Copyediting: What does it actually mean?

Copyediting–Don’t Let Your Manuscript Leave Home Without It

view of open book from top spine

CC image Light Reading courtesy of Martin on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

This post is the second in a series about different editorial services. Click here for Developmental/Content editing. Coming months will cover proofreading, and the manuscript critique.

In the post, “Am I ready for an editor?” I pointed out that editing is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Different types of editing have specific goals. One of the most confounding types of editing is the copyedit.

What a copyedit does

As the word “editing” in the name implies, copyediting deals with content. It is all about one major theme: CONSISTENCY. Copyediting focuses on consistent language and presentation, and therefore comes after any developmental editing or big-picture revisions to the manuscript.

The copyedit exists to ensure that the work is strong and clear from a technical point of view. English gives us many choices we often don’t think about, but copyediting does. Conventions govern the use of hyphenation, the spelling out of number words, serial commas, and more. Copyediting looks at the following:

  • Readability
  • Word choice and repetition
  • Language coherence and organization
  • Transitions
  • Acceptable character/narrative arc
  • Front and back matter
  • Spelling, punctuation, and grammar
  • Style and formatting
    • Chapter and section headings and breaks
    • Capitalization, hyphenation, abbreviation, use of proper names
    • Paragraph indentation, spacing, and margins
    • Font, font size
    • Captions, tables, graphics, bulleted lists
  • Citations, references, and more

There are levels of copyediting. The spectrum moves from less to greater intervention (a “light” versus a “heavy” copyedit). Copyediting begins with grammar and overall cohesion, and becomes more detailed the heavier the copyedit gets.

Style and formatting choices, although not “verbal,” play a big part in how your book conveys meaning to your audience. Page breaks and a chapter headings let your readers know they are moving to a new set of ideas, occurrences, geography, or time. Headings and subheadings let readers know how ideas are linked. Although these considerations are often overlooked when doing content review, they are a big part of the copyedit.

Are you ready for a copyedit?

When you have a manuscript that has completed at least one full draft, you are ready to consider a copyedit. If you are still playing with narrative structure, or if your manuscript is incomplete, you are not ready for this type of review. This is because a copyedit needs the whole manuscript to be able to see and impose consistency.

When you want to make sure the paragraphs, sentences, and style choices play nice together, you are ready for a copyedit. You want the manuscript to flow cohesively, and be consistent in tone, word choice, character details, and formatting. You are happy with the overall flow of the manuscript and are not planning on moving any big chunks around.

Do the manuscript format, choice of language, headers, and other visual cues guide the reader, or confuse them? And if they confuse, how can we correct this? These are the big questions of the copyedit.

What happens in a copyedit

Your editor will confirm with you which style guide they are using to review your manuscript. Typically, in non-academic book publishing, the Chicago Manual of Style will apply, unless you or your editor decide otherwise.

Your editor will review the work in total, marking up any changes so they conform to the chosen style, appropriate grammar, and spelling. Additionally, your editor may leave comments or questions on the manuscript, particularly if there are any items which are unclear (phrasing or organization). For this reason, you may go through a second round of copyediting to verify your choices.

Usually, you will have the choice to accept or reject changes. Be cautious about rejecting them. Be sure you know why. Always explain your decision to your editor.

The bottom line

Because it considers the total internal consistency of your manuscript, the copyedit must happen after any developmental or content work has taken place.

A copyedit is one of the most important things you can do for your manuscript, no matter what genre or style you are writing in. You might have made some big changes during the developmental edit or during your own revision. The copyedit reviews the entire manuscript from top to bottom to make sure it’s in good shape.

A good copyedit can make the difference between a work whose impact is “ho-hum” and a text that sizzles. When done well, the average reader may not notice it’s there, but everyone notices when it’s missing.

Thoughts, questions, comments, suggestions, and blarney (bonus points for wit):