What is copy-editing?

Copy-editing is the practice of working through a piece of writing to smooth the syntax, correct wording and punctuation, and determine any gaps in logic or clarity.  The objectives of copy-editing also include checking for homogeneity in the style of the writing; reorganizing the content for clarity or logical progression; correcting improper grammar or word choice; and checking citations.

The UNC Writing Center describes the process of editing, which in many cases, includes copy-editing.  When you edit, you can think about several different levels of the writing (adapted from UNC Writing Center):

  • Content: are your claims accurate?  Have you supported the points of your argument with evidence?
  • Overall Structure: does the paragraph flow make sense?  Have you used transitions and topic sentences?  Did you clearly state your thesis?  Does each paragraph relate back to your thesis?
  • Structure within Paragraphs: is there one idea per paragraph?  Do you use topic sentences and transitions?
  • Clarity: is the meaning clear?  Have you defined all important terms?
  • Style: Have you used passive voice too often?  Have you varied sentence length and structure?  Have you used gender-sensitive language?  See UNC handouts on style.
  • Citations: make sure you’ve cited all ideas and information that you obtained from other sources!

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How does copy-editing differ from proofreading?

According to Mark Nichols, copy-editing is “carried out by entering changes in a word processing program,” while proofreading “is usually still completed on hard copy with a pen or pencil.” Copy-editing usually involves some revision, i.e., changing wording or sentence order and checking for correctness. Proof-reading is concerned only with correcting typographical errors.


Nichols, M. (n.d.). The Difference Between Copyediting and Proofreading. Available at [Last accessed 27 Feb 2015].

What are your editing questions?

You might want to think about your priorities for editing as a list of questions.  Ask yourself these questions as you move through the document.  Here are some of the questions you could think about when editing*.

  • Have you identified your audience?  What is your readers’ knowledge base?  What kind of content do your readers want to know?  How much tolerance do they have for detail?
  • Have you kept formatting consistent?  Have you considered breaking up blocks of text with headings, tables, and lists?  Arranged each section from general to specific, or from rules to exceptions?
  • Have you included just one main idea in each paragraph?  Do the paragraphs start with topic sentences?  Have you used transition words appropriately? (The first sentence of a paragraph should include the topic as well as transition words.)
  • Sentence-level concerns.  Have you used active verbs and avoided passive voice?  Have you used parallel form?  (e.g., The dogs were running, playing, and jumping; NOT: The dogs ran, were playing, and jumped.)
  • Final editing.  Have you cited all sources?  Have you checked your word choice for specificity and clarity?  Have you read through the document for grammar and spelling mistakes?

* Adapted from content developed by Dr. Nicolette L. Cagle, Co-Director of the NSOE Communications Studio.


  • Try making a reverse outline of your paper when reviewing the overall structure.  Read through the draft of your paper and write down the main idea or topic found in each chunk of writing.  This list is your reverse outline.  Does the flow of this outline make sense?  Do you want to group some of the topics differently?  Does each paragraph only have 1 main point?  Are you missing any information?  Rearrange the chunks of writing into the flow that you want.
  • Think about making a style sheet for your paper.  This is especially helpful with long papers that include unusual words, abbreviations, unusual compounds or hyphenated words, words with alternate spellings, and so on.  For example, if you’re going to talk about the “iPhone,” you could include the spelling of “iPhone” in your style sheet, so that you can refer to the sheet when you can’t remember if it’s “iPhone” or “Iphone.”   The style sheet can also include writing-style rules you’d like to follow, such as the use of serial commas and the formatting for headings and subheadings.
  • Include a complete MEAL in each paragraph: Main idea, Evidence, Analysis, and Link.


Here are some addition resources that provide lists of tips you may wish to follow when copy-editing.

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