The Editing Process: Copyediting

Updated on March 1, 2024.

Line editors are specialists at the sentence level, where word choice can make a difference between keeping your reader glued to the page or losing their attention completely. I discussed this last week, going over the importance of realism in storytelling, regardless of the author’s genre choice.

When you ask the layperson about what editing entails, though, copyediting is what comes to mind most often. The third step in the overall editing process and the subject of this week’s article, copyediting does the same thing as line editing, but at the mechanical level. The level of copyediting a manuscript requires depends on author goals and experience level, and the time required to complete at least two full passes.

With those points in mind, things like spelling, punctuation, and grammar and usage all fall under the purview of a hired copyeditor, whether they’re editing fiction or nonfiction. This is an overview of what the practice entails and is not meant to be all-inclusive or exhaustive.

Spelling, Capitalization, and Hyphenation

No author would willingly turn in a manuscript rife with misspellings or wrongly hyphenated words. However, mechanical editing ensures that the document only moves forward if words are spelled in accordance with the prescribed dictionary (or the author’s preferences, if different). For book editors, that tends to be the most recent edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but for the most part, copyediting involves making sure words are treated consistently.

Punctuation

Using periods, commas, colons, and even those dreaded em dashes correctly keep an author’s message from being misconstrued by or completely lost on the reader. Whether it’s a complete sentence or a half-finished phrase, mechanical editing takes on the challenge of punctuating it in the most effective and technically correct manner. As above, rules are made to be broken, and some sentences will do what they want regardless of what the Chicago Manual of Style thinks.

Grammar and Usage

 Unlike spelling, punctuation, and other mechanical editing points that copyeditors cover when reviewing a manuscript, grammar and usage can be more art than strict science. At this stage, indisputable errors, wordy or convoluted paragraphs, and terms likely to be new to readers should and would be addressed. There’s also the longstanding debate between how language is used versus how language should be used.

In nonfiction, it’s almost always easiest to go with the former, since that genre is primarily focused with the sharing of information. On the other hand, in fiction, the latter is the priority since that genre mainly deals with sharing imagination. Regardless of where an editor stands on the matter, though, it’s ultimately up to the author to decide which is best for their manuscript.

Style manuals and dictionaries abound in the publishing industry, and each section of the industry has its preferential combination. For book publishers, it’s the Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. For magazines and news entities, it’s the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and Webster’s New World College Dictionary. For the sciences, it’s the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (or APA Style Guide) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

 Copyeditors use these style manuals and dictionaries to check over spelling, punctuation, number treatment, quotations, and all manner of grammar and usage questions. After those rounds with a developmental and line editor, trusting your manuscript with a copyeditor then gets you one step closer to publication!

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