Content Editing versus Copy Editing

Yesterday, I talked about the difference between revisions and editing and about what an editor’s role is. Today I’m going to go a little bit more in depth, and show you how content editing differs from copy editing.

When someone edits for content, they are trying to communicate what they envision your audience to be and what story you are trying to tell. When someone edits for grammar, word usage or punctuation, they are using copy editing skills to ensure that your project or story is readable. There are several different naming conventions that might apply for the role of editor (proofreading, content editor, text editor, line editor) but, for the sake of simplicity, I’m utilizing “content” and “copy” here.

Many experienced content editors will talk to you about your work in general without ever pulling up the specific words you write in front of you. Why? Good content editors trust that a writer will do their job to massage the voice according to the overall goal of the piece.

Sometimes, it’s not the words put down on the page that an editor has a challenge with but the strategy behind the words. In that case, consistency is key to ensuring predictable submissions: that is both the responsibility of the content editor to communicate their needs, and the writer to deliver them through the words they choose.

Take a women’s fitness magazine for example. Say that you’ve written an article about nutrition for women over the age of 50. A content editor might shoot you an email saying something to the effect of,

“While I was really impressed with the scientific charts and historical facts you provided for your article, I’m not sure that it fits with our readers. Here’s an example of what has worked for us in the past. Can you please revise your article to ensure it’s similar to this?”

Here, written examples of text work really well for a writer because it’s something for the writer to hang up on their wall for this time to use–and for the next.

Other times, an editor may feel the urge to dig in deep and tear apart your work, commenting on sentence structure, proper grammar, word usage, etc. While the depth and breadth of the comments may depend upon the editor–it also depends upon the writer and the quality of the submission. Some writers are very good with content, but aren’t the greatest when it comes to writing mechanics. Other writers don’t write combat scenes or executive summaries very well, but they can do the other stuff.

Editors can usually spot a writer’s shortcomings from a mile away, because by their nature they deal with multiple deliveries and products according to their schedule. A word to the wise: even when an editor points out your weaknesses, do not rely on them to “fix” your work again. Part of being a writer is being thick-skinned, able to take constructive criticism; the other part is to incorporate an editor’s comments when its appropriate to improving the quality of your work.

If you know you’re not the greatest at writing love stories but are much better at writing advice columns–you may want to consider going with what you’re good at. Relying on editors to continually revise your work and make it shine is a bad practice; remember, word gets around.

With copy editing, a style guide may again come into play on a more granular level. Regardless of whether or not a style guide is in place, a line editor will look for proper punctuation and abbreviations, consistency of voice, physical formats, proper word choices, etc. In this phase, some awkward sentence structures may be rewritten, and some words that you typically use may be omitted. Remember, a copy editor reads everything line by line to ensure that your work is polished so don’t be offended if a few passages read differently in the final publication. A big part of copy editing is proofreading your work, too: please, make their life easier and spell check (that is, manually spell check) your work.

By the time your work gets to a copy editor, it’s quite possible you’ll never see your work again. In some cases, you may want to request that you do get your work back before you see it, especially when you’re intentionally playing around with style, foreign language, or formatting because it’s an integral part of your story.

Much of what I’ve written here is under the assumption that you’re dealing with an experienced editor. As much as I’d love to say that every editor out there is–every writer knows that is not the case. In those cases, you may be very limited to what you do (or do not) have control over, which is why I highly recommend ensuring that you reread your contract. Most contracts build in how many edits you are required to give and what your rights and responsibilities are.

Up next, I talk about this a little bit as I cover some polite ways of saying “No” to new projects.

One Response to Content Editing versus Copy Editing
  1. Lillie Ammann

    So many people think all editors are copyeditors and the only kind of editing is copyediting.

    I’m glad to see this series on editing, and I’m looking forward to future posts. I wrote my own editing series some time ago: http://lillieammann.com/blog/2008/01/22/editing-part-1-what-is-editing



Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

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