Myth: Copy editors only correct spelling and grammar errors.

We’re still busting some of the most common misconceptions about copy editors. Last time, we clarified that a superior vocabulary is not as important as knowing how to deal with words, phrases and idioms that are unfamiliar. Before that, we also mentioned that a journalism or English degree is not a strict requirement for copy editor and that there are opportunities for copy editors outside the newsroom or publishing firms. Now, we try to clarify the copy editor’s scope by busting another myth:

No doubt, Mitt Romney's campaign would have benefited from having a copy editor. But proofreader would've caught the error.

No doubt, Mitt Romney’s campaign would have benefited from having a copy editor. But proofreader would’ve caught the error. Original image: “I am never updating this app, because I love AMERCIA.” by cjmartin on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) license.

4. Copy editors only correct spelling and grammar errors.

There’s a misconception about editing in general that it’s only about “fixing spelling and punctuation.” But nowadays, spelling and grammar checkers available with any word processing software can do that. So, is that really the only thing editors do?

“Sometimes that’s all it is, but it’s often more and sometimes much more.”

Carolyn Bishop

Carolyn Bishop, a voting member of the Editor’s Association of Canada, says the scope of editing depends on a variety of factors, including intended readership, type of content, and the medium.

Copy editing is not just about “dotting Is and crossing Ts,” says the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. Fixing spelling, punctuation and typographical errors can be done by proofreaders, and although that is also part of copyediting, copy editors cover that and much more.

Copyediting vs. Proofreading

In a professional editorial setup, the difference between copyediting and proofreading is based on what medium they work on, where they are in the whole publishing process and how much they can do to copy.

Copy editing usually occurs before the copy is typeset, so copy editors work on a version of the manuscript that can still be changed substantially, especially if there are errors of fact, readability issues and possible legal issues with the content. Proofreading happens after copy is typeset. Proofreaders work on a version of the manuscript that is close to how the final product will be and look mainly for inconsistencies and necessary changes from copyediting that were not implemented in addition to the correcting glaring spelling, grammar and punctuation errors that made it through typesetting.

Mark Nichol summarizes the distinction as copyediting being “a more qualitative skill” and proofreading being “more quantitative.”

Is one more important than the other? Not necessarily. Mark Nichol points out that usually, proofreading pays less and is a pathway to a copyediting career, and although cost-cutting measures strip either stage, both processes are important to ensure the quality of published content. Both are also equally challenging and would each require restraint. In my experience, proofreading can be very technical, while copyediting would call for some creativity.

The Copy Editor’s Scope

So what do copy editors do aside from addressing spelling, grammar and punctuation issues? The Society for Editor and Proofreaders lists the following as within the scope of copy editing:

  • Content and structure
  • Consistency
  • Style
  • Accuracy
  • Legal issues
  • Technical matters
  • Suitability of text for intended audience
  • Extent
  • Illustrations and tables

Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook also includes the following as principal tasks of the copy editor:

  • Mechanical editing
  • Correlating parts
  • Language editing
  • Content editing
  • Permissions
  • Typecoding

The scope and tasks assigned to a copy editor vary from publication to publication. In publications with a lean staff, copy editors with design skills may be tasked to design and layout pages in addition to fact-checking, copy reading and headline writing.

Perhaps dynamics in the industry, the economic situation or just plain ignorance of how valuable copyediting is has brought in these changes. But though the specific tasks and scope vary, generally, sources agree that the essence of the role is still to be the publication’s last line of defense. The annual conferences held by the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) include sessions that would allow copy editors to use their skills in other fields, especially in this age of social media.

What other tasks have been included in your copy editing scope? Are there any challenges to having these tasks in your work scope?


Mark Hilaria is the deputy managing editor of SENCOR‘s Editorial unit and serves in the editorial board of Project Chiron. This post is part of the “‘Good Writers Don’t Need Copy Editors’ and Other Myths” series,  edited by Kim Palanca and Adrian Claudio.

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