What is a Copy Editor?

by Shealah Stratton

Published at 2010-06-30

When people ask what I do, it’s not uncommon for my response "I'm a copy editor" to elicit a blank or confused expression. Outside of the publishing world, the various roles that editors play (acquiring, managing, producing, and copy editing the written word) are often regarded as a big, mysterious mass. Many think that one person is involved in all the processes listed above. For this reason, I’m going to explain what copy editing is and the role copy editors play in the publishing process. For a full definition of what we do here, you can check out TEC’s Editing Services.

As a copy editor, my job consists of several tasks: I read through a manuscript to correct grammar mistakes, misplaced punctuation, and misspelled words. I will make suggestions to replace words or phrases used incorrectly, and edit any tables, figures, and lists. If the work has references, I will edit footnotes and the bibliography to make sure the style is standardized.


An important task the copy editor undertakes is establishing consistency throughout a manuscript. This means that capitalization (up or down), spelling (American, Canadian), and number use (1 or one) are all standardized, so that "analyse/analyze" won’t be spelled with a "z" on page 10 and with an "s" on page 230. I will check that headings and titles are well placed and uniform. Finally, I will make a Style Sheet that lists all of the decisions made to make the manuscript consistent, along with the spelling of content-specific words.

Why do copy editors do these tasks? For two reasons. One, an author cannot see her work the way it is, she sees it the way it should be. After composing and reworking something (repeatedly), she will miss some spelling errors, misplaced modifiers, or commas used incorrectly. She needs a different set of eyes to examine her work and fine-tune it. A good copy editor will help an author by making her work more clear and giving it a sense of "flow" without changing her meaning. Two, in a world were so much information is read, the medium is as important as the message. Readers will pick up on errors and inconsistencies and, for many, spelling and grammar mistakes will call the entire content of the text into question.

Finally, copy editors work with all kinds of documents. Some of the manuscripts we edit go on to become published books in various genres (trade fiction, academic, educational), but we also edit popular magazines and scholarly journals, business and government publications, programs for festivals or conferences, and, more recently, web content.

One example of an unusual document I copy edited was an article describing how to vermicompost in a condo. Vermicomposting is a form of composting that utilizes various kinds of worms to break down organic material more quickly. While this is a great way to generate good soil for plants, I imagine some people wouldn’t want to welcome worms into their homes! This gives you an idea of the wide range of documents copy editors deal with. Even television show listings and subtitles on films have been reviewed by a copy editor!