FAQs: What is copy-editing?

Page owner: Standards director

You may also want to look at Using copy-editors and proofreaders.

Click any of the frequently asked questions below to see the corresponding answer.

What is copy-editing?

Copy-editing takes the raw material (the 'copy': anything from a novel to a web page) and makes it ready for publication as a book, article, website, broadcast, menu, flyer, game or even a tee-shirt.

The aim of copy-editing is to ensure that whatever appears in public is accurate, easy to follow, fit for purpose and free of error, omission, inconsistency and repetition. This process picks up embarrassing mistakes, ambiguities and anomalies, alerts the client to possible legal problems and analyses the document structure for the typesetter/designer.

What does a copy-editor do?

If you have something to say or show, a copy-editor helps you to do that effectively.

A professional copy-editor begins by checking that the copy is complete. Do the chapter titles and other elements match the list of contents? Are all the illustrations to hand? Is there a list of captions? What system of referencing is required? Are there footnotes or endnotes? Then the editor cleans up a copy of the document, fixes page set-up, spacing and fonts, cuts unwanted formatting, creates a stylesheet and starts to identify problems.

Working through the material, the copy-editor corrects errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, style and usage, but also very long sentences and overuse of italic, bold, capitals, exclamation marks and the passive voice. They correct or query doubtful facts, weak arguments, plot holes and gaps in numbering. In fiction, they also check that characters haven't changed their name or hair colour, look for sudden changes from first to third person and monitor the timeline, among other things.

At the same time, the copy-editor is also looking at the bigger picture:

  • Content and structure – Is anything missing or redundant? Is the order logical? Are the headings doing their job? Are footnotes essential? Could supporting material go in an appendix? Is a bibliography needed? Should there be a glossary? Are clickable links needed? Do they work?
  • Information chunks – This depends on the readership, the material and the means of access (e.g. book, comic, desktop, tablet, advert), but usually sentences should be short and straightforward, with paragraphs to introduce new ideas and break up the page. Headings also break up text and make it more digestible: are there enough of them? If there are too many levels of subhead, the structure may need rethinking. Typesetting may affect line length, and the copy-editor will know how to allow for this.
  • Illustrations, graphs and tables – Images ought to support the text, with self-explanatory labels and captions that match. Text should comment on the data in graphs or tables, not just repeat it. The copy-editor advises the typesetter on the location of each element, checks that all the artwork is suitable for printing or reproduction on the web and notes the existence of permissions and wording of acknowledgements.
  • Wording – Is the language pitched at the right level for the likely readers? Do any terms or abbreviations need explaining? Are tone, style and vocabulary appropriate? Do they add authority, or undermine the writer? Of course, language changes constantly and context is all, but copy-editors are aware of informed opinion on what is acceptable and what is best practice. George Orwell's six rules for writers, in his essay 'Politics and the English language', remain the basis of good wording.
  • Consistency – All the time the copy-editor keeps a list of decisions on alternative spellings, hyphenation, italics, capitals, units of measurement, how quotations are presented and much else. The text must not contradict itself, nor any illustrations, tables, graphs and captions. Internal links/cross-references must work.
  • Accuracy and anomalies – Writers are responsible for what they write, but copy-editors will often spot misquotations, errors of fact, misspelt names, misused words, numbers that don't add up and incomplete references, and will check or query them. Copy-editors will also query anything that does not seem to make sense. They scrutinise facts, dates, quotations and references, but do not routinely check every one unless this is budgeted for and agreed at the start.
  • Legal issues – Copy-editors will flag up any instances they see of
    • plagiarism or breach of copyright
    • libel
    • obscenity
    • incitement to racial hatred.
    – but responsibility for these remains with the writer and publisher.
  • Extent – Is the work too long or too short? A book or journal publisher will know how many pages to expect; other clients may need guidance. Does the writer want to change or add material? The copy-editor can suggest ways to reduce the length or use space better without making the typesize too small or spacing too tight.
  • Technical matters – Experienced copy-editors know enough about the technical aspects of publishing (e.g. printing, typefaces, web design) to be able to discuss various issues – extent, page breaks, special characters, types of image – with client, designer, typesetter or printer, to minimise costs and maintain schedules.

The above is only a summary of the main tasks in copy-editing. The result of all this work is a document that is clear, correct, coherent, complete, concise, consistent and credible – the seven Cs of editing.

What does a copy-editor not do?

If you request copy-editing, you will not normally get any of the following:

  • extensive rewriting or restructuring (developmental/substantive editing)
  • ghost writing
  • proofreading (see What is proofreading?)
  • text or cover design
  • indexing (the Society of Indexers has a directory of qualified indexers)
  • research or fact checking
  • picture research
  • copyright permissions
  • project management.

Many professional editors can offer some or all of these services, but this requires separate negotiation and briefing.

Would I be suited to this work?

Many people think copy-editing is largely a matter of checking spelling, punctuation and grammar. These are basic, of course, so if you are vague about grammar, unsure how to punctuate or weak on spellings, this is not the job for you.

To be a successful copy-editor, your English and general knowledge must be well above average. Even then, copy-editing may not be your cup of tea. If you find it frustrating to follow a house style that hyphenates where you don't, if you are easily bored or don't like working on a text where you disagree with the author, if you find it impossible to do a less-than-perfect job (if that's what the client wants), then this probably isn't the job for you.

To get a taste of copy-editing, try the SfEP course Copy-editing 1: Introduction.