What copyeditors do

Few people understand the process of completing a book. Everyone understands the ideas of drafts, but the process of copyediting, where someone gets ‘all up in your sentences’ is a sensitive thing. How does it work?

At most publishers, copyeditors are rarely involved until late in the process. The Editor for a book rarely does any line-editing. Editors, with a capital E, are typically in charge of signing authors (a.k.a. acquisitions) and also helping to direct and guide the book (a.k.a. development), but at the detail level of grammar and paragraphs often someone else is involved. Enter, the copyeditor.

Here’s a snapshot of a draft chapter from Confessions of a Public Speaker, with notes from a copyeditor.


Copyeditors have a tough job. They have to sort out what the author was trying to do, and then help them do it. But if a writer botches a sentence or a paragraph (or chapter), it’s hard for copyeditors to figure out the intent. And of course writing is more than grammar and tense, it’s also less tangible factors like honesty, relevance, humor and value, which the copyeditor might sense are lacking but can’t fix on their own: that’s the writer’s job.

The result is good copyediting leads to good conversations between the copyeditor and writer about what the writer was trying to do and how they can do it better. Problem is, most authors are exhausted by this point and the last thing they want is another round over the coals of criticism.

One way copyedits are done is through Word and revision marks. The copyeditor gets the so called ‘final draft’, reviews it chapter by chapter making line edits the author can see, and leaves comments or questions for things that might need to be rewritten. It looks like this:

As the author, I have to go through change by change and decide for myself one of five things:

  1. Is the change good?
  2. If I don’t like the change, was there a problem in the original I should fix?
  3. Is the copyeditor right grammatically, but wrong stylistically?
  4. Is the copyeditor an idiot and didn’t get the joke? Or is this just not funny?
  5. Does this section need to be rewritten, entirely scrapped, or have new paragraphs added?

People talk about a book being a “great read” but rarely does anyone explore why, and a big part of it is how the author and copyeditor work together. Accepting every change can make books tighter, but also flat and bland. Some writers, exhausted or frustrated, accept all changes and I think it shows in the stiff, uptight style their books have. On the other hand, rejecting all changes from copyeditors is likely suicidal as you’ll sound too raw, and too stupid, as bad grammar and paragraph structure generally makes you read like an idiot.

To be in the sane middle ground, even though I’m technically “on the last draft”, during copyediting I have to carefully go through every chapter for the zillionth time, re-reading, re-writing and trying again to keep the experience for the reader as tight and interesting as possible.

I don’t want to rewrite the book. Hell, I want to do as little work as possible if I feel the book is pretty good as is. But some parts clearly need help. The trick is to do just enough to make it good, without breaking something else in the process. Surgical rewriting is the goal. But when you change one paragraph, that change can cascade into others, and before you know it you’ve made things much worse. Best advice is to cut more out than you add during the copyedit.

The copyeditor for my first three books was Marlowe Shaeffer. She’s tough, smart, sarcastic and direct, which is great. I want to hear some tough stuff in the copyedit. How else will the book get better? A copyeditor and author shouldn’t agree on everything – the process should force the writer to think more clearly and catch bad assumptions they’ve made. I get final say, so what do I have to lose in being questioned? Better now than in book reviews.

It takes a few weeks to complete a copyedit, and have the debates, in my mind or with Marlowe, to resolve all the changes. The copyedit is also a chance for me to add & check references, and to go through my research notes one more time for little bits that might fit nicely into places that need some spice. Some jokes and twists often don’t make it in until the copyedit.

Good copyeditors are underpaid. They have the most intimate involvement in the creative process, even though it’s late in the game. In many cases they make mediocre writers look good. And of course a bad copyeditor can make an interesting or entertaining writer seem boring and dull.

But in either case, writers, after the copyedit, are still not finished.

The last stretch is what are called galleys or quality reviews. A copy of the book is produced in actual layout and style of the printed book, and I get to help review it for problems. Typos, image problems, layout issues and orphans (words left alone on a page), can arise in the transfer from Word to the Galley layout. Of course the publisher reviews for these things, but my name goes on the cover and I get blamed for everything. There’s a natural desire to check it out and catch what I can.

In the end I figure I read my own book dozens of times before it ever gets into stores. As does the copyeditor and sometimes the production editor (who manages the production of the printed book). There’s no way around it – writing is a reading intensive process, always has been and always will be.

Have questions about copy-editing, or the writing process? Ask away.

37 Responses to “What copyeditors do”

  1. Jurgen Appelo

    Yes, I have some questions:

    – Did you do all the writing in Word as well?
    – How many reviewers did you have?
    – Did the reviewers review before or after copy-editing?
    – Who decides on the title of the book? You?
    – Did you deliver your own print-ready images?
    – Does the publisher create the index?
    – How much time is there between final draft and book store?

