How to Become a Copy Editor

By Mark Nichol

If my recent post about copyediting, or anything else you’ve read or heard about the profession, intrigues you, and you’d like to give it a try, read this advice before you commit:

Research

Find a managing editor — often, MEs are former copy editors — or a current copy editor at a nearby company (or locate a freelancer) and request an informational interview. If you’re bashful about “bothering” someone you don’t know, ask yourself, “Would I assent if I were in their place?” Most people are happy to share advice with would-be colleagues as long as they don’t come across as predators out to eat them and take their place.

Just make sure you don’t try to turn it into a job interview, that you answer the “dumb” questions yourself ahead of time (by reading articles like this one) and compile some detailed, insightful queries, and keep your promise not to take up too much of their time. It is OK to ask them to let you know, after you tell them they’ve inspired you to pursue copyediting, if they hear about any opportunities or have any more advice to share with you.

If you’re already employed in publishing, journalism, or marketing, or have a job in another profession where written communication is a key part of the business, check in with the managing editor, content manager, or whoever by any other name coordinates production of copy and ask them about copyediting opportunities. Many companies don’t have staff copy editors per se, but often copyediting is performed by people with other job titles; find out what those jobs are, and apply for them when they’re advertised in house.

Learn

Copy editors are the gatekeepers of good grammar. But an English or journalism degree doesn’t confer that status on you; good copy editors are not only innately skilled at what they do but also intimately familiar with any one of several style manuals — the particular one depends on the type of publishing and often the specific company. (Many book, magazine, and newspaper publishers have their own guides that both supplement and supersede any others.)

Most copy editors who work in book and magazine publishing must get to know The Chicago Manual of Style. It’s a thick tome, but only about half a dozen chapters — about grammar, capitalization and other emphasis, numbers, and the like — are critical. For newspapers and many online publications, The Associated Press Stylebook, more a directory of accepted usage than a style manual, is the resource of record. The proximity of a well-loved copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, or Merriam-Webster Online among a computer’s bookmarks, is a sure sign of a copy editor.

Prospective copy editors, whether employees, contractors, or freelancers, must usually pass a rigorous test that generally consists of an error-ridden writing sample. But just as important as knowing what to revise is understanding how much editing is too much, as well as demonstrating your problem-solving skills. Many people who hire copy editors appreciate those who, rather than asking, “What should I do about this?” say, “Here’s what I did about this. OK?”

Many university continuing-education programs have one or more courses in copyediting, where you’ll get focused training with a professional. It’s a great networking opportunity, too, because often, students in such classes aren’t necessarily setting out to become copy editors; they may just want to learn copyediting skills to help them in other jobs involving written communication. One of these people might need your help someday.

You can also teach yourself — Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook is the best DIY resource — but one or more on-site or online courses will guide you more effectively. Either way, Einsohn’s book, originally conceived as a companion to Chicago, is a handy item.

Develop

Be prepared to pay your dues. Copyediting is a distinctive skill, and adept practitioners are highly sought after, but it’s also a competitive profession. It will generally take at least a few years to become more than competent. Look for job openings at small newspapers, apply for online copyediting gigs and jobs, and take any internship or entry-level job (such as editorial assistant) in a print or Web-based publishing enterprise you can get; after a stint in that position, ask to take a crack at copyediting assignments or apply when a copyediting job opens up.

Be open to proofreading work, too. Proofreading is a similar but simpler skill, involving typographical errors more than substantive editing issues (and it usually pays less), but many copy editors practice both skills, and proofreading is often an entree to copyediting.

Eventually, you may decide on a preferred medium — books, periodicals, Web sites, reports, all of which have widely different formats, procedures, and other qualities — but be flexible when you start your copyediting career. You can always shift to another publishing realm later.

As I used to tell my copyediting students — only half-jokingly — the copy editor’s most essential attribute is omniscience. The best copy editors are voracious (and promiscuous) lifelong learners: Not only do they continuously hone their skills — I’m still learning things after a quarter century — they are also indiscriminate readers; I can’t tell you how many times my passion for learning random facts and ideas has helped me catch potentially embarrassing errors or correct unfortunate misconceptions.

My favorite example: Years ago, when I was copyediting, in proof form, a revised edition of an astronomy textbook, I immediately recognized three factual errors in the caption for an iconic photograph of an Apollo 11 astronaut that read “Edward Aldrin.” If you can rattle off the trio of trip-ups using only your brain, then maybe you can be one of the few, the proud, the copy editors.

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23 Responses to “How to Become a Copy Editor”

  • Precise Edit

    The hardest lesson I had to teach my freelance editors was to have guts. Look, I’d tell them, if you know what will make this better, don’t be afraid–do it! That’s what we’re getting paid for.

  • marie

    Love the way you slipped in that example of “consists of” — practice makes perfect! 🙂

  • Julie

    Okay, so I know Aldrin’s first name is Edwin, but I confess I can’t identify the other two errors in the caption.

