If you’re producing professional documents – whether you’re a copywriter, PR, small business owner, marketing manager, press officer or other media professional – you should copy edit any text you write before submitting it to clients or potential clients. Copy editing improves the quality of your writing, reassures clients that you’re a capable business expert, and gives whatever you’ve written more credibility and impact.
Here are the nine ‘how to copy edit’ rules for business writers:
- Read SLOWLY. Taking time is really the key to copy editing. Once the creative work is done, it’s easy to feel that the work is over. But it isn’t. Dedicate time to copy editing – ideally at least 30 minutes per thousand words. Read SLOWLY, reading aloud if necessary to impede your progress. You’ll catch errors by being slow and pedantic, not by scanning documents quickly. Read documents at least twice, and for over 10,000 words you should be aiming for three reads. Try and have a break in between reads to avoid memorizing the text and reading what you expect to see rather than spotting errors. Scrutinize every word and punctuation mark, and if you’re not sure about anything, double-check it.
- Add proper nouns (names, places etc.) to your Word dictionary. Isn’t technology marvelous? It goes without saying that professional text should be spell-checked by Microsoft Word before submission to clients. But when you copy edit, you should also double-check all proper nouns not recognized by your Microsoft Word spell checker. Check spelling in a dictionary or online, and add the correctly spelled and capitalized word to your Microsoft Word dictionary – using the ‘add’ button on the ‘Spelling and Grammar’ pop-up box. This will halve your copy-editing time in the future and help eliminate misspellings of proper nouns.
- Create an error log. Pay close attention to the sorts of errors you most frequently make that aren’t picked up by your spelling or grammar checker. I’ve got a habit of missing out joining words such as ‘to’ and ‘an’. I’ve also been known to write ‘speciality’ instead of ‘specialty’ from time to time. Log your errors and be doubly sure to watch out for them.
- Be stylish. A style manual is the copy editor’s secret best friend and tells you everything a dictionary doesn’t. For example, should you capitalize academic subjects? How should you format song titles? Which words should be capitalized in a paragraph header, if any? Where should you place commas? Newspapers tend to have their own ‘house style’ and a reference book to match, but if you’re working freelance or for an advertising agency, your best bet is to buy the Oxford Style Manual and stick to it religiously. You might also ask your clients if they have a ‘house style’ before you start writing (although most of them won’t have a clue what you’re talking about).
- Look it up. If you’re not sure about something, be it the spelling of a proper noun or whether you’ve placed your semicolon correctly, look it up. There’s no shame in it. The English language is a vast, complicated thing and even the most experienced writers frequently double-check that they’re using it correctly. Use your style manual, dictionary and Google to double-check any writing queries, and it’s a good idea to check any figures, dates and facts on Google too. Don’t trust yourself – it’s alarmingly easy to forget a rule you’ve used a million times, especially if you’re looking up several rules a day. Just yesterday I had to double-check whether ‘summer’ needed a capital letter, even though I learned this particular convention at junior school!
- Keep style records. Consistency is vital when editing professional text, so keep a style sheet to make sure you’re sticking to the same rules throughout. Yes, use a style manual, but sometimes there are little oddities that crop up with a specific client and you need to make sure you’re accounting for these in the same way throughout a document – and perhaps in future documents. For example, if you or your client decides there is a very good reason for all major headings to be in lower case, write this down. If you don’t keep records, it’s easy to get halfway through a document and think, ‘Silly me! I’ve written the first three headers all in lower case. I’d better correct that…’
- Print text. Your eye interacts differently with text on screen. We tend to look ‘behind’ it and miss key errors. So print out text when you’re editing – you’ll be more accurate.
- The client is always right. If you’re writing for a client, you can advise about the correct use of English, but when all is said and done, what they say goes. Your job is to make sure you consistently apply the rules, and politely suggest alternatives if necessary. But if your client wants the word Africa to begin with a lowercase ‘a’, assume they’ve got a good reason for it and follow what they ask of you.
- Nobody’s perfect. Errors happen, and nobody can expect you to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time. Occasional inaccuracies happen to the best of us. The more experience you have, the less errors you’ll make, so be easy on yourself if you’re new to all this. Remember: creativity really is the most important part of writing. But good copy editing will show you’re an intelligent business professional with something important to say.
Susannah Quinn is a professional business writer for the Copywriting Company – a company offering a range of business and personal writing services.