Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, shares these four chief concerns that a copyeditor should focus on:
Einsohn then points out that these four focuses should all serve “the ‘Cardinal C’: communication.” And that’s really all a copyeditor will focus on, nothing more, but also nothing less.
So what do each of these mean? Here are some of the many questions copyeditors ask themselves while working on a new piece of writing:
- Is each sentence clear?
- Are the overall takeaways or main ideas clear?
- Can the reader interpret things multiple ways?
- Are the arguments or details well supported?
- Is this written with a specific type of audience in mind? Will they get it?
- Is it too dumbed down?
- Are terms or ideas that are referenced fully defined?
- Does the organization of the arguments or support lend to coherency?
- Do the grammar and punctuation aid or impede understanding?
- Are words and names spelled consistently?
- Are chapters, subsections, and paragraphs written the same way?
- Are tables and figures formatted consistently?
- Do terms and names keep the same definition and spelling throughout?
- Are grammar and punctuation used in the same manner throughout?
- Are references used and formatted consistently?
- Is a style guide and single dictionary used to enforce consistency?
- Is the tone consistent throughout?
- Is the spelling of names, terms, and words correct?
- Are terms defined correctly?
- Are all parts, chapters, tables, and figures correctly named and referenced?
- Are dates, facts, and quotations correct? Are they correctly cited?
- Is the bibliography or notes section formatted correctly according to the chosen style guide?
- Are biased terms (sexist, racist, ageist, ableist, etc.) avoided when possible?
- Is the tone correct for the work and the audience?
But above all
Do no harm. Editors of all levels make this a top priority. Good editors know this is not their work, so it is not their place to change the meaning or styling of an author’s message.
By no means does this list contain all the concerns that I or other copyeditors will concentrate on. The focus and priorities will vary on the author’s goals and the state of the manuscript or copy as well as the intended audience, the scope of the project, and the writer’s expectations and deadline.
Set the rules
This is why it’s important to have a frank yet quick discussion with your copyeditor before they start a project. A copyeditor’s job is to do what you want them to do when first taking on the project. Of course, we tend to know specific information and tasks to look for and will give our suggestions and guidance as well.
Avoid doing smaller work before larger
Sometimes a copyeditor will get a piece of work but realize that the work needs bigger attention than these four focuses. If they’re doing their job, then they’ll let you know that this piece may need to go back to the development stage. Some editors will offer specific suggestions, such as the need for an organization reframe or more supporting arguments. And hopefully, the copyeditor will catch bigger problems early on and let you know as soon as possible. There’s no need to copyedit a piece that will be going back for further revisions—that ends up being a waste of the writer’s money and the copyeditor’s time!