The Four C’s of Copy Editing

September 19, 2022

The four c's of copy editing listed on a pink square, overlaying a burgundy marble background. Image by Kaila Desjardins.

Hey folks!

I posted this to Instagram the other week, and realized afterward it might actually be a good piece for a short blog. So without further ado, let’s take a look at the four c’s of copy editing!

The Four C’s of Copy Editing

This is one of the early concepts that you come across when learning about copy editing – online, courses, and books like The Copyeditor’s Handbook (more on the spelling of copy edit later).

New copy editors take time learning them; seasoned copy editors keep them in mind with every job. But I think it’s good for writers to know what they are, too. That way, when you send your project off to a copy editor, you have a good sense of what they’re doing.

So what are the four c’s?

Clarity, coherency, consistency, and correctness.

Great, you might be saying, but what do they all mean as far as copy editing goes?

(Note – depending on the degree of copy editing, some of these areas might be looked at more heavily than others. And some examples may fall into line editing; some editors separate line and copy editing, some group them together, but I fall into the latter category.)

Clarity

At its core, this one makes copy editors ask, Will readers be able to understand what’s being said?

So does a given sentence make sense? Are the words overly technical for a general audience? If I, as an editor, can’t quite understand what you’re trying to say after parsing it out for myself, I’ll leave a comment asking you to explain what it is you’re trying to convey in that given paragraph or sentence, or even what you mean by a certain word. Once you tell me, I’ll be able to either say to myself “I probably should have gotten that on the first read; totally makes sense, and their audience will get it without me changing anything,” or I’ll leave a comment along the lines of “Thank you for explaining this part to me! Here’s why I got confused. But now that I know what you mean, I might suggest making this adjustment.”

At the end of the day, our goal with clarity is the same: we want your readers to easily grasp what you’re saying, ideally on the first attempt (but definitely not more than the second one).

Coherency

For coherency, copy editors ask if the text is presented logically enough for readers to follow, if the concepts jump around, and if the material is simply a bit too confusing. For instance, I might understand what a sentence is saying, but I might not understand how it fits into the paragraph or the point you’re making.

Edits might include suggestions on how to reshuffle the ideas – maybe move the last paragraph to the middle, because it feels like a dangling point at the end and not quite a conclusion – or perhaps to present new ideas – maybe you need to write a quick paragraph at the end to make a good conclusion. I might leave comments asking about what a stanza is supposed to convey in terms of the poem at large, or how one idea sprang from the last.

Basically, not only does a project need to be clear, it needs to be logically presented to be best understood.

Consistency

This comes in a few forms. With something like a piece of fiction, I’ll make sure a given character’s eyes are always described as the same colour throughout. I’ll make sure that the store name is the same three chapters later. That sort of thing.

But in any project, I’m making sure that spelling is consistent. I’m making sure that the rule we’ve decided on for hyphenation is followed. I’m verifying the format of the dates (12 September vs. September 12, etc.).

It is important to remember, though, that consistency, ironically enough, isn’t always going to be consistent. For example, sometimes a number you’d usually spell out is presented in numerals when it’s beside a bunch of other numerals to make it “regionally” consistent, even if it doesn’t follow suit with the rest of the manuscript. That way, you aren’t brought out of the text. (To illustrate: “The results were one hundred, 579, 689, and 9,804” can be changed to “The results were 100, 579, 689, and 9,804” to be regionally consistent.)

Similarly, not every “too” needs a comma before it and not every dialogue tag needs to be “Jane said” at the expense of every less-common instance of “said Jane.”

But if it looks like your copy editor wasn’t consistent in a particular case and you think it should be different, ask them about it. It might actually be regionally consistent, or inconsistent for a good reason. (Or they might have made a mistake. We’re human, after all!)

Correctness

On the one hand, this deals with mechanical things like spelling and grammar. Is the spelling of that word right? What about that name? Is the tense the right one? Sometimes it’s a matter of correcting the error myself – if you spelled “tomatoes” as “tomatos,” I’m going to add the “e” in without discussion. But sometimes “correctness” is a little fuzzy. There are fewer set rules than you might think. In those cases, I’ll leave a comment and we can have a discussion to decide on what correctness looks like in that instance.

On the other hand, the correctness a copy editor deals with is also fact-based. Are the dates mentioned the correct ones (at least according to a quick Google search)? Do those numbers add up? In these instances, I flag what I think might be an error. But it’s rare that I’ll outright change something that’s based on fact or math, because maybe one of the numbers was mistyped, and the one I think is wrong is right and a different number is at fault. Maybe the reference work you have says a different date than the one I checked (which might mean you’ll have to do some digging). Maybe that “fact” is actually an opinion, signalling to me that the sentence needs to be reframed so that it’s a little clearer.

In both cases, we want readers to have an error-free (or as close to it as possible) experience.

~Copy Edit or Copyedit?~

To go back to my promise about “copy edit.” You might notice that in that original sentence, it’s spelled two different ways.

But Kaila, what about correctness? What about consistency?

Here’s the thing – I’m following both of those.

That’s because there are actually two ways to spell it – as an open compound (copy edit) and as a closed compound (copyedit). For myself, I’ve decided to follow the open spelling, in part because that’s how Editors Canada spells it. So in my blog, on Instagram, and on the main portion of my website, it’s “copy edit” and “copy editor.” Because The Copyeditors Handbook is a book title, I didn’t see an issue with consistency in the sentence at the very beginning of this post. Every time I use it, it’s an open compound. Given the title is in italics, I figured it’s different enough to not distract the average reader and muddle with regional consistency.

When I edit, I follow whatever style guide/dictionary I need for a given project, or go off of what my client prefers. So long as it’s spelled the same way in the same document/region, consistency and correctness are in the bag.

(An interesting example of a different choice is from the book The Subversive Copy Editor. Carol Fisher Saller, the author, follows correctness and consistency, but in her own way. She spells “copy editor” as an open compound, but “copyedits” and “copyediting” as closed.)

Takeaway

Remember, editing is a conversation. If you’re not sure why your editor made a change, ask them (politely) why they made it. They might also ask you questions to make sure they understand what’s being said before deciding to tweak a passage or offer suggestions. At the end of the day, copy editors just want to make sure that together you achieved the four c’s, but not at the cost of your intentions or your readers’ enjoyment.


If you’re looking to have someone copy edit your poetry or short fiction, send me a message!

Published by Kaila Desjardins

Freelance poetry editor, fiction writer, proud nerd.

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