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.
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.)
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:
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.
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.
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.