What is copyediting?
Page owner: Professional standards director
This page explains what to expect from a copyeditor: what they do, how they work, the kinds of edits they make, how long editing takes and what standards they adhere to. It also explains how to brief a copyeditor, and how to objectively judge the effectiveness of their work.
‘Copy’ is any text to be published, from a company report to a novel to a T-shirt slogan. Copyediting is professional help to make a text ready for publication by ensuring that it’s clear, consistent, correct and complete.
Copyediting focuses on the detail of a text: agreeing final content, making sure it reads well for its intended purpose, and applying consistency to the language and formatting. Once a text has been copyedited it is ready for the next stage: design and layout.
A copyeditor helps the reader by, for example:
- making the structure of the document as clear as possible, including signposting elements like headings, notes, illustrations, references and glossary
- making the language appropriate and understandable for the likely reader, with vocabulary choice, grammar and punctuation that bring clarity.
A copyeditor helps the author by, for example:
- ensuring their message is clear and achieves its purpose
- correcting or querying anything that seems to be an error, including misspelled names, misused words, numbers that don’t add up, incomplete references and inconsistent arguments
- suggesting ways to reduce the length of a text, use the available space better or integrate new material most effectively.
A copyeditor helps the publisher by, for example:
- getting the text into fit shape to go to the next stage of the publishing workflow
- highlighting possible legal issues such as plagiarism or breach of copyright, libel, obscenity or actionable discrimination.
A copyeditor helps the designer or typesetter by, for example:
- providing a clean text document that can be formatted or imported into design software to prepare the final output
- marking up the document structure and elements like special characters and illustrations so that the designer knows where they go.
To find out whether you’re suited to copyediting, try our introductory course.
The tasks carried out during copyediting will vary depending on the nature of the text, how and where it will be published, what work has or will be carried out by someone else, and practical considerations such as the budget and time available. Here are some typical copyediting tasks.
- Checking that all elements of a text or document are present, in the right order and are referred to in exactly the same way throughout. For example:
- chapter/section titles match list of contents
- numbered lists and chapters/sections are sequential
- illustrations are all provided and match the text content, and appropriate captions have been written
- citations correspond exactly to the details in the reference section or bibliography; all entries in a reference section are cited in the text.
- Checking that any references to content or features elsewhere in the text (cross-references) are accurate.
- Checking that basic facts and arguments are plausible, consistent and reasonable.
- Querying any language that is non-inclusive or problematic from a legal point of view.
- In fiction, checking that characters’ physical characteristics (such as eye colour) and names stay the same, making sure the timeline and the fictional world hold together, and keeping the narrative voice consistent (for example, making sure it doesn’t leap from first person to third person).
Correcting and making consistent:
- Correcting errors or inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation, grammar, style and usage.
- Checking and correcting spellings of names, for example of places or people.
- Imposing consistency in use of, for example, italics, bold and capitals.
- Improving clarity by rewording or reformatting text that is confusing or convoluted, or suggesting structural additions to help readability such as headings or lists.
- Cleaning up the document before it goes for design/layout (for example by removing unwanted formatting and extra spaces).
- Marking up the structure of the document (such as heading levels, boxed items, lists, figures and images). This is typically done using paragraph and character styles and/or tags.
- Creating and populating information documents (such as a style sheet and instructions for the designer/typesetter) that those following them in the project will need.
- Liaising with the author or intermediary on anything that the copyeditor cannot confirm alone, such as preferred points of style, approval of suggested rewording or the location of missing information.
Many changes at copyediting stage are made for consistency, either within the document or publication or to comply with a client’s style guide. If you don’t have a style guide for your documents, you can learn how to create one in our short guide Your House Style. You can also hire an experienced editor to create a style guide for you.
Usually the copyeditor marks up edits in a Word document using Track Changes and then, after an agreed process of feedback from the client and revision, will produce a final edited version of the text.
Less commonly these days, the client may want the edits marked on a printout (hard copy), in which case someone other than the editor will need to make the corrections to the final document.
Sometimes copyeditors work directly on the layout itself, in software such as InDesign, or in PowerPoint, a content management system or a web editor.
Once the copyeditor’s changes have been made and checked, the text should be ready to send to a designer or typesetter.
While a professional copyeditor will always aim for the highest standards, it’s important to note that any remaining errors are ultimately the responsibility of the publisher.
No professional copyeditor should promise to make your text perfect. This is partly because no matter how well trained, experienced and diligent they are, they are still human (and that’s a good thing!). It’s also because perfection is a subjective concept. While some errors are indisputable, others are not.
At copyediting stage many changes are made simply for consistency or based on style preferences. And no two editors will make substantive changes in quite the same way.
Is there an acceptable rate of errors for copyediting?
Having said that copyeditors can’t make text perfect, it is important that they work to a high standard. Some people will assert that copyeditors should catch a certain percentage of errors, but we don’t believe this is helpful – because of the subjective nature of errors, and also because the copyeditor will be working within other constraints. Excellent work depends not only on the skill of the copyeditor but on the budget and schedule being adequate for the job.
Rather than using percentages to express an acceptable (or unacceptable) error rate, it’s better to think in terms of the copyeditor making the text fit for purpose within the limits of their brief. There should be consistency and clarity, and no barriers to the reader understanding the meaning of the text.
This depends on how complex, difficult or badly written the draft text is. Unless the material is straightforward, the copyeditor will probably need to go through it several times to cover different elements such as structure, stylistic consistency, cross-references and meaning. A copyeditor cannot work for hours at a time and remain efficient. It also takes time to get up to speed, reading or rereading the brief and style guide, so short jobs are proportionately slower.
With the caveat that each job is different and must be assessed on its own factors, an experienced professional may copyedit around 1,000 to 3,000 words per hour on a typically straightforward text.
If the text needs heavy editing or rewriting, the rate may be much slower. If the budget or schedule turns out to be too tight, the concept of what is ‘good enough’ may need to be adjusted accordingly and agreed with the client. In that case, the copyeditor will minimise and simplify any changes, or agree with the client which tasks to omit.
To get excellent results from a copyeditor, the client must do their bit. A good brief will ensure the copyeditor understands your needs, so they can meet your expectations.
If you want the copyeditor to carry out specific or non-standard checks, such as filling in missing reference details or checking facts, this should be set out in the brief.
If you have particular style preferences, it will help the copyeditor if you can provide a house style, or a list of your preferences for the job.
And if there are particular problems or idiosyncrasies (for example, if your text has been written by different authors using different tones of voice), you can advise the copyeditor of specific things to watch out for.
You can find further guidance in our free booklet Proofreading or editing? A quick guide to working with editorial professionals (PDF download).