Copy-editors: What They Really Do

Today we have a guest post from editor Robert Doran, whose previous guest posts on the subject of all things editing —Structural Editing for Self-Publishers and Why Hire An Editor? — were exceedingly popular. Today he’s explaining exactly what it is copy-editors do, and he’ll be back on Thursday to tell us all about proofreading. Welcome back to Catherine. Caffeinated, Robert! Take it away…

“People often think that if you can write you can edit – and vice versa. But writing and editing are very different skills, and competency in one doesn’t guarantee ability in the other. The creative impulse that often drives the author should be largely absent in the copy-editor, who is tasked with problem-solving and who essentially approaches the text as a puzzle. Happily, the editor’s eye for detail complements the author’s creativity, and when they are combined successfully you end up with something great.

Many self-publishers decide not to hire a copy-editor because of the cost involved and because they don’t fully understand what a copy-edit can do for their work. The thinking generally goes, I’m not paying someone to correct a few typos and to get rid of the passive voice. The truth is that you’re paying for a great deal more than that, and we’ll examine the specifics of where your money goes in a moment. First and foremost, what you get out of a copy-edit is a degree of confidence that your book is technically sound, that it does what you intended it to do, and that it comes up to the basic standards expected of published work.


In broad terms, the copy-editor must ensure that the author’s words are true to the intended message. One of the reasons why it is so difficult to copy-edit your own work is that the message is already clear in your head. You know your intention before you review what you’ve written, and that makes it easy to make assumptions and difficult to affect the detachment necessary to edit. The reader, on the other hand, relies solely on your words, so they need to be the right words, organised in the correct manner, if you are to communicate your message effectively. Enter the copy-editor!

A copy-editor brings a fresh perspective to your work. They will see the words, the sentences and the paragraphs for what they are and will tally them with what you want them to mean. Of course they will correct typos and remove the passive voice in places. But they also understand that the passive voice isn’t always bad, that split infinitives are usually fine and that the odd cliché never hurt anyone. The intention is never to make your writing generic but to allow it to shine by selectively applying rules and consistently applying style.

So, let’s look in more detail at what your friendly copy-editor can do for you.


This is the Holy Grail for copy-editors, and rightly so. In English you are often presented with two or more correct options, and you must choose one and stick to it religiously. For example, if you use ‘okay’ in Chapter 1, you shouldn’t use ‘OK’ in Chapter 6; ‘seventies’ shouldn’t suddenly become ‘70s’, and you can’t jump back and forth between ‘dramatise’ and ‘dramatize’. Copy-editors create a style sheet specific to your book, detailing the decisions that they make on spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, presentation of dates and numbers, etc. That style sheet can then be passed on to the typesetter and proofreader to ensure consistency and make everyone’s life easier. Yay!


Repetition comes in many different forms, most of them evil! Political rhetoric can stand a little repetition, but if you’re reading this I’m guessing your aim is not to write political speeches. Sometimes an author will deliberately repeat something to emphasise a point, not realising that most often the effect is to undermine rather than to underline. Most repetition, however, is unintentional. It can occur pages or chapters apart or it can even be contained within the same phrase (‘each individual person’, ‘various different’). If you use ‘wonderful’ five times in five paragraphs it sounds lazy and unprofessional; if you use the same words to describe a room twice in two chapters it sounds lazy and patronising. A copy-editor should also pick up on hidden repetition, such as explaining the content of dialogue when the message is already clearly conveyed in your characters’ words.


We all have words and phrases that we fall back on and use too frequently. Chief offenders are the meaningless little tags we add to sentences without even thinking, e.g., ‘basically’, ‘to be honest’, ‘let me begin by saying’, ‘at this point in time’. Buzzwords and jargon are also often overused. The effect can be to smother the meaning of your message and to leave your reader wondering if you know what point you’re trying to make.


We don’t always write exactly what we mean, and we don’t always mean what we write. Sometimes this can be as simple as a misplaced comma (‘Let’s eat Grandma’ is an entirely different proposition from ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’) or an adverb gone slightly astray (‘The road needs to be resurfaced badly’ is not the same as ‘The road badly needs to be resurfaced’).

