Top tips for copyediting

If you think that “a face in caps and braces” means a person’s countenance in more than one protective headgear and a mouth full of wire, you are a normal human being. However, if the first thing that comes to mind is a style of type in CAPITAL LETTERS enclosed in {curly brackets}, then you are that rare breed of copy editor who is immersed in the world of publishing. Read on, this is for you.

As a writer or editor who spends most of her time thinking of ways to improve a manuscript and prepare it for publication, chances are you are also constantly looking for ways to raise your game. Follow these 12 tips to boost your copyediting skills, whether you are a beginner or a seasoned pro.

1. Hone your language skills

As editors we must continually study grammar and stay current on language usage. When in doubt, look it up. Style guides and thesauruses will confirm whether “high-risk” is hyphenated or two words, whether it is the British or the Americans who put quotes inside the punctuation marks, and whether it’s acceptable to begin a sentence with a numeral.

2. Pay attention to detail

As the saying goes, “God is in the details,” and so it is with copyediting. Copy editors are paid to find mistakes and inconsistencies, and cannot help being grammar police, comma kings or queens, quality control officers, and inconsistency police. Most have an obsessive-compulsive streak, copy-edit every signboard and article they encounter, and cringe at mislaid apostrophes.

3. Value consistency

You honor readers when you edit for consistent terminology and punctuation. It conveys that intent is behind every word. Professional, polished manuscripts eliminate inconsistencies arising from varied capitalization or punctuation. For example, if “healthcare” is the correct spelling, you should never also write “health-care,” “health care,” or “Health-Care” within the same paper.

4. Read it again

Too often editors upload manuscripts as soon as they drop in the final period. The lengthiest article or the shortest headline should be read at least twice. This best practice stands in good stead throughout one’s copyediting career. Perform one fast, superficial reading to skim your text. Each subsequent reading should involve a meticulous review.

5. Look out for tautology

Using the same word several times in a sentence or paragraph, or saying the same thing twice over in different words is jarring for readers – the visual equivalent of a pothole. Careful copyeditors “hear” sentences. Writers have looked at their own sentences so many times that it’s easy for them to miss this repetition. Readers will catch it if you don’t.

6. Stay true to the author’s voice

Copyediting is a behind-the-scenes, often thankless, job. Although final decisions are always with writers, whose names appear on the manuscript, it is well worth cultivating the delicate editorial skill of bringing issues to the writer’s attention and finding solutions. Practice diplomacy in approaching writers with queries, comments, suggestions or explanations.

7. Be a partner in publication

Make every effort to ensure that the manuscript tells the best story possible. Focus on the small details, while staying aware of the overarching themes at work within the manuscript. Ask questions, and make suggestions: “Who is this person identified by only a first name?” “The meaning of this sentence is not entirely clear, consider revising as follows:” “The last sentence does not add much—it might be stronger to end with the previous one.”

8. Create space

Staring at the same article for hours can get frustrating and actually block productivity. Getting up and revisiting it later is always good advice. However, this is not always possible in a field where time is a true luxury. Some go-to techniques editors use to trick the tired brain are reading articles word by word backwards (for typos), and reading out loud for weak spots.

9. Develop detachment

Sometimes you have to evaluate, make drastic edits and delete content to produce a more coherent and complete manuscript or to meet a specific word count for publication. Proactive editing should not be distressing. While copy editors are first professionals, they’re also artists who must know how to surgically shape pieces of content every now and again.

10. Value critical feedback

Working under pressure, powering through to meet a deadline, fatigue, or just a less-than-optimal day can result in simple mistakes escaping even the most eagle-eyed editor. Simply having someone else look at it with an unbiased eye can avoid mistakes slipping through. Welcome the feedback peers and clients give you on your edits, and use it to sharpen your skills.

11. Be flexible

Each publication has their own set of expectations, guidelines, and concerns that copy editors have to be flexible enough to adapt. Being rigid is not just stressful; it is not an option in this career. By tweaking, polishing, and fine-tuning content, copy editors play a critical role in delivering relevant information to readers. This is yet another reason why skillful copy editors are so rare, and so valued.

12. Serve the reader

Every time readers have to stop and scratch their heads indicates a missed opportunity for copy that is edited to be clear, correct, and concise. Sometimes it’s not a matter of cutting words or phrases but of a fresher way of conveying the idea, or passing it back to the writer. Always remember, you are doing more than fixing grammar, spelling and punctuation. You are making a case for clear writing.

Good copyediting always comes from real, authentic passion and the love for well-written, error-free content. Editors who excel are sure to have deep-seated passion and excitement about putting out good material. While many factors make copy editors critical to the publication world, it is their love for the craft that truly sets them apart.

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