The main aim of copy-editing is neatly summarised by Judith Butcher in the Introduction to her Cambridge Handbook: the copy-editor seeks to, ‘remove any obstacles between the reader and what the author wants to convey’.
The specifics of the copy-editor’s task vary, but normally involve:
- Correcting errors – in spelling, grammar, punctuation and style
- Editing for sense: Checking each section to make sure that the author has expressed their meaning clearly, without missing out anything or contradicting themselves. As part of this process the copy-editor will look at:
- the author’s choice of words and whether they are suitable for the audience
- the length of sentences and whether they can be made more concise
- paragraphs – do they begin and end at appropriate points?
- Checking for consistency: If a particular word has one or more alternative spellings, is the same spelling used throughout? Are hyphens applied consistently? Do the chapter headings tie up with the table of contents?
- Improving language style: Are there any unnecessary words that can be cut out? Has the author been too liberal with exclamation marks, the use of bold and italics, or any other textual features that may detract from what they are trying to say? Is there any repetition that could be avoided? Is the passive voice used unnecessarily?
To define a copy-editor’s role, it’s also useful to think about what they do not do. A copy-editor is not responsible for:
- Rewriting and restructuring the text in depth: This task is usually called ‘substantive editing’
- Carrying out research to confirm the accuracy of content (although they may do some simple fact-checking)
- Seeking permission to use copyright material