The Copyediting Process

Answering commonly (un)asked questions about copyediting.

home-office-336377_960_720A copyeditor’s job is to take an author’s written document and ensure that it is clear, concise, coherent, and correct. I often say that a good copyeditor will make an author’s piece shine a little brighter (and in some cases a lot brighter). A copyeditor’s job is not to “proofread” a document, which is a separate step in the publication process normally handled by a different person after all the copyediting and revising have been completed. Copyeditors will certainly catch many of the errors proofreaders catch—typos, missing or incorrect punctuation, misspellings, and so forth—but that isn’t their primary job.

Here are the three basic steps I typically take in copyediting a piece of writing for a client:

1. Provide the author with a cost estimate based on reviewing—and possibly editing a sample of—a portion of the material the author sends me via email (e.g., book manuscript, article, essay, letter, thesis, website content, etc.). The estimate will be based on two things: the number of words and the amount of copyediting involved, whether basic or heavy. The rule of thumb in the industry is that 250 words of text equals one manuscript page. So, for example, a 60,000-word document equals 240 manuscript pages,[1] and that goes into the cost-estimate formula.

2. Write an MOU (memorandum of understanding) that lays out the following:

  • My understanding of what the client wants me to do, and what I will actually be doing for the client. This usually entails a minimum of two complete passes of the document, reading the text line by line, editing as needed, querying in the margin where warranted. Then I return the document to the author (via email), with the changes clearly marked using Track Changes in Microsoft Word,[2] and ask the author to review my suggested revisions, accepting or rejecting each of them. The author will return the document to me for a third and (usually) final pass.
  • My estimate of the cost for the entire project and approximately how long it will take. I normally ask for an up-front deposit of 10% of the total fee. My normal copyediting rate is $30-$35 per hour, which is less than the national average for professional freelance copyeditors. (In some cases discounts are available.)

With mutual expectations spelled out in advance, the “surprises” for both parties are minimized.

3. Copyedit the document. Here are the main categories of things I look for when I copyedit a document, all of which will be visible in Microsoft Word’s Track Changes mode:

  • Style – Making sure the overall style conforms to an appropriate style guide, such as Chicago, APA, MLA, or AP. If none is specified, I will use the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition.
  • Grammar – Ensuring that the material is grammatically correct, according to widely accepted conventions of Standard Written English (SWE).
  • Punctuation – Including the proper use of commas, semicolons, quotation marks, periods, apostrophes, dashes, hyphens, parentheses, ellipsis points, etc.
  • Usage – Including word choice and vocabulary—to ensure that the best words and expressions are used—querying the author where needed.
  • Spelling – Not relying on spell-check; checking for spelling consistency, variants, homonyms, etc.
  • Syntax – How sentences and paragraphs are organized—that they are as clear and concise as possible, with a minimum of cumbersome structuring and clunky phrasing. This includes trimming “dead wood,” cutting out excessive adverbs and adjectives, and streamlining the writing with active rather than passive constructions.
  • Capitalization – Making sure words that should be capitalized are and those that shouldn’t be aren’t.
  • Formatting – Footnotes, the bibliography, numbers, lists, tables, front matter, back matter, word and line spacing, etc., as requested by the author.
  • Point of view – Checking for consistency and appropriateness.
  • Factual errors – The heaviest burden of fact checking falls on the author’s shoulders, but where glaring or obvious errors occur, I will query the author.
  • Legal requirements – Ensuring, to the best of my knowledge, that sources are properly cited and permissions are secured for copyrighted materials used. The final responsibility, however, lies with the author and publisher.

What I generally do not do when copyediting:

  • Rewrite or change the text substantively without querying the author. Typically I will not suggest substantive changes unless in my view it is absolutely needed to aid the reader’s understanding or enjoyment of the text.
  • Question the author’s freedom to write whatever he or she wishes using words and expressions of his or her choice.
  • Suggest topics to include or exclude from the document (it is the author’s document, not mine).
  • Point out holes in the plot or suggest ways to improve the story when copyediting fiction—and I do copyedit fiction, including entire novels. Unless something seems  glaringly strange or deficient, I will generally leave well enough alone.

When the entire project is done to the satisfaction of my client, I send an invoice (again, usually by email) requesting final payment, due upon receipt.

Please contact me with any questions or for a no-obligation estimate regarding copyediting your material. It’s a cliché but it’s true: no job is too big or too small.


[1] In this example, 60,000 words divided by 250 = 240 “manuscript pages” for the purposes of copyediting.

[2] For a brief explanation on how to use Track Changes, check out my supplementary PDF article: Copyediting Process and Track Changes.

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Author: Dean Christensen

Educator, copyeditor, writer, voiceover guy, baseball bug, logophile, classical music afficionado, classic rock 'n' roll lover, classic-movie buff, bibliophile, former this, used to be that, and future who knows what. Every day is an adventure in learning.

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