What Does A Copy Editor Do?

Reading & Writing


I suppose they used to be called proof readers, and their role is subtly different from that undertaken by the main book editor. Once the manuscript reaches them, the main themes have been addressed (in my experience there’s very little editorial interference, more a matter of advice) so they can concentrate on the flow of the text and any anomalies that remain.

Among their concerns will be making sure the various timelines match, and that every character is doing what they’re supposed to be doing at the right time. Place-checks and possible libel concerns, outright mistakes and awkward phrasings are all addressed. Can you really get from Oxford Street to Euston Road in six minutes? Why does Kate say she hates shopping when we’ve seen her on a shopping trip?

A good copy editor can really transform a book. I’ve had the same one, the terrific Kate Samano, for years, and she has a real sense for my prose, spotting my mistakes and second-guessing me. Some copy editors can’t quite see the wood for the trees, and fail to understand why you have made something deliberately vague or confusing. Generally speaking, in the UK we don’t always like our facts nailed down, but in the US factual veracity is everything, so styles among copy editors will vary.

Sometimes I have trouble explaining why I’ve done something in a particular way. If everything is too clear cut, the reader can’t add anything of their own, so I resist over-explanation. We each have a specific style, and a good copy editor will understand what you mean and showcase that rather than being obsessed with how you say it.

There may be several passes at this stage of the book between you and the copy editor. Often I find it’s best to trust their judgement, although on occasion I do push back a little, and we come to a compromise. My notes go to the copy editor addressing each point in turn, and showing corrections.

There’s one last chance to weed out errors after this; at the proof-reading stage, when you physically mark alterations on the page, but publishers try to discourage too many late changes. The biggest danger is in over-reading your prose until it becomes meaningless – but the copy editor is there to help you solve the remaining textual problems.

4 comments on “What Does A Copy Editor Do?”

  1. Charles says:

    “The biggest danger is in over-reading your prose until it becomes meaningless ”

    This was my problem. Read or say a word enough times (for example, “lamp”), and the meaning disassociates itself from the sound.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    In case people notice a lack of comment from Dan Terrell, he is ill. He is recovering from surgery and it may be some time before he can post. Just thought I’d mention it as we were actually visiting when he went into hospital.

  3. Jo W says:

    Hoping that Dan makes a full and speedy recovery! Wondered why he’d gone so quiet.

  4. admin says:

    I wish Dan a full and speedy recovery – his absence has been noted!

    And on the above article, my friend Michele Slung in the US points out; “proofreaders” read page proofs; it was a separate skill from copyediting and called into play only once the ms had been edited — twice, by editor and then copyeditor —and the type had been set.

    I’ve never particularly distinguished the difference. I just know that a box of pages arriving by postman means more work!

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