy of the final text. The proofreader either reads the proof “blind,” that is, without comparing it to the edited version of the text. Or, she may compare the proof with the edited copy to pick up formatting errors.
  • Copy editing involves heavier editing. Although a proofreader may do light editing, her primary focus is to eliminate typos and formatting errors. She can even opt to return content to the copy editor if more extensive edits are needed.

Ultimately, copy editing is about seeing and helping you realize the full potential of your writing. So, if you believe that your copy can improve, let a copy editor help you improve it.

Photo by micah boswell on Unsplash

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