How to Become a Copy Editor
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:
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.
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.
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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