Should You Try Copyediting?

By Mark Nichol

Do you notice dangling participles and misplaced modifiers and unclear antecedents? Do you cringe when punctuation is misused, or when a writer employs the wrong word or phrases a sentence awkwardly or poorly organizes a paragraph? Do you shake your head when number style is inconsistent, abbreviations are incorrect, or words are indiscriminately capitalized?

Have I got a job for you: Go ahead and realize your aspirations to write, but consider the wonderful world of copyediting in addition to or between writing assignments or book deals. Because of globalization, it’s not as wonderful as it used to be — I earn less per hour than I did ten years ago — but I’ve gotten to the point where I generally work only on content that I find rich and interesting, so I tolerate the lower rates. You might find yourself in that position, too.

Conditions

Copy editors, employed or hired as contractors or freelancers, work at home or in an office. Editing is almost exclusively done in Microsoft Word; usually, the publisher emails a file and the copy editor activates the change-tracking function and edits the copy, then returns the file. (Ideally, copy editors make two passes — one to make every revision necessary, and one to catch anything they missed the first time, check that they introduced no errors, and ensure that the copy flows smoothly as edited.)

Rates

Compensation varies widely, but, again because anyone can edit from anywhere, ranges have compressed somewhat. Copy editors are usually paid by the hour, and pay ranges anywhere from $10 or $15 per hour for online freelance work to $50 or more per hour for corporate or technical projects; the more specialized the publication, the higher the rate. Some publishers pay by the page — which often puts the copy editor at a disadvantage, because the project may take more work than the publisher expected. In addition, copyediting isn’t a 9-to-5 job; I prefer not to edit more than six hours a day, and about four hours is ideal.

Here’s a glimpse at the nature of the work depending on the medium:

Newspapers

Newspaper copy editors ensure that news articles capture the 5 Ws of journalistic writing (who, what, when, where, and why) and are organized according to the medium’s inverted-pyramid structure (information presented in order from most to least essential), and check that they, as well as feature stories and other content, conform to style dictated by the publication’s style guide and/or the Associated Press Stylebook or its equivalent.

Many newspaper copy editors also craft headlines and cutlines (a.k.a. captions) and may even lay out the arrangement of articles, photographs, and other elements using a computer design program.

In the case of daily newspapers, the pace is often fast, even hectic, and it may feel like quick and dirty work (articles are expected to move in a matter of minutes), though the environment at weekly publications tends to be more relaxed. Dailies, too, often require copy editors to work early or late or weekend shifts.

Magazines and Journals

Magazine and journal copy editors have more time to focus on organization and narrative flow, and they may also be required to perform fact-checking (verification of some or all quantifiable or otherwise identifiable information). Because of the irregular ebb and flow of content coming in for production, weekly, monthly, and quarterly periodicals are more likely to utilize freelance copy editors on demand. Depending on deadlines and article length, the copy editor may have anywhere from minutes to a couple of days to return a completed piece; a lengthy article can take up to a few hours to edit.

Copy editors for periodicals usually also perform proofreading — when there is more than one copy editor, the editors generally trade off, proofreading each other’s work, to ensure an objective final inspection of copy before it’s published.

Books

Copyediting of books is performed almost exclusively by freelancers who accept ad hoc assignments from one or more publishing companies. Because of the more durable nature of books, they require a more meticulous attention to detail. Copy editors are usually given one to several weeks to complete a project, which may take up to dozens of hours.

Ironically, though, because of a greater pressure for economy and timeliness in book publication, books are increasingly likely to be published without going through the copyediting stage. The result: publication of many books with clumsy, shoddy writing that degrades the language because of a relative dearth of examples of highly polished writing, especially in the realm of publication for the masses as opposed to scholarly or specialized publishing.

Other

Sales and marketing materials, corporate communications, and other business content is also often copyedited (though not often enough). Most corporate and organizational Web sites are copyedited, though the entities that publish them and the other business media mentioned here do not necessarily employ or contract with copy editors per se; often, a writer or a general editor will perform this function. Length and lead time varies widely.

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12 Responses to “Should You Try Copyediting?”

