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What is the role of the copyeditor?

Copyeditors collaborate with authors to create the best possible version of a text, and they share with authors the goal and responsibility of improving the readability and usefulness of a text. In this sense, copyeditors work in the service of readers. At some presses a copyeditor is a project manager who coordinates the workflow and communication with other departments, such as marketing and production, during the publication process. At other presses the copyeditor is a freelancer who is only responsible for working on the text. An author can clarify with their press which functions the copyeditor will handle, if any questions arise.

A copyeditor may do some or all of the following:

  • Clarify the structure and coherence of the text. This may include adjusting the organization of sections and subsections. The copyeditor may recommend that transitions from one section to another be strengthened or clarified.
  • Read the manuscript for tone. Is the text appropriately formal—or informal—as befitting the publisher or the series or, in the case of an essay in an edited collection, the rest of the volume? Copyeditors may suggest revisions of casual remarks or jokes, the tone and humor of which can sometimes be misconstrued by readers. Copyeditors may also recommend revisions for inclusive language, which aims to avoid bias and to describe individual and group identity with respect and sensitivity.
  • Ensure that documentation of sources is complete and that citations and lists of sources (e.g., bibliographies or works-cited lists) are formatted in an established citation style. Copyeditors will query authors when citations are incomplete or missing.
  • Query the author if facts are found to be inconsistent or suspected to be wrong. A copyeditor may do light fact-checking, but generally authors are responsible for ensuring the correctness of things like names, dates, and facts about sources.
  • Apply house style. House style may be a combination of guidelines in a published style guide, such as the MLA Handbook or the Chicago Manual of Style, and established in-house practices. House style helps ensure consistency, which in turn improves readability. During copyediting the editor produces a style sheet that records decisions made about such matters as the styling of terms and names.
  • Correct misspellings, punctuation, and grammatical errors, and make recommendations concerning word usage.
  • Point out and suggest ways to correct faulty parallelism, wordiness, and repetition.
  • Give the author the opportunity to review the editing and to suggest corrections and adjustments. Revise the manuscript according to the author’s review.
  • Tag the manuscript for composition (the process of designing and arranging type before it is printed; also called typesetting). This means telling the compositor when to set text as a block quotation, when to set it as a works-cited entry, when to set it as a caption, and so forth. This process may also include inserting HTML or XML tags that allow the manuscript to be converted to e-book and other digital formats.
  • Review the work of the proofreader after the manuscript has been typeset and proofread. (Read more on the difference between copyediting and proofreading.)

The most successful copyediting happens when both copyeditors and authors approach the process in a spirit of collaboration. While most publishers will not permit misspellings and obvious grammatical errors to stand in publications, revisions for usage, tone, and concision or clarity are generally open for discussion, and the author should have the final say. The copyeditor may seek the author’s assistance to ensure that a publication is free of language or imagery that may offend or exclude readers, and authors should feel welcome to discuss these matters during copyediting.

—The Modern Language Association, September 2021