Copy Editing vs Content Editing: What's the Difference?

Content editing and copy editing—you’ve probably heard the words, and maybe you thought they were simply interchangeable. After all, content is primarily copy, right? Well, not exactly. While the two are deeply interwoven, they are very much separate aspects of the editorial process. So, if you’re producing any kind of written content—be it the next great American novel or a blog about your passion in life—then you really must knock both these proverbial balls out of the park.

The difference between copy editing and content editing is that copy editing involves making sure words themselves are “spick and span,” whereas content editing focuses on how and if those words are saying what you intend them to say. For a piece to truly shine, you can’t truly have one without the other.

What is content editing? 

Think of content editing as taking a bird’s eye view of your text to ensure that it’s clear, consistent, and comes together as a cohesive whole that flows from the first capital letter to the final period (or exclamation point if you’re the excitable type). Grammar issues are one thing, but if what you’ve written isn’t logically structured, makes weird or incorrect claims, or just isn’t all that interesting to read, you’re going to lose readers just as quickly, if not more so.

Content editing also helps to ensure that your words say what you want them to say. Chances are you have a tone that you are trying to achieve with every piece that you write. Are you trying to be formal? Informal? Serious? Light-hearted? Content editing ensures that every sentence of every paragraph achieves your desired tone.

Content editing also helps ensure accuracy and SEO are well done

Fact-checking can also be a large part of content editing. You want to make sure what you’re writing is not only accurate but won’t get you, at worst, sued—and, at best, an angry email from a reader. For instance, if you’re writing for the medical industry, you definitely don’t want to make any claims about life-saving properties.

SEO (search engine optimization) is also a facet of content editing, one that will ensure that your amazingly polished, well-written piece finds its way to the right readers. Naturally, a novelist or creative writer might have to worry much less about these types of concerns.

Companies also need content editing

And if you’re writing content for a company, content editing will also help to ensure that your words match your brand’s message, because if you want to drive engagement, consistency is truly key. If your company has its own style guide, or if you use one of the big ones (AP, Chicago, MLA, etc.), a content editor will ensure you follow that guide precisely (and the copy editor will be on the lookout for anything that might’ve been potentially missed).

How content editing can improve writing

So, to recap, content editing involves:

  • Tone – Does the text say what you want it to say—how you want to say it?
  • Structure – Are the various chapters/sections laid out in the best possible way?
  • Flow – Do those chapters/sections link up naturally and transition well between each other?
  • Style – Does the piece follow the style guide?  
  • SEO and messaging – Is this piece of writing written to the standards of your brand or company, and does it have the optimization to help as many readers as possible find it?
  • Accuracy – Is this piece factually accurate without making any wild or extreme claims?

What is copy editing?

Now, for the other side of this editing coin: copy editing. If the former involves a bird’s eye view of the text, then the latter involves pulling out your magnifying glass and getting to work. When copy editing, the goal is to make sure that there are no “issues,” which might sound a bit too vague for comfort, but that basically sums it up.

For starters, copy editing fixes technical issues

A thorough copy edit ensures that there are no grammatical issues or awkward sentences, and that no oddities slipped through the style guide’s cracks. In many situations, the copy editor (who might also very well be the same person doing the content editing) is the last line of defense before the piece meets the eyes of readers.

Often, the copy editor is helping make sure that the writer gets their message out clearly and concisely. Sometimes, writers might have plenty of great things to say but lack the grammatical proficiency to say them well. These situations are when copy editors come in and help them cross the finish line.

Copy editing also helps text to read clearly and flow well

That could involve simple things, like making sure there are no obvious errors such as misplaced commas, typos, or run-on sentences. At the other end of this editing spectrum is something tantamount to a rewrite. It’s a copy editor’s job to make sure that the person they’re editing for can say what they want to say in the best way possible.

While a word processor and a spellchecker can get you about halfway there, a skilled copy editor is about the only way to cross that finish line. And even spell checkers miss things and can get things wrong, and it takes a keen eye to spot when that happens.

How copy editing can improve writing

To sum it up, copy editing tries to spot issues with:

  • Errors – Are there any typos or mistakes?
  • Syntax and grammar – Are the words and sentences written professionally, and not like a jumbled word soup?
  • Readability – Are the sentences engaging for all readers, or at least your target audience?
  • Consistency – Are there any contradictions, holes, or things that simply don’t make sense in the grand scheme?
  • Style – Do the words match your style or brand messaging?

The bottom line

Copy editing and content editing go hand in hand. You could certainly have one without the other, and plenty of editors out there will surely attest to working on mechanically proficient pieces that still somehow have tons of issues. I’m sure those same editors have probably also worked poorly written pieces with some great content buried in them … somewhere. However, to create a piece of content that truly excels in all areas, both of these aspects of the editorial process must be done, and done well.

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