Copy Editing Is Not Exactly a Breeze

By March 15, 2012May 6th, 2018Writing

Copy editing is not exactly a breeze; it takes more than simply knowing what “looks right.” I can say this with all truthfulness because I used to believe that my “looks right” decisions were enough to turn sloppy copy into something perfect. I was wrong.

So what does good copy editing take?

A good eye
Yes, I know I just dissed the whole “looks right” theory, but it is an important part of the whole. A copy editor needs to instinctively know what looks right and what doesn’t (or that which doesn’t, which sounds completely anal but works for legalese).

Spelling skills
Microsoft Word doesn’t help much when it comes to homophones, and will gladly skip by glaring errors like  their v. there, were v. where and set up v. setup. As a copy editor, you need to know in advance which words you want to use and how to spell them. Buy the amazing Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Be sure to get the latest edition, because spellings change over the years. Take setup v. set up: Set up is a transitive verb whereas setup is a noun — you need to know when and where to spell each one right.

English: CMOS 16 cover image.

Style guides
This is probably the harder aspect of copy editing — while there are two main manuals of style to follow, many organizations create their own style guides. In order to do a good job, you need to know how an organization likes its ellipses or em dashes, or what its rules on capitalization are. Some style guides make me gasp in horror, but my lips are sealed. (Hint: You don’t lowercase someone’s name just because you hate him [yes, him — because them is not a singular pronoun].) One of the differences I see most often between the CMOS and the AP style is when using em dashes: The Chicago Manual of Style tells us not to put a space around the em dashes, while The AP Stylebook loves spaces.  Another difference is when typing ellipses: The CMOS likes spacing out the dots in an ellipsis while the AP guide doesn’t.

Subject/verb/object agreement
This is probably my biggest peeve, although back in the early days I didn’t even realize I was committing this fatal sin. I learned it quickly enough when I took an editing test…. E.g. They had the best time of their life. WRONG! They had the best time of their lives.

Essentially, a copy editor has to constantly check the dictionary and style guide to make sure all the content follows the rules. That takes much more time than to simply read through something and decide that it “looks right.”

If you have the joy of finding a copywriter who is also a copy editor, you have a veritable goldmine at your disposal … and this Irish copywriter/copy editor comes with her own pot of gold … so hire me today! 🙂

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  • Miles says:

    Whatveer. Theirs no rules any moor. I’m mean, eff ewe reed it outloud and it sownd rite, whoo carez?

  • admin says:

    Oooh, you are so BAD!

  • Mike Addington says:

    The author of an article on copyediting has mispelled the word as “copy editing.” The proper noun “copy editor” is correct. Source Mirriam-Webster’s 10th Ed and AMA style guide, current edition.

  • admin says:

    Hi Mike,

    Yes, copy editor is correct, as is copyedit, but the word copyediting is not even in Merriam-Webster’s 11th ed. The word copyedit is down as a transitive verb in the MW, so it would make more sense to write it as copyediting, but I have gone over this with countless other editors who cannot agree on the true spelling of the word(s). The latest CMOS has it down as copyediting in its index, but redirects the reader to manuscript editing.

    The AMA Manual of Style is not a commonly used style guide in the online world, considering it is the style guide which “specifies the writing and citation styles for use in scholarly publications in medicine internationally.” Most editors rely on the AP Stylebook for Internet-related editing. I have also used the Yahoo! Style Guide at times. Ultimately, it seems that an editor can choose which spelling he/she prefers until the WM folk choose to put the word into their dictionary.

    Re your use of capitalization in “Merriam-Webster’s 10th Ed,” check out MW’s 11th edition’s rule # 8.174.

    Re any other errors you look for, there is probably at least one.

  • The MW edition I found at, reads that “ . . .” is one word, trans verb or noun (depending on use of course), and, to add to the different ways of spelling is the Oxford Dictionary, which spells as copy-edit. If I read your above comments correctly, I’m not sure why I should offer a retraction. If your reasoning is that there is the word “copyedit” but not “copyediting” in MW 11th, there are many instances of exclusion of extensions of words because it goes without saying that adding and “ing” to the word would not confer a different spellingl

  • Apologies for becoming so taken with the spelling of copyediting that I did’t address the article. I’ve . . . edited medical journals for 10 years now, books, screenplays, and I have been amazed at the quality of work some people have hired me to do. Mostly in the book manuscript arena, but some were research papers that baffled me as to how they made it through peer review. I have given work back and told the writer that he had to at least close up his periods and commas before I would consider looking at it again. What these people want is for you to write the paper for them. I say all this to encourage writers to take some pride in learning the technical aspects of your craft before you hand it off to a copy editor. Just think: he or she might not take any more pride in their work than you do!!!

  • admin says:

    Good point. I was mulling over that fact last night and it makes sense, and thank you for taking the time to bother giving your input in the first place. We have no place as editors if we can’t take the correction we are so fond of giving.

    Re your second reply, I hear you on the college students. I don’t see why they bother going to school if they don’t even want to try to learn.

    Stay in touch, and feel free to question any future posts, even if it riles me a little, haha.


  • Well, Sally, if we didn’t have “words” to discuss, where would we be? 🙂

    Delighted to now know about your Web site. I will pass it along to members of my writers group, a bunch of wordies in their own right.

    Ciao, enjoyed the chat.


  • Tom Slaiter says:

    Great post, interesting about the styles where some say don’t capitalize their name because you hate him. Never heard of that before 🙂

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