Even copyeditors can't copyedit their own work.
"Use this copyediting checklist to help a colleague who doesn't have the time or budget to hire a copyeditor."
- Lindsay Hartley-Backhouse
Lead Copyeditor at Written Progress
Proofreading is not copyediting
Proofreading is often sold — particularly to people writing in their non-native language — as copyediting. But copyediting is so much more than spellcheck! In addition to absolute grammatical perfection, a copyeditor should be doing as much as they can to reinterpret what you meant to say with increased clarity in your words, and where they can’t, offering you options for resolving the issue yourself.
Before beginning the copyediting checklist
Before they begin, a great copyeditor will ask:
What is your target audience’s existing knowledge on the topic?
A very common target audience is the informed non-expert. This is an individual who is accustomed to learning and thinking critically, who has a broad understanding of the language in which the document is written, and who is not trained in the topic area at hand. For example, a summary of key climate research findings for policy makers is targeting an informed non-expert audience. They don’t necessarily know much about climate, and they don’t need a full explanation of how climate research is done. But with a brief explanation they can quickly grasp the context necessary to understand the key findings of the research.
Other audiences might be topical experts, whom you assume have a lot of foundational knowledge in the subject; students, whom you assume are interested in a primer on the subject; and practitioners, who want to know about the practical implications for them specifically without all the theoretical whys behind it.
How will your audience access your work?
Will this text ultimately be in a printed brochure? A web page? A paywall-protected journal article? This informs the best way to provide the reader easy access to resources, the visual aesthetic of the text, the most appropriate formatting and layout, and whether components like an acronym list, table of contents, and list of references would be effective.
Do you want feedback, or would you like to move as close to finalization as possible?
This will help the copyeditor decide how often they implement changes for your review versus providing you comments for thought.
The copyediting checklist
Next, a great copyeditor will put themselves in your audiences’ place and carefully read every word of your document, systematically considering the following copyediting checklist for each sentence:
- Relevant – Does it add to the main point of the paragraph?
- Specific – Does the language clearly indicate to what the idea does and does not apply?
- Complete – Has any information relevant to the topic been omitted?
- Clear – Is it easy for the target audience to understand given their knowledge set?
- Concise – Can any words be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence?
- Balanced – Are relevant alternative scenarios and possibilities fairly acknowledged?
- Consistent – Is information presented in a predictable and logical order, both within and across the document?
- Voice – Is the same tone and manner of speech employed throughout?
- Comparable – Are comparable ideas explained in equitable levels of detail?
- Reliable – Are robust research methods and sources of information employed?
- Verifiable – Are claims clearly linked to reliable, discoverable sources? Are these sources cited in a way that intuitively works for the audience?
- Objective – Are arguments based on robust logic? Are opinions, assumptions, logical fallacies, and perceptions systematically excluded?
Great copyeditors are gold
Once you’ve experienced great copyediting, you’ll never want to publish another word without their input. Notably, it’s nearly impossible to copyedit your own work well; even great copyeditors have a difficult time doing this.
Have limited time and/or budget? That’s when it’s particularly important to work with the very best copyeditors. It takes remarkable skill to select and prioritize the edits that will bring the greatest shine to your document while still ensuring consistency and distributing limited time evenly across the entire file.