Copyediting from a copyeditor’s perspective

May 17, 2011

I just read this 2009 article (What copyeditors do) from Scott Berkun, and I really appreciate his acknowledgement of the importance of copyeditors.

Having worked in the copyeditor role for a very large global oil and gas company for the past 2.5+ years, and having copyedited close to a thousand health, environment and safety (HES) documents in that time (ranging from 20 to 700 pages), I’m pleased that he’s written about the tasks that we do from his perspective as an author.

Here’s my copyediting perspective…

Some of what I do

My HES authors (up to 50 of them) all write in Word 2007. Mostly, I turn on Track Changes for the text edits only (though not for formatting or field updates); however, sometimes the author trusts my judgment to just make the changes. I’ve been working in Word almost exclusively on this contract, so I’ve learned much more about it, as evidenced by the number of Word blog posts I’ve written! Many of these posts have come about because I’ve had to find solutions to Word problems my authors or I have encountered. Troubleshooting Word is a de facto role I have with my team.

In my work on these HES documents, I have a 7-page checklist that I follow for every Word document I receive; only one small section of that checklist is devoted to reading and checking the content. Much of the checklist is to do with compliance to the style guide, the Word template (and its associated styles and document automation), the details required for the Document Control team, and formatting and layout of the pages.

Once I’ve got all the document mechanics sorted out, I read it from beginning to end. I try to read it through only once. As I’m reading I’m checking for many things, including:

  • correct spelling, especially of chemical and species names, and correct language used for spelling (we use Australian English)
  • use of a non breaking space between a value and its unit of measure
  • clear distinction of the legal entity responsible for an action (the company has several legal entities — Acme Corporate, Acme Australia, etc. — so just using ‘Acme’ without any qualification is not good enough as these documents will be read by those outside our local team
  • use of a currency designator for any monetary values — again, the documents will be read by those outside our team/country, so it’s important that the currency is noted whenever a value is listed (AU$2 million is not the same as US$2 million)
  • acronyms, abbreviations, and industry-specific terms used in the document are listed and defined in the Terms list
  • citations for other documents follow the style guide and correctly match the details in the References list (think academic reports/papers…); as many of the documents cited are company documents published in the same year, these can get into a right mess if the author shifts a paragraph from the middle of the document to the beginning — ‘Acme Australia 2009k’ has to change to ‘Acme Australia 2009a’ and all other Acme Australia 2009 citations have to change as a result. Yes, this can take a lot of time!
  • subject/verb agreements
  • consistent voice and tense
  • correct capitalization
  • correct punctuation
  • correct word usage in the context
  • correct use of conjunctions
  • parallel structure for lists and headings at the same level
  • redundant and unnecessary words — e.g. I check every ‘in order to’ to see if it works just as well as ‘to’, and ‘the following’ to see if it can be deleted; there are many more of these…
  • automated cross-references to sections, tables, figures, appendices
  • compliance with the common wording in a template for documents that have to go regulatory bodies
  • sense — a sentence has to make sense; if it’s too long and/or has more than one idea, I’ll split it in two. Same for paragraphs.

Plus lots more! As I said earlier, I have a 7-page checklist for what I look for when I copyedit one of these documents, and the list above is just off the top of my head.

How long it takes

If the document is in reasonably good shape as far as the template, document automation, styles and layout is concerned, I might only spend 30 minutes checking those mechanical aspects. If it’s a mess or something automated has been overwritten with manual changes, then it can take up to two hours to fix it before I can even begin reading the content.

Many of my authors are quite good writers, especially the environmental scientists. They have come out of university or similar jobs with the rigor of academic report writing and so they aren’t fazed by having to do citations and references. Mostly, I just have to fix up small errors in their writing.

However, some of my authors find writing hard — and it shows. It also makes my job much harder as I have to spend a lot time figuring out what they’re trying to say in a particular sentence or paragraph. I hate ‘red penning’ them, but sometimes it’s unavoidable — after I’ve finished my review, their documents end up looking as though they are dripping blood because they are so peppered with my comments and a spaghetti-like mix of Track Changes balloons.

The page length of the document only makes a small difference to the time I spend on it. Naturally, a long document will take longer to read closely. But if the writing is quite good and the author has followed the template, used the correct styles, and adhered to the style guide, then a 350-page document might take as long for me to copyedit as a 40-page document where the writing and everything else is a mess.

On average, a 100-page document will take me most of a work day to review thoroughly. I automate as much as I can, and use Word’s features to help me get through the document with as little pain as possible.

Some of the automated techniques I use are documented in these blog posts (no particular order):

See also:

[Links last checked May 2011]


  1. […] errors, misspellings, etc.? or a more thorough copyedit (including such items as I list here: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/copyediting-from-a-copyeditors-perspective/) Do you actually mean a technical edit, where the editor is also verifying the validity of the […]

  2. First class article

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