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Copy Editing or Copyediting?

However You Choose to Spell It, Here’s What It Is

Copy Editor

Radio room of the New York Times newspaper, 1942. News passed by naval censor was sent out twice daily by the Times’ own short wave radio transmitter in international Morse code, and received by ships at sea. Image courtesy US Library of Congress.

“Copy editing” is the process by which an editor makes formatting changes and other improvements to text. “Copy,” in this case a noun, refers to material (such as handwritten or typewritten pages) to be set (as in typesetting) for printing. A person who performs the task of copy editing is called a copy editor.

There is no single, universal form for the term. In general, the magazine and book publishing industries often write it as one word (copyediting). The newspaper industry writes the expression as two words (copy editing) or hyphenates it (copy-editing), and the hyphenated form is probably the one most commonly used in Britain. Similarly, the term “copy editor” may be spelled as one word, two words, or hyphenated.

In British newspaper and magazine publishing (though not in book publishing), the job is generally called sub-editing.


Copy editing typically entails correcting spelling and punctuation; correcting grammatical and semantic errors; ensuring the typescript adheres to the publisher’s house style; adding standardized headers, footers, headlines; and so on. All these elements must be addressed before the typesetter can prepare a final proof copy.

The copy editor is also expected to ensure the text flows well, that it makes sense and is fair and accurate, and that it will cause no legal problems for the publisher. Newspaper copy editors are sometimes responsible for choosing which wire copy the newspaper will use, and for re-writing it according to their house style.

In many cases, a copy editor will be the only person other than the author to read an entire text before publication. Newspaper editors often regard their copy editors as their newspaper’s last line of defense.

A copy editor may also abridge text, which is also called “cutting” or “trimming.” This means reducing the length of a novel or article, either to fit broadcast or publishing limits, or to improve the material. This may involve simply cutting out parts of the text, but sometimes it is necessary to rewrite uncut parts to account for missing details or plot. Some abridged texts are only slightly shorter, but others may be reduced dramatically, particularly when a literary classic is abridged for the children’s market.

Changes in the Profession

Traditionally, a copy editor would read a printed or written text, such as a manuscript, marking it with handwritten proofreader’s marks for correction. Nowadays, the text is almost always read on a computer display and corrections are made directly to the text. Increasingly, a copy editor marks up the text using XML or a similar coding scheme, and is involved in preparing text for online publication, not just for printing.

The spread of desktop publishing means that many copy editors perform design and layout work that was once left to production crews for printed publications. As a result, the skills needed for the job are shifting, with technical knowledge sometimes considered as important as writing ability, particularly within journalism as compared with book publishing.

Traits, Skills, and Training

Besides an excellent command of the language, copy editors need a broad general knowledge in order to spot factual errors; good critical-thinking skills so that they recognize inconsistencies; diplomatic skills to help them deal with writers; and a thick skin when diplomacy fails. They also need to be able to set priorities so they can balance striving for perfection with working deadlines.

The majority of professional copy editors have a college degree, often in journalism, English, or communications. Copy editing is often taught as a college journalism course, though the name of the course varies. News design and pagination are often taught in such classes.

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