What is a… copy-editor / sub-editor?

October 5, 2016 1:13 pm

We’re all familiar with editor and reporter characters from movies set in magazine or newspaper offices. Think the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman reporter duo in All the President’s Men, Meryl Streep’s beyond-demanding editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron in Spotlight.

photo credit: Maggie T The Book of Nerds via photopin (license)

Photo credit: Maggie T The Book of Nerds via photopin (license)

But what about copy-editors, as they’re known in the US, or sub-editors, as they’re called in the UK? They’re not writers or reporters but are their jobs similar to editors? What exactly do they do, and why don’t we see them in action in TV and films?

Copy-editors and sub-editors don’t tend to star in Hollywood stories because their work is behind the scenes. But what they do is incredibly important, as they’re generally the last set of eyes to review any piece of content before it goes to press or appears online.

Where editors tend to be in charge of assigning writers to specific projects, and then working with writers to polish their words – eliminating confusing passages, streamlining wordy sections and smoothing transitions so copy flows naturally – copy-editors handle the subsequent fine-tuning, tackling grammatical, technical and stylistic issues.

For instance, an editor might help a writer whittle down an article from 2,000 words to 1,200 while also cutting irrelevant material, eliminating repetition and replacing dull and passive verbiage with more descriptive and active language. Copy-editors/sub-editors, by contrast, will carefully comb through already-edited copy to correct for spelling, punctuation and style consistency.

In a blog post aimed at British readers, for example, they’ll make sure that ‘colour’ and ‘organisation’ are used instead of ‘color’ and ‘organization’. Copy-editors will also correct sections where ‘their’ is incorrectly used instead of ‘they’re’, and will check for factual discrepancies and inconsistencies, ensuring – for instance – that the company CEO and co-founder is not referred to in other places as the president or sole founder.
“Being a copy-editor means taking a backseat to writers, production managers and, of course, the dictates of style guides,” notes an online article from the American Copy Editors Society.

“I check and correct grammar, spellers, literals [typing mistakes]; add in missed words; rephrase sentences for greater clarity; check author references in text for consistency with bibliography, reference-list, end- or foot-notes; check hierarchy of headings; impose consistency,” adds a guide from the Royal Literary Fund. “I try to ensure the author’s work is as fluent and consistent with the style of the publication as possible.”
That might not sound exciting but everything we read would be a lot less readable and clear without the behind-the-scenes efforts of copy-editors and sub-editors.

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