Habits of Effective Copy Editors

Article 5 min
Explore helpful techniques used by copy editors like mumble, verify or duck, chop fearlessly and recheck.

Use the Three-Step Method

Many editors develop their own personalized methods or checklists, and you may want to develop one specific to your publication. But they all have three basic steps in common: content, copy edit and clarity. They work specifically in this order:

  1. Read for Content: the facts, tone and story structure.
  2. Read to Copy Edit: mechanics, AP and local style guide.
  3. Read for Clarity: clear message and no unanswered questions.

This order is important as you don't know what content will be cut until you've read through the story the first time. If you skip to step 2 or 3, you may end up spending time copy editing or revising parts of the story that will ultimately be cut.

Bad Habits to Avoid

Be mindful to watch out for bad habits you want to correct.

  • Editing just because you can. Be the editor you've always wanted. The red pen can be addictive, and a job title can make you feel powerful. The writer's voice should still be recognizable once you have finished.
  • Editing from your perspective. Edit according to the three-step method. Read the story from the audience's point of view and edit from their perspective, not your personal style.
  • Rewriting instead of editing. Coach your writers. Rewrites should be done at the writer's level, and you need to train your writers to do so. If you are doing your job efficiently, you will help your writers grow as they write, so you don't see the same problems with the next story.

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Good Habits to Adopt

Remain mentally presentMumble

Mumble means that you should repeat every name you come across in copy — names of people, organizations and places that figure in the story. Say them and fix them in your mind. Mumbling keeps you mentally present in the text to ensure that you are actually ingesting and digesting the content and its meaning. It’s easy to zone out and fail to adequately edit the content. If you try this and start getting dirty looks, switch to the silent mumble but mumble clearly.

Beware of the peril of sonic editing — using a word that sounds something like the word you really want to use. For example, "Smith was found innocent of all the charges that Jones levied against him." sounds right. Only one problem: Leveled, not levied. Such words slip right through the fingers of even the best copy editors who are not concentrating. Reporters do not put little red flags beside the words they misuse or mistype, and spell-checking software won't catch them either. That's what copy editors are for: reading all the words carefully to ensure the right word gets put in the right place. Wrong words can flit right past if you snooze. Mumbling will keep you tuned in, so you had better find these errors.

Get the facts rightVerify/Duck

In the fact-checking responsibilities of copy editing, you do not have the time to look up the accuracy of each and every line. Some things you know, and some you take on faith that the reporter has gotten right. If you have the time and the resources, and if the reporter is available to help, check out questionable information. If you can't, duck by taking out the questionable elements. Readers may get a little less detail than they might otherwise, but at least none of what they do get will be wrong.

One cautionary note: You can't just delete every major fact in a story. If it is critical, you must verify it. Getting it right should always come before getting it out first.

Lean on shop wisdomAsk for Help

There is a great deal of collected wisdom even in small shops. Asking for help from others is another form of verification. Your colleagues may be able to recall a bit of background that would otherwise take considerable time and trouble to confirm. If they can't give you an answer, they might be able to provide insight to finding the answer.

Cut judiciouslyChop Boldly

Although you need the full context to cut judiciously, precise word choice can get the context across more effectively than windy writing. Do the editing work only once. A story that must be cut in half should not be edited meticulously before you make the major trim. Do not spend time compressing two paragraphs into one, only to delete the paragraph later.

Watch for Repetition

It might not happen as much now as it once did, but inexperienced journalists are famous for saying something in one paragraph, only to repeat it again in different words in the next paragraph, only to follow that with a quote that says the same thing in the paragraph after that. Good copy editors recognize that flaw, because they read the material carefully — often more carefully than the writer — and know what the writer wants to say. Editors who pay attention will see patterns of repetition and winnow them out.

Repetition of a quote, even when paraphrased, is almost always bad. Be careful when the quotation does a great job of summarizing the situation. Quotes are for spice and commentary, not for delivering information. The temptation is to use a fragment from it in the lead, then repeat the full quote later. Resist temptation and remove it.

Avoid procrastinationDo it Now

Do not trust your memory on important points in a story. Do not tell yourself you'll look it up later. Distractions happen, and you don't want to forget. Notes mode on text-editing software makes it easy to enter a question in the body of a story, so you see the places where you need to check for answers.

Do the mathAdd it Up

Numbers are a slippery element of fact in stories. Often, word mongers think they can avoid math by being journalists. Not so. You may not need algebra, but you do need the basics. Many good copy editors let numbers go unchallenged because they don't want to be bothered to add them up. You need to check the math. You know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. You know how to figure percentages. Do not make readers (listeners, viewers) do the math. Make sure numbers in stories really contribute to an understanding of the information being presented.

Go back throughRecheck

After you've gone over a story with care, go back through the story again. You might have missed something. That doesn't make you a bad copy editor, but not going back to do your due diligence will. Rereading from the perspective of the audience will help you find fine points you may have missed and fix them. Writers can think faster than they can write or type. As a consequence, they can sometimes form perfect sentences in their heads that don't always stay perfect by the time they're written down. Going back over the story will help identify those rough spots and smooth them out.

Get a second (qualified) person to look at the copy before it is published, if possible. The first, the butcher, reads for content and organization. The second, the tailor, tidies up the mess. Two editors are better, as long as both are qualified and consistent, because the first editor almost cannot help introducing his or her own mistakes.

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