Many people are confused by the differences between copy editing and proofreading. The work of a copy editor includes much more than correcting grammar and punctuation. So let’s look at copy editing (sometimes called line editing) using examples to show what a copy editor does to improve a document and prepare it for publication.
Definition of copy editing
The Australian Style manual for authors editors and printers defines copy editing as follows:
The purpose of copy editing is to remove the mistakes, inconsistencies or other infelicities of expression that could irritate or confuse readers—or embarrass the author. At the copy editing stage, the editor therefore concentrates on the details of language, spelling and punctuation; on achieving consistency of style and layout; and on checking references, illustrations tables, headings, sequences, links, and preliminary matter and end matter.
The scope of copy editing services
The Style manual broadly defines copy editing tasks in four areas: language, consistency, references and functionality. This requires good attention to detail.
When copy editing language, the copy editor will find and correct errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation. In addition, the copy editor will look to improve clarity. In some instances, the copy editor might feel that the work needs substantive editing or should be sent back to the author for rewriting.
Copy editing for language consistency
When you do a copy edit for language consistency it requires more than knowledge of correcting punctuation and making grammatical corrections. The copy editor needs to ensure the publication is consistent throughout. Copy editing for consistency covers a wide range of elements, such as terminology, spelling, capitalisation, hyphenation, shortened forms, quantitative information, and style and tone.
Let’s look at some of these.
There are quite a few words that can be spelled in two or more ways correctly. If we were publishing an article about copy editing, for example, we would want to use the same spelling (copy editing) throughout. Depending on the dictionary you use, the term can also be spelled copy-editing and copyediting. Another example is online, which can also be spelled on-line (although this version was more common in the early days of the internet).
One of the tasks of a copy editor is to choose which spelling to use and make it consistent throughout the document. Some organisations will have a style sheet that shows the preferred spelling of common words. Publishing houses and universities usually have a preferred dictionary (such as Macquarie or Oxford in Australia) that should be used when choosing between alternative spellings.
Copy editing for consistency covers the small details (that many writers don’t think about) such as dashes. For example, the Style manual for authors, editors and printers suggests that em dashes (long dashes such as this —) be used as follows to set apart an explanatory phrase in a sentence.
National policies may change the decision-making environment—water licensing reform is an example—or provide guidance on suitable areas for government investment.
These and other types of dashes are often used incorrectly and inconsistently throughout documents. Copy editors find examples, such as the following, and correct them to ensure consistency.
National policies may change the decision-making environment – water licensing reform is an example – or provide guidance on suitable areas for government investment.
National policies may change the decision-making environment – water licensing reform is an example – or provide guidance on suitable areas for government investment.
Abbreviated forms often require correction for consistency during copyediting.
For example, in one section of a document the abbreviation of information technology, I.T., might include full stops (called periods in the USA), while in another IT doesn’t have full stops.
Many consistency issues are the result of collaborative efforts when different people or departments contribute to different parts of a publication. One person prefers to write IT, while another prefers I.T.
One way to prevent this problem—and make copy editing easier and less expensive— is to have a house style guide (also called a style sheet) that lists the preferred ways of spelling and abbreviating. You can also spell out general rules, such as ‘Abbreviations should not include full stops’.
Numbers are another factor that a copy editor needs to look at when copy editing. Do you spell out numbers as words or do you use numerals? The Australian Style Manual recommends using words for the numbers one through one hundred and writing higher numbers as numerals (when the document is not statistically oriented).
Bulleted lists are one potentially confusing element that an editor will correct to make consistent throughout a publication. Do you capitalise each bulleted point? Do you put a full stop or semi-colon at the end of each one? A copy editor will know the correct styles and apply them throughout the document (for more information on formatting bulleted lists see Editing and Proofreading: Bulleted Lists).
A fact check can be part of the copy editing process. While not the main goal of the copy edit, content editors can note things that don’t seem correct.
Copy editing for language and consistency is a time-consuming process. Besides checking and correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar, the copy editor needs to look for consistency throughout the document. A few of the elements that are checked for consistency during the copy-editing process are spelling, dashes, abbreviations, numbers and bulleted lists.
