Keyboard with 'revision key' for copy editing.

Copy Editing: What is it and why does it matter?

Copy editing seems to be a mystery to many people. So in this post we will look at copy editing (also spelled copy-editing and copyediting) and use examples to show what a copy editor does to improve consistency throughout a document and prepare it for publication.

Definition of copy editing

As we wrote in a previous editing blog post, 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.

Scope of copy editing

The Style manual broadly defines copy editing tasks in four areas: language, consistency, references and functionality.

Copy editing language

When copy editing language, the copy editor will find and correct errors of grammar, spelling and punctuation. In addition, the copy editor will look for clarity of meaning. 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

Copy editing for language consistency requires more than knowledge of grammar, spelling and punctuation. The copy editor needs to ensure the publication is consistent throughout. Copy editing for consistency covers aspects such as terminology, spelling, capitalisation, hyphenation, shortened forms and quantitative information.

Let’s look at some of these.

There are quite a few words can be spelt 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 spelt copy-editing and copyediting. Another example is online, which can also be spelt on-line.

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 suggest 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 that need to be corrected.

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 copy editing.

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).

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 freelance copy editor, it’s important to remember that copy editing requires more than checking for the 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.