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What Is Copy Editing?

A Guide to Help You Navigate the Copy Editing Process

If you're an author or academic, you've likely heard the term thrown around, but what is copy editing and why is it so important? Well, as the name suggests, copy editing is the process of revising and correcting written material, also known as copy. Copy can be about any topic and come in any form, from books to essays to material for a website. Regardless of the topic of a piece of text, a copy editor has the expertise needed to find and correct errors in spelling, grammar, continuity, flow, and punctuation. Before editing, the copy editor will try to figure out exactly what needs to be done to improve your writing. He or she will likely ask the following questions:

  • Who will be reading the text?
    • The copy editor will ensure that the work is suitable for its intended audience. By knowing who will read the text, the copy editor can confirm that the writing is easy to understand.
  • What is its purpose or intended effect?
    • Understanding the purpose of the work will enable the copy editor to ensure that the intended meaning comes across clearly and concisely.
  • How long is the text?
    • The copy editor will make sure that the length of the entire work as well as that of each sentence and paragraph is appropriate for the intended audience. If part of the text seems too long, the copy editor will either cut text or propose ways to shorten certain sections, especially in longer works. Conversely, if a section needs more information, the copy editor will make suggestions on ways to expand it.
  • Do you have a deadline?
    • It's helpful for the copy editor to know how much time he or she will have to edit your work. If you're on a tight deadline, the copy editor will need to work quickly to ensure that you'll have enough time to review the changes and make any suggested revisions.
  • Will additional material be added later?
    • It's also beneficial for the copy editor to know if you plan to add to the text later on. This way, the copy editor won't just assume that you've missed entire sections or that you haven't covered everything you intended to.
  • What have you budgeted for copy editing?
    • This one might seem like a no-brainer, but the copy editor must be confident that he or she will be paid to edit your work. If you come to the copy editing stage only to realize that you haven't budgeted enough to, say, have your entire book edited, both you and the copy editor will be at a loss. This could easily lead to your work not getting done on time, and it could also put a strain on your relationship with the copy editor.
  • Are there any additional details that the editor should know about your work to give you what you want?
    • The copy editor will ensure that the facts are correct, and that the published work will not lead to any legal trouble for you, the author. The copy editor will also want to know whether objects, like pictures, diagrams, or tables, will be inserted in the text (and if so, whether they will need to be edited as well). If there are any other details about your work that will help the copy editor do his or her job better, it would benefit you to let him or her know.

What is the purpose of copy editing?

The simplest answer to the question "What is copy editing?" is "Making a piece of writing the best it can be." It is the process of ensuring that a piece of text is clean, clear, and consistent in terms of spelling, grammar, style, and punctuation; that it is audience-appropriate and conveys the intended meaning; and that it is, in general, ready for publication." Keep in mind, though, that there are some things that a copy editor does not do. These include rewriting, paraphrasing, ghost writing, and any research beyond fact-checking.

To ensure that the copy editing meets your standards, the editor will ask him- or herself the following questions while editing your work:

  • Is the main idea conveyed concisely?
    • Here, the editor is looking to see that the text is not convoluted or jargony—that short words and phrases are used instead of long ones, if possible. You don't want to exhaust the reader by making him or her read a page-long paragraph for one tidbit of information.
  • What words, sentences, or sections of the writing are extraneous?
    • This is similar to the point above. If something is irrelevant or unnecessary, the copy editor will do away with it, letting only the most read-worthy material shine.
  • Will your introduction inspire people to continue reading?
    • Since your introduction is what pulls the reader in, it must be interesting, informative, and perhaps even punchy—but also intriguing enough to leave the audience wanting more.
  • Is the progression of the text well organized? Does it flow well?
    • You won't be doing anyone a favor by presenting a disorganized text. Make it easy on yourself, the editor, and your readers by sticking to an outline and smoothly transitioning from one point to the next. Of course, this will be provided as part of the copy editing service, but you want to provide your editor with a good starting point.
  • Are the tone and style consistent throughout?
    • Does the work look as if it was written by five different people? Maintaining the tone of the author's writing includes ensuring that an author's unique style and voice is consistent throughout the work.
  • Is the final thought strong?
    • Will the reader think, "Wow!" when he or she finishes reading the work? If not, then the copy editor needs to take it up a notch. Whether you want to teach your readers something or leave them with a thought-provoking idea, the copy editor will help ensure that your conclusion is as strong as your introduction (which is what will hook the reader in the first place).

How can a copy editor help me?

A copy editor will read through your text line by line, much slower than the average reader. This means that your work will be thoroughly examined, and the copy editor will insert comments and suggestions wherever necessary. Having a fresh set of eyes on your work means that things you missed or that somehow slipped through the cracks will be caught. The copy editor will ask him- or herself the following questions before making any necessary changes:

  • Is everything spelled correctly?
  • Are there grammar mistakes?
  • Is each sentence, paragraph, and point clear?
  • Can the writing be improved by dropping unnecessary words, sentences, or entire sections? How can it be written more concisely?
  • Do the content and tone of the text suit the author's audience? Can it be improved without compromising the author's writing style?
  • Is there anything else that can be done?

There you have it: a comprehensive answer to the question "What is copy editing?" But before you move on from the copy editing stage, you must approve all the edits. Check to make sure that your facts are still accurate, that no new errors slipped in during the editing process, and that the changes have not altered your intended meaning. The copy editing process can take several drafts, so it's important to be prompt and stick to your deadlines (and your budget). See the difference copy editing can make to your book, article, or blog post by visiting the editing experts at Scribendi today!

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