How to become a copy editor

by Gill Fernley on 

How to become a copy editor

As a copy editor, you might work for a publishing company, a magazine or even a small business, or you may set up your own business and work for authors as well as a variety of different companies. It’s up to you which way you go and will depend on your skills and experience, and quite simply, your preferences.

But if you’ve never worked as a copy editor before, how do you get started? Read on to find out how to become a copy editor:

First of all, let’s talk about what a copy editor is…

What a copy editor does

A copy editor is someone with a high degree of accuracy and an excellent grasp of the English language (or whatever language you work in), grammar and punctuation.

Copy editing takes an author’s draft novel, a magazine’s article, or any other form of copy and turns it into a final finished product that’s ready to be published.

A copy editor checks for grammar, spelling, errors, repetitive phrasing, inconsistencies, missing information, missing words, and more. They check that the piece is easy to read, suitable for its audience, completely accurate, error free, and the best finished piece it can possibly be.

Does that sound like you? Does finding all those errors and correcting them set your grammar nerd heart aflame or are you bored already at the idea of painstakingly going through manuscripts and other pieces of copy for the rest of your life?

If you’re bored already, chances are this isn’t the job for you, but if you’re thinking you could do this and it might just be what you’re looking for, read on!

How does copy editing work?

A copy editor will first look over the copy as a whole to check everything that’s needed is present. Is the copy finished? Is the index or table of contents complete and does it match the chapter titles throughout the piece? Are there any images or graphics to go with the copy, and are they all present and correctly listed in the work?

The copy editor will then remove any redundant or unwanted formatting, set up the pages, fonts and spacing correctly and produce a stylesheet to work from.

An overview of the copy gives the editor a good idea of what the piece needs before they begin to focus on the tiny details.

The copy editor will then go through, as above, checking for grammar, punctuation and spelling, passive voice, paragraphs and sentences that are too long, use of exclamation marks, bold and italics, etc. They’ll fact check, sort out numbering, make sure everything is consistent in terms of punctuation marks and tenses, and look for consistency in description. That last one is particularly important in fiction, where no one wants to find the character was called Nancy for the first 3 chapters and then Nelly for the rest of the book!

Think you’re done there? Afraid not. A copy editor needs to also look at the piece as a whole, including the structure and if the piece reads logically and in the right order.

  • A copy editor will check if a glossary and a bibliography are needed, look at the placement of those items and any appendices, check clickable links work, make sure headings make sense and check if there are enough of them to break up the piece and make it more readable.
  • Illustrations, images, graphics and tables all need to be properly labelled and captioned, and a copy editor will also check that they’re in the right place in the text and that the copy adds to the inserted elements rather than just listing what the tables, etc, already say. A good copy editor will also know if the graphics, etc, are of high enough quality for the web and for printing, and will check that permission has been given for use, or licenses bought, and that any acknowledgement wording is present and correct.
  • Dates and references and quotations, oh my! Copy editors have a very good eye for factual errors, inaccurate quotations, incomplete references, wrongly spelt names and more.
  • A copy editor will also need to know enough about the law and about the company or publishing house standards they are working to so that they can query or flag anything that’s a problem. Copy editors will note plagiarism, obscenity, incitement to racial hatred, libel, and copyright breach, as well as picking up on house rules, such as particular subjects that the publisher won’t accept.

Here’s a handy copy editing checklist from Writer’s Digest to get you started.

That’s only some of what a copy editor might do, but it should give you an idea of whether the job is for you.

If you’d like to explore other types of editing, either to expand what you can offer clients or because you think you’d like to try a different editing job, read our earlier article on what you need to know howto become a freelance editor.

Copy editing courses

Looking at the job description above, that’s a whole lot of knowledge you need to have before you can become a copy editor, so here is a list of courses that should help you get started:

What writers look for in an editor

Obviously, no matter who you work with, they’ll expect you to have the skills outlined above in the job description, but in varying degrees to suit the role. Fiction writers, for example, usually have less need for glossaries, bibliographies and references, though there are exceptions there, such as high fantasy or science fiction novels, with detailed world building.

You’re also going to have to be very good at working with people and at persuading them to consider and accept your changes. Writers – particularly fiction writers – can get very attached to their words and you’ll need to be able to listen, suggest, and be adaptable to bring the copy to an excellent finished state.

You should know that fiction writers also get very attached to their characters and their worlds, and can be sensitive to criticism. Not everyone’s like that, and in fact, some writers will tell you to be brutal and to utterly shred their work to make it the best it can be. That’s why you need to be adaptable and a brilliant people person to do this job.

Writers want someone who is reliable, accurate and can keep to deadlines, but also someone who understands their genre and can work with their writer’s voice and style to polish it to excellence, rather than out of existence.

Getting started and finding jobs

You’ll first have to decide whether you want to work for someone else or set up on your own as a freelance copy editor.

Either way, you’re likely to need a degree in English Language, Literature or Journalism, as well as taking practical courses like proofreading to give you the skills you need, and any experience you can get is likely to stand you in good stead, too. Perhaps you could do some free chapters for a few authors or work for a favourite charity to get some practice in.

If you want to work for someone else, it’s a case of applying for jobs like you would with any other career. You’re likely to be up against quite a bit of competition, and you may need to take an entry-level position to get started, before working your way up.

If you want to work for yourself, you’ll need to set up a website and build a portfolio showing examples of before and after copy that you’ve edited.

After that, you’ll probably want to find your own clients by pitching to companies or authors. Another place where you may have some success is Copify.

Think about what type of copy editing you want to do. If you love reading fiction, it makes sense to work in a publishing company or with authors directly, rather than wading through technical and legal copy that would have you poking your eyes out with a sharp stick within a few months. Play to your strengths and your interests to find the editing job that’s right for you.

Main image credit: Kelly Sikkema

Spread the word:

Gill Fernley

The director of her own copywriting firm, Gill writes B2B and B2C content for SMEs and digital marketing agencies. She has a background in performing arts and writes conversational, direct sales copy for businesses on a range of topics. She’s also a keen writer of chick lit.

Related Articles