Beginner’s Guide: How to Copy Edit

September 29, 2021
Vincenza Rossignuolo

The most effective communication is optimized and refined. When publishing written material, copy editing plays a significant role in ensuring the text is consistent and accurate

Whether you are new to copy editing or refreshing your knowledge, this guide will lay out the basics of copy editing

Discover how to publish in seconds, not hours

Sign up now to get exclusive access to Wordable, along with and find out how to upload, format, and optimize content in seconds, not hours.

What is copy editing?

Copy editing is the process of revising a piece of writing to improve readability and ensure the text is error-free. As part of the editing process, copy editors check for consistency and accuracy.

What does a copy editor do?

The role of a copy editor is to identify technical issues within a piece of writing and offer edits and recommendations to improve the work. The copy editor makes line-level changes to enforce flow, focusing on:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Capitalisation
  • Syntax
  • Tone of voice
  • Style guide and in-house style requirements
  • Consistency
  • Formatting (this can include layout, e.g. image placement within the text)
  • Fact-checking (if there is not a specialised technical editor working on the piece)

Different editing processes for written text

Finalizing written material can involve different types of editing before being approved for publication. The copy editing processes applied depends on the work itself and the intended outcome, considering the topic, the medium, the publication, and the overall objective.

  • Structural editing, or substantive editing, is where the editor focuses on the overall presentation and organisation of the content, making significant changes and suggestions to the structure and tone of the piece.
  • Line editing is a subset of copy editing, focusing on the sentence and paragraph level text. A line edit addresses the writing style, creative content, and language use, explicitly focusing on tone of voice, grammar rules, pace, tightening transitions, and reducing repetition and ambiguity.
  • Content editing is a subset of copy editing, focusing on the text from a content marketing perspective. Content editing considers the strength and logic of the discussion, the quality of sources and examples, the brand voice, and the reach of the piece.
  • Technical editing is employed when a piece of writing requires fact-checking and specialised editing by a subject matter expert.
  • Rewriting copy is recommended when the written material doesn’t meet requirements and needs to be reworked entirely. (While a copy editor can identify when a piece of writing needs to be re-edited or rewritten, it is not necessarily their responsibility to rewrite it.) Sometimes, writers may opt to re-edit the copy; however, re-editing may take as much time and effort as rewriting.

Is copy editing the same as proofreading?

No, copy editing and proofreading are not the same. Both techniques make up different stages in the editing process.

Proofreading is where the editor reviews the final draft of a piece of writing to identify and correct grammatical errors missed in previous rounds of editing. Copy editing focuses on enhancing the consistency, accuracy, and flow of written material before the final draft is presented for proofreading.

Why should you copy edit your work?

“The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.” – Michael Lee, Author.

Engage your audience with concise and effective written communication. While you may not be working on a life-changing essay or a gripping novel, copy editing is vital to the writing process. Without it, the final piece may lack context, accuracy, clarity, consistency, focus, and action points. No matter the subject matter or destination, your writing deserves to be the best it can be.

  • Context: ensuring the written piece makes sense to your audience, and the meaning is unambiguous.
  • Accuracy: reviewing the terminology, wording, and other technical aspects of writing to meet standard rules of the language (in this case, English).
  • Clarification: explain any complex terms or jargon, and reduce and remove duplication and vagueness throughout the text.
  • Focus: tightening the written text to highlight key points and remain centred on the topic.
  • Consistency: implementing a uniform style guide for word usage and formatting.
  • Action: guiding readers to a specific conclusion, outcome, and action according to the piece’s objective.

Who is editing the copy?

Are you copy-editing your own work?

Are you copy-editing someone else’s work?

Or, are you employing copy editing services?

Whoever is editing the copy, consider the objective and the style of the written material before diving in. An objective refers to the purpose of the piece, and the style relates to standard writing and formatting guidelines. What is the author trying to say, and how do they want to say it?

When editing your own copy

When it comes to editing your own work, it’s essential that you take a step back after writing. For a moment, disregard that you wrote the copy and consciously appoint an Editor Mindset. As the editor, you should have no issue assessing and eliminating text to produce a more coherent and complete piece overall.

When editing someone else’s copy

Before you get stuck into copy-editing someone else’s work, ensure you clarify what your role will involve. You’ll need to distinguish to what extent you will be copy editing and gather the necessary information to complete the task.

If you are required to only focus on spelling and syntax, you may not need extra resources. Specialized resources and a distinct style guide may be necessary if you’re asked to provide more extensive copy-editing.

Employing a copy-editing service or freelancer

If you decide to outsource copy-editing, it’s essential to have a clear objective and style laid out for the editor. Clarify precisely what is required of the copy editor and provide them with a brief, including tone of voice, audience, necessary resources, and style guides. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style is used in many publishing houses and copy desks.

Copy editing principles

Ultra-specific, unique, useful, and urgent make up the Four U’s of copywriting. The final text should be concise and straightforward. Original ideas and key points should be distinguishable from past work with elevated concepts and new information. Without actionable solutions, the copy lacks authority and purpose. It is crucial to include an intention or even the next steps, especially with a sense of urgency.

The unofficial Fifth U pertains to the copy being unmistakable. As in, you want your audience to know exactly what you are trying to say. They shouldn’t have to guess or ever think, “I don’t understand. Is the writer trying to say ___?”

Primary principles of copy editing

In a read-through, reflect on the primary copy editing principles before you begin editing. Ask the following questions in relation to the text.

