Behind the Scenes: Copy Editing

Tools and Tips That the Copy Editor Masters 

It can be a daunting task, offering tips on a topic as open to debate as copy editing. Not only are some of the decisions subject to interpretation, but some of your answers likely may depend on the style guide favored by your particular organization.

“Copy editing focuses intensely on style, content, punctuation, grammar, and consistency of usage.”

Solid copy editing and proofreading are among the many things we take pride in here at Britton Marketing & Design Group. We’ve had clients tell us how impressed they were with the clean copy they receive from us. It’s always nice to receive a pat on the back, especially since the feedback that copy editors often receive has more to do with something that someone thinks was missed or edited incorrectly (at least from that person’s point of view).

Writing - Copy editing tools

Our copy editors are part of an agency team that has everyone working to make our clients look as good as possible. That team includes designers, production artists, copywriters, creative directors, account managers and many other individuals.

What Does a Copy Editor Do?

In an article on, Lisa Finn wrote, “A copy editor is responsible for an initial round of proofreading to ensure that written text is concise, consistent and both grammatically and factually correct.” The position “frequently requires working under intense deadline pressure without compromising standards,” she continued.

Get in the dictionary. Make it your friend. Visit it often.

At BMDG, our copy editors sometimes also are referred to as proofreaders or “proofers.” Historically, those terms have had different meanings and focus levels than those of copy editors. Proofreaders in years past compared two galley proofs or sets of information at the same time to ensure that human error had not crept into the printing process, according to an article on Wikipedia. By contrast, the article continues, “copy editors focus on a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the text to ‘clean it up’ and make it all work together. … Copy editing focuses intensely on style, content, punctuation, grammar, and consistency of usage.”

Edits and markup - Copy editing tools

In our agency, we have responsibilities that encompass both titles. We do sometimes compare sets of information to make sure the finished product is accurate. Frequently, we closely review two-page retail catalog spreads, checking spacing and comparing product names, dimensions, colors and prices. But more than simply comparing, we read descriptive copy with a critical eye. More than just pleasant to read, is the copy punctuated properly? Does the information conflict with a client’s brand style? Can we clarify anything?

What Are Some Tools That Help?

We use at least three significant resources regularly.

  • The Associated Press StylebookAP offers guidance on word choice and, most importantly, brings uniformity on how things are handled. The book is very helpful, but it’s even better if you get the online version. All those resources are only a click or two away. The “My Stylebook” feature lets you list additional word uses or exceptions, based on style requirements of your employer or those of your client.
  • Webster’s New World College Dictionary — It’s helpful to have a preferred dictionary to solve many of those questions on proper spelling and how to make a word plural. This is ours, primarily because it also is the dictionary that AP uses. If we are looking up a word that is not in Webster’s, we use a secondary dictionary,
  • The Chicago Manual of Style — Many organizations use either AP or CMOS. We choose to use some of the best elements of each. We stick with AP on the majority of copy style questions. One major use of CMOS is in our treatment of book and movie titles. We use italics here. If we followed AP on this point, we would use quotation marks instead. Another difference is in headlines. You may notice that we use double quotes (“ ”) when called for in our headlines, following CMOS style. If we followed AP on this, we would use single quotes (‘ ’) in headlines.

A good magnifying glass also comes in very handy for some of the intricate details in those retail spreads. If you’re a little older, like me, a good pair of reading glasses is helpful. I use two different-strength “readers,” depending on if the material is going to be up close or a little further away. In addition, we’re usually fact checking throughout the day on various websites or with other resources — Google is our friend!

Red pencil - Copy editing tools

Of course, this probably doesn’t qualify as a must-have, but the environment in which you work does count for something.

Beware the serial comma. Or embrace the serial comma. It all depends on your point of view or that of your favorite style guide.

At BMDG, we are blessed to have a view out our windows that many cubicle dwellers might yearn for. The campus at our Fort Wayne headquarters includes four buildings of various shapes, situated at varying angles to each other. Each building has huge windows with reflective glass. Between the birds — cardinals and blue jays are frequent visitors — and squirrels at play and the falling leaves this autumn, the sights have been pretty impressive. 

View outside the office

How About Some Tips?

With all of that as background, here are several of my favorite copy-editing tips.

  • Take advantage of free advice. Many of us have benefited from the advice of a teacher or co-worker. The newspaper managing editor at my first job out of journalism school had a wonderful technique for getting the attention of his young reporters. When he saw words that were being misspelled, Mac got them down on paper, carefully trimmed around them and came over and taped them to our machines. (OK, they were typewriters back then.) The point is, you didn’t forget how to spell those words, at least in the near future. Get in the dictionary. Make it your friend. Visit it often.
  • Free advice, part two. Back when I was working for a large company in an internal communications role, we had a co-worker who frequently sang the praises of hyphens in dealing with compound modifiers that precede a noun. It took awhile, but it finally sank in. Tom helped us understand the additional clarity that hyphens bring in linking the two or more words that combine to express a single concept. For instance, Wikipedia offers the following example. Is it a heavy metal detector (a heavy or weighty device that detects metals)? Or is it a heavy-metal detector (a device that detects heavy metals)? Note the hyphen on the second example. Definitely a difference.
  • Beware the serial comma. Or embrace the serial comma. It all depends on your point of view or that of your favorite style guide. AP and most newspapers avoid placing a comma before words such as and and or in a series of three or more terms. It saves space and doesn’t require the reader to pause. That’s the style we have been following here at BMDG, but we occasionally need to insert the serial comma to avoid confusion. Some style guides (including CMOS) require the use of the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma) in all such instances. It’s something we have discussed in our agency — possibly changing our style to include the serial or Oxford comma in all situations. We’re not quite there yet, but opinions do run strong on the issue. Here’s an image that has floated around on the Internet that may give you some insight. Have a strong opinion on the issue yourself? Please don’t hesitate to comment.
  • Know your “smart” quote marks from the old-style printer marks or "straight" quotes. Notice the difference? This is a favorite tip of Marcia Kirlin, one of BMDG’s copy editors. “Smart” quotes have been the standard for any quoted material for years now. However, any product dimensions that use inch marks need the "straight" quotes. Depending on the size of the type, this is one of those instances when we might need the magnifying glass to make sure we have the right version.
  • Another fix that we often make is on the use of dashes. Most everyone is familiar with the good old hyphen, as in three-fourths. We use a longer mark, the en dash, to show a range, such as 2–4 p.m. The even longer em dash often is used to show a significant change in thought — such as this one.
  • Everyone needs an editor. Just because you’ve been writing for years, don’t think your copy is perfect. It rarely is. Of course, be sure to use the spell-check feature on your computer. But it’s not perfect. Try running this purposely incorrect sentence through your spell-checker: There sports equipment was sent over they’re because their already at the game. My spell-checker only identified one of the three incorrect uses. Beyond the technology, though, it helps to have someone else look at your work, especially on important pieces. That person may have a different perspective and read some of your sentences in a different way than you intended.
  • Read the article out loud. Now, I realize you may be seated in the middle of several co-workers who might question your sanity if you start reading everything aloud. At least take the time to mentally or silently read it “out loud.” This is much better than simply skimming the words. It forces you to actually deal with each sentence’s construction. You also may see typos or punctuation issues more quickly.

Of course, this list of tips is just a start. For all of you English and business communication teachers and other fans of a well-turned phrase, please don’t hesitate to comment, especially if you have constructive advice for our readers. We love feedback.

BMDG’s copy manager, Chip Compton, wrote about copy editing in March. Here are his thoughts.

Photos: Shutterstock and BMDG