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Language services series: Copyediting

You have a text, and you know your text needs some help. How do you know what kind of service your text needs? Proofreading, copyediting, line editing? How should you know the difference?

I’ve touched on this topic before in my Proofreading vs. editing blog post, and I have a hunch that I’ll return to this topic again and again as these terms evolve and language services develop. Over the next few months, I will explore some of the most common language services terms and try to unpack them a bit more, so we’re all on the same page.


Source: The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz

Even for those of us in the language industry, the lines between these different services can be somewhat blurred. Especially for longer texts, it’s very rare that the entirety of a text only needs one service.

For example, you may have translated a book, and the translation needs to be revised, so you search for a reviewer that can double-check the translation that you’ve done. However, the reviewer may catch some words that haven’t been translated and some sentences that need to be rearranged, and therefore needs to do some translation and copyediting or even rewriting in addition to revision.

A common example in my work: I’m often hired to copyedit academic books before they go to print. Even after academic books have been passed around among various peer reviewers, some awkward (or even incomplete) sentences fall through the cracks; I end up suggesting rewrites for these sentences, becoming somewhat of a rewriter/copywriter.

There’s a lot of overlap among various language services, but there is value in understanding the differences between these services, so you know what to expect when you’re hiring a language professional to help you with your work.

Copyediting

I’ll start with copyediting since that’s my main gig. I tend to think dictionary definitions are a good place to start when trying to understand a new word; I’ve pulled this definition from the Oxford English Dictionary.

Note that the OED advocates for a hyphenated form, but Merriam-Webster uses either “copyedit” or “copy edit”!

Source: Oxford English Dictionary.

Starting with this definition, we can see that a copyeditor is one of the last people to work on the language or text of a publication before it goes to print. That generally means that a copyeditor is looking for inconsistencies, unclarities, or inaccuracies that have slipped through the cracks as the text has been passed around among various authors and other language and publishing professionals.

Building on this, the Association of Art Editors adds that copyediting involves “[r]eading a manuscript line by line to correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax and to clarify/resolve inconsistent references. Copyediting can also involve reading a manuscript to improve style, which may mean deleting unnecessary words, substituting new words for incorrect or awkward ones, and rearranging sentences within paragraphs.”

Copyediting isn’t only for print publications. According to the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, “[c]opyediting takes the raw material (the ‘copy’: anything from a novel to a web page) and makes it ready for publication as a book, article, website, broadcast, menu, flyer, game or even a tee-shirt.”

Our brains tend to make sense of misspelled words and typos, so it’s not uncommon to find these, even in a text that has been looked at by several people, and various potential rewrites from all the people involved in pulling together the text also gives rise to mistakes and inconsistencies.

When I copyedit, I…

  • Ensure consistent spelling, especially of key terms

  • Ensure consistent use of British or American English

  • Ensure consistent pronoun usage (does the author use “I” or “we”?)

  • Check stylistic and grammar issues with the appropriate style guide

  • Rewrite (or suggest rewrites of) awkward sentences

  • Make the language appropriate for its intended audience (e.g. making suggestions to avoid gender bias, or rewriting too-British phrases that wider audiences might not be able to understand)

  • Suggest revisions to make smooth transitions between paragraphs and ideas

  • Ask questions to unpack unclear concepts or sentences; point out spots that need more information or explanation

  • Research and update or correct citations so that they’re all in the same format—or query the author if citations seem fishy or inaccurate

  • Write a style sheet to explain my general stylistic decisions and provide guidance for any further changes that need to be made

  • Watch out for potential missing information or texts

It’s equally important to know what a copyeditor does not do…


Source: “FAQs: What is copyediting,” CIEP, https://www.ciep.uk/about/faqs/what-is-copyediting/

In summary: a copyeditor generally fine-tunes a text before it is published or presented to the public. In The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn succinctly outlines what copyeditors do with the “4 Cs”—clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness, all in service to the “Cardinal C”: communication (p. 3).

Later in this series, I will discuss other language services such as translation, proofreading, translation revision, and developmental editing. Stay tuned!

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