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Copy editors read manuscripts carefully to make sure that they are sufficiently well written, factually correct (sometimes this job is done by a researcher or fact checker), grammatically correct, and appropriate in tone and style for its intended readers. If a manuscript is not well written, it is not likely to be well received by readers. If it is not factually correct, those who spot its errors will not take it seriously. If it is not grammatically correct, it will not be understood. If it is not appropriate for its audience, it will be utterly useless. Any errors or problems in a printed piece reflect badly not only on the author but also on the publishing house.
Copy editors use proofreaders' marks to indicate a problem with the manuscript. These marks are universally understood throughout the publishing industry and help editorial professionals quickly communicate.
The copy editor must be an expert in the English language, have a keen eye for detail, and know how to identify problems. The editor will correct some errors, but in some cases—especially when the piece deals with specialized material—the editor may ask, or query, the author about certain points. An editor must never change something that he or she does not understand, because one of the worst errors an editor can make is to change something that is correct to something that is incorrect.
After a copy editor finishes editing a manuscript, it is usually reviewed by a senior copy editor and may be (but is not always) returned to the author for review. Once all parties agree that the manuscript is in its final form, it is prepared for production.
Copy editors in newspaper or magazine publishing may also be required to write headlines for articles and stories. They may make suggestions on how a story or its corresponding illustrations should appear on the page. Copy editors in book publishing are usually required to edit entire manuscripts, including the table of contents, foreword, main text, glossary, bibliography, and index. They may also proofread galleys, proofs, and advertising and marketing materials for errors.
While the basic work of copy editors has remained unchanged, advances in technology is changing how they perform their jobs. Rather than marking corrections on a print copy of a manuscript or magazine or newspaper article, copy editors now perform their jobs electronically, using computer files of the manuscript or working in an online content management system to make corrections to the documents.