When calling on the services of a professional copy editor, it’s important to remember that a good copy edit requires more than checking for basic mistakes. The time and cost estimates you receive for copy editing services might seem high, but there is much more to the process than meets the eye. Also, it doesn’t pay to cut corners by sending your work offshore (such as to India or the Philippines) for editing. It’s unlikely that offshore editors will understand the style conventions used in your country, whether you’re in Australia, the UK or the USA. For example, in the USA, the Chicago Manual of Style is one of the main publications covering style conventions. However, there’s also the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook that doesn’t always match the Chicago Manual of Style.
Is content editing different?
The rise of social media and blog posts has led to a focus on content editing. While it’s a new term, the job for writers and editors has not changed. Readers still want to read news articles, creative writing and other forms of content that’s consistent and without grammar mistakes. So we can safely say that copy editing is a core part of content editing. There is a continued need for copy editors in any industry that requires writing, with it’s a short piece of writing for a business or a set of books in the book publishing industry.
Looking for a copy editor?
We’ve worked with hundreds of organisations since 2005. Contact us on 1300 731 955 or use the contact form on this page to discuss improving your documents and publications.
Editing and proofreading website content is a key step in the content creation process. After writing your website content, it’s a good idea to set it aside for a day or two and return to it with a fresh mind for editing and proofreading.
Let’s look more closely at some of the things to consider when editing and proofreading website content.
Editing website content – the first step
The first step in the process is editing the website content. Editing involves making the content more clear and concise. Editing website content can include:
- Replacing complicated words with simpler equivalents
- Eliminating unnecessary words
- Removing jargon and corporate buzzwords
- Shortening sentences to make them easier to read
- Moving sentences so the text flows logically.
When editing website content, also consider the reader. For example, if you sell technical products or services, and you expect some readers won’t understand advanced terminology, you will want to define terms for them.
After you have done this, you can check how readable the content by using readability tools in Microsoft Word or online. A popular system for measuring readability is called Flesch Reading Ease. It calculates a readability score of 1 to 100 based the average number of words per sentence and syllables per word. The higher these averages, the lower the readability. For example, a newspaper might have a score of 60, while an academic paper might have a score of 20 on the readability scale. When analysing your website content, aim for at least 60.
You can find an online readability checker here.
If your products or services are more complex, the words and sentences will tend to be longer, so readability will be lower. You will want to keep this in mind when editing website content.
To learn more, read How to Make Your Business Writing More Readable.
Proofreading website content – the last step
After the editing stage, it’s time for proofreading your website content. Compared to editing, proofreading looks at the finer details such as spelling, grammar, punctuation and consistency. Using a spelling and grammar check will help find some errors but don’t rely on it too much when proofreading website content. Consistency issues are important to consider by not so easy to find. For example, if you capitalise each word in one heading level, you should keep this consistent across the website. The formatting of the text should also be consistent across the website. If each page uses a different font, size or spacing, this will distract readers from your message.
To correct any remaining errors, it’s usually best to proofread the text using the website content editor. In WordPress, for example, choose to Publish and Update the page after making corrections. Then go to the live web page to ensure all errors and inconsistencies have been picked up. It’s also good to print the page from the live website and go through it one more time before completing the website content proofreading.
If you need help with editing and proofreading website content, visit our Editing and Proofreading Services page.
First, if you are not familiar with these terms:
Title case, or title style, is when you capitalise each word, except for conjunctions, prepositions and articles. For example, the article title above is in title case.
Sentence case, or sentence style, is when you capitalise only the first word. For example, Should you use title case or sentence case for headings on your website and in your documents?
All capitals, abbreviated as ALL CAPS, is when you capitalise all letters.
Using sentence case, title case or all capitals is a style choice, but be sure to use the style consistently throughout each document and publication.