Grammar and usage

There’s no short cut to good grammar: you just have to learn it, remember it and then apply it to your writing. But not always! There is an element of judgement involved here. Making a valiant stand against misguided prescriptivism, Winston Churchill (apparently) said, ‘This is the sort of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put!’ And he was right: sometimes your message is best served by a bent or broken rule. But be careful! You have to know the rules before you can break them with any confidence, and a copy-editor will be sensitive to just how far you should push it.


Obviously your copy-editor will look for typos, but I’m also going to shoehorn homophones (words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently) into this category. ‘Complement’ and ‘compliment’; ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’; ‘principal’ and ‘principle’; and ‘bare’ and ‘bear’ are all embarrassingly easy to overlook. A good copy-editor will seek out and destroy these. They will also make sure that foreign words are italicised and accented correctly and that hyphenation is correct and consistent.


Apart from the never-ending comma debate, you would think that most punctuation is fairly straightforward. But time and time again it turns up as a huge issue, especially when it comes to dialogue. I can honestly say I’ve never come across a manuscript with dialogue that has been punctuated consistently. I’ll give this topic a blog post all of its own very soon [Catherine: ooh, goody!] because it’s not optional, and it’s not OK to get it wrong, even if you get it wrong consistently. Copy-editors know these rules inside out. They also know that you shouldn’t use more than a single exclamation mark at a time and that even one should be used sparingly. F. Scott Fitzgerald said they are the equivalent of laughing at your own joke, and I tend to agree. If you’re in the habit of pairing exclamation marks with question marks you will be politely but firmly told to quit. [Catherine: But I love them?!]

Factual accuracy

Copy-editors are not researchers, but they will check dates, names, places, periods and the like so that fact and fiction tally. They will point out that your Victorian heroine couldn’t have taken antibiotics and that your hero was not in Zimbabwe in 1978 because the country was called Rhodesia at the time. If the Edwardian house your character lives in was built 200 years ago, it cannot in fact be an Edwardian house.


Most copy-editors have a basic understanding of libel law. They can’t guarantee that you won’t be sued, but they will flag anything that should be run past a lawyer. This is important not only for non-fiction authors, but also for writers of fiction, who often mention real people and events as well. If any of your characters are identifiable as real people, you need to be sure you’re not saying anything that will result in a costly court appearance.


Your copy-editor will rephrase ungrammatical or awkward sentences as a matter of course, but you will have to discuss with them exactly how much beyond this you want them to intervene. Some authors want minimal intervention so that their style is preserved, whereas others are happy to have a copy-editor make changes when it adds to the clarity, flow or readability of the text. The level of editing is always up to you as the author, but it’s worth remembering that Word’s Track Changes function allows you to reject a change with a single click, so an editor’s input is never anything more than a suggestion.

Copy-editing is more than correcting typos, and it’s also more than the sum of what I have detailed above. It will leave your prose clearer, more engaging and more readable, and to my mind it isn’t optional for any published work. Just to prove that I practise what I preach, I’ll share with you the fact that this very blog post was copy-edited by Liz Hudson of the, because I know better than to think my writing can’t be improved!”

Robert Doran works as a freelance editor and is Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services (, a one-stop shop for indie authors who want to publish industry-standard books. He has nearly twenty years’ experience in bringing books to market and has worked as an editor, project manager, sales manager, and bookseller in Ireland and in the UK. He is a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @RobertEdits or visit .

A note from Catherine: please do not make the mistake of thinking that American English is the only English there is. Thanks.

70 thoughts on “Copy-editors: What They Really Do

  1. KimberlyPalmer says:

    I think this in particular is such a valuable observation: “One of the reasons why it is so difficult to copy-edit your own work is that the message is already clear in your head. You know your intention before you review what you’ve written, and that makes it easy to make assumptions and difficult to affect the detachment necessary to edit.” Even when writing marketing copy, I’ve found it hard to describe to clients why an editor is worth paying for – why even when I’ve written something for them it needs another set of (qualified) eyes – and this is a great way of explaining it! Thank you, great article.

  2. Turnip Times says:

    I learned an invaluable lesson and will not publish again without a copy editor. Your article is straight to the point and brings up issues I hadn’t even thought about. Kudos to you.

