The human brain has two writing modes, creating and editing. It cannot switch back and forth between the two efficiently or easily. Because of this, I always advise writers—especially new writers—to stick to one mode or the other. The very first thing to do is to get a draft on paper, even if it is terrible. Then, the writer should go back to any areas he knows to be awkward or to phrases that he could not get right on the first try and attempt to smooth over them. At this point, it is always best to have a pair of fresh eyes take a look at the draft. This is where the copy editor comes in.
Some writers labor under the misapprehension that copy editors are only good for the final grammar and spelling check. This is not the case at all! Most word processing software will run a basic spell check, and most can find the common grammatical errors as well. Copy editors do much more than that.
As a copy editor, the first thing that I do when I get a new article or essay is to read over the entire thing and look for glaring mistakes in context or inconsistencies in the layout. I will also make sure that the progression of the topic makes sense and flows along an outline from beginning to end. Anything that I miss in this editing stage gets caught in stage three.
The second read is for grammatical, spelling, and obvious syntax errors. Some editors will leave this for last, but I usually cannot stand leaving them longer than this. The mistakes that I most commonly find in this edit are homonym issues (e.g. they’re, there, their), verb conjugation—especially using past tense instead of subjunctive tense, and minor spelling errors, which usually occur because the author was writing in a hurry.
The next read through is to make sure that the overall story that the writer is conveying makes sense. This is also the time that I take to cross out unnecessary details that obscure the author’s intention, and sometimes combine or separate sentences to flow more easily.
Depending on how well I know the writer’s style, I may also make suggestions for clarifying phrases or sentences. Of course, while doing this, I have to be careful to not step on the author’s toes. I always leave the original wording in the draft, with the strikethrough sign, and type my suggestions in a comment or another color font to make it clear that they are not a part of the original draft.
At this point in the editing process, I will return the draft with the first round of edits to the writer. He or she can choose to take my suggestions, or may ask me why I have suggested certain clarifications.
Once his changes have been made, the writer sends me a second draft. At this point, it is much like receiving a brand new manuscript, so I read through it three times in the order that I did the first time. A lot of time and care goes into making sure that the author not only gets across his intended point, but also that he does it in a way that does not undermine his credibility, such as using vocabulary incorrectly, or having glaring grammar errors.
The draft goes back to the writer, and is checked over. By the second draft, most edits are very minor, and are usually accepted. I always insist on reading the final draft one more time before publishing, just to make sure everything is exactly right, and I have not missed a comma, or the double space after a period. Then the “publish” button is hit, and the post is live!
Copy editing is time intensive and takes a lot of effort. One of my favorite quotes is sometimes attributed to Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “There is no great writing, only great rewriting.” This is true. Behind every great author is a great copy editor.
You can find more interesting information about copy editing, and an interview with an editor here.