How to Copy Edit


I explain how to copy edit business documents in eight easy steps.

If you’re on the road to about becoming a copy editor (or thinking about hiring one), it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the process of copy editing.

Not sure what a copy editor does?  Here’s a quick definition from our Ultimate Guide to Copy Editing:

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

People from lots of different industries use copy editors, but, in business, copy editors will normally be retained for tasks like:

If you’re an up-and-coming editor, this article will give you a good idea of how to approach copy editing in an organised manner.  Alternatively, if you’re looking to employ a copy editor, you’ll learn exactly what a copy editor needs to get the job done, saving you from a painful series of back-and-forth emails.

The following process is based on my professional experience doing business copy editing, so be aware that positions in other sectors may have different requirements.

Let’s get into it.

Quick Reference

How to Copy Edit

  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

1. Agree on the scope of the work

The first and most important step is to agree on the scope of the editing.  You may find that your employer or client has a different set of expectations to you about exactly what copy editing encompasses, so make sure you clearly define what you will and won’t do.

For example, a client might expect you to fact-check their work, which is not part of the standard copy editing process.  It’s important to clarify whether you will or won’t do this.

At Chevron Editing, we have our inclusions laid out right on our Copy Editing page.  This makes it easy for prospects to know whether copy editing is the right service for them, and also gives me a quick reference point to direct clients to if they have questions about scope.

My advice would be to either detail the scope of the work in an email exchange, or include it in your service agreement.  This helps avoid miscommunications and prevents ‘but you said you would’ conversations further down the track.

Here’s an example from a recent email exchange with a client; you’ll notice that we’re discussing ‘editorial proofreading’, but that’s really just another name for light copy editing (I call it ‘proofreading’ because that’s what many clients ask for). If you’re viewing this on a small screen, click here.
copy editing quote in email form

2. Gather all relevant information

Once you’ve nailed down exactly what you’ll be doing, it’s time to start collecting all the relevant information.  You’ll need to know things like:

  • The purpose of the document
  • The target audience
  • The in-house style requirements
  • The publication medium

Without this information, it’s almost impossible to do your job properly.  How can you ensure the document conforms to stylistic requirements without knowing what those requirements are?

3. Read through the document

After receiving the necessary information – and, of course, the document you’re going to edit – it’s time to get started.

I’d recommend reading through the document before you do anything else.  It’s a good way to familiarise yourself with the flow of information, the structure and the author’s voice.  Once you’re satisfied you understand how the author is approaching the piece, move on to editing.

4. Work through each paragraph and edit for errors

This is where the real work begins.  Everyone has a different style of editing, but I like to work through each paragraph and then edit it sentence by sentence.

I start off by correcting punctuation and syntax errors.  Why?  Because I find it easier to scan for subjective issues like flow, voice, cognitive load and information architecture once the technical problems are out of the way.

You’ll sometimes hear people argue that this is all a copy edit should do – that more comprehensive edits should be reserved for a structural edit – but that’s exactly why you need to iron out inclusions as soon as possible.  Personally, I expect copy editors to actually improve the text, not just fix errors, but your client or employer might have a different opinion.

5. Revise each paragraph in its entirety

Once I’m satisfied that the document is technically correct, I start improving it.  This generally entails cutting out extraneous words (something even I’m guilty of as a writer), simplifying sentence structures, removing tonal inconsistencies, ensuring information delivery makes sense, keeping the style in line with the target audience and purpose, restructuring paragraphs, and making recommendations for the author to implement.

6. Read the entire document again

Whenever you’re editing something closely, it’s important to step back and reassess it from a distance.  Sometimes you’ll notice repetitions, strange leaps in pacing, or other problems that can be difficult to spot when you’re working at a micro level.  It’s also a good chance to make sure your own edits make sense (even editors aren’t infallible – far from it).

7. Edit for formatting

Once the document itself is correct, you may or may not need to attend to formatting requirements; again, this depends on the scope of the task.  Formatting includes things like:

  • References
  • Menus and lists
  • Headings
  • Margins
  • Page layout

8. Proofread it

Before you send the edited document back to your client or boss, proofread it.  Because you’ve been focused on fixing their mistakes and making their work better, awkward typos or accidental word inserts can easily creep in, and there’s nothing worse than spending hours editing something only to realise you’ve made a mistake after you’ve emailed it.

Did you find my advice about how to copy edit helpful?  Let me know in the comments.

Here’s the information from this article in an infographic (you can download it here).  You’re welcome to use this graphic or parts of this graphic on your website or social media, but, if you do, please attribute it to us by including a link to this page.  You could say something like:

Infographic originally published here: 


Source: Chevron Editing

how to copy edit infographic

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.