  3. thomreece says:

    Well thought out article… lots of good tips and considerations many of us miss. Thanks. I will be sharing this with at the Book Marketing Journal and on my FB page.

  4. rjrugroden says:

    I’ve heard this message over and over again, and firmly believe in copy-editing for self-published authors. And yet….the voice in my head continues to tell me that I can maybe get by without it. That I’m special. Gifted. That the people who I want to read my book won’t mind if its sub-par. And the excuses continue.
    Perhaps a post on why we need to not see ourselves as special, little unicorns who are the exception to the rule would be helpful. 🙂 I know I could use that post.

  5. Aussa Lorens says:

    This article made me salivate. I totally need a copy editor because I could think of examples of times where I’ve committed all the mistakes you mentioned– and those are only the ones I noticed!

  6. marykate77 says:

    I am curious about the statement regarding intentional repetition. To what are you specifically referring? Could you cite examples, if possible.

    Christie used phrases like ‘little grey cells’ ‘egg shaped head, as did many others, as a way of creating familiarity with the character, in other instances it has been used as a clue to draw a connection between two separate characters, ie Death on the Nile. That is just two examples of the top of my head. Repetition seems to me quite a useful tool in writing, as long as it is intended. It can also have a poetic cadence to it, Chandler uses repetitive structure to create a certain soothing rhythm.

    • declanconner says:

      Lee Chld uses repetition of words in his writing and it bugs me, but it must please the majority of readers. I suppose it does have a sort of poetic cadence to it. Still, I doubt a copy-editor would pick him up on his style.

      “We stared at it. Stared at the cut straps.”
      “Nobody there. Nobody anywhere.”

      It usually takes me a couple of reads to find repetitions of exactly the same phrases in my own work, which I mark and then re-word to avoid repetition. Starting sentences with the same word in a row can also be a turn off.

      • Bridget McKenna says:

        Sometimes an author uses repetition to get a resonance effect. That would be my guess about the two lines you quoted. Sometimes the resonance…well…resonates, and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s all pretty subjective

  7. Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) says:

    Spread the word! A nicely laid out explanation given Ina tone of respect for all.
    At a cocktail party recently I had “smug educator” tell me that I need to do a better job of helping my clients understand what I do — after I explained all of the above and substantive / developmental editing to her. “But my clients are publishing professionals,” I replied. “They know full well what I do.” I don’t expect anyone else to have a clue, that’s what makes a professional valuable: because they have a clue.

  8. lindaktaylor says:

    Reblogged this on Linda Taylor's Blog and commented:
    Soooo, it has been a long couple of weeks–fraught with some big decisions and some awful realizations and some editing surprises and some amazing help from above. Suffice it to say, I’m getting myself back in the saddle, so to speak, when it comes to blogging. My Editing class is right now in the middle of learning the art of copyediting, and so this post is extremely helpful in letting them know that, yes, their humble teacher does indeed know whereof she speaks. This, my friends, is what copy-editors do.

  9. Jennifer says:

    Interesting to read. This blog blurs the lines between what I’ve known as “developmental editing” and a straight copy-edit which I’ve considered the final clean up before submission or sending to the press. Developmental editing is a relationship between writer and editor and it expends through multiple drafts. Probably just semantics, but its hard for a writer to think they are getting a deep tidy-up only to have their editor send them back to the computer for more work.

    • Bridget McKenna says:

      I’m a freelance editor, and I’ve found it’s difficult if not impossible to stay inside the lines in regards to who calls what level of editing by which name. I’ve read so many definitions that cross over one another.

  10. Karen Kincel says:

    While this is very useful information, and appreciated from this technical writer/author, I can’t help but notice all the errors from the people posting replies. (Sorry, it’s the editor in me!) All in all, very well written, and I’ll share on my author page on Facebook.

  11. Renee Roszel says:

    Great article. Having been published for 25 years in traditional print media (Harlequin) I rarely if ever had any personal contact with the copy-editor. She/he was a silent partner who had my back. Once, however, I had a funny thing happen. My heroine was out ‘gathering Fireweed for a salad’ (on an summertime Alaskan bicycle trip). The copy editor changed it to ‘gathering firewood for a salad’. I caught it in time, but, it was clearly a case of the copy editor not knowing that Fireweed was a eatable plant growing wild and perfectly fine for a salad. Firewood would have been a bit crunchy for a salad, or it would have burned the poor veggies to a pretty unpalatable crisp. After 25+ years, I still enjoy that story.

