What Does a Copy Editor Do?

The first thing a copy editor does is prevent sentences like this from being published:

“Even though her husband is the chef, Melissa says she enjoys cooking herself.”

or this:

“Music is one thing the women share in common with each other.”

The sentences are grammatically correct, but the first is not what the writer meant to say – and the second uses twelve words that repeat a similar concept three times: share, in common, and each other.

In short, the primary goal of proofreading or editing copy is to make the writer look good.

When proofreading or editing copy, you want to ensure that the reader focuses on the message and is not distracted by misspellings, misused words, or awkward sentences.

The Difference between Proofreading and Copy Editing

When you proofread, you look for mistakes the spellchecker didn’t find and errors in punctuation, capitalization, placement of modifiers, and grammar – making sure the subject and verb agree – that sort of thing.

A copy editor also looks for awkward sentence construction. She will break long paragraphs into shorter ones – even re-arrange sentences to make them sound more natural – while maintaining the author’s message, meaning, and voice.

Other tasks you should do when you edit copy, whether it’s your own or someone else’s:

Verify. verify

  • Make sure a web address points to the right site, that it’s live, and that it gives the information you’re promising.
  • Verify an unusual spelling. Is it really Shelia, or should it be Sheila?
  • Carefully read your statistics to ensure they support your premise. If there’s any doubt about the data, check your sources or ask the writer to check.

Simplify.

  • Eliminate unnecessary repetition by changing a sentence like: “Music is one thing the women share in common with each other” to “Music is one interest the women share.”
  • Look out for sentences beginning with “There are” and re-arrange them: “There are many programs that are focused on health” becomes “Many programs are focused on health.”

Look for inconsistencies.

Do you spell her name Jo Ann one place and JoAnn in another? Did you spell out twelve in one place and use the numeral 12 in another?

Correct the inconsistency to fit the publication’s guidelines or again, check your source.

Protect your sources from sounding silly.

During an interview, even experts can twist their words around, so make sure your quotes make sense. (“Even though her husband is the chef, Melissa also enjoys cooking.”)

Here is a recent example in an article about a medical clinic:

“When you’re locally owned and operated, you really get to know your doctor,” said Dr. Jones.

I don’t think Dr. Jones is looking to know himself.

Watch your word usage.

Two examples of misuse are thence and whence. “Use black plastic sheeting to cover the spots from whence weeds were pulled.” Thence means “from there”; whence means “from where,” so the “from” is unnecessary.

(It would be better just to avoid using thence and whence. They might come across as too formal, or worse – pretentious. “From where” works just fine.)

Read it twice.

The first time through, correct spelling and punctuation, fix awkward sentences, verify data, make sure your lists use parallel construction – whatever jumps out at you.

The second time, enlarge the page to full screen or print a hard copy. (It’s amazing how a change in appearance helps you see things you didn’t see before.)

Then read it out loud, slowly. The combination of speaking, hearing, and seeing will help you pick up what you didn’t see the first time, like missing articles (a, the, an) or dropped endings (s, ed, you for your). For a book or long manuscript, break it up into sections or chapters.

Why Bother?

Standards of grammar and spelling exist for a reason – to help us communicate effectively. Copy editors specialize in knowing what these standards are.

Your goal when editing copy should be to get it as “right” as possible, to achieve perfect clarity, and to be consistent throughout the publication. You also want to be flexible enough so that the finished product reflects the writer’s tone, the writer’s wishes, and the writer’s message.

Talk to me.

If you edit copy, what are your goals or overriding principles?

When you send your work to a copy editor, what results do you expect?

Cheryl Bryan

About Cheryl Bryan

Cheryl has years of experience in the business world, in a variety of fields: staffing, insurance, construction, and advertising, to name a few. She has freelanced since 1990. Friends and colleagues describe her as genuine, thoughtful, gracious, organized, easy-going, compassionate, a "thinker as well as a doer," and one who not only gets the job done but does it well. Born in rural Nebraska, she is back now after living in California, Texas, South Africa, Illinois, Tennessee, and Mississippi and traveling in Europe, South Africa, and Thailand.
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