Copy editing (also copy-editing or copyediting, sometimes abbreviated ce) is the process of taking raw material (the "copy": anything from a novel to a web page) and improving the formatting, style, and accuracy of the text. The goal of copy editing is to ensure that content is accurate, easy to follow, fit for its purpose, and free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition. In the context of publication in print, copy editing is done before typesetting and again before proofreading, the final step in the editorial cycle.:1–5
In the United States and Canada, an editor who does this work is called a copy editor. An organisation's highest-ranking copy editor, or the supervising editor of a group of copy editors, may be known as the copy chief, copy desk chief, or news editor. In book publishing in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world that follow British nomenclature, the term copy editor is used, but in newspaper and magazine publishing, the term is subeditor (or sub-editor), commonly shortened to sub. The senior subeditor of a publication is frequently called the chief subeditor. As the prefix sub suggests, copy editors typically have less authority than regular editors.
In the context of the internet, online copy refers to the text content of web pages. Similar to print, online copy editing is the process of revising the raw or draft text of web pages and reworking it to make it ready for publication.
Copy editing has three levels: light, medium, and heavy. Depending on the budget and scheduling of the publication, the publisher will let the copy editor know what level of editing to employ. The type of editing one chooses (light, medium, or heavy), will help the copy editor prioritize their efforts.:12
Within copy editing, there is mechanical editing and substantive editing: Mechanical editing is the process of making a text or manuscript follow editorial or house style. The role of this particular type of editing is to keep the preferred style of publication consistent across all content, as well as make sure that generally accepted grammar rules are followed throughout. It refers to editing in terms of spelling, punctuation, correct usage of grammatical symbols, along with reviewing special elements like tables, charts, formatting footnotes, and endnotes. Substantive editing, also known as content editing, is the editing of material, including its structure and organization. In this type of editing, internal inconsistencies and discrepancies are dealt with. Substantive editing oftentimes can require heavy editing or rewriting as compared to mechanical editing.:5–10
Mechanical editing is the process of proofreading a piece of writing for consistency, either internally or in accordance with the publisher's house style. According to Einsohn, mechanical editors work with such things as the following::5
- Abbreviations and acronyms
- Additional elements, such as charts, tables, and graphs
- Footnotes and endnotes
- Italicization and boldfaced type
- Numbers and numerals
- Charts, graphs, maps, and their keys
- Page numbers, headers, and footers
- Tables of contents and page numbers
Proper spelling and punctuation are subjective in some cases, where they must be left to the discretion of the copyeditor or the publisher. Most publishing firms use a widely recognized style manual such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook. Companies that produce documents and reports but do not consider themselves publishers in the usual sense, tend to rely on in-house style guides or on the judgment of the copyeditor.:5
Grammar and usage
The goal of the copyeditor is to enforce inviolable rules while respecting personal stylistic preferences. This can be difficult, as some writers view grammatical revisions of the copyedited manuscript as a challenge to their intellectual ability or professional identity. For this reason, copy editors are encouraged to side with the author. If the author's preference is acceptable, it should be respected. This practice is complicated further by constantly evolving language conventions as recorded by books on grammar and usage. Additionally, the authors of such books often disagree.:333–337
Content editing consists of reorganizing or restructuring the content of a document. This involves any inconsistent parts of the content as well as any variances. Copyeditors can either fix the content by rewriting it or heavily editing it. However, the copyeditor will often point out any difficult passages for the author to resolve on his or her own time.:9
Although copyeditors are not responsible for factual correctness of the document, they can provide comments for the author on any information they know to be incorrect,:9 such as year discrepancies or misleading ideas. This type of fact checking is acceptable for copyeditors that know the document's subject matter.:7–10
The copyeditor must also point out any biased language without infringing on the author's meaning. This includes material "that might form the basis for a lawsuit alleging libel, invasion of privacy, or obscenity". Some see censoring biased language as political correctness, so it's important the copyeditor distinguishes between the two.:7–10 To do this, the copyeditor permits intentional "politically incorrect" views and censors only marginalized, offensive, or exclusive language.:405
Correlating parts, typecoding, and permissions
Most manuscripts will require the copyeditor to correlate the parts within it. Copyeditors must carry out the following tasks in this process::7
