How to Copy Edit: A Guide to Copy Editing Everything

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 24, 2019 • 5 min read

Copy editing is a process applicable to a multitude of writing fields within the publishing industry. Whether the text is a book, a magazine, a news article, or an advertisement, chances are a copy editor looked at it somewhere along the way. A good copy editor has an expansive skill set, involving strong attention to detail, knowledge about a variety of subject matters, and an ability to communicate their edits clearly and efficiently.



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What Is Copy Editing?

Copy editing is the stage in which a piece of writing, the “copy,” is reviewed and edited to improve its readability. Copy editors ensure the style of writing is consistent, and that the text flows organically from one sentence to the next. They also check the work for grammar, punctuation, and continuity, providing suggestions on how to best convey the message of the writer. In addition to content editing, copy editors can act as fact-checkers, which is especially necessary if the writing is nonfiction and involves vetting of real information.

Copy editors can be found in publishing houses, at copy desks for news organizations, or are often freelancers. The job description for a copy editor varies depending on where they may work. For instance, a copy editor for a small newspaper helps design page layouts, organize newspaper copy for print or online publications, and decides which news stories should run. However, a freelancer hired by a fiction author may only have the job of checking sentence structure and diction.

When Do You Need a Copy Editor?

Copy editing services are often enlisted by writers or publications before the proofreading stage, but the level of service may vary. Some copy edits are light, which means a writer will only receive the most basic level of editing, like grammar and syntax. Heavy copy edits, or ‘substantive editing,’ is a deeper involvement with the text that can involve reorganization of passages, tweaking of style and voice, and rewrites. Learn more about substantive and developmental editing in our guide here.

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What Does a Copy Editor Do?

As a copy editor, you’ll look for a number of technical issues within a piece of writing:

  • Formats errors. The number one priority for a copy editor is to highlight and suggest corrections to grammatical errors, spelling errors, punctuation errors, and syntax. Although these areas may be tackled by a separate proofreader, a copy editor still needs to address them as they see them, as they may affect the content of the work itself.
  • Enforces flow. Too many words can bog down a text and confuse the reader. A good copy editor will be able to eliminate superfluous sentences and tighten phrasing in order to help streamline the writer’s story or message.
  • Checks for consistency. Copy editor jobs require you to be detail-oriented. One of the main responsibilities of a copy editor is to comb through a given work and check to make sure details are kept consistent, such as descriptions of settings and characters. If a house is white in one chapter, then suddenly brown in the next, it is the copy editor’s job to notice and change that detail.
  • Fact checks. The copy editing process can also involve research, especially when editing nonfiction works. If there is no specialized fact checker working on a publication, the copy editor may need to verify dates and events to maintain factual accuracy.


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How to Copy Edit in 6 Steps

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If you’re interested in the job title of professional copy editor, here are some basic steps to get you started:

  1. Clarify your role. First, determine what level of copy editing you’re providing. If you’re just starting out, it’s best to stick to the more basic responsibilities like looking for spelling and syntax only. If you’ve got some experience and are already familiar with the style guides, a more substantive editing role may be appropriate.
  2. Give the text an initial read-through. The first time you read should be about getting the big picture and should be free of any editing suggestions. Reading the entire work as a whole before providing your own notes will help familiarize you with the text and better understand the writer.
  3. Read it again and make a plan. After you’ve completed your initial reading of the text, go back and read it again with a few questions in mind: Is the writing properly conveying the author’s intent? Do the sentences work logically in the order they are presented? Does the piece maintain its voice and style throughout? Are there any factual or detail inconsistencies? Do the ideas flow smoothly from one paragraph to the next? Keep a list of notes you plan to address.
  4. Go line-by-line. Once you’ve analyzed the writing and formulated your plan for how you’ll edit, start at the beginning again. This time, work your way through each sentence, implementing any line edits or suggestions as you see fit.
  5. Format the text. After you’ve made your edits, ensure they comply with whichever formatting standards are required. For instance, if you’re editing a novel or magazine, you’ll likely need to consult The Chicago Manual of Style. If it’s a news story, The Associated Press Stylebook may be needed. You may also receive a style sheet, which is a handy template outlining the house style of the publication you’re editing for (if applicable). There may not be any formatting standards to follow, in which case it is key to make sure the author’s own style is kept consistent.
  6. Do a final read. Be sure to check your own work. It is important that your editing services have improved the readability of the writing, not complicated it. Although there will most likely be a proofing stage, try to ensure the text is as error-free as possible.

What Is the Difference Between Copy Editors and Proofreaders?

Copy editors and proofreaders have many overlapping responsibilities, but the purpose and intent of their jobs are different:

  • Copy editors make sure the organization and word usage stay as clear and understandable as possible. A copy editor works to ensure the reader will not get lost in extraneous detail, or bogged down by poorly-structured phrases. A copy editing job may also involve research of a written topic, and the vetting of sources.
  • Proofreaders have a slightly more basic role. They’re the real spell checkers, combing for typos and any other aesthetic issues, like misplaced word breaks or missing pages. Proofreading is the final step of a text where any remaining fine-tuning is given before publishing.

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