How to Copyedit The Atlantic

Charles P. Gorry / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This article is edited from a story shared exclusively with members of The Masthead, the membership program from The Atlantic (find out more). Atlantic senior copy editor Karen Ostergren walks us through her copyediting routine, and shares why copyediting is essential to our journalism.

There’s a moment in the recent film The Post when the reporters finish writing their first story about the Pentagon Papers and hand the draft to a copy editor; he immediately deletes the first sentence. I laughed out loud at this perfect misrepresentation of my job. Writers think I’m out to destroy their prose. Laypeople think I’m a human version of spellcheck. Neither is right.

Yes, copy editors are responsible for fixing the grammar and spelling in a piece, and that in itself is an important function. In a time when anyone can type out a few hundred words and post them online without a second thought, The Atlantic depends on its reputation for accuracy and integrity. If we can’t manage to get basics like spelling and grammar correct, why should readers trust that we’ve gotten our facts and analyses right?

But the responsibilities don’t stop there. The Atlantic’s copy editors think of our role as standing in for the reader. Before a magazine piece gets to the copy desk, it has gone through days or weeks or months of trimming, expanding, and rewriting with its main editor. It has ideally also been read by one or more of the magazine’s top editors to address any glaring holes. Our concern is thus: Would you, the reader, be able to pick up a copy of the magazine, open to the first page of a given article, and, without any prior knowledge or extra information, be able to understand what we mean to get across? Are any sentences so densely written that you’ll struggle to get through them? Will you be stopped by an excessive use of jargon? Conversely, are we explaining the subject in such dry or juvenile language that you’ll put the article down halfway through out of sheer boredom and frustration?

Last fall, Ross Andersen published a piece, about China’s search for extraterrestrial life, that presented a fun challenge. It covered an unfamiliar topic (space exploration) in a relatively unfamiliar setting (inland China); at the same time, the story is one that has fascinated people for decades: the possibility of aliens out there, maybe even Alf or E.T. We needed to preserve that undercurrent of interest while explaining a very high-tech science project. And nobody on the copy desk has a background in rocket science.

Courtesy of Karen Ostergren

1. Read it. Then read it again, and again, and again.

We start the process by reading each piece four times among ourselves. I might read the piece on my monitor, read it again on a printout, and then pass it to one of my fellow copy editors to repeat the process. We alternate reading onscreen and on page because we tend to catch different things with each method—stylistic errors jump out on the screen; timeline issues or abrupt shifts in narrative are clearer on the page. On my first read of Ross’s piece, for example, I flagged its abundance of metaphors: The satellite dish looked like an inverted mushroom cap and like God’s fingerprint; its surface looked like a taut bedsheet. Metaphors can bring vividness to image descriptions, of course, but like salt sprinkled over a finished dish, they’re best used in moderation. On the page, meanwhile, I found myself confused between the two extraterrestrial-research teams we mentioned, so I left a note asking the editor to clarify.

2. Take it back to the editors.  

Once we’ve read the piece four times, we send the file to the story editor, who reviews our notes and, after talking to the author, decides which changes to accept and which to reject. (Stet—meaning to revert to the original wording—is perhaps the least favorite word of copy editors everywhere.) During all of this, the fact-checker has been working on a separate copy of the piece. After the editor’s had a turn with the file and we’ve reviewed their changes, the checkers go in to enter their initial round of changes, and answer any questions we’ve left for them in the file—in the case of Ross’s piece, for example, whether it was accurate to use the terms satellite dish and observatory interchangeably. When the checkers have finished their initial round, we review the file yet again. During production, our digital fingerprints are all over the piece—nothing happens without our seeing and weighing in on it.

3. Get all the sign-offs.

At this point, the author, editor, and fact-checker all get a chance to read the piece again and make any final changes, and then so does the copy desk. (If you’re counting, that’s at least the sixth time we’ve read the piece so far.) We run spellcheck, do a search for any double spaces between words, and print the piece out in color, on single-sided pages. That way, we’re seeing the article the same way readers will in the print magazine.

This is our last chance to make any substantive changes: Maybe our introduction of a source got cut in editing and now we need to explain who she is the first time we quote her. In the space-exploration piece, we twice mentioned that it was raining when Ross was on his way to the observatory—an interesting detail, but not one the reader needs to learn a second time.

4. Call in some fresh eyes.

By this point in the process, we’ve become too familiar with the piece, so we rely on a small group of trusted proofreaders to catch any lingering typos. Right now we work with four “cold proofers” who live in three different countries (which means I can sometimes get a piece proofread while I’m sleeping); one of them has worked for the magazine longer than I have. The errors they catch tend to be small but have high embarrassment potential, such as a double article—“a the mountain”—or, in another recent piece, a missing first t in mortality.

5. Read the piece one last time.

We try to limit ourselves to only essential changes at this point—the more edits we make late in the game, the better chance we have of introducing an error. Any changes we do make are approved by both the editor and the fact-checker, and double-checked against a fresh printout to ensure that they were entered correctly. Then all that’s left is to close the file, let the art team know it’s ready to be sent to the printer, and wait to see the finished copy in the magazine.

6. Take a deep breath and learn to move on.

Every now and then, an error slips past all of our defenses and makes it into the magazine. After almost six years on The Atlantic’s copy desk, I can still name all the major instances that this has happened. Among them: We recently printed a sentence that needed a “the” where none could be found. We’ve used “whom” at least three times when we meant “who.” We once wrote about a car “breaking”—which sounded much more dramatic than it should have! When something like that happens, there’s nothing I can do about it except make a note to pay extra attention to such uses in the future so that our readers can continue to trust us to do our work.