Copy-editing (known as sub-editing on UK newspapers and magazines) is a vital process in the preparation of a text for publication. Even most experienced writers make mistakes, especially when working to a tight deadline, so the copy-editor’s job is to make sure that a text is readable, accurate and ready for publication, weeding out any errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax, noting inconsistencies and querying them with the author if necessary.
They must also check the spellings of names of people and things, and may also be expected to check statements of fact, dates, quotations, and so on. They must also keep a weather eye open for potential legal issues, and discuss them with the publisher should they arise. On newspapers and magazines, copy-editors will also have to edit a piece to fit the available space, and write headlines, introductions (also known as “standfirsts”) and picture captions.
Every book publisher, newspaper and academic institution will have its own editorial style guide, or will refer to an external guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (ODWE). This will list preferred forms for dates, numbers, abbreviations, use of capital letters, hyphenation, etc., and it is part of the copy-editor’s brief to ensure that this “house style” is applied consistently throughout the copy. When editing academic papers, they must also ensure that references in the text and in the bibliography are formatted according to the agreed style, e.g. Harvard, APA or MLA.
Above all, the copy-editor’s job is to ensure that a work is clear, well written, logically structured, readable, accessible, accurate and expressed in a style appropriate to its intended readership. While copy editors are seldom expected to rewrite a work completely, they may have to undertake significant structural editing, reworking lengthy passages for organization, continuity, consistency and content. (This is often known as “content editing”.) Discretion and good judgment are essential at this stage in order to retain the author’s voice while making the necessary improvements.
Editing may be done by hand on “hard copy” (i.e. a printed typescript) or, as is increasingly the case nowadays, on computer, using the “track changes” facility so that the writer and other interested parties such as a line manager or senior editor can see at a glance what has been done.
A copy-editor also needs to understand the production processes involved in publishing (design, typography, printing etc.) to be able to discuss various issues with the designer, typesetter or printer. They may also be required to insert codes to instruct the production team on certain design elements such as an agreed hierarchy of headings. In an illustrated work they will also be required to check that pictures and captions are correct. It will often be part of their brief to maintain schedules and keep budgets to a minimum by ensuring a smooth and efficient flow of work.
To sum up, the copy-editor’s job is to ensure that the writer’s message gets across to the reader with the minimum of distraction – that it is clear, effective, expressive and free of irritating glitches.
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