What Does Copy Editing Entail – What is It?

In the world of editing, the term “copy editing” is a reference to an area of editing that is often somewhat grey in its meaning. Few people can seem to fully agree what it is that makes copy editing fit into the stage or level between developmental editing and proofreading, which are the two stages respectively of editing at the bigger picture level and the final cosmetic editing stage. Additionally, the use and demand for copy editing has seen a decline. As budgets get tighter, some newspaper groups have made their copy editors redundant. A lot of freelance editors tend to focus on developmental editing and on proofreading. However, many people believe copy editing is a critical step, particularly for checking manuscripts. It is a step that traditional publishing houses still practice. However, what is copy editing?

The fact is that copy editors look to identify and remove every minor error they can find in a text in a manner very similar to proofreading. However, copy editing is set apart by two important factors, which are that these editors do a lot of fact-checking and create what are known as style sheets. 

Checking of Facts

When applied to a book, the developmental editing stage means the editor focuses on the book’s plot, tone, dialog, general structure, and character strength. In turn, a proofreader seeks to remove typographical and various minor errors in the grammar – generally any errors that a copy editor may have missed. However, neither of these stages are especially concerned about checking facts such as whether electricity was a common item in a 1880s household or whether a suit of armor really could protect a soldier from bullets. However, this is a copy editor’s job. They also check the correctness of facts related to a host of mundane or routine things, e.g., the exact distance between Nashville and Atlanta, etc.  Essentially, a copy editor ensures that all facts are correct so that readers are not distracted from a story by inaccuracies and to add realism to the entire reading experience.

Style Sheets

The creation of style sheets is another job that copy editors do. These sheets provide a list of the grammatical mistakes that a writer frequently makes, the way they spell certain words and names and they often provide recommendations on how numbering should be used, and so on. Here are some examples of items that might typically be included in a style sheet. For instance, one item that a lot of writers have a problem with is compound words and whether to hyphenate these or not. Therefore, a style sheet would indicate whether these words should be written as one or two words as well as a list of the words that an editor has corrected in a text. This enables the writer and, if necessary, their proofreader to see the correct presentation of these words. Copy editors also decide at the outset what the presentation style for numbers will be. An exception here sometimes is the format for time i.e. whether this should be shown as 2.30pm or 2:30pm, etc. These style rules can vary in non-fiction writing where all numbers under ten can be shown in number form and all numbers between ten and a hundred spelt out in full. Additionally, it can be acceptable to use some words in different forms. A good example of this is t-shirt, which can also be spelled as tee-shirt or tee shirt. It is immaterial which version the writer chooses, but trends tend to change over the years. In books from the 1980s, for example, you are likely to see the word presented as “tee-shirt.” However, these days, the most common presentation is “t-shirt.” If you work in copy editing, you will need to decide which version should be used, add it to your style sheet, and then ensure it is used in a consistent manner throughout a text. 

A lot of proofreaders also create style sheets, but this is usually because they are likely not to be able to track their preferred spellings, numbering styles, and so on if they do not. The way traditional publishers usually work is to give a manuscript to a copy editor after the developmental editing stage, and then to a proofreader for a final checking before the book gets published. Generally, proofreaders use the copy editor’s style sheet when they are doing the final checking and polishing of a manuscript. Often, however, when a client hires a proofreader they do not have style sheets to give them, so proofreaders often create these themselves and give them to their clients to use in the future.

Sentence Structure Improvements

Some people do not include or associate sentence structure with copy editing. However, some experts feel that this stage - after developmental editing - is where editors should remove as much passive voice as possible, improve the flow of any sentences that are confusing by reworking them, and check that the voice of the text is consistent. This ensures the storyline itself is not being altered or critiqued, but just that sentences are as good as they can be before going to a proofreader for a final checking and polishing. 

A Few Additional Tricks and Tips

By now, you probably understand what distinguishes copy editing from other types of editing. However, if you are a copy editor, there are still a few tips and tricks you should know about to help you provide your clients with the best service possible and to make your own task a bit easier.

  • Read aloud! This tip is one of the most useful pieces of advice you can get. Reading aloud makes it much more difficult for the brain to overlook small mistakes such as forgotten articles or wrongly placed apostrophes. During a copy edit, reading aloud can draw attention to words or sentences that sound confusing and/or awkward.  
  • If a sentence needs reworking for some reason, read it aloud again before moving on. Copy editors will tell you that they have rearranged some sentences numerous times to make them clearer or to remove passive voice only to then realize they forgot an article or left words hanging at the end of sentences rather than deleting them as they had intended.
  • If any part of a manuscript gives rise to doubts or questions, place a comment in the margin to query these. Your job is not to solve problems related to a book’s plot, but clients will be glad to get your comments and feedback. They will be keen to know if anything confuses you.
  • Likewise, a lot of editors like to add comments when they find an author’s words amusing. Many people would say that one of the most difficult things to get across in prose is humor. It can be very hard to know if sarcasm is working or a particular timing is right. Therefore, many authors like to know which aspects of their humor are working and which need help. All you need to do is add a comment against certain parts saying these made you smile or laugh. Then, you can explain your comments in more detail to an author when you deliver the edited manuscript.
  • Everything should be questioned. Try to make a point of googling any detail that concerns a date, location, technology, science, culture, and so on. A writer usually knows what they mean because they have seen or have experience of the time, technology or place they are speaking about, but mistakes do occasionally occur. It is better to be safe than sorry and caution will help you capture those small errors that will earn you the appreciation of your client. 
  • If you are working for a client who is publishing their own work (i.e. self-publishing), and whether they ask for a proofread or copy edit, the checking you do is possibly the only round of editing their work will get. Therefore, if you are doing a copy edit, it is likely there will be no proofreader to get any style sheet you create; the manuscript’s author is probably the only person who will see or get it. Hence, it can be a great help to them if you include guidelines on any spelling or grammatical mistakes the author is prone to making, often without them being aware they are doing this. This is not a reference to the basic mistakes that a prolific writer knows about from avid reading and frequent writing. This means the niggly things that often bother editors. Here, for example, is an entry that a copy editor might make in their style sheet:

“It is usual to use “–” (the em dash) as a replacement for parentheses, to link adjoining phrases to sentences and/or to indicate a long pause. By contrast, the “-” (en dash) is usually used to indicate some type of connection or conflict (e.g., the republican-democrat debate), to indicate a range (e.g., see pages 10-12) or to indicate a time or date period (e.g., 9-10 p.m. or 1990-1993).”  

Clients, or at least some of them, may not take much notice of these comments, but many will and they may put them to good use in the future. Some editors will tell you that clients often thank them for teaching them correct word/grammar usage. For instance, a client may be hyphenating everything before your comment but then you may notice they suddenly start using the different types of dashes in the correct manner.

Final Few Thoughts

Most copy editors enjoy their work and it is a service worth drawing to the attention of new authors. Essentially, it is a very comprehensive round of editing that any author should find useful, particularly self-publishing authors. Additionally, editors can ask for a slightly increased fee since they are providing an addition or fuller service. Copy editing skills in the present marketplace can set a freelancer apart with a mid-range service that few others offer.