Copyeditors: part human, part machine, all focus

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[4 minute read]

Once upon a time, all copyediting and proofreading was done on paper. Those days are long gone for copyediting, and definitely on the way out for proofreading.

Copyeditors now take advantage of working electronically, using Word functions, including macros, and commercial software such as the marvellous PerfectIt. Here’s a quick run through the help that most of us take advantage of.

First, though, no software can replace the human element. Spell checkers won’t tell that Samuel Pepys didn’t write a famous dairy, or that the vicar wasn’t wearing a surplus (I’ve seen that one in published work). They won’t pick up the nuances of when to hyphenate and when not to. They don’t understand context. And context – including artistry – is all.

Microsoft Word

Word has lots of goodies – and some features that are less good.

Find and replace, wildcards, the inbuilt spell check and macros are all grist to the copyeditor’s mill. If you’re a glutton for punishment, use the grammar check. I had one client that insisted I warrant that I’d run the grammar check. So I did, and had to reject every single suggestion. Every. One. What a waste of time.

Because we don’t want to jump the gun and make the wrong kind of changes, one of the things editors do is to apply highlighting, shading or a coloured font to things that look, initially, a bit dodgy. Then as we work through the text and come to understand the all-important context, we can look again at the coloured bits and triage them into it’s fine, leave it alone; I can fix it; and it needs querying.

Sometimes we do this as part of our initial clean-up, which is when we feel our way into the text and start to understand what’s going on, sometimes we do this as we work, to mark bits of text we want to come back to and have a think about in the light of what we read later on.


A lot of us use macros, and a lot of macro users use macros provided so generously by Paul Beverley of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, or Jack Lyons’s Macro Cookbook.

Paul has a whole range of diagnostic and analysis macros to speed up the identification of potential misspellings of proper names, variations in hyphenation (some of which will be correct), how abbreviations are punctuated, whether -ise or -ize spellings are used and so forth, marking unbalanced quotation marks and so on.

Obviously, at the outset, you don’t want a macro to go crashing through and change, say, all the -ize spellings to -ise, as the text may include quotations and references that validly use -ize spellings, which must be preserved; nor do you want to go the other way – ‘horison’ and ‘citisen’ aren’t yet acceptable spellings! So, many of his macros apply highlighter, or change the font colouring, so that when you start to read, you don’t overlook these discrepancies. Magic!

I have a bunch of macros I’ve recorded for little single-function jobs that give me great control and enable the use of the undo button if I’ve left tracked changes on when changing hyphens in number ranges to en rules.


A lot of us are also wedded to using PerfectIt. This is a fantastic product. You can create style sheets for different clients and jobs, either from scratch or by copying and adapting the style sheets that come preloaded, and/or use the suite of preloaded style sheets, and which are in themselves customisable.

Aside from an initial report on potential errors, you can step through the document from non-compliant spot to non-compliant spot and use your own judgement on whether something needs changing.

It’s a great way of finding something that your all-too-human eye just slid over. Maybe that was OK, but maybe it wasn’t, and computer-aided methods of finding all these little points are a great help. They do need humans to decide what to do in every instance, though. And that’s fine.

AI has made great strides, but it can’t

(yet, and I hope never will)

understand the nuance of context, mood and tone.

PerfectIt 5 (recently launched), with its fabulous interface to the online Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS to its many friends) is luscious – and fast. Not only does it operate as all the other style sheets, it brings you the relevant point from CMOS so you understand why PerfectIt is flagging something and you can check the context is appropriate.

The Editor’s Toolkit Plus

Jack Lyons (he of the Macro Cookbook) has also produced the Editor’s Toolkit Plus, available as a complete suite of clean-up and consistency tools, although some of the tools can be bought individually, such as the amazing time-saving and accuracy-gaining NoteStripper. Jack seems to be constantly extending his range of editorial treasures – I discovered several new to me when I popped over to his site before writing this paragraph.

Kutools for Word

In a similar vein, this add-on for Word collects together handy tools to supplement Word’s offer, in its own tab. Although some of the tools are already in Word, Kutools draws things together and adds functionality to reduce the number of steps required.

Writers’ aids

I’ve tried some of the ‘writing helper’ software out of curiosity (I’m not naming any here – no need to give them any publicity!) and have found that their suggestions are distinctly lacking. There’s no room for any artistry in them. They reduce everything to a very low common denominator and would, if you just did as they tell you, remove all traces of character and individuality from your writing. I suppose there are some fields in which they may have value, but certainly not in the kinds of texts I copyedit or write.

The University of Auckland took a closer look at some of these tools, and ran some experiments, then published their findings.

Text expanders

I can’t finish this piece without hailing text expanders, of which many are available. In essence, they are like Word’s AutoCorrect but they work in all programs, not just Word, and they’re generally much easier to use when it comes to managing entries. Editors can make good use of them by having shortcuts for commonly used queries or for short phrases they use over and over. So, for example, to display this query:

This work is missing from the references list. Please supply full bibliographical details.

I typed 1bib and my text expander did the rest. If I type pinpx, I get this:

What is the page number for this quotation, please?

You can even include fairly large chunks of texts, like paragraphs you find yourself typing over and over as you respond to requests for quotations, or the like.

Just use Word

One particular difficulty is being supplied files in anything other than Word. The other programs just don’t have the range of tools that copyeditors rely on to produce a quality edit. Please – and this applies particularly to indie authors – supply files for copyediting in Microsoft Word. Love it or loathe it, it’s the industry standard and the software for which most tools are available. Thank you!

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