Six Things Your Copy Editor Just Won’t Do (and a Few More They’d Love To)

copy cat

Copy cat. (Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker)

I’ve noted some confusion among my clients and acquaintances about what, exactly, copy editors do.  Or rather, not confusion—full-on misconceptions.  I think the hang-up here is that the average joe, even the average highly educated joe, is not aware of the distinctions between types of editing.  People sometimes come to me because someone has suggested that their papers are problematic enough that they could use “a good editor,” but when I am serving as a copy editor, transformation (insofar as it is possible at all) is not a service I provide.  Big changes are the game of the developmental editor.  When I’m hired to copyedit, I just fix mistakes—pedestrian things like grammar and punctuation.

Here are two handy lists of thing your copy editor will and will not do, since the Internet appears to love everything in list form.*

Things Your Copy Editor Just Won’t Do

1. Rethink your argument.
2. Suddenly make your paper brilliant.
3. Edit anything other than final drafts.
4. Deal adequately with last-minute changes.
5. Make major decisions for you.
6. Make things “perfect.”

When I’m hired to copyedit, I try to emphasize a couple of things to my clients.  First, I should not receive anything other than your final draft.  The sequence of changes I make when I read for copy errors matters (e.g, the first time a person is mentioned, one should use their first and last names).  If you revise after I finalize, things get mixed up and it looks like I’ve done an idiot job.  This is embarrassing and also runs counter to the point of hiring a copy editor in the first place.  Second, no copy editor will ever make things “perfect.”  We are humans.  We make mistakes and omissions.  Any meddling with a manuscript inevitably introduces a few new errors.  Within publishing houses, copyedited manuscripts will often be sent to a second person for proofreading precisely because of this potential for human error.

Things Your Copy Editor Will Enthusiastically Do

1. Polish your language.
2. Edit for grammar, spelling, and clarity.
3. Take a relatively hands-off approach.
4. Format according to a specific style sheet.
5. Fix your citations.
6. Terminate minor but embarrassing mistakes with extreme prejudice.

So really what copy editors do is take your final draft, straighten it up, make it conform to a particular style, and move on.  We save you from all those embarrassing red squiggles that the teacher covered your term papers with in high school, but not the C+ at the top.  Folks who rewrite or even reimagine your output for you are different types of editors, whose roles we’ll take on in a future post.

*I sometimes worry that is completely eroding the globe’s ability to think nonlinear thoughts.

To Proof or Not to Proof

It used to be that when I asked people to correct my writing, I’d get confused about whether to ask them to “proofread” or “copyedit.”  No more!  Now that I’m in the publishing industry, I actually know the difference.

“Proofreading” is performed on proofs—in essence, the rehearsal round of a book or other manuscript that’s about to be published.  Proofs are already as perfect as you can make them, and physically resemble the finished product.  Proofreading is going through the text, line by line, to spot whatever small errors are left (or were introduced during typesetting).

Copyediting happens much earlier in the process, and involves checking writing for problems with clarity, grammar, style, and so on—in other words, cleaning up the writer’s final draft.  Generally, this process will generate queries that must be resolved with the author; proofreading, in contrast, rarely does.

Or, as the gentleman who taught my manuscript editing class, Erik Carlson, told us, proofreading can be done with music on.  Copyediting can’t.  These days I request that people copyedit my resume and cover letter.

Steal Your Dad’s Money Tree, or, Is My Editor Bleeding Me Dry?

If you’re an academic who’s thinking about hiring an editor, you might find yourself asking what a fair rate might be.  And if you’re a new freelancer, you might find yourself asking how much you can charge.  And if you’re a seasoned editor, you might find yourself asking what other people earn.  What do to?

The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) did a poll of its members to gauge average rates.  Here are the results:

Type of Work Estimated Pace Range of Fees
Copyediting, basic 5-10 ms pgs/hr $30-40/hr
Copyediting, heavy 2–5 ms pgs/hr $40–50/hr
Developmental editing 1–5 pgs/hr $60–80/hr
Indexing 8-20 pr pg/hr $35-65/hr
$3.50-12 pr ind pg
Layout | books 6-10 pgs/hr $45-85/hr
Layout | newsletters 1-4 pgs/hr $40-100/pr hr
Project Management NA $9-30/pr pg
Proofreading 9-13 ms pgs/hr $30-35/hr
Researching NA $40-75/hr
Substantive | line editing 1–6 ms pgs/hr $50–60/hr
Transcribing variable $3-5/pg
Translating 300-500 wds/hr 20-50¢/wd
Writing 1-3 ms pgs/hr $50-100/hr

(Found at

The findings indicate that most editors charge somewhere between $40 to $50 dollars for “heavy copyediting,” which, given the challenging nature of the writing, academic editing might fairly be considered.  In my experience, these rates are laughably high, and what I’ve heard from other Chicago-area freelancers confirms that.  According to word of mouth, $15 per hour is a reasonable rate for a beginner editor.  And even if you reach the point where you can charge more, you may have to adjust downward to fit your client’s budget.  The EFA’s absolute rock-bottom for basic copyediting, $30, is reportedly in the neighborhood of what big institutions like the University of Chicago Press pay their freelancers, not, in my experience, what individuals can afford.

I would guess that even $15 per hour seem astronomically high to people on the hunt for freelancers, but when you subtract one-third for taxes and consider that we often have to pay for our own health insurance, I hope it starts looking more reasonable.