- Verify any cross-references that appear in the text
- Check the numbering of footnotes, endnotes, tables, and illustrations
- Specify the placement of tables and illustrations
- Check the content of the illustrations against the captions and the text
- Read the list of illustrations against the illustrations and captions
- Read the table of contents against the manuscript
- Read the footnotes/endnotes and in-text citations against the bibliography
- Check the alphabetization of the bibliography or reference list
Some manuscripts may require special cross-checking. For example, in a how-to text, a copyeditor might need to verify that the list of equipment or parts matches the instructions given within said text.:7
- Part and chapter numbers
- Titles and subtitles
- Headings and subheadings
- Displayed equations
- Table numbers
- Source lines
- Figure numbers and captions
It is the copyeditor's job to typecode (or make note of) all manuscript elements for the publication designer. Hard copy copyeditors are usually asked to pencil in the typecodes in the left margin of the manuscript. On-screen copyeditors may be asked to insert typecodes at the beginning and end of each element.:10
Finally, if the manuscript contains long quotations from a published work that is still under copyright, the copyeditor should remind the author to acquire permission to reprint said quotations. The same goes for the reprinting of tables, charts, graphs, and illustrations that have appeared in print. Rules vary for the reproduction of unpublished materials (letters, diaries, etc.):10
There are several basic procedures that every copyeditor must follow: copyeditors need a system for marking changes to the author's text (marking), a process for querying the author and the editorial coordinator (querying), a method for keeping track of editorial decisions (recordkeeping), and procedures for incorporating the author's review of the copyediting into a final manuscript or electronic files (cleanup). These systems were originally developed in an era before that of the computer, but over time these procedures were adapted to exist in a digital on-screen space.:7–10
Each medium (in print and on screen) has its own affordances, and although a copyeditor may prefer one editing process over the other, copyeditors are practically required to use both techniques.
Traditional markup copyediting, or hard-copy editing, is still important because screening tests for employment are administered in hard copy. Also, the author whose text the copyeditor is editing may prefer hard-copy markup, and copyeditors need to know traditional markup in case documents and materials cannot be exchanged electronically. When editing in hard-copy, all participating parties (the editor, author, typesetter, and proofreader) must understand the marks the copyeditor makes, and therefore a universal marking system that signifies these changes exists. This is also why the copyeditor should write legibly and neatly. Copyeditors working hard-copy write their corrections in the text directly, leaving the margins for querying. Usually the copyeditor is asked to write in a bright color, so the author and other parties can easily recognize the editor's changes.:7–10
Every year, more editing projects are being done on computer and fewer in print. Also, if there is a digital version of a text the copyeditor is editing, they can more easily search words, run spellcheckers, and generate clean copies of messy pages. The first thing copyeditors must do when editing on-screen is to copy the author's files, as the original document must be preserved.:7–10 Each word processing program provides various options for how an editor's markups are shown on screen and on the printout. On-screen editing mainly differs from hard-copy editing in the fact that the copyeditor should edit more cleanly on-screen, refraining from saving parts of words, and be careful in maintaining proper line spacing.:7–10
Copyeditors often need to query their authors in order to address questions, comments, or explanations: most of these can be done in the margins of the text, or the comment section when on-screen.:7–10 The copyeditor must consider when to query and the length and tone of their queries, as querying too frequently or infrequently, cryptically, or sarcastically can result in a negative relationship between the copyeditor and the author.:7–10
Depending on which publication a copyeditor is employed with, his or her goals may change, however there are a few constituencies that must always be served – the author (the person who wrote or compiled the manuscript), the publisher (the person or company that is paying to produce the material), and the readers (the audience for whom the material is being produced). These parties (in conjunction with the copyeditor) work to achieve the same goal, which is to produce an error free publication. The copyeditor strives to improve clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness – otherwise known as the "4 C's". Each of these components serve the copyeditor's "Cardinal C", which is communication.:3
The advent of the printing press in the middle of the 15th century opened the doors to the first printing houses in Europe. Even after the invention of the printing press and on to today, the editor's job is to correct perceived mistakes. Within these printing houses, there were a variety of employees, one being correctors, or as it is referred to today, editors.