  • Mark Nichol

    Precise:

    Great point — and same here. Copy editors have a reputation for being first cousins to Marian the Librarian and Arnold the Accountant — meek and timid — and with good reason, because many I’ve met fit the stereotype. (Go back in time to an old-school newspaper copy desk, and you’d be reading another story altogether.) But it’s certainly not a job for the shy and passive: assertiveness and troubleshooting skills are essential attributes.

  • danielschut

    I’m also curious as to what the other mistakes were. It was Edwin, ofcourse, but what else was wrong? Maybe the caption confused Armstrong with Aldrin?

  • Stephen

    When you say ‘iconic photo’ I assume you mean the so-called ‘visor photo’ (full title: ‘1st steps of human on Moon’) of Buzz that was taken on the moon by Armstrong, but it’s hard to know what the factual errors in the caption were without knowing what the caption itself was. Was the date wrong?

  • Mark Nichol

    Stephen:

    That is the photo I refer to, and the caption, as I stated, was “Edward Aldrin.” As two people have noted, his first name is actually Edwin, but two other things are wrong with the caption.

  • Stephen

    Oh, that was the entire caption? I thought you meant that was a part of the caption. If not, then I am completely flummoxed.

  • Keith

    I’m intrigued – I have only two corrections (he’s Edwin Aldrin, Jr.) but can’t see the third… unless you think it should be “Edwin Eugene ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, Jr.”, in which case it’s four!

  • Sharon

    Wasn’t Armstrong also in the picture, in the reflection?

  • Mark Nichol

    Kevin:

    The second man on the Moon was long and widely identified as Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin Jr. Correcting the first name was imperative, and inserting his ubiquitous nickname (which, ten years after that little jaunt, he had made his legal name) was scarcely less so. The “Jr.” (no preceding comma necessary) wasn’t as important, but it’s accurate, and was generally employed in written and oral references. He didn’t use his middle name (which most writers would omit in favor of his nickname anyway).

    The photo, appearing in a textbook published after his name change, could just as easily have been captioned simply “Buzz Aldrin,” but the more formal full name (albeit with “Buzz” inserted) seemed most appropriate in the context.

  • Lauren

    Yes, deciding how much to edit was something I didn’t expect to deal with before I began editing. (I tended to overedit.)

    Anyway, nice article: I found that, while I’m already an editor, I still got a few things out of it.

  • Yvonne Canchola

    I would add a quality that is clearly related to the omniscience factor you mentioned, though I’m not sure how to define it with one word.

    I have found that, as an editor, I have to read minds at times. Though a lot of prose we receive is perfectly readable but flawed, writers often skip a step in a thought process that would trip up the regular reader. The editor must somehow realize what’s missing or at least exactly where and which two dots must be connected for everything to make sense. That’s the only way to call the writer’s attention to it efficiently.

    Other times, when the prose is hardly readable, we must divine the writer’s intended meaning even when the sentence appears to be a random string of unrelated words. Simply indicating that a sentence is unintelligible usually doesn’t help much. Giving one or two suggestions of possible intended meanings is much more likely to lead to a quick clarification from the writer.

  • maria

    the fullstop goes after the quotation marks whci should probably be single and not double. ciao

  • Mark Nichol

    Maria:

    In American English, and increasingly in British English, the full stop (what we call a period) precedes end quotation marks, and double quotation marks are used to enclose dialogue and for similar purposes. Quotation marks within other quotation marks are single.

  • maria

    so I’m lost, canot find the other 2 typos

  • maria

    I meant caNNot

  • Mark Nichol

    Yvonne:

    Good points. Anyone who thinks editing is easy obviously doesn’t consider the subtleties you do. Querying the author isn’t always an option, and asking for clarification without suggesting a solution is the (forgivable) last resort of a desperate editor.

  • Yvonne Canchola

    Thanks, Mark.

    By the way, I did not write this in order to scare anybody away or to unnecessarily make editors look like some kind of elite. It’s just a very real thing we face every day. Mind reading, and getting good at it, saves us and the clients a lot of grief.

  • David Chester

    As Sherpa Tensing said to Hillary:

    “I think we’ve climed the wrong mountain”

  • Chrissy

    Aside from the name being wrong, why would you put quotation marks around a person’s name or a period at the end? It’s not the title of a book/article or a sentence. It should just be the (correct) name and could be in plain or italicized type. When in doubt, look it up.

  • John

    Mr. Nichol, can you please put me out of my misery and explain the other two factual errors to which you refer, aside from Mr. Aldrin’s forename being “Edwin”?

  • John

    Never mind. I finally discerned the meaning in your reply to Kevin on March 28, 2011 2:37 pm.

    I find the inclusion of both “Buzz” and “Jr.” to mildly imply that Mr. Aldrin’s father may also have been nicknamed “Buzz”, but I won’t quibble.

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