Copy editing isn’t about finishing a writer’s work

Lego Computer Programmer figure by wiredforlego
You aren’t alone when you have a copy editor. But please don’t take advantage of us. (wiredforlego\Flickr)

Writing is a lonely business, especially if you’re a freelancer. But sub-editors and copy editors are ready to work with you. But we aren’t here to do your job for you.   

I once saw a writing tip given by a well-known, occasionally controversial, author and journalist. (I won’t name the writer, for reasons that’ll become clear.)

Like many writing productivity tips, the advice aimed to maximise the writer’s output while speeding up their workflow.

But this tip didn’t cut the amount of work to do: it just passed it from the author to a copy editor.

The placeholder problem

The author’s tip was to when you have to include a non-critical fact you don’t immediately know write ‘XX’ as a placeholder and carry on writing.

So you’d write, “The XXkm trip between Berlin and Cologne…” instead of, “The 574km trip between Berlin and Cologne…”.

The author would then leave it to the copy editor to replace the XX with the correct information.

For me, this showed, at best, an immense misunderstanding of what a copy editor’s role is.

What the writer got right

The author’s idea – using placeholders to stop fact checking slowing you down – is a good one.

Using placeholders for non-critical facts, which you then insert later, enables you to focus on writing the entire piece. And it breaks up a big job into subtasks, which can improve productivity (but not always).

But it remains the primary responsibility of the writer to do their research and include the details required in your article: not a copy editor’s.

If details seem to be missing in your writing, a copy editor will tell you. And, if they are able to, and you have previously agreed they can, they will add the missing details.

Placeholders have uses

There are times when you can use placeholders in copy submitted to an editor – but they are exceptional cases when waiting could cause serious delays in production.

For instance: I’ve had writers submit work saying they are expecting confirmation of someone’s name, a page reference that will only become known when a magazine’s or book’s layout is done, or a sentence being reviewed by a lawyer and may need amending.

In these cases, writers hand over their work and I (or another editor) add the missing details or changes after confirming them.

This isn’t ideal, as placeholders can get missed and reach your readers.

If you use a placeholder, start with text that can be easily spotted and followed by a note describing the amendment: eg. [PLACEHOLDER – DATE] or [XXX – COMPANY NAME TBC]

Stick with one style for your placeholders and tell your copy editor what the style is. This allows you both to be easily find the text using word processors’ and desktop-publishing systems’ ‘Find’ functions.

Fact hunting

There is nothing wrong with asking for a copy editor’s help in finding a fact.

But you should make your copy editor aware of any placeholders or details you are unsure of and need us to double-check when you send us your work.

We might be able to give you the information. And if we both can’t find it, then we can recommend on to change your text so that minor reference isn’t needed.

So, please do ask your editor for help if you need it. But don’t expect us to do your job for you.

If you have a writing productivity tip, or would like to share how you work with editors, please leave a comment below.

Copy Edited… Must-read links: 28 May – 3 June

Free data journalism handbook launched (Online Journalism Blog) – The Data Journalism Handbook is “free, open-source book that aims to help journalists to use data to improve the news”.

Telling wannabe journos “Don’t work for free” doesn’t help (Online Journalism Blog) – A discussion piece on the pros and cons of journalists working without pay.

Is linguistic inflation insanely awesome? (Macmillan DIctionary) – Is massively hyperbolic hyperbole leaving writers nowhere to go?

The problem with banning words (Sentence First) – Stan Carey (the writer of the previous post) looks at whether its constructive to prohibit writers from using certain words.

Shorthand: Still an essential part of a journalist’s toolkit? ( – Do reports still need shorthand? (The short answer: Yes.)

Ethical lessons learnt from covering the Norwegian massacre ( – Part of’s coverage of the Global Editors Network #HacktheNewsroom  summit, this report looks at how Norway’s news media approached the Oslo bombing and massacre, and gained respect of its readers and viewers.

Aggregation guidelines: Link, attribute, add value (The Buttry Diary via – Advice for reports who aggregation – combining and referring to online reports and posts – to improve their stories.

Seven tips in digital storytelling from the New York Times and CNN – ( – New York Times‘s assistant managing editor discusses how the newspaper is adapting to digital journalism, at the News World Summit.

5 Things Your Online Journalism Portfolio Should Include (10,000 Words) – These days journalists should have an online portfolio. These are the things you should include. It’s basic stuff, but easy to overlook.

New blog tracks ‘best practices in digital journalism’ ( – A report on Best Practices: a blog looks at and discusses how journalists deal with complications print journalists face on a daily basis (like corrections).

The corrections column co-editor on… the changing role of the sub-editor (The Guardian) – The editor of the Guardian’s corrections column details how the role of the newspaper’s sub-editors have changed with The Guardian’s move to a digital-first platform.

Online journalism jobs – from the changing sub-editor to the growth of data roles (Online Journalism Blog) – Another look at how digital publishing, and the rise of data journalism, is changing the role of journalists.