Last updated on June 12th, 2018
What’s the difference between copy editing and line editing? Where does one end and the other begin?
I’ve been asked these questions by clients, potential clients, and even fellow editors. I provide both services, so I think my experience offers some practical insights. Copy editing generally is considered the final step in an editing process, before proofreading and publication. Copy editors make sure there are no spelling or grammatical errors and that the writing is clear. The copy editor is a kind of language cop who looks for violations of rules, both grammatical and style-related, whether the style is Chicago, Turabian, APA or a house style required by a particular publisher. If you’re copy editing material written in British or UK style, you must be aware of and follow rules that differ from American ones in terms of spelling–labour, not labor; realise, not realize–punctuation, formatting of dates and citations, and other conventions.
Copy editors also edit to improve readability, ensure accuracy (making sure that facts are correct), and eliminate repetition.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but it’s often not.
When a project editor at a publishing house assigns me a manuscript to copy edit, the instructions will specify the level of edit required light, medium, or heavy. These terms, however, often are not defined. It’s only when I begin to read the manuscript that it becomes clear how much work is needed. And sometimes it turns out that a “light” edit really requires more than that, and a “medium” one entails considerably more work. For example, I recently was assigned a nonfiction book for “medium” copy editing. The original manuscript was written in Hebrew; I was to edit the English translation. Unfortunately, the translation was awkward: the syntax often was closer to Hebrew than English, meaning at times was unclear or ambiguous, and some of the language was sexist. Not only that; the author took for granted that American readers would understand references to persons and events that European and Israeli readers would easily recognize.
As I worked my way through the book, it became clear that it required more substantial editing. Fixing spelling and grammatical errors was the easy part. For the book to be publication-ready, the writing would need some significant changes to improve clarity and eliminate awkward language. It would need additional detail about events and individuals, which required me to do some internet research. This, for me, was where copy editing became line editing. I would have to edit the manuscript line by line, checking grammar, word usage, punctuation, spelling, and consistency. Fixing errors and providing greater detail wherever I thought it necessary certainly was a big part of my job. But I also had to focus on content and writing style. How the writer used language to communicate with his readers.
What made this task trickier was that the author had a distinctive, even idiosyncratic style. At times, it was suggestive and elliptical; at other times, fact-based, almost reportorial. When talking about childhood experiences or writing about his own children, the style was lyrical yet the content was specific and detailed. When he wrote about major political events, however, he often eschewed factual reporting in favor of giving his personal responses to them. My challenge was to ensure that the book communicated to a general readership (its intended audience) that might not “get” all the author’s references while also preserving the author’s style. I handled this by querying the author about things I didn’t understand or felt needed explanation- Did you mean to say x, or would y better express your intended meaning? At times, I suggested alternative language. I pointed out – gently- sexism in some of the writing and provided different wording that corrected the gender bias.
The author accepted most of my proposed changes, which was gratifying, but not all. There were some sentences and passages that I thought needed to be re-written but he wanted them to remain largely or entirely as he had written them. “That’s my style,” he would say, “and I want to keep it.” I had to respect and defer to his stylistic choices – it was his book, after all, not mine. And that brings up an important issue and one that any good editor should keep in mind: editing is a collaborative effort. As an editor, I have technical skills I can offer authors. As someone who reads widely and is intellectually curious, I also have pretty broad subject matter expertise. I also really enjoy editing and solving the problems a particular editing job might present. But I also am a book author, feature writer, and critic, so I try always to be sensitive to a writer’s style as well as meaning, and how the two relate to each other. My job, then, whether I’m working on a book or other writing project that needs an uncomplicated copy edit or a more rigorous line edit, with rewriting, is to help the author say what he or she wants to say as effectively as possible. That’s what I’d want – and expect- from an editor of my own work.