Copyediting: A Duty Of Care

Once again, I’d like to thank Anna Biunno for asking that I share my own process of editing. I should mention that my own process is probably a little quirky, in part because I edit documents that are academic in nature. They are longish, averaging about 50 pages in length, and they are generally my own, so my process is probably a little bit different than yours, but maybe it can give you a little bit of insight.

The Writing CycleIf you look at the writing cycle, there are actually two stages to the editing process. The first of those is revision, and the second of those is editing. I want to make sure that we’re not confusing the two. Revision is a far more substantial process of reviewing a document. I consider that almost a part of the writing process. For me that involves going through and conducting a reverse outline, first on a global scale, and then on a paragraph-by-paragraph level. Only after I’ve finished completely revising a document and making sure that my argument is sound am I ready to begin the editing process proper.

There are a few tools that you need to have at hand when you’re editing. The first of those is a grammar handbook. The second is a good dictionary. The third is a style manual that conforms to the preferences of the editorial house where your manuscript will be submitted for publication. (Most of my work is submitted to a journal in the humanities, so I generally use the most recent edition of the MLA style guide.)

Your style guide might also dictate which dictionary you should be using, so be sure to read the preparatory matter because things like preferred spellings and compounds or hyphenations can vary from dictionary to dictionary.

All journals have on their websites a section called “Instructions for Authors” that either tell you which style guide you should be using or provide their own short list of style instructions (or both), so in addition to your grammar handbook and your dictionary, have that short list available.

The same is true if you intend to submit a book manuscript to a publishing house. If you’re writing a book and you’re not yet certain which publisher you’re going to be submitting to, or if you intend to submit to multiple publishers, do a little research to find out which style guide is most appropriate. (I’ve compiled a list of style guides common to a variety of different industries). When it comes time for submission, use your cover letter to indicate the style guide you chose.

If you’re writing for a corporation, a business, or an online publication, at some point you should ask if your company has an in-house style guide, especially if you’re getting a lot of comments back from reviewers.

As you edit, you want to decide if you’re a technological guru or a paper and pen master. I do my initial round of copyediting by hand. I enter the changes into the computer and then I do a final proofread online. Whichever you choose, you need to stay consistent. If you move back and forth between paper and pen edits and the computer, you’ll find yourself confusing documents and versions and you won’t end up with a consistent edit.

Remember that at this stage of the game, the content, structure, organization, and tone of the document are set in stone. That should all have been done during the revision phase. What you’re conducting now is a copyedit. You shouldn’t be revising word choices, you shouldn’t be rearranging paragraph structures, you shouldn’t be moving anything in the document, and you definitely shouldn’t be rethinking the line of argument.

If you find yourself tempted to do so, it’s time to reevaluate. Is the document damaged or corrupt? Is it in some way not going to effectively communicate with its reader? And are you under a deadline? If the answers to any of these questions indicate that a substantial revision is needed, it’s time to kick the document back to the original author or go back to the drawing board. But otherwise, you need to set those questions aside and focus on the task at hand – copyediting.

Copyediting consists of all of the following:

  • Revising sentences to bring subjects and verbs closer together
  • Moving subjects to the front of the sentence
  • Discovering hidden verbs, otherwise known as nominalizations
  • Creating consistent subject patterns within a paragraph or section of the document
  • Balancing sentence type and variety
  • Eliminating unnecessary words
  • Replacing jargon with plain language
  • Clarifying vague or confusing words or phrases
  • Correcting a document for errors including misspellings, typos, and errors in punctuation, including but not limited to commas, dashes, semicolons, and quotation marks
  • Fact checking, including quotes and their sources as well as mathematical calculations
  • Cross referencing tables of contents, indices, appendices, figures, tables, charts, footnotes, endnotes, and literature cited
  • Correcting modifier usage and placement
  • Checking subject and verb agreement
  • Verifying the capitalization of proper nouns and adjectives
  • Verifying abbreviations
  • Determining the presentation of numbers and other symbols
  • Setting various aspects of typography including but not limited to page margins; headers and footers; subject headings and subheadings; protection against widows and orphans; charts, tables, and figures and their captions; tables of contents; indices; and appendices

It’s a good idea to spend time with a document to assess its needs. I like to conduct an initial review with an Excel spreadsheet so I can establish both a checklist and a time table. That way, I can assess my progress on the document as a whole, and I can balance my work – focusing on the content-driven segments when I’m functioning at my peak productivity and moving to more mundane chores when I feel my energy flagging. That way, I work efficiently throughout the day.

Finally, I think the key to an effective copyediting process is that you approach every aspect of the document with a mindset of utmost curiosity. I know that when I look at a document that I’m copyediting, my mantra is to question everything – the spelling of every word, the placement of every comma.

And if I’m not absolutely certain, I look it up. Even if it’s a name that I think I’ve spelled before, even if it’s a comma that I think I’ve double checked, I look it up, and then I put a tick mark on that page to verify that I did so. It’s a learning process for me, and it’s an insurance policy for my document, and it’s a duty of care that I feel like I owe my reader and my message.

So was this helpful? Did you learn anything new? And what’s your process?


  1. Oh, yes, looking it up is indispensable. I just wrote a post about using foreign words and phrases, and made a side reference to how I looked it up–and thus avoided introducing an error.

  2. Marcy Orendorff says

    I most appreciate that you discerned between revision and editing. Creating a reverse outline is ingenious. And, I most certainly will grab your Excel spreadsheet idea to create a list to keep track of my progress. Thanks!

    • Marcy – that discernment has saved me SOooo many heartaches. I cannot begin to edit until I am completely done revising.
      I have found reverse outlining tremendously helpful, but only when I am forced to write before an argument has fully gelled in my own consciousness. Otherwise, it is a time-consuming and tedious process.


  1. […] Copyediting: A Duty of Care – In which I explain what copyeditors do, how it matters, and offer a checklist for those engaged […]

  2. […] before I read her book The Subversive Copyeditor, I was fully convinced that copyeditors have a duty of care, a point that she emphasizes. To me, that means that a copyeditor has no business mucking around […]

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