  12. Thom says:

    I hesitated to mention this, but it is highly likely the first thing a copy editor would do is take the hyphen out of “copy-editor.” AP and Webster’s say it is two words, and Chicago says it’s one word, so which style guide says it’s hyphenated? If it had been some other compound word or phrase in your article, I wouldn’t have noticed because I wouldn’t have read it, but it’s in the title! So even just seeing a tweet about the blog post made me notice it. 😉 Peace.

    • Robert Doran says:

      I use Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders. The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (UK) also prefers “copy-editor”, so it’s fairly common for writers and editors working with UK English to hyphenate this one. Thanks for reading!

  13. Glenda Bishop says:

    What a wonderfully informative post. I have wondered for a while whether I have the skills for copy-editing, and it seems that I do. All the things that you listed here are things that I have done in the past when editing my students’ theses and co-workers scientific manuscripts. I know first-hand about how easy it is to get so immersed in your own writing that you can’t see the errors and inconsistencies in it, yet a fresh eye can pick up so many little things that need fixing. I am currently in the process of redefining my career, and it seems that copy-editing might be something I am good at.

  14. Jeff says:

    ” I’ll share with you the fact that this very blog post was copy-edited by Liz Hudson ”


    She should be fired

    “what you get out of a copy-edit is a degree of confidence that your book is technically sound”

    …the reasons why…

    …difficult to affect the detachment necessary…

    …The reader, on the other hand, relies solely on your words, so they…

    Just from the paragraph after the picture.

    • Robert Doran says:

      The reasons why: There is some disagreement over this, but it is generally considered to be a perfectly legitimate construction. Garner, Oxford and Merriam-Webster agree on this point. Note the examples here:

      Difficult to affect the detachment necessary:
      affect 2
      1. he deliberately affected a Republican stance: assume, take on, adopt, embrace, espouse.
      2. Paul affected an air of injured innocence: pretend, feign, fake, simulate, make a show of, make a pretense of, sham; informal put on, make like.
      [Note that the sense of pretending is not necessarily present.]

      The reader, on the other hand, relies solely on your words, so they: Oxford has this to say about ‘they’ in place of singular pronouns: Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jeff.

  15. Sara B. Gauldin says:

    I think some authors are very capable of editing as well. One individual does not have to be creative or analytical and fastidious. It is possible to be both. I agree that it is very difficult to self-edit your own writing. I have found some practical tools that help me clean up my work. I put my writing through a lengthy process before I burden the editor. I print a copy and attack it with my colored pens from my classroom. I then irritate family and friends by asking them to do the same. I use a program called White Smoke to help me to find glaring grammatical errors. I listen to the entire manuscript using text aloud to weed out awkward phrasing. I convert my work to mobi format, then read it on my Kindle. Somehow a different screen format allows me to see mistakes I missed. After all of these steps, it is time to consult a few beta readers. Only after I have updated the text based on the feedback does the editor receive the book.

  16. Shah Wharton says:

    Excellent post which defogged the job of copyeditor. I loved Catherines line at the end too… I can’t tell you how many have suggested I change something because it’s UK and they don’t recognise it because it’s not US *Grr. 🙂

  17. Sherri says:

    Catherine, I was looking for a copy-editing blog and enjoyed yours very much. I am a Journalism major, with English minor, and subsequently obtained an MS in Psychology (with which I can do absolutely nothing!) I am at a point where I would love to work from home, but I live in the pine woods of Louisiana. I am an avid reader but I am amazed at the grammatical errors and typo’s in the books I read. I would love to edit books but I am not close to publishing houses. Do you know of any publishing company that might consider a long-distance copy editor? Most of my prior experience is in advertising, though I have done some free-lance writing for a local social newspaper. I would love to work from home, and I feel I would be an excellent copy editor. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  18. IM says:

    Great post. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m inspired! Extremely useful info specially the last phase 🙂 I deal with such info a lot. I used to be looking for this certain information for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

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