The Ultimate Guide to Copy Editing


This is the ultimate guide to copy editing.  Discover everything you need to know about copy editing right here. 

What is copy editing?

Copy editing is the process of revising or editing a document to ensure consistency, grammatical correctness and clarity.

Copy editing should identify and correct grammatical errors, ensure factual and stylistic consistency across the document, improve readability, improve sentence flow and correct tonal inconsistencies.

Copy editing versus proofreading

The terms ‘copy editing’ and ‘proofreading’ are often used interchangeably, and their role descriptions are sometimes conflated.  In fact, they’re two very different levels of editing, and it’s important to understand the difference between them.

Copy editing and proofreading differ in their scope and purpose.  A proofreader’s role is to identify and correct any errors previous rounds of editing might have missed, and is normally the final stage of editing.

Conversely, a copy editor aims to actually improve the document, as opposed to simply finding errors, and occurs before proofreading.  Copy editing requires more skill and time than proofreading, because it requires the editor to significantly enhance the quality of the document while still retaining the voice of the author.

Copy editing versus structural editing

Copy editing is also commonly confused with structural editing, which is, again, an entirely different level of editing.

The main reason for this confusion is that not all editors agree on the exact distinction between the two.

Normally, in business editing, the editing process has three stages:

  1. Structural editing, where the editor makes significant changes and recommendations to the structure, content and tone of the pieces
  2. Copy editing, where the editor make line-level changes to improve consistency and flow
  3. Proofreading, where the editor corrects any remaining grammatical errors

For books, the editing process might look more like this:

  1. Manuscript assessment, where the editor provides a detail analysis of coherency, pacing, plot, tone, structure and marketability
  2. Structural editing
  3. Copy editing
  4. Proofreading

Some of the editing tasks which might fall under copy editing when editing for business are moved to structural editing when editing for books. 

This problem is exacerbated by editors using different terms in different fields or companies (‘developmental editing’ and ‘manuscript assessment’, or ‘structural editing’ and ‘substantive editing’), and occasionally even inventing editing levels, such ‘line editing’, which is sub-type of copy editing.    

Generally, though, structural or substantive editing has a broader focus than copy editing, which aims to improve the piece at a sentence level.

Copy editing versus line editing

Occasionally, you might come across references to ‘line editing’, which can easily be confused with copy editing.  I’ve never encountered a role dedicated to line editing in the business world – it seems to be almost exclusively limited to publishing companies – but most definitions agree that line editing is a subset of copy editing.

The distinction appears to be drawn between technical grammar work and the more subjective work of improving flow, voice and structure, which these definitions class as line editing.  If we look at how publishing companies and traditional media operate, it becomes easier to understand why line editing has emerged as a separate role to copy editing.  In large texts with many rounds of editing, the existence of specialised editors with different goals might be justified – a line editor might be employed to revise multiple books at once, while a different copy editor improves syntax, punctuation and other technicalities.  Publishers, who typically take a large percentage of book sales, can justify the cost of an additional editor.

Conversely, a line editor’s role is untenable in business editing, because very few businesses will have the budget or timeline to accommodate four separate rounds of editing (structural, line, copy, proofreading).  In my opinion, separating line editing and copy editing is also pointless for business documents – the two functions can be more easily accomplished at the same time than they can be apart.

Copy editing versus technical editing

Some definitions of copy editing incorrectly claim that copy editors check factual statements or even review documents for legal liability.

Although some in-house roles may feature these duties, neither are a normal part of the copy editing process.  For documents that require fact-checking, a technical editor should be employed.

Technical editors can be actual editors who specialise in a particular field, or specialists in a particular field who are capable of identifying and correcting factual errors.

For example, if a content writer creates an article for a psychology business, the document should be edited by a copy editor to improve clarity and readability.  Subsequently, the document should also be reviewed by a psychologist or psychology-trained editor to ensure that all facts and statements made in the document are correct.

Here’s an example of technical editing in the real world from Healthline.

example of technical editing

In this example, Ryan Raman is the content writer.  Dr. Atli Arnarson, a scientist, is the technical editor.

Similarly, a copy editor should never be asked to review a document for legal liability unless they are also a practicing lawyer.

Copy editing versus rewriting

Copy editing and rewriting are entirely different things, but it can sometimes be difficult for clients or employers to distinguish between them.

If a document needs to be rewritten, the task should fall to a content or copywriter, who will synthesise relevant information and rewrite either parts or the entirety of the text.

This is well outside the scope of a copy editor’s role.  Copy editors should make amendments to existing sentences, not rewrite them, and should do so by preserving the author’s voice.

Why is copy editing important for business?

Copy editing is an expensive investment, and, unlike proofreading, may not be necessary for every communication.  Important articles or documents can and should receive the benefit of copy editing, particularly if they’re likely to be widely distributed or have the potential for high ROI.

Employing a copy editor can help make well-written text even better, saving you time and money down the track.  By making adjustments that refine your message, copy editors reduce cognitive load, raise the chances of conversions, and significantly improve project results.

Think about copy editing like this: why do you pay professional copywriters to do your writing for you?  After all, you or one of your team could do it for half the price.

The answer?  You know that professional copywriters are excellent at what they do, and that you’ll make your money back twice over.

The same goes for copy editing.  You could skip it, and get a 200% ROI on the project, or you could pay a professional $200 to copy edit, and receive a 250% ROI on the project.

How do you copy edit?

There are lots of different ways to approach copy editing, but a process like these eight steps is normally standard:

  1. Agree on the scope of the work
  2. Gather all relevant information
  3. Read through the document
  4. Work through each paragraph and edit for errors
  5. Revise each paragraph in its entirety
  6. Read the entire document again
  7. Edit for formatting
  8. Proofread it

Want more details?  I’ll walk you through my exact methods in a different article that explains how to copy edit.

How do you mark up documents when copy editing?

Traditionally, copy edits are made on paper, but I would strongly advise against copy editing hard copies unless you have no choice.  Editing on a computer is infinitely easier, cleaner and better for the writer.

Most copy editors edit using word processing software like Microsoft Word, Apple Pages or Adobe Acrobat.  Since MS Word remains the most popular program in the business world, I’ll demonstrate copy editing mark-up using its built-in Review functions.

To get started, open up the draft document in MS Word (.doc or .docx).  In the navigation menu along the top, select the ‘Review’ tab.  Toggle the ‘Track Changes’ button, then, from the drop-down menu beside it, select ‘Simple Markup’.

microsoft word track changes

You can now make changes to the document that are highlighted as changes, allowing your client or colleague to see exactly what you’ve edited.  To display the highlighted changes, change ‘Simple Markup’ to ‘All Markup’.

copy editing example

You can also select portions of text and add a comment by hitting ‘New Comment’ under the Review tab.  You can use this function to offer recommendations or to explain to document authors why you’ve made certain changes.

adding a comment when copy editing

How do you become a copy editor?

Becoming a copy editor is a complex process, which is why we’ve written a guide on How to Become a Copy Editor in Australia.  Give it a read to learn what skills you need, how much should charge, and where you can look for work.

Got questions?  Drop a comment below, or email me at:

If you need qualified editors to copy edit something you’ve written, check out our Copy Editing services to discover how we can help.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

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