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Your professional guide to copy editing (2022)

What is copy editing?

Welcome to the wonderful world of magnifying text and scrutinising every dot, dash and comma for the sake of an accurate and quality work.

Copy editing or manuscript editing is a detailed process that takes place once the first draft of a text is complete. The text is thoroughly checked for spelling, grammar, jargon, punctuation, overall formatting, and the use of terminology and semantics.

Copy editing also does the due diligence to ensure that the main idea the writer wishes to portray, is clear and easy to understand. Copy editing makes sure any factual data in the text is accurate and that any potential legal issues are brought to the publisher’s attention.

What does a copy editor do?

Copy editors are the mavericks every writer needs to ensure that the text is correct and as accurate as possible before it goes to the proof-reader. And yes, there is a big difference between a copy editor and proof-reader; we dedicated a whole article on it here.   

A copy editor will

  • Check and corrects errors

  • Ensure consistency

  • Enhance readability

  • Fact check

  • Format text

Copy editors inspect the piece of writing in terms of how it flows, and whether it is sensible and fair. They also have power to change the length of text to make sure it is acceptable for the publisher’s preferred style of formatting.

The different types of editing

There are five major types of editing that are performed on writing. It depends on the type of text the copy editor must review and how far the text has already been checked. These can be categorised as follow:

Editing types include:

  • Developmental, substantive, or content editing

  • Structural editing

  • Copy editing

  • Line editing

  • Mechanical editing

Developmental, substantive, or content editing is usually the first step in editing. Developmental editing deep dives into the content and main message of the text. Substantive editing will consider the big picture of the text and sense check the piece.

Structural editing can happen together with the above two processes and it is usually offered as one service. Structural editing, for the lack of better words, checks the structure of the text. It considers the logical flow, style, tone, and overall quality of writing.

Once you are happy with the overall structure and flow of the piece, copy and line editing takes place. Copy editing requires checking and correcting spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word choice, and how it impacts the all-round quality. This part of copy editing also includes verifying numerical information, such as dates and statistics, to ensure accuracy.

Then, going line by line, the editor will examine the text in more detail as part of line editing. Here they may point out cliché word choice and phrasing and suggest ways to refine the content.

Finally, mechanical editing carefully consumes the whole piece and double checks that the formatting suits the publisher’s requirements. They will also do a final check on capitalisations, abbreviations and punctuation.

Stages of copy editing

There are three main stages or levels to copy editing. The main levels are defined as light, medium and heavy. Depending on the budget and scheduling of the publication, the publisher will let the copy editor know what level of editing to employ. The chosen type of editing will help the copy editor prioritise their efforts and ensure an efficient workflow.

The first phase of copy editing can be broken down into 8 steps:

Make copy editing easy with these essential steps:

  • Agree on the scope of work and clarify your role

  • Gather all relevant information and research

  • Read through the document

  • Work through each paragraph and edit for errors (developmental, substantive, and structural editing)

  • Revise each paragraph in its entirety (copy and line editing)

  • Read the entire document again

  • Edit for formatting and cross check with a style sheet if one is provided (mechanical editing)

  • Submit it to the proof-reader

Why is copy editing important?

Copy editing is crucial for any text to be validated and polished before it is published. Why would you do all the effort in researching, conceptualising and writing a piece when after the first sentence the reader is distracted by bad formatting or a typo? The reader may quickly lose interest due to questioning the quality of writing, and as a result, the legitimacy of the text.

Copy editing ensures credibility is strong with the writer and publisher. This is especially important when it comes to factual or informative texts such as news, press releases, research papers or a thesis. If the quality of the document is lacking because of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and bad punctuation, as well as signs of no formatting, why would a reader trust that the content of the text is valuable?

Furthermore, even if the text is technically correct and well formatted, but the structure and flow of information is illogical, the reader can easily get confused, feel lost and move on to another text.

Don’t let all your hard work go down the drain because of bad presentation. Copy editing ensures professionalism, organisation and credibility.

What skills should copy editors have?

A good copy editor has a few key skills in their pencil bag to ensure the service they offer is valuable. These abilities include having excellent writing skills and technical knowledge, as well as a meticulous attention to detail.

They must have the ability to connect with and show empathy towards the writer to help them achieve the big picture and fulfil the end-product they had in mind.

Copy editors need to provide support and guidance to writers, offering encouragement and understanding. They also need to maintain professional relationships with corporate clients and in-house leadership.” – Indeed editorial team.

Furthermore, copy editors need a curious and inquisitive mind. They need to show interest in the topic they are reviewing to understand what the audience will enjoy and how to present it better.

It's good to know that the average rate at which copyeditors edit is four pages (or 1,000 words) per hour, and a great copy editor respects deadlines and keeps their work and process very organised and within the agreed scope.

To conclude and as a humble reminder, copy editing is not the same a proofreading. A copy editor will ensure a writer’s work can be fundamentally improved and may restructure the piece completely while checking the spelling, grammar, flow and logic. Whereas a proof-reader is the safety net and last gate of approval to ensure the text is technically correct and ready for publishing.


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