The current style in Australia is to use minimal capitalisation, so sentence case seems to be more common in professionally written business and corporate documents. In addition, research on readability has shown that lower case letters are easier to read. The Australian Style manual notes:
The readability of lower case letters is greater than that of capitals. This is because the ascenders and descenders in the lower-case letterforms give a distinctive physical shape to each word. We read by recognising word shapes, which is way we sometimes misread words set in fonts that have idiosyncratic letterforms (specifically, non-conventional character widths).
As for all capitals, research conducted by Miles Tinkler and published in Legibility of Print found that using all capitals slowed reading speeds:
All-capital print greatly retards speed of reading in comparison with lower-case type. Also, most readers judge all capitals to be less legible. Faster reading of the lower-case print is due to the characteristic word forms furnished by this type. This permits reading by word units, while all capitals tend to be read letter by letter. Furthermore, since all-capital printing takes at least one-third more space than lower case, more fixation pauses are required for reading the same amount of material. The use of all capitals should be dispensed with in every printing situation.
Some experts suggest that it’s okay to use all capitals for short amount of text, such as street signs and short headlines. It’s interesting to note that the Australian Style manual uses sentence case for chapter headings, all capitals for main headings within chapters and sentence case for sub-headings. For example:
Chapter 14: Editing and proofreading
THE CONTRIBUTION EDITORS MAKE
SCOPE OF SERVICES
Categories of tasks
The editing brief and timetable
Scope of tasks
Author collaboration and review
I was recently working with a graphic designer on updating the copy and design of a company brochure. The older version used title case for the subheadings and the designer noted that this was “old school”. So for modern-looking brochures, websites and publications, sentence case seems to be the most popular.
If you want to compromise and use both styles, a sound approach is to use title case for main headings and sentence case for subheadings. If you believe the studies conducted on the readability of all capitals, you will want to avoid this style altogether.
- Tinker, Miles A. (1963). Legibility of Print. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press. p. 65.
An annual report is an important publication for communicating with shareholders, potential investors and the media. From our experience editing and proofreading annual reports since 2004, we have come up with a list of points to keep in mind that will improve the image of the company and effectiveness of the report.
If you plan to sell your products and services in the United States, editing your writing to adapt to the local language is essential. Bear in mind that Australian writing is not always clear to readers in the United States.
For example, a few years ago we adapted a brochure for an Australian software company that sells its products in the US. In the original version being distributed in the United States, the company was explaining how the software automatically completed a process fortnightly. This must have left many of their US prospects scratching their heads because Americans don’t use the word fortnight. Most don’t know what it means and use the terms every two weeks and biweekly to describe that length of time. Some Americans might have been exposed to the word fortnight through reading British literature or other sources, but the vast majority will have to look it up to understand what it means.
In addition, the way you spell your words can have an influence on the effectiveness of your message. I recently came across a website of an Australian motivational speaker and author living in the US. She speaks about parenting and writes about being a mum on her website. Although there is nothing wrong with the spelling the word mum, Americans spell it mom. US readers will understand the meaning but will be distracted by the unfamiliar spelling. For maximum effectiveness it would be better to use the US spelling in your writing for readers in the United States. Likewise, US businesses will get better results by editing their copy when selling to Australian consumers and businesses.
Here are a few of many terms and spellings that vary between US and Australian writing.
|barrack for a team
|root for a team
|bonnet (of a car)
|boot (or a car)
|CBD (central business district)
|hire a car
|rent a car
|elementary (or grammar) school
|spring onion (or shallots)
But there’s much more than spelling and word usage that differentiates Australian writing from US writing. Many aspects of style tend to differ between the two countries. A few of these include bulleted lists, acronyms, initials of names, dates and times, and dashes and hyphens. If you are not sure what the accepted style is in the United States, you can refer to the Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook.
In some cases, you will need to decide where your main market is and have your writing edited accordingly. For example, we regularly edit books for Australian authors who sell their publications through Amazon. Given the size of the US market, compared with the UK and Commonwealth nations, these authors ask us to edit their work to create US versions. In a typical book, we make hundreds of changes when editing to adapt the spelling, words and style for US readers.
