Why you need a copy editor (and why a happy copy editor gives you a better result)

The next time you think you don’t need a copy editor, I want you to remember this terrible story. Thirteen years ago, I was hired by an agency after a very major client—let’s say the client was a company called Worldwide—asked for an ad that would contain just one word: Worldwide. (The art was going to do the rest of the talking.)

The agency didn’t bother to have a copy editor look at the page. Why would you? It’s one word!

So the ad was printed in thousands of magazines with one word that read …


Not Worldwide. Wordwide.

And that’s how that agency learned you always need a copy editor.

“But I’m really careful, and I’ve read my work a hundred times.”

No matter how meticulous you are, it’s a fact that you can’t copy edit your own work. Yes, even if you use spellcheck. Did you ever have some noise going on in the background, and when it suddenly stopped, you realized you hadn’t even been hearing that noise because you were so used to it? It’s the same with anything you write. After a while, you just don’t see your errors. I’ve been a copy editor for 22 years now, and I’m still going to have someone take a look at this post when I’m done. I guarantee you I skipped a small word or did something spellcheck won’t catch.

“You’re a copy editor? Oh, I love to read!”

In order to understand why you need one, maybe it’s best to be sure you know what a copy editor is. Thinking a copy editor just reads all day is like thinking a veterinarian pets kittens all day. There’s a science to copy editing that requires extreme attention to detail and a talent for finding things everyone else doesn’t (like the missing “l” in Wordwide).

Our job, as copy editors, is not to write original copy. That’s a copywriter. And we aren’t just proofreaders. Proofreaders check spelling and punctuation, but they don’t rework sentences to make them clearer, as copy editors do.

A copy editor:

  • Carefully reads every word for grammar, spelling and punctuation. (A little copy editor lesson: “Grammar” does not include punctuation and spelling.)
  • Checks the entire document to make sure it adheres to the client’s preferred style. One client might love a serial comma, another client not so much. (A little copy editor lesson: A serial comma is the comma before “and” or “or” at the end of a list. “The flag is red, white, and blue” instead of “The flag is red, white and blue.”)
  • Checks for consistency. (Why is it John Smith on page 4 but Jon Smith on page 44?)
  • Checks for sense. (Wait. You said Jon Smith was allergic to eggs on page 30, so why is he having quiche on page 300?)
  • Checks digital work for any links to other web pages and checks for consistent use of keywords, if there are any.
  • Changes wording for clarity. I once changed “It is best to use words that are concise” to “Be concise.”
  • Ensures everything is consistent, down to the font used on each page number.
  • Checks facts, maybe. We’ll discuss that below.

Then, when all that is done, the copy editor reads the whole thing again to make sure nothing got missed, like the cover of a magazine reading “Spring 2019” when it’s the fall issue. That second read is crucial. All sorts of things pop out that didn’t the first time. Just the other day I caught “Mary, Queen of Scotts” on a second reading.

A lot goes into copy editing, and the goal is to get the document as flawless as possible. If you want your copy editor to produce tip-top work, keep this in mind:

It’s going to take longer than you think.

Because copy editing isn’t just reading, your estimate of how long it might take to copy edit something may be off. Let’s take these 99 words below. How long would you guess this would take to copy edit? Five minutes?

Your home should be clean, bright, and organized. But how does one get it that way? Chris Summers, President of Beautiful Homes at www.beautifulhomes.com, says its easy. “All it it takes is planning, thought and a little elbow-grease, she says. Sommers should know because he started with just 1 small home-beautifying office in Wadesborough, N. Carolina population 2,034 now he owns sixteen branches of of his business which he started in 1974. his business blew up when he invented his signature product, Soaksoak™ which cleans just about anything so you have piece of mind that one’s hosue is clean.

More like 45 minutes. See below! Some of these questions need to be researched, like whether the speaker is a man or a woman, or the population of the town. In many cases, the copy editor needs to get hold of the style guide, to find out things like whether this client uses a serial comma.

Remember, we’re doing much more than “just reading.” The following are things copy editors hear all the time that don’t help us produce our best work.

“Can you look at this real quick?”

Copy editing is the antithesis of “real quick” (which is bad grammar anyway). It’s not copy editing if one is quickly skimming. The whole point of copy editing is to carefully review each word and look for the errors that crept in when the work wasn’t looked at slowly.

“Can you stand at the work table and look at this real quick?”

Extra-vehement NO. That’s even worse, and it happens. Once I was asked to copy edit a PowerPoint presentation during a meeting. We were showing the presentation in-house, moments before the client was going to see it. A co-worker was reading the presentation aloud, and I was attempting to copy edit it while the slides of the presentation flashed across the screen. My best work was not produced during that meeting.

If you want a flawless piece of content, don’t ask us to copy edit while other people are looking at and commenting on a document. We need to carefully and quietly examine each word on our own with no distractions.

“This should go pretty fast because the copy is clean. Someone already copy edited it once.”

Even if that’s the case, we still have to carefully and quietly read every word, and that takes time even when there aren’t many errors.

“Just look for major things.”

We get it. Sometimes something really has to be turned around in a hurry and you don’t want a nitpicky copy editor taking forever. But what’s your idea of major? Is someone’s name being misspelled a major error? What about a long list of company names with one that may not be right? What if there are charts with numerals that end up being the wrong numbers? “Major” can mean very different things, and to a copy editor, a misplaced semicolon counts as major. If you don’t want everything fixed, due to time constraints, be sure to clarify what you do and don’t want the copy editor to fix.

“How’s it going? How’s it going now?…How about now?”

This goes back to the copy editor needing time and quiet. Send the copy editor the work, then let him or her be. If we have to interrupt to answer your “How’s it coming along?” or to read follow-up emails with unnecessary information, it’s more likely we’ll miss something because our concentration is broken.

A few more points:

Be clear on the facts.

For some, copy editing means we not only read every word carefully, but we also check the facts within, like those numerals in the chart I mentioned above.

Let’s say I’m copy editing an article that mentions an old business. I’d ensure that the business itself is spelled correctly, but let’s also say the article lists the year the business was founded and when it folded. Should I check that those are accurate?

Be sure to let the copy editor know whether you want all facts checked. Fact-checking is sometimes a separate step, done by an actual fact-checker. Copy editors need to know either way so we don’t take longer than we need to, or miss something that should have been checked.

Don’t make us Nancy Drew what we’re checking.

Copy editors are already doing a lot of things, and tracking down the correct sources shouldn’t be one of them.

I used to copy edit a quarterly catalog for flower vendors. There were quite a few vases in that catalog, as you can imagine. A co-worker gave me a big sheet with the dimensions of all the vases, and I carefully checked the catalog copy against it in round one.

On the second round, she came to me, alarmed. “All the dimensions of all the vases are wrong!” she said. My blood ran cold. I got the papers she had given me. “They seem right compared to this document,” I said. “Are you sure they’re wrong?”

“Oh, you weren’t supposed to use those papers I gave you,” she said. “Those were just estimations. You should have gotten the correct information from Bob.”

A flawless document is more likely to happen if the person making sure everything is flawless is given flawless information.

Remember that we love it.

I don’t know a single copy editor who doesn’t love what he or she does. Get us started on em dashes and we’ll talk about them for hours. In other words, we adore making sure your work is stunning. We just need quiet, the time to do it right and a little clarity.

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