  • Sandra Stiles

    I am a person who cannot afford a copy editor. However, I recently came across “Grammarly” and downloaded it. I plugged my first chapter in and was amazed at the amount of mistakes it pointed out. I went through and worked on that chapter, re-read it and thought to myself, I wish I’d had this program when I first started writing this book. I believe with quality programs out there like this that yes, a writer can and should edit their own work.

  • Leah McClellan

    Hi, I had to smile when I saw this in my inbox because it’s exactly what I’ve been doing for awhile. I like it as a steady source of work–compared to writing articles–because it’s busy work rather than creative, at least not creative in the same way as other things I’ve done as a writer. And it sort of frees up my creative energy for other projects.

    A lot of my work is academic: journal articles, dissertations, etc. Most of that is written by ESL writers, and it can be challenging. But I like it a lot. No, it doesn’t pay a lot (I get paid by the word). But since I work at home, I’m not using money for gas etc.

    As you say, hard to do for more than 6 hours a day or so. My eyes start hurting.

    Thanks for the ideas on other sources of work. I’d love to do books.

  • Jane Steen

    I do some copyediting here and there, but I’ve only had one book assignment so far (for a business project). I’d love to get more. I’ve noticed so many books lately that really, really need a good editor, sometimes for developmental issues such as plotting and dialogue.

    If you have any tips as to the best places to look for freelance work, I’d love to know. I find, though, that the best way to get work is by word of mouth, so I’m still hoping for that break. I know I can earn much more money through the freelance writing I do, but I want to copyedit books just for the sheer love of literature. I LOVE making a good text even better.

  • Tula

    Do you have any recommended places or web sites to look for copyediting work? An out-of-work friend of mine would be quite good at this and I’d love to help her get some work.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tula:

    Stay tuned. I’ll follow up soon.

  • shadmehr

    thank u 4 your precious information
    a question came into my mind after i had read your article
    how can find such job
    given to the fact that i do not live in an anglophone country

  • Jjawid Akhtar

    since yours emails pouring in daily, it has inspired or motivated me much towards my writing skill. I am not a big writer, but do write somehow, to convey what is right or wrong mostly based on my own experience in such a way it becomes a guideline for others. So my writing is restricted to small messages but very effective in inspiring others.
    Besides I have written some essays health relating issues.

    Since I am Engineers, my messages contain problems. solutions and how that can be avoided.

    Anyways thanks a lot for your guidelines daily emailed to me.

  • Leigh

    Great article! I’ve done copyediting as a favor to other writers and would love to get into the business, but don’t know where to look. I, like Jane and Tula, would love a few websites or companies to contact for work.

  • Jane Steen

    Sandra, I took a look at Grammarly. It looks like a great idea, except that absolutely nowhere on the site can you find out how much “the service” costs. That always raises red flags for me, so I googled “Grammarly scam” and found numerous complaints about overbilling and related issues. So I’m not rushing to give that one a try.

    Anyhow, I don’t think there’s any substitution for learning the rules yourself. $10 will get you a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, which will go a long way toward helping a new writer understand what works and what doesn’t. There are many other craft books, courses, and great teachers out there; you can learn for free by checking books about writing out from the library. Joining a critique group costs nothing (if they’re charging, find out why) and you can find critique groups online quite easily.

    I agree that copyediting may seem prohibitively expensive for a new writer. But think of it this way: if you feel that all that’s standing between you and publication is your technical grasp of the skills of writing, can you give up something–eating out, Starbucks, movie rentals–for a while to pay for a chance at improving your book drastically? I have good technical skills and edit other people’s work, but I’m still thinking of hiring an editor one day.

  • Laraine Viss

    I’m trying to break into the copy editing field. Here’s a question for someone:
    I see “copy editors” and “copyeditors.” in the same article. My computer tells me that it should be two words. Is there a right and wrong about this?

  • Mark Nichol

    Laraine:

    Thanks for catching my error. “Copy editor” is two words; copyediting is one. I’ve been the one doing the other for half of my life, but I still have to concentrate to keep them straight when I type them. (I’d rather that copyediting were two words, but, alas, I’m not in charge.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Copyeditor has been fixed.

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