An editor recently said to me, “While most professors think that all one needs to do a copyedit is a copy of the dictionary and a spell-checker, it actually requires much more technical knowledge and professional training.” Truer words could not have been said: of all of the levels of manuscript editing, copyediting is the most technically challenging because it requires a deep focus on grammar and style and much more than just a dictionary or cursory-level knowledge of the English language to do at a high level.
Copyediting is also one of the most misunderstood levels of editing, often confused with proofreading, its successor in the editorial process. Unlike proofreading, which includes the correction of minor typos among many other tasks, copyediting involves a much deeper rinse of a text and the use of tracked changes in a word processor. It may also involve some subject-area expertise, especially when authors need help parsing jargon and dense academic language.
So what exactly is copyediting and how does an editor perform a copyedit on an academic text? In this blog post, I’ll go over some of the basic principles and outline my basic process for approaching a copyedit.
What is Copyediting?
Copyediting is a crucial stage in the editorial process. Its purpose is to improve the accuracy, readability, and overall quality of written material. Copyeditors review a document for grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors, as well as inconsistencies in style and formatting.
Copyediting typically involves the following:
- Fixing grammar and spelling mistakes
- Improving the flow of sentences
- Correcting punctuation
- Correcting or formatting citations (foot- or end notes and/or bibliography or reference list)
- Applying a style guide like the Chicago Manual or your publisher’s house style
- Document formatting (at the section, chapter, and book levels)
- Improving word choice
- Ensuring consistency (at the word and manuscript level)
- Eliminating repetition
- Basic fact-checking (e.g., names, places, pronouns)
- Glaring issues with argumentation, content, or evidence (see developmental editing for more help with this!)
Copyediting is a highly mechanical process that requires a trained professional; it is extremely rare for an untrained editor to perform all of these tasks at a high level—it takes more than just talent. These editors are often experts at one or more style guides (Chicago, APA, AP, AMA, for example), which they apply to both the text and any citations, and are highly knowledgeable about the technical aspects of working in word processing applications like Microsoft Word.
One of the main goals of copyediting, and academic editing in particular, is to ensure clarity and cohesion in a text. Copyeditors look for ways to make the message clear and easy to understand for the intended audience. This may involve rephrasing sentences, eliminating redundancies, or clarifying complex concepts. Here, a subject-area expert might come in handy, since they will be more knowledgeable about the jargon and conventions specific to an academic discipline.
In addition to clarity, copyediting also focuses on consistency. This includes checking for consistency in style and formatting. For example, a copyeditor might check to make sure that all headings are formatted in the same way, or that acronyms are consistently spelled out or abbreviated throughout the document.
Copyediting is typically the final stage of the editorial process before a document is ready for publication. Once the copyeditor has made all necessary revisions, the document is ready to be typeset or otherwise prepared for publication.
The Copyediting Process
While all editors have their own ways of working, the following provides a brief summary of my current working process as a professional copyeditor working with individual academic clients (as opposed to for a press or journal, which might have their own workflows) on journal articles, essays, and book manuscripts.
Document preparation: First, I open the document and do a word count and assess the manuscript overall: What are the things I need to look out for or that can be corrected quickly before I begin? At this time, I might do some basic cleanup to the formatting using Word’s styles, including changing the font or spacing of the text; get a sense of the manuscript’s overall story or thesis; and determine the scope of the project, for instance the level of editing that’s needed to the text and/or citations.
Alongside this assessment, I open the style sheet (not to be confused with the style guide) that I’ve created for the project and review the highlights. If any changes need to be made based on the client’s publisher’s requirements, then I modify the style sheet accordingly.
Sample edit and global changes: Next, I choose a section of the document, typically around 500–800 words from the middle, to perform a sample edit so that the client can see what kind of edit they’ll receive and provide feedback, if necessary.
At this time, I might also do some global changes to the manuscript, such as removing extra spaces or correcting common punctuation issues. This is typically done “silently” (without tracked changes). I might also run macros on the manuscript; macros are keystrokes that allow you to perform simple editorial commands on a document (check out this guide to macros by editor Jennifer Yankopolus).
First pass: During the editing process, editors perform passes, or rounds, on a document, passing it back and forth with the author until the service is complete. The first pass is generally the heaviest and most in depth, and is used to address all of the aspects of copyediting outlined in the previous section of this post.
During my first pass on a document, I actually perform at least two internal rounds, one deep edit for mechanics and another to clean up anything I’ve missed, glaring issues with content, and awkward wording, and to review queries and notes to self. Most of these changes are tracked using the word processor’s track changes function, although some global changes are done silently.
While editing, I’ll update the style sheet regularly based on any words and names I’ve looked up, in addition to any rules I referenced in the style guide or other editorial decisions made while working. I also ask the author questions or make comments (known as editorial queries) using the comments in the margin.
I generally edit the citations separately from the text, inserting placeholders for missing information; I don’t fact-check citations for clients unless it’s really easy for me to look up or I know the info off the top of my head.
Second pass and beyond: Once the client sends me back their response to my first pass, I perform a second pass. During the second pass, I accept any changes that I made during the first pass that the author didn’t stet (a Latin term meaning to keep as is) and any changes that the author made that don’t need further correction.
During this pass, I do not fully edit the manuscript a second time; I only review the changes made by the author based on my first pass and track new changes. Additionally, I resolve/delete any comments that have been addressed and are no longer necessary and respond to any open queries.
Any further passes that are performed mirror the process for the second.
While copyediting may seem like a straightforward task, it’s actually a highly skilled service that may take years to master.
In addition to the process outlined above, there are considerations including contracting, document handling, and other forms of client communication that editors must consider.
If you’re just starting out or considering this as a career path, I encourage you to enroll in an editing certificate program, like the one offered by the University of California at San Diego, that will codify your skills and help you professionalize your workflow.
The editors and writers at Flatpage can help you with that. We've helped thousands of writers with various aspects of the editing process. Learn more about our copyediting services by clicking below.Learn more
About the author
Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.