The biggest difference between monastic copyists and copyeditors is that copyeditors leave editions as suggestions that the original author can choose to reject. These printing houses established procedures for editing, preparing the text, and proofreading. Specialist correctors made sure texts were in accordance with the standards of the time.
Before the printing press, monastic copyists altered words or phrases they thought were odd, under the assumption that the copyist before them had made a mistake. This is what led to so much variety in standard texts like the Bible.
After the globalization of the book from 1800 to 1970, the rise of American authors and editors came to fruition. One editor in particular, Maxwell Perkins, was sought out by writers such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe because he greatly improved the work on these prominent authors with his editorial eye. Perkins was known editing, guiding, and befriending his writers - but the times were changing.
In the late 19th century, the role of an editor was to decide if a manuscript was good enough to be published. As time passed, the role of an editor and publisher became more distant. Although there was a newfound relationship between editors and authors, thoughtful editing did not end.
Copyeditors were employed at various publishing houses, magazines, journals, and by private authors seeking revisions on their work. Some copyeditors were even employed by public relations and advertising firms who valued strong editing practices in their business.
The symbols used by copyeditors today are based on those that have been used by proofreaders since the beginnings of publishing, though they have undergone some changes over time. However, the exact beginnings of the copyediting language used today are unclear. Despite its long history, copyediting as a practice has not experienced any extreme upheaval other than the desktop publishing revolution of the 1980s. This phenomena began as the result of a series of inventions that were released during the middle of this decade, and refers to the growth of technology usage in the field of copyediting. Namely, the development of the Macintosh computer, the desktop laser printer by Hewlett-Packard, and a software for desktop publishing called PageMaker created by Aldus (a company now under the control of Adobe) allowed the revolution to begin. By allowing both individuals and publishing agencies alike to cheaply and effectively begin to edit compositions entirely on-screen rather than by hand, desktop publishing revolution morphed copyediting into the practice it is today. Most copyeditors today rely on more modern WYSIWYG ('what you see is what you get') text processors such as Microsoft Word that are based on the original PageMaker to do their work.
There were a few events that led to changes within copyediting as a career. One of these, the successful strike of the editorial department of the Newark Ledger from November 17, 1934 to March 28, 1935, was "the first major action of its kind by any local guild...[it] both confirmed the irreversibility of the guilds' movement away from the professional association idea and greatly accelerated that process". Paired with another string of strikes led by The New York Newspaper Guild against a number of smaller newspapers in the summer of 1934, these actions served to shift the image of the editorial worker as a 'professional' to one as an average citizen. Another strike from the year 1934 was the strike at the Macaulay Company, reportedly the first ever strike to occur at a publishing firm. At the conclusion of the second Macaulay strike,which occurred three months after the first, the nationwide drive towards unionization had entered the publishing industry and was "sweeping through all the major publishing houses". As these events seemed to have the secondary result of lowering the status of editors across the various publishing fields, it could be said that they sparked the decline of copyeditors that can be seen across the publishing fields today.
Due to the rise of the Digital Age, the roles and responsibilities of a copyeditor have changed. For instance, beginning in 1990, copyeditors learned pagination electronically. They could now look at different pages of a text on multiple screens and easily edit on there, as opposed to pasting them by hand on a board. This technological advance also required that copyeditors learn new software such as Pagemaker, Quark Xpress, and now Adobe InDesign.
