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What does a copyeditor do?

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 15 August 2012

Question marks

Find out what goes on behind the scenes when you hire a copyeditor

You’ve prepared some text and you’re nearly ready to send it out into the public domain. Perhaps you wrote it yourself, you commissioned it, or your team of writers has put it together. You’re proud of it and can’t wait to see how it fares out in the big bad world.

But you know it’s not quite ready to meet its public yet. Some inaccuracies may lurk in those carefully spun words, some slightly smudgy logic, some expressions that don’t quite sound right. This is where (ta-da!) the copyeditor comes in. He or she will take a magnifying glass to your every word and phrase, and make them better without compromising on your voice and style.

Sometimes the job of the copyeditor can seem a little shrouded in mystery. They improve your text – but how do they do this? Is it magic?

No, it’s not magic. It’s a simple, timeless formula that, on a whim, I shall call CE = A + C + C:

Copyediting = Accuracy plus Consistency plus Clarity.

These are the big three that I look out for when copyediting, and they are what make all the difference to the success of your text.


Any text entering the public domain must be as accurate as possible. A lack of accuracy reflects badly on whoever has published it. Generally, many of the things a copyeditor does fall into the accuracy camp, and can be divided as follows:

•    Spelling. Yes, spelling does still matter. It’s the difference between referring to your public duties and your pubic duties (this error happens more than you’d think). But it’s also about ensuring place names are spelled correctly, either US or UK spelling is used consistently, and those oft-typed but hard-to-spot typos (learn/lean, complied/compiled, and/an) are eradicated.
•    Punctuation. This isn’t about the copyeditor imposing their own sense of how commas should be used on your writing: it means getting a sense of how you use punctuation, then bringing the overall punctuation of the piece up to the best possible standard. This could be adding in a missing closing bracket, or replacing a comma with a semi-colon, or changing quote marks to speech marks.
•    Grammar. Sentences might need to be tightened up in terms of how they read grammatically. There might be a confusion of tenses, a singular verb after a plural noun, or a bullet-pointed list whose bullets don’t follow grammatically from its ‘stem’.
•    Facts. A good copyeditor is always questioning, and never assumes anything. If an assertion seems spurious, such as ‘SOS stands for save our sisters’ (actually, SOS didn’t originally stand for anything and was just three easy-to-remember letters in Morse code), the copyeditor will check it out – and if they can’t resolve it on their own, they’ll raise it as a query with you.


A lack of consistency can trip the reader up, and makes whoever has published the text look slapdash and careless. A copyeditor will be looking out for the following things:

•    House style. If there is a house style, it must be applied consistently throughout; and if there isn’t one, the piece must nevertheless read fluently and consistently. A character’s name spelt ‘Macsweeney’ in one paragraph and ‘McSweeney’ in the next is just going to confuse your readers. Are these two separate characters, or could the author simply not decide which one they preferred?
•    Additional material. A copyeditor will check any additional material such as contents pages, footnotes, bibliographies, running headers, tables, references and so on, to make sure they are presented consistently. Any numbered sequences must run on correctly. Tables must be set out each in the same way with a logically corresponding caption. A reference list must cite authors, if not in a prescribed style, then at least consistently. A copyeditor will check all these things and apply consistency throughout.


This last one is about making your text as clear, readable and concise as possible. A piece of text can have perfect spelling and consistent layout, but still not flow logically or read fluently. A copyeditor fixes that in the following ways:

•    Improving readability. This can range from dividing up over-long sentences, to saying things in one word rather than three, to eliminating redundancies (on a weekly basis = weekly, utilise = use), to breaking up chunky paragraphs. It also involves looking at tone – is an informal word used in an otherwise formal piece? – and making the prose sound as natural and well written as possible.
•    Getting the ‘write sense’ (I promise that will be my only personal plug!). By this I mean making sure the text at hand is saying what it means to say; that it makes sense and reads logically. This might involve checking with the author whether they meant that a character is poring or pawing over a set of photographs (more likely to be the former, but depending on the context…), or whether something is continually or continuously moving. It also looks at continuity – if someone leaves a scene, why are they speaking again in the next paragraph? If something was originally described as a pale-blue, why is it now a pale-green?

A good copyeditor applying the ACC formula will bear all these things in mind while reading your text, whether that text is web content, a novel or a scientific manuscript. And your text will be all the better for it. Whether it’s near the publication stage or still needs to be reworked by the author, it will come out bright, shiny and polished to perfection.