Copy Editing: The Complete Guide

Ah, editing. Every writer's favorite step of publishing a book . . .

Okay, maybe not.

In fact, for many authors, editing is a nail-biting, gut-wrenching, nausea-inducing process. For many, sending a manuscript (or word document, PDF, etc.) off to the editor marks the first time anyone but the author will see those words.

Still, no matter how scary, editing is an essential part of the process. But there are so many types of editing. Which is why this article is all about copy editing — one of the most often used types of editing, perhaps behind proofreading.

So read on to find out all you need to know about what copy editing entails.

This is one of a series of posts about editing. We recommend taking a look at the others too!

In this article, you will learn:
  1. What copy editing is
  2. What copy editors look for
  3. The difference between copy editing and proofreading
  4. How to prepare your manuscript for a copy edit

What Is Copy Editing?

Copy editing (sometimes also correctly spelled copyediting), is the process of finding errors and improving readability within a piece of written material before publication.

This can be a blog post, a book, newspaper article — pretty much anything written. This is what the “copy” portion of copy editing refers to: the written words.

There are a few different levels of copyediting which we'll discuss below. But for now, let's go over what a general copy editor will look for when they get your book.

Mechanical Errors

A copy editor will look first and foremost for various errors. These include spelling errors, punctuation errors, formatting errors, and grammatical errors. They will correct these errors with the dreaded red pen (or digital equivalent thereof), the marks of which every author just loves to see.

Flow and Sentence Structure

A professional copy editor will also look at sentence structure and flow. They'll look for things like run-on sentences, passive voice, and unclear scenes or descriptions. A professional copy editor may also provide general advice on how to improve the flow of the text while staying true to your writing style.

Consistency

A copy editor will also look for inconsistencies. If you've written a character with green eyes in one scene and blue eyes the next, a copyedit should catch this. But, unlike developmental editing, which looks at the overall story structure, copy editing concentrates on the smaller details that make up the larger story.

(A good copyeditor would also catch the fact that I use copyedit instead of copy edit throughout this article. Both are technically correct, but you want to stay consistent throughout your text.)

Fact Checking

Besides checking grammar, spelling, and word usage, a copy editor will often act as a fact checker. This is more common in nonfiction books, memoirs, and historical fiction where factual errors are more of an issue. However, if you based your fiction novel on true events, you could benefit from this aspect of the copy editing process, as well.

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Get Clear On Copy Editing

Copy editing means different things to different people. With all the different types of editing out there, it's good to be clear on what exactly you're getting from a copy editing service (or any editing service, for that matter).

Different Types of Editing

A copy edit, a line edit, and a developmental edit are three different processes that are easily confused. Developmental editing concerns the story itself, not the mechanics of the writing. Line editing is a line-by-line evaluation of your stylistic choices and prose. Then again, some copy editors may offer all of the above for an additional fee.

Sometimes copy editing is called substantive editing, which is similar but usually larger in scope, dealing with the overall structure of the book as well as proofreading the text.

Copy Editing vs. Proofreading

Speaking of proofreading: a copy editor does in fact proofread your manuscript, but most books can benefit from a copy editor and a proofreader. Proofreaders look for spelling errors and other glaring mistakes, but aren't nearly as granular as copy editors.

The point is that it's always good to get a rundown of exactly what the professional editor will look for in your book so you're both on the same page.

For more on copy editors vs proofreaders, visit this post.

How Copy Editors Work

If you're self-publishing, you'll likely end up using a freelance copy editor. And how your editor prefers to work depends entirely on his or her preferences.

Some copy editors prefer to work from a hard copy while others are fine using the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word or some other writing software.

No matter what form your manuscript is in, it's a good idea to provide the editor with their ideal format. After all, you want the best work out of your copy editing service.

Who Says What's Correct?

If you're a wordsmith (which you must be if you’re reading this right now), you know how complex and varied English is. There are instances where several words/spellings/formats could all be correct. A mistake to one person could be perfectly fine to another.

Luckily, most copy editors work from The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook. This way you know where the editor is getting their information and can rest easy knowing they're not just making stuff up.

You can expect to get a style sheet from your editor that details what’s called the “house style” adhered to by your editor. With this sheet, you’ll be able to see why the editor made certain changes to your manuscript that may not be immediately clear to you.

How to Prepare Your Manuscript for an Edit

Copy editing is an extremely valuable service. The editing process is usually not cheap, so you may be tempted to skip the final read through and just send your manuscript to the copy editor to get the most for your money.

This is never a good idea.

First of all, no one will care about your book as much as you do. So you want to get your manuscript as close to perfect as you can before sending it off.

Read it through and fix the odd punctuation error, grammar issue, or any other mistake you come across. Not only will this improve your writing, but it will ensure that, come publication time, you're putting your best foot forward. This is the mark of a professional writer.

No copyeditor is perfect. Neither is any proofreader. So the more times you can get eyes on it (yours included) the better off it will be.

Copy Editing: Conclusion

Most copy editors will offer to edit the first few pages of your book for a small fee (or sometimes for free). This is a great way to preview the level of work you'll get on the whole book and I highly recommend doing this before agreeing to have your entire manuscript edited. We also offer a free Standardized Editorial Test to help you pick the best editor possible.

A copy editor and a proofreader are two professionals that should be on every author's team. You can only catch so many errors during the writing process, so it's always a good idea to have other professionals help you put the best book you can out at publication.



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