Modern copyeditors are often required to edit for digital as well as print versions of text. Digital copyediting requires copyeditors to understand RSS feeds, social media such as Twitter and Facebook, and Hyper Text Markup Language. What should be accounted for is that in this digital age, information is constantly being released which then leads to the decline in editing of the online versions. Editors of the website Buzzfeed commented that sometimes they "simply can't get every post before it's published". While copyeditors still do traditional tasks such as checking for facts, grammar, style, and writing headlines, some of their duties have been pushed aside to make way for technology. Some copyeditors now have to design page layouts and some even edit video content. Copyeditors are now sometimes referred to as "copy/layout editors" or "producers/designers".
Changes in the field
Traditionally, the copy editor would read a printed or written manuscript, manually marking it with editor's correction marks. At sizable newspapers, the main copy desk was often U-shaped; the copy desk chief sat in the "slot" (the center space of the U) and was known as the "slot man", while copy editors were arrayed around him or her on the outside of the U, known as the "rim". In the past, copy editors were sometimes known humorously as "rim rats". Chief copy editors are still sometimes called "the slot". But nowadays, the manuscript is more often read on a computer display and text corrections are entered directly.
The nearly universal adoption of computerized systems for editing and layout in newspapers and magazines has also led copy editors to become more involved in design and the technicalities of production. Technical knowledge is therefore sometimes considered as important as writing ability, though this is truer in journalism than it is in book publishing. Hank Glamann, co-founder of the American Copy Editors Society, made the following observation about ads for copy editor positions at American newspapers:
We want them to be skilled grammarians and wordsmiths and write bright and engaging headlines and must know Quark. But, often, when push comes to shove, we will let every single one of those requirements slide except the last one, because you have to know that in order to push the button at the appointed time.
Traits, skills, and training
Besides an excellent command of language, copy-editors need broad general knowledge for spotting factual errors; good critical thinking skills in order to recognize inconsistencies or vagueness; interpersonal skills for dealing with writers, other editors and designers; attention to detail; and a sense of style. Also, they must establish priorities and balance a desire for perfection with the necessity to follow deadlines.
Many copy editors have a college degree, often in journalism, the language the text is written in, or communications. In the United States, copy editing is often taught as a college journalism course, though its name varies. The courses often include news design and pagination.
In the United States, The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund sponsors internships that include two weeks of training. Also, the American Press Institute, the Poynter Institute, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UC San Diego Extension and conferences of the American Copy Editors Society offer mid-career training for newspaper copy editors and news editors (news copy desk supervisors).
Most US newspapers and publishers give copy-editing job candidates an editing test or a tryout. These vary widely and can include general items such as acronyms, current events, math, punctuation, and skills such as the use of Associated Press style, headline writing, info graphics editing, and journalism ethics.
In both the US and the UK, there are no official bodies offering a single recognized qualification.
In the UK, several companies provide a range of courses unofficially recognized within the industry. Training may be on the job or through publishing courses, privately run seminars, or correspondence courses of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. The National Council for the Training of Journalists also has a qualification for subeditors.
Before the digital era, copy-editors used to take a red pen to a piece of paper to point out errors and inconsistencies using a markup language made up of symbols universally known by copy-editors. The traditional copy editor was once defined as editing for grammar, spelling, punctuation and other mechanics of style.
Copy editing symbols can no longer be used when editing digitally because they are not supported on digital platforms such as track changes. With more posting online and less printing on paper, this means current publishing processes are faster. Hard copy is no longer able to keep up with digital publishing. For a publisher to hire copy editors to print hard copy, make edits, and then make changes is no longer the most efficient process. The position of copy editors is at risk because time demands quicker results that can be done by automatic correction software that catches all grammatical errors. Transferring the responsibility from human copy editors to digital software has been adopted by some publishing companies because it is available free of cost.
Professionals feared that the introduction of digital editing software would put an end to copyediting careers. Copy editors are still employed and needed for heavy editing, such as fact-checking and content organization, which software is not yet able to do. With grammar software and journalists that can edit, copy editors are seen as a luxury in publishing. The potential for a company to use editing software may also require the copy editor to only perform heaving editing and querying. Though the steps for copyediting are the same, the execution is what has been changed due to the introduction of digital environments.