    Sorry to have so many questions. I’ve just started writing a book myself, so I’m trying to understand everything about this process. ;)


  2. Scott Berkun

    > Did you do all the writing in Word as well?

    I happen to like Word. Many people don’t but my needs are simple. I don’t use fancy outlining tools or anything. I could write in notepad if it had basic formatting and did auto save.

    > How many reviewers did you have?

    Reviews, as in for feedback to the author and editor, is up to the author and editor. Typically an editor sends out the first draft to some folks and passes on feedback to the author. But I can do the same if I wish. I personally asked for more reviews for my first book than any of the others.

    > Did the reviewers review before or after copy-editing?

    It’s always before. By the time of the CE (CopyEdit) any big feedback is too late to correct. Copyediting isn’t free so it’s done as late as possible.

    > Who decides on the title of the book? You?

    It’s often mutually agreed upon, often as early as signing the contract. But different contracts give different rights to the author. Often publishers retain final decisions. Same goes for the cover.

    > Did you deliver your own print-ready images?

    Yes. Authors are almost always on their own for images, photos, etc.

    > Does the publisher create the index?

    Yes. It’s in the contract I signed. As is the copyedit and a bunch of other things.

    > How much time is there between final
    > draft and book store?

    Many factors here. Some are strategic as a book might be ready to go, but for marketing reasons they hold off on printing.

    Final draft means many different things. There’s what I, as the author, thinks is the final draft, and what the production team does over a couple of weeks to do quality control. When *they* say it’s done, it’s a matter of a few weeks/months. It varies from publisher to publisher as they have different contracts with the actual printing press companies.

  3. Andrew Savikas

    I’ve worked with Marlowe for 5 years and she’s absolutely one of the best in the biz.

    For my own book (not copy edited by Marlowe), I decided to accept all changes, then read the chapter. If I could tell something had changed for the worse, I’d investigate. I figured if the copy editor changed it for the better, I’d just assume it was my own brilliant writing, but if it was a change for the worse, I’d notice it (especially amid all that brilliant writing!).

  4. Scott Berkun

    Andrew: In some cases I do the same thing – just accept all changes for a page, read through it, and if it worked I let it go. I’d only dig in and see what was changed if it didn’t read right to me, or I noticed something important was missing.

  5. Scott Berkun

    Marlowe dropped a line to tell me the title should be

    “How copyediting looks and feels”

    instead of

    “What copyediting looks and feels like”

    Change accepted.

  6. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    Scott, I’m waiting for the cover art to come back so I can print the first galley of my second book. I brought a printout with me on a flight Wednesday, just so I could do a quick once-over for typos.

    I don’t think I left a page without a few notes on it.

    Have you ever re-read one of your books, either before or after it was published, and not found things you wanted to change? Do you at some point just have to tell yourself, “Stop reading the damn thing. It’s as ‘done’ as it’s going to get.”?

  7. Scott Berkun

    Drew: You definitely have to stop. You can always keep changing.

    The hardest time I had was when Making Things Happen was released, a 2nd edition of the art of project management. I wrote the book years ago and had different ideas both about writing and about project management. But revising/updating has the goal of making *that* book better. Not making a new book. And same goes for a copyedit. The goal is to make the book you have better, not rewrite it.

    I think copyedits help with this process as the schedules and vibe makes it hard to do sweeping changes. Each pass, first draft, 2nd draft, copyedit, galley review makes the level of changes increasingly granular. Perhaps it’s because I’m familiar with the process, but by the time it’s in copyedit its mostly what it is. I can trim some edges and add some sparkles, but by then it’s too late to save the patient if there’s something major that’s wrong.

  8. Phil Simon

    Interesting post, Scott. I am about to go through the CE process for the first time and this really let me know what to expect. I am just about finished with the developmental editing process and know that the granularity of changes will be quite different in the next round.

    I’m sure that I’ll have similar pages with oodles of blue and red changes.

  9. Franke

    “Clarity” should be added to the end of your list in the following sentence: “And of course writing is more than grammar and tense, it

  10. Eric

    This post resonates. . .one of the low points of literary life is thinking a book is “virtually done,” only to get a draft back from a copyeditor with 800 little sticky notes, each one requiring more research or a rewrite. . . .

  11. Hilary Powers

    Interesting post!

    One suggestion on dealing with tracked changes – rather than accepting everything and then having to chase down the original in an earlier draft if it looks like something got damaged, you can just switch the display to “Final” from the default “Final Showing Markup.” That lets you read everything as though the changes had been accepted – but compare to the original with a couple of clicks when you want to see it.