If you are delivering a speech or presentation to US audiences, you will want to get feedback from a native speaker or long-term resident to see if they understand everything you are saying. Although not in a professional setting, I remember my young son shocking American relatives when he said, “I’m going to wash my hands in the toilet”. When speaking in public, you don’t want to get a similar reaction from your audience by saying something that they don’t understand or misinterpret.
So whether you’re writing a brochure, book or presentation for audiences in the United States, it pays to have your work edited and reviewed by a professional editor who understands the differences between words, expressions and style in Australia and the United States.
Proofreading — There’s More Than Meets the Eye
Proofreading involves much more than checking and correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation. Creating consistency within one document or several is an important part of proofreading. Let’s look at how documents might lack consistency and what we can do overcome this issue.
Correcting for consistency when proofreading can be especially important when several writers have contributed to a document. For example, one writer might write programme while another might write program. Both are acceptable in Australia, but you need to choose which spelling you will use throughout your documents and publications. Once you have decided, you can use the Find and Replace function in Word to make the term consistent throughout the document.
Acronyms are another thing that should be checked for consistency when proofreading. Do you use full stops in your acronyms or not (for example, I.T. or IT)? Most current style guides call for no punctuation in acronyms but you will want to choose your preferred style.
Proofreading dates and numbers
One writer might express the date as October 25, 2012 while another might write 25 October 2012. To create consistency across an organisation’s publications it’s necessary to communicate the approved style.
Another example is expressing spans of time (such as a financial year). Would you write 2011-2012 Annual Report or 2011-12 Annual Report? Either option would be correct, but one needs to be selected and kept consistent throughout the publication.
Proofreading bulleted lists
If your documents and publications have bulleted lists, they need to be in a consistent style. If you don’t know the accepted style conventions for bulleted lists in Australia, read our post on Editing and Proofreading Bulleted Lists.
In a larger document or publication, headings help readers navigate and find what they need. When proofreading, ensure that heading styles are consistent. If most main headings are in 16pt Arial while some are in 14pt New Times Roman, it can confuse your readers when they are trying to find information in your documents. One way to avoid this is to set up heading styles in a Word template. But you will still want to check the headings when proofreading because the template styles might not have been followed.
These are just a few points to consider when proofreading for consistency. Creating a style guide will help you achieve consistency in your documents and publications when proofreading, especially when different writers are contributing to them.
If you are not familiar with style guides and what they include, here’s an example of a writing_style_guide from a government department. An excellent resource for proofreading is the Style manual for authors, editors and printers, which is the official guide for government and many corporations in Australia.
You can spend hours on your business writing, but this investment of time will generate greater results if you take the next step: business document editing.
Business document editing requires more than finding and correcting errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.
The following tips will help you go beyond the basics when business document editing.
1. Check for consistency when business document editing. This is especially important when the document has been written by several people. For example:
- Do you write I.T. (information technology) or IT?
- How should you express dates? Should it be June 1st 2012 or 1 June 2012?
- Which variant do you use when words have two accepted spellings? For example, should your write programme or program?
Part of the business document editing process should be to make spelling and style consistent throughout. It will help if your company has a style guide that includes preferred spellings and styles.
2. Simplify complicated language when business document editing. Break long sentences down into several if possible. Use the simple words you can without changing the meaning. For example, change at the present time to now. For ideas on how write simply and clearly see previous editing blog posts in this section.
3. Check the headings when editing your business documents to ensure it will be easy for readers to ‘navigate’. Make sure the headings styles are distinguishable and make sense. The main headings and sub-headings should be consistent throughout the document. Use different sizes and different fonts to differentiate the heading levels.
4. Think about the structure when business document editing. Do the ideas flow logically? If content is not in the right place, you might need to move it. This can include rearranging paragraphs, sections or entire chapters.
5. Do a final check of the basics — including spelling, grammar and punctuation — when editing your business documents. Technically, this stage is called proofreading.
6. If collaborating with others when document editing, use the Track Changes function in Word. By doing this, writers working with you on the document will be able to see the changes made.
Follow these business document editing steps to ensure that your business documents are as effective as possible.
If you need assistance with proofreading and editing your business documents, visit our Proofreading and Editing Services page.