Copyediting basics: What it is and what it isn’t


I started this business because I loved the art of editing, especially copyediting, and wanted to spend more time doing this for others. But I’ve found the definition of a “copyedit” is difficult to pin down. Many editors offer similarly named services, yet I’ve heard from multiple authors who contact me in search of a copyeditor that they weren’t happy with a previous editor and had to make a change. What one editor considers a fine copyedit, another may not be happy with at all, and ultimately it is the authors and readers who suffer when copyedits go wrong.

The blog An American Editor had an excellent series on what constitutes a copyedit and the subjectivity that can arise, in this case for fiction. The author, Carolyn Haley, gave a group of editors with various backgrounds an exercise to see what each would change in a manuscript; it wasn’t just about who would catch all the errors. Some errors are obvious; we can all agree that embarrassing spelling errors should be fixed. Other issues, however, aren’t always obviously cut-and-dried “errors.” Is it so wrong, for example, to list items in a series (for example, apples, oranges, and bananas) that aren’t grammatically parallel if the series is so complex that a “solution” to this would implement cumbersome and awkward wording? What about, for example, shifts in person? I start talking about me, me, me, and then shift to you, you, you. Is that such a bad thing all the time?

The point of all this is, besides the basics of a good copyedit, it depends. It depends on who your audience is, what type of publication you’re writing for, and myriad other things. If you’re writing for specialists in a field, perhaps specialized terms should be kept even if it means that once in an entire manuscript a list might not have parallel items. I would flag this for an author with a suggestion, because perhaps the author, knowing more about terms of art in his or her profession, can verify that a more parallel construction won’t condescend to specialized readers. Additionally, shifts in person aren’t expected and don’t usually appear in scholarly works, but they are likely to be seen in self-help books, where an author may go from personal experience (I), to third-party example (he or she), to talking to you, the reader, who has a problem the book is meant to solve.

My goals for a good copyedit are the following, and I always discuss these with clients beforehand, in an initial consultation and by way of a sample edit. A good copyedit should include:

  • The basics. This is simply fixing typos and errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, word choice, usage, and formatting to the level of editing agreed. Everyone’s editing needs are different; sometimes authors know where their weaknesses lie, and I can help them with what they feel needs the most help. Or perhaps direction is what is needed. I like to do a sample first, which illustrates the types of edits a client is likely to see in a manuscript and the level of editing recommended, which is then agreed. Not every manuscript is going to be a swath of redlining, but only a sample can tell both of us how much editing is just enough.

  • Asking questions (querying) in a professional and friendly tone to explain edits, ask for guidance as to preference, or direct the author to places where authorial intervention is required.

  • Applying style rules (for example, regarding the use of numbers and italic text) and making such uses consistent based on some standard, which can be an outside source like a dictionary or style guide as well as the author’s preferences, then outlining these rules in a style sheet.

  • Conforming the manuscript to a particular style if that style is desired or required for publication. Sometimes publishers have particular styles that must be followed (for example, journals can be quite rigid, and books written for particular age levels may need to use particular vocabulary).

  • Checking with the person who is requesting the edit (whether an author or another editor) if certain wholesale changes are recommended. Sometimes, after starting an edit, I realize something I may not have seen in an initial sample. Maybe there’s lots of repetition, or perhaps there are wordy constructions that appear over and over. I’ll check that these things should be changed, specifically if it means I would be doing more work than what was initially agreed.

  • Ensuring that all edits and suggestions are justifiable. If everything falls into the above list, and not into the one below, then edits are justifiable.

A good copyedit should illustrate the virtues espoused by Carol Fisher Saller, of the Chicago Manual of Style Q&A and author of The Subversive Copy Editor: it should be careful, transparent, and flexible. A good copyedit should not:

  • Make wholesale changes to voice and tone. My job as a copyeditor is to make what the author is trying to do consistent, not impose how I think the author should say something if what is being said isn’t incorrect.

  • Rewrite. This is important, as some levels of copyediting can get into rewriting at the sentence level, such as line editing. Every so often, it just needs to be done. However, if an entire document required rewriting, including a full reorganization and major additions and deletions, I would call it rewriting, not copyediting!

  • Make changes that can’t be justified as fixing errors. If you are writing a novel, and you have a character named Joseph Smith, a good editor might check that you understand the historical connotations of this name but wouldn’t go and change every instance simply because he or she didn’t like your choice. Also, I may use American English, but British English is just as good, so there’s no need to change all instances of travelled to traveled as long as the document is consistently written in British English and uses travelled throughout.

  • Tear a manuscript apart. Yes, there are levels of editing where it is expected that the editor works like a devil’s advocate, questioning the author (albeit professionally) about choices and problems. But this usually falls under developmental work. Copyediting assumes that major developmental work has already been done; there are no stones left unturned in an argument, or no plot holes left in a novel, as far as the author is concerned. If during a copyedit I see something egregious, I would stop and query before continuing, but that wouldn’t give me license to begin editing more heavily otherwise.

  • Fall on a sword for a grammar or stylistic “rule” or be otherwise inflexible. There are those things that editors debate year after year. The singular they, for example, or the serial comma. I, for example, like the differentiation between using which and that for restrictive and nonrestrictive (essential vs. nonessential) dependent clauses, and I really like when other people use it in their writing, because to me it sounds clearer. But it’s not wrong not to follow this rule, which is really more of a suggestion, and I’m not going to argue with you if you prefer which in all instances.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that every editorial project is different; what one manuscript needs to shine, another may not. The goal is to always edit with the author’s and readers' best interests at heart.

Originally posted February 2018