Purpose and context

  • What key points does the author want to demonstrate?
  • What is the overall intent of the piece?
  • What is the context for the written material?

Audience

  • How does the author intend the audience to receive the text?
  • Who are the intended readers of the text?
  • How will the piece be shared with them?
  • What is the call-to-action of this work?

Introduction

  • Does the introduction draw the reader in?
  • Does it provide context and a central focus for the rest of the work?
  • How can the introduction engage the reader on a deeper level?

Organisation and flow

  • Is the text well structured, and does it flow logically?
  • Does the writing smoothly transition from one part to the next?
  • Is the copy organised, intuitively guiding the reader through the text?

Conciseness

  • Does the copy read clearly and get to the point with ease?
  • Does the text need to be sharpened to strengthen understanding?
  • Can the editor reign in and cut down unruly text, fluff, complex language, and needless jargon?

Focus and clarity

  • Does the reader have a firm understanding of all critical points?
  • Is the main message received in the most effective way?
  • Is the piece as clear and focused as it could be?

Tone and style

  • Is the perspective and point of view consistent throughout?
  • Does the writing feel like it’s from a single viewpoint or like it’s been created by multiple authors?
  • Do past, present, and future tenses flow correctly throughout the piece?
  • Is the text consistent in approach, tone of voice, formatting, and style throughout the work?
  • Are punctuation and grammar consistent throughout the copy, including commas, acronyms, and capitalisation?

Length

  • Is the length of the copy appropriate to the objective and the publication?
  • Are individual sentences and paragraphs the appropriate length and fit for purpose?  

Conclusion

  • Does the text end on a memorable and thought-provoking note?
  • Does the work feel whole and complete?

Step-by-step guide on copy editing for beginners

1. Define the copy editing requirements and scope of work to be completed.

  1. Correct errors and typos – proofreading, spelling, and syntax.
  2. Improve consistency and flow – formatting and style guide standards.
  3. Ensure accuracy – verify sources and fact check.

2. Read through the text once the first time, fully and without edits.

This will help you:

  1. Understand the intention of the author.
  2. Recognise positioning, context, and key points for the intended audience.
  3. Ask questions to clarify the meaning and intent of the work where necessary, including:
    1. The purpose of the document
    2. The target audience
    3. The in-house style requirements
    4. The publication medium

3. Make a plan and keep a list of notes to address. Read through the text again and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is the writing properly communicating the author’s intent?
  2. Are the sentences ordered logically?
  3. Does the writing maintain a consistent voice and style throughout?
  4. Are there any inconsistencies, factual or detail?
  5. Do the ideas flow smoothly between one paragraph to the next?

4. Now that you have a plan, cut the fat.

  1. This time, work your way through each sentence line-by-line, noting any line edits or suggestions as you go. You can use spell checkers in this step for assistance.
  2. Examine sentence structure; make it simple, take out complex words and shorten sentences where necessary.
  3. Avoid repetition, extraneous content, and passive voice; ensure the content is concise.
  4. Do the ‘So what?’ test for every sentence: Cut the sentence if it doesn’t communicate essential information or provoke the intended reaction.

5. Once you have finished line editing, it’s time to format. Use the style guide specific to the publication, clean up the written piece, and format it accordingly.

6. Refine the writing with structural and content editing.

  1. Taking a step back from line editing, look at the written material as a whole.
  2. Assess the overall presentation and organisation of the content. Where necessary, make structural changes and improve the tone of the piece.
  3. Evaluate the strength of the argument and logic of the discussion regarding the value proposition, brand voice, intention, content reach, and high-quality sources.

7. Proofread to identify and correct any errors that previous rounds of editing missed.

In this stage, the proofreader can also indulge a bad habit: complete a fast, surface reading to gratify the impulse to skim-read the text.

8. Final read-through before submission.

  1. Don’t rush; be curious. Double-check the writing carefully and ensure that it is error-free.
  2. Read it out loud to test flow and ease of reading. You can also test readability with a tool such as the Flesch-Kincaid score.
  3. Take a break and reread at a later time with fresh eyes; you may pick up something you missed previously.
  4. If it’s a shorter piece, try reading the copy backwards, sentence by sentence.

In conclusion

Copy editing may seem quite extensive, but it will become second nature once you have instilled these principles and fundamental steps. You can make the copy-editing process a little easier with the following resources:

  • Word processing and writing applications such as Microsoft Word and Google Docs (these types of platforms allow users to track changes and edits in real-time)
  • Prominent style guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
  • Readability tools such as the Flesch-Kincaid score
  • AI editing and copywriting assistants such as Grammarly and Jarvis
Vincenza Rossignuolo
Vincenza is a Content Specialist at SMSGlobal. Based in Melbourne, she is a creative and driven go-getter who loves to engage with her audience through storytelling. When she isn’t fulfilling her calling as a wordsmith, she enjoys travel, live music, and eating delicious, delicious food. You can find her online here: LinkedIn - Facebook - Twitter - Instagram - Medium

About the Author

Vincenza Rossignuolo
Vincenza is a Content Specialist at SMSGlobal. Based in Melbourne, she is a creative and driven go-getter who loves to engage with her audience through storytelling. When she isn’t fulfilling her calling as a wordsmith, she enjoys travel, live music, and eating delicious, delicious food. You can find her online here: LinkedIn - Facebook - Twitter - Instagram - Medium