What is Copyediting?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

copyeditor
According to a survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors, "Nearly a third of the copy editors who were working for American daily newspapers in 2007 are no longer employed in those positions today" (reported by Natascia Lypny in The King's Journalism Review, 2013). (SuperStock/Getty Images)

Copyediting is the process of correcting errors in a text and making it conform to an editorial style (also called house style), which includes spelling, capitalization, and punctuation.

A person who prepares a text for publication by performing these tasks is called a copy editor (or in Britain, a sub editor).

Alternate Spellings: copy editing, copy-editing

Aims and Kinds of Copyediting

"The main aims of copy-editing are to remove any obstacles between the reader and what the author wants to convey and to find and solve any problems before the book goes to the typesetter, so that production can go ahead without interruption or unnecessary expense.

. . .

"There are various kinds of editing. 

  1. Substantive editing aims to improve the overall coverage and presentation of a piece of writing, its content, scope, level and organization. . . .
  2. Detailed editing for sense is concerned with whether each section expresses the author's meaning clearly, without gaps and contradictions.
  3. Checking for consistency is a mechanical but important task. . . . It involves checking such things as spelling and the use of single or double quotes, either according to a house style or according to the author's own style. . . .

    'Copy-editing' usually consists of 2 and 3, plus 4 below.

  4. Clear presentation of the material for the typesetter involves making sure that it is complete and that all the parts are clearly identified."

(Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake, and Maureen Leach, Butcher's Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

How It's Spelled

Copyeditor and copyediting have a curious history. Random House is my authority for using the one-word form. But Webster's agrees with Oxford on copy editor, although Webster's favors copyedit as a verb. They both sanction copyreader and copywriter, with verbs to match." (Elsie Myers Stainton, The Fine Art of Copyediting.

Columbia University Press, 2002)

The Work of Copy Editors

"Copy editors are the final gatekeepers before an article reaches you, the reader. To start with, they want to be sure that the spelling and grammar are correct, following our [New York Times] stylebook, of course. . . . They have great instincts for sniffing out suspicious or incorrect facts or things that just don't make sense in context. They are also our final line of protection against libel, unfairness and imbalance in an article. If they stumble over anything, they're going to work with the writer or the assigning editor (we call them backfield editors) to make adjustments so you don't stumble. That often involves intensive substantive work on an article. In addition, copy editors write the headlines, captions and other display elements for the articles, edit the article for the space available to it (that usually means trims, for the printed paper) and read the proofs of the printed pages in case something slipped by." (Merrill Perlman, "Talk to the Newsroom." The New York Times, Mar. 6, 2007)

Julian Barnes on the Style Police

For five years in the 1990s, British novelist and essayist Julian Barnes served as the London correspondent for ​The New Yorker magazine. In the preface to Letters From London, Barnes describes how his essays were meticulously "clipped and styled" by editors and fact-checkers at the magazine. Here he reports on the activities of the anonymous copy editors, whom he calls the "style police."

"Writing for The New Yorker means, famously, being edited by The New Yorker: an immensely civilized, attentive and beneficial process which tends to drive you crazy. It begins with the department known, not always affectionately, as the "style police." These are the stern puritans who look at one of your sentences and instead of seeing, as you do, a joyful fusion of truth, beauty, rhythm, and wit, discover only a doltish wreckage of capsized grammar. Silently, they do their best to protect you from yourself.

"You emit muted gargles of protest and attempt to restore your original text. A new set of proofs arrives, and occasionally you will have been graciously permitted a single laxity; but if so, you will also find that a further grammatical delinquency has been corrected. The fact that you never get to talk to the style police, while they retain the power of intervention in your text at any time, makes them seem the more menacing.

I used to imagine them sitting in their office with nightsticks and manacles dangling from the walls, swapping satirical and unforgiving opinions of New Yorker writers. "Guess how many infinitives that Limey's split this time?" Actually, they are less unbending than I make them sound, and even acknowledge how useful it may be to occasionally split an infinitive. My own particular weakness is a refusal to learn the difference between which and that. I know there's some rule, to do with individuality versus category or something, but I have my own rule, which goes like this (or should it be "that goes like this"?--don't ask me): if you've already got a that doing business in the vicinity, use which instead. I don't think I ever converted the style police to this working principle." (Julian Barnes, Letters From London. Vintage, 1995) 

The Decline of Copyediting

"The brutal fact is that American newspapers, coping with drastically shrinking revenue, have drastically reduced the levels of editing, with a concomitant increase in errors, slipshod writing, and other defects. Copy editing, in particular, was seen at the corporate level as a cost center, an expensive frill, money wasted on people obsessing with commas. Copy desk staffs have been decimated, more than once, or eliminated outright with the work transferred to distant 'hubs,' where, unlike Cheers, nobody knows your name." (John McIntyre, "Gag Me With a Copy Editor." The Baltimore Sun, January 9, 2012)

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