    When I’m copyediting (which is how I make my simple living), I’ll often do one edit pass with the tracking visible to make sure it isn’t too tangled to read comfortably, then a second with it hidden to get the effect of the text without interruption.

  12. Ann Greenberger

    Thank you for writing this! I’m a developmental editor and copyeditor. It’s a pleasure to read the author’s point of view. You provide an insightful description of the process, and its importance.

    Are you receiving galleys or page proofs? Galleys are typeset text before the pages are composed and set up exactly as they will appear in the book.

    Publishers often skip the galley stage and move right to page proofs. I’m impressed if your publisher produces both galleys and page proofs. It’s a cost and time-saving measure that many publishers have given up.



  13. Arlene Prunkl

    I’m a freelance structural, stylistic, and copyeditor, as well as a proofreader, and I often work with authors who haven’t used Word’s Track Changes features before. Your article was very informative.

    I wanted to add to what Ann wrote. One thing that requires clarification is that the process after the galleys or page proofs is called proofreading — reading the page proofs. Many people seem to think copy editing and proofreading are the same thing — interchangeable. Wrong! I try to educate authors with this simple fact: Editing (any kind of editing) comes before layout and typesetting, proofreading comes after. Easy to remember!


  14. Peter Taylor

    I can absolutely associate with this article as my first book has just been published – obviously (as a first book labour of love)I felt that it was perfect and all the copy editor did was ask awkward questions and try and change things. That and, at the end of the draft write, I was actually quite reluctant to go back to the book again.

    But it is a matter of learning the process and the craft and I can see the benefit this input of external and objective critique had.

    If I get to book number 2 then I will be much more open I’m sure.

    As a public speaker as well I look forward to reading your latest release.

    Peter (The Lazy Project Manager) Taylor

  15. Suri Brand

    I’ve been working as a copyeditor for 15 years for a niche publisher. It’s refreshing to see the points of view of both copyeditors and authors of books for the more general market. One thing I would like to add: copyediting (any editing really, and even proofreading to a certain degree) is also an art. I think that the difference between a good copyeditor and a great one is a streak of creativity — the ability to step back and ask yourself: Am I making this change because it really makes the work better, or simply because it’s what the rules dictate?
    Suri Brand

  16. zipdrive

    Quick question: how does one become a copy editor? Does it require a certain degree (in English, perhaps)?

  17. Cassie Tuttle


    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Thank you for recognizing and explaining the vital role we copyeditors play in the process of writing and publishing.

    Too many authors (especially with the popularity of self-publishing) don’t realize the benefit of a good copyeditor.

    What we do is simple: we take what you’ve done and make it better.

    I like the way Andrew Savikas operates (accepting the CE’s Tracked Changes, then deciding if the changes made the writing better). I’d be willing to bet that the CE’s changes resulted in subtle improvement most, if not all, of the time.

    That’s the kind of trust and confidence I like to hear!

  18. Umberta Mesina

    Scott, thank you for this.
    I would like to translate it into Italian and post on my blog, if you agree. With a link to this post, of course.

    I have read the sneak preview of the Confessions and I like your writing. I think you are non published in Italy, are you?

    I would like to thanks Hilary and Antonia, too. My authors are very fond of Word’s revision Tool (which I detest dearly). Your tips are very useful.


  19. Umberta Mesina

    Hello, Scott. I have finally translated this post in Italian for my blog and my I-hope-they-will-be clients.
    I hope they will appreciate it like I do.

    Delete this: Below the image, “four things” –> “five things”.

  20. Jon Bach

    Copyediting looks and feels like software testing. It’s analagous to my work because I run a variety of tests and report my findings, alerting developers to problems that may prevent users from seeing the value of what they developed.

    Testers don’t “break software” any more than copyeditors write books. I (and they) FIND the breaks that are already there — sometimes we even suggest fixes.

    The developers (writers) and Editors (PM/Biz) have the option to veto anything that testers find, but our intent is always to help them deliver the kinds of value they intended when they sat down to plan and write the code that enabled the thing to meet requirements in the first place.

  21. lauren cramer

    Love this post. My favorite part is the list of 5 (not 4) things the author needs to think about on a copyeditor’s changes/suggestions.

  22. pgag

    Truly, a great post. Copy Editing is a way to polish a write up. At the same time it involves editing it and making necessary corrections so that it becomes error free, grammatically sound and makes an interesting reading.

    If you are looking for gr8 articles with gr8 copyediting skills, contact Creative Solutions for Editing, Writing, and Proofreading Services.

  23. Lonzie the kid writer

    Will you tell me the most important thing about writing :):):):):):):)

  24. Thiruman Archunan

    Very useful article.



Leave a Reply

* Required