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What Is Copy-Editing? Part 1

is a term many find mysterious. But what does it mean?

There are different kinds of copy-editing, depending on what type of text the copy editor is working on.

An ebook about dog training, for example, would usually require a different treatment to an academic book on the culture of ancient Rome.

And the copy editor may be required to do a “light” or a “detailed” edit, depending on the brief given to him or her.

Let’s look at the type of copy-editing typically done for a publishing firm.

Copy-editing – the process

When an author writes a book commissioned by an in-house editor, the book first goes to a copy editor. The copy editor must have a thorough knowledge of the publishing firm’s house style so she’ll know what format the book should follow.

For instance, publisher A’s house style may be to use “-ize” rather than “-ise” spellings (e.g. “finalize” rather than “finalise”).

When copy-editing, the copy editor checks every “-ise” spelling and sees whether or not it should be changed to an “-ize” one, to conform with publisher A’s house-style rules. (Some words, such as “advertisement”, cannot change.)

Sometimes the publisher allows the copy editor to follow an author’s style rather than the house style – if authors have used their own style consistently throughout, this results in fewer copy-editing corrections, which keeps the publisher’s costs down.

A major part of the copy editor’s task, then, is to ensure that spellings and styles appear consistently throughout the book.

Among other things the copy editor has to

  • make sure the text’s meaning is clear
  • get rid of errors in logic, spelling and grammar
  • make sure that subheadings are relevant and follow in
    the proper order
  • check that photos or illustrations have the correct
    numbering and captions, and that the captions follow
    the house style
  • make sure the typesetter knows what style to use for
    headings, displayed blocks of text, etc. (from typesetting codes the copy
    editor inserts beside the various text elements)

Want to get your book published?

To get a literary agent to read more than just the first page of your first three chapters is a huge achievement.

Many publishers now accept manuscripts only from literary agents. Literary agents commonly receive around four thousand manuscripts a year and filter out the ones they think are worthless – typically 3,990.

Yes, you read that correctly. Only around ten out of  four thousand manuscripts sent to a literary agent a year avoid the slush pile!

So the last thing you want is to have any spelling or grammatical mistakes, let alone structural problems, in your manuscript.

In part 2 we’ll look at the difference between copy-editing done on paper and that done directly on a computer screen – “on-screen editing”.

Contact Expert Copy Editor Eldo Barkhuizen

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