Copy editing, explained

Other terms related to copy editing: Copy editor, editing, proofreading, line editing, copy editing service

The word “copy” is a general term for any written work including academic papers, blog articles, websites, journal articles, business reports, promotional materials, sales pages, flyers, and other types of written content, especially if its shared with the public. Copy editing is the process of reviewing, revising, and rewriting copy to enhance accuracy and readability, remove errors, improve clarity, and make the content easier to understand.

The purpose of a copy editor is to make sure that your written content is perfect for your audience and get it ready for publication. Copy editing should not be confused with proofreading. Although copy editors will look for and fix mistakes, they’re more focused on “big picture” changes to the style and structure of your content. Ideally, a proofreader should go through your content after a copy editor has made changes and will fix issues with grammar, wording, spelling, and punctuation.

The process of copy editing

A copy editor will typically read the content several times, using their skills to modify it from a draft to a final piece of writing. The copy editor is not a ghostwriter, and they may request that the original author makes substantive changes or major revisions. The copy editing process should  be a collaboration between the writer and editor.

An editor will look at several aspects of the writing, asking questions and making edits to satisfy the following:

  • Introduction: Is it interesting enough to draw a reader in and does it provide context and position the rest of the work? Can the introduction be strengthened to engage with the reader on a deeper level?

  • Organization and flow: Is the text well organized and does is flow logically and smoothly from one part to the next? Is it clearly guiding the reader through the copy so they can identify where they are in the content?

  • Concise versus extraneous: Does the content need to be sharpened to strengthen clarity, conciseness, and understanding? Can the copy editor reign in unruly text, get rid of fluff, eliminate jargon, and reduce flowery or overwrought language? Does the writing get the most important ideas across in the most efficient way, so the reader has a good understanding of all key points?

  • Tone and style: Is the usage of first-, second-, or third-person consistent throughout? Does the writer use past, present, and future tenses correctly? Does the writing feel like it’s been created by multiple authors? Can the editor create a streamlined approach, tone of voice, and style throughout the work?

  • Wrap up and conclusion: Does the copy end with something thought provoking or worth remembering? Does the work feel complete? Is there a call to action, if needed?

  • Guidance, advice, and feedback: Will additional feedback be useful to help the writer enhance the work further?

FAQs about copy editing

What is the difference between proofreading and copy editing?

A copy editor might catch a few mistakes when they’re editing your content, but that’s not their main function. The copy editor ensures your work is readable and memorable by helping with sentence and paragraph structure, word choice, tone, style, and consistency. Proofreading generally takes place after editing, and is a word by word check for misspellings, grammar mistakes, word choice, punctuation usage, and other errors.

Many people will wonder if they need both a copy editor and a proofreader. It all depends on how polished you need your final work to be. It can be useful to have a separate proofreader to find and correct any mistakes that the editor may have missed. Some copy editors will also complete a proofread of your content once they’ve finished editing so it’s perfect for publication.

Can I copy edit my own writing?

It’s not a good idea for a writer to copy edit or proofread their own work. The person who wrote the copy will have a hard time seeing their own mistakes. It takes someone with special skills and training to look for specific flaws to be a good copy editor, and an editor will also use their experience to strengthen the content in ways you may not have thought of. Most writers are not trained editors or proofreaders, so it’s worth hiring someone with the right approach and expertise. Copy editors will read your work as your audience will, and polish it to connect with them in the best possible way.

How much does copy editing cost?

The average cost for basic copy editing is between $35 and $50 an hour, and most copy editors can work on between 1,000 and 2,000 words per hour. The cost might increase if you’re looking for editors with specialties like website copy editing or academic copy editing.

What are some things that my copy editor may not do?

Copy editors provide different types of services, so it’s worth knowing what they may or may not offer. Most copy editors won’t provide the following:

  • Writing services or ghostwriting, as copy editors enhance work that’s already written, rather than create it themselves.

  • Very extensive rewriting or restructuring; instead, they will typically make notes and pass the work back to you for a rewrite of the sections that need attention.

  • Graphics, design, photo, or image sourcing or editing.

  • Original research and fact checking.

  • Plagiarism and copyright checking.

Some copy editors do offer proofreading as part of the copy editing process, but others may not.

How do I hire the best copy editor for my work?

So many people are offering freelance copy editing services that it can be hard to select the perfect freelancer. Here are a few tips for finding the best copy editor for your work:

  • Copy editing isn’t cheap: Don’t base your search on how low the prices are. We all want to save money but detailed work by an experienced copy editor is worth the extra cost. Some of the cheaper copy editors may not be native English speakers, or they may be offering proofreading instead of copy editing.

  • Good copy editing takes time: Copy editors can do basic work at 5-10 pages per hour but more detailed work can mean 3-5 pages per hour. Make sure you plan for the time an editor needs and hire an editor who will give your content their full attention.  

  • Check for credentials and experience: Look at the copy editor’s portfolio of work to see if they have expertise and experience in your topics. Find out about any degrees or professional qualifications that you copy editor might have. See if the copy editor lists examples of work, clients, or publications for whom they have provided services.

  • Read reviews or testimonials: Find out what other people think of the copy editor you want to use. Word of mouth is a good indication of the quality of work, and can help you select the right editor.

Business copy editing, explained

Copy editors, explained