The technological development of Cloud storage allows contemporary copy editors and writers to upload and share files across multiple devices. Online word processors such as Google Docs, Dropbox, Zoho, OpenGoo and Buzzword allow users to perform a number of tasks. Each processor has its advantages and disadvantages based on the users' preferences, but primarily allow users to share, edit and collaborate on documents. On Google Docs users can invite others via e-mail to view, comment and edit any file of their choosing. Those invited can view and edit the document together in real time. Unlike Google Docs whose files can only be shared through the web app, Dropbox shares from a desktop app. Dropbox users can share documents as links or as shared folders. Users can create shared folders and add others to the folder. Files in a shared folder will appear in the other user's Dropbox and all involved users receive notifications when edits are made to a file in the folder. Adobe's Buzzword allows users to share files, with the user's choice from varying levels of editing access, and includes a Version History feature which tracks changes made to documents and lets users revert to earlier versions. Useful in many word processors, a Track Changes feature allows users to make changes to a document and view them separately from the original document. In Microsoft Word users can choose whether to show or hide changes by clicking Track Changes under the Review ribbon. Those editing documents can leave comments by clicking wherever the user desires to leave a comment and clicking New Comment under the review ribbon or by highlighting text and clicking New Comment. Users can select the revision of specific users whom they have allowed to revise their work and choose which level of mark ups to view under the Show Markup dropdown menu in the Review ribbon. Users can also choose to accept or rejects changes by clicking either Accept or Reject in the Review Ribbon.
The modern reader's desire for quick, if not edited, content doesn't render the field of copyediting obsolete just yet, however. Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) and a deputy managing editor at the Daily Herald in Chicago, thinks that copyeditors are "a natural fit" for digital journalism and social media because though publishing has been made available to almost anyone, quality and credibility is brought to content only by copy editors.
When editing a piece, copy editors now have to consider multimedia aspects of the story. The inclusion of video, images, SEO, and audio are just some of the components that are now created and included to digital publications by copy editors. Digital journalism has created many new roles for a copy editor, such as editing on the Web. Digital editing now requires copy editors to become familiar with search-engine optimization, understanding HyperText Markup Language, Cascading Style Sheets, and RSS feeds. In addition to Web-based skills, contemporary copy editors must also obtain a larger skill set, having knowledge of and the ability to operate software such as Adobe Illustrator for generating graphics or Adobe Dreamweaver for designing web pages.
With the digital publishing era came an increased demand of information. ReadWrite, a popular technology news site, faced issues. Andrew Hyatt watched his site go from about 5 million page views a month to under 3 million. Hyatt credited at least part of the reason to the site's decision to hire two new copy editors. This decision was driven by an "old-school journalism mindset" that the audience wanted "super clean copy." Because it slowed story production, however, viewership went down. In order to keep the site afloat, he laid off the copy editors and implemented a "much more loose" editorial process in order to keep publishing rates up, including getting rid of up-front story pitches and front-end editing.
As the news industry debates the future of copy editing, critics and audiences are left wondering whether new online audiences care as much as print audiences would about things like grammar, punctuation, and accurate usage and phrasing.
Web-based publications, such as BuzzFeed and Slate do not have enough room in their budgets to keep a sufficient amount of staff to edit their massive, daily rushes of content. Because of this, copy chief Emmy Favila says lower-priority posts are published without copy edits at Buzzfeed. Slate does not edit its blog posts before publication, but all of its news articles are copy edited before publication, says Slate copy chief Lowen Liu and deputy editor Julia Turner.
In response to such high demands for fast-produced content, some online publications have started publishing articles first and then editing later, a process known as back-editing. Editors prioritize stories to edit based on traffic and whether the content was originally reported for needing edits.
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- Proofreading practice at Project Gutenberg Distributed Proofreaders
- What exactly is a copy editor?, by Bill Walsh of The Washington Post
- How a copy desk works