Someone wrote to me recently to ask for advice on becoming a copy editor. I stifled the urge to say, “Don’t do it!” Lots of my fellow copy editors probably have rethought their career choice after the upheaval of the past few years. I felt lucky to find a full-time copy-editing job with an excellent organization after leaving the newspaper business. Many of my colleagues have landed on their feet in one way or another, but some are struggling to find either full-time jobs or freelance work that pays the bills.
On the other hand, I know of copy editors who have succeeded in freelancing, and the need for copy editing has never gone away. New copy editors should be coming into the occupation. We Baby Boomers can’t work forever. (Although sometimes when we look at our retirement savings, we think we might have to work forever.)
Here is an edited and enhanced version of what I told my correspondent, who wondered if she could break into copy editing and proofreading without any experience. I don’t feel especially qualified to advise an aspiring copy editor because my career path is not one that most people can follow today. When I was a young woman, I could go anywhere in the country and find a job. Newspapers don’t offer as many copy editing jobs now. But I took a stab at the advice. I hope my fellow copy editors will weigh in with more wisdom.
First, I must tell anyone who wants to become a copy editor that the market for editors is flooded right now because so many people who worked for newspapers, publishers, and other media organizations have been laid off and tossed into the market. It would be hard (I dare say, perhaps impossible) for you to find jobs without experience when so many experienced editors are out there. I have heard others say that they did free work for students or writers just to get the experience. If you can do that, it might help. If you do a good job, then you’d have testimonials. And you would get a chance to see how well you actually do enjoy the work of copy editing. (See the ** update below.)
However, you can’t work for nothing forever, and it’s important to show that copy editing and proofreading are valuable. The writers and students whom you offer free copy editing and proofreading should understand what the service normally costs. The fees charged vary, but often start at $25 or $30 an hour.
You asked about courses and programs. I have heard a lot about the online University of California at San Diego extension certificate in copy editing. If you can afford to do that, it seems worthwhile. If you want to try a course or seminar or two before you go deeply into a program, Copyediting.com and the Poynter Institute’s News University offer sessions in editing. Aspiring copy editors who are in school right now should take writing courses. Learning to write is great training for copy editing. If you have access to a college-level course in grammar and composition, that might help too. If you must practice on your own, try spotting problems in published material. (Here is where I will plug my own quizzes.)
You mention that English is not your first language. Knowing another language is in your favor. Bilingual copy editors with good English knowledge and skills can find freelance jobs. I also think that finding a specialty would be helpful. Are you interested in academic editing, journalism (or nonfiction), business/commercial/marketing, or fiction? It might be good to find a niche and become an expert. Copy editors who can work with medical or scientific copy seem to be in demand, but that takes education and experience. If you want to be in journalism, you might be very fortunate and find a small publication that will hire you (for low pay) and give you the great experience of having to turn around copy quickly.
If you join social media and online discussion groups for copy editors and freelance editors, you might get a better idea of the market and see what professional editors are talking about. Here are some forums on LinkedIn that I check: Copy editors and proofreaders, Editors & Copyeditors Forum, Freelance Editing Network, and STET: Professional Copy Editors. You should also follow copy editors on Twitter or read copy editors’ blogs. I am going to mention two sites that I find helpful (there are MANY more). Katharine O’Moore-Klopf offers wonderful resources at KOK Edit. Richard Adin writes at An American Editor.
Of course, networking and finding a mentor can be helpful for anyone starting a new occupation or profession. Doing good, solid work will boost your chances of connecting with people who can help you get more work.
Depending upon what kind of copy editing you would like to do, I recommend getting a good stylebook and learning it — Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, The Gregg Reference Manual, or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). (See the * update below.) I like Gregg for general questions about usage, too. It’s my go-to book when my other books don’t have the answer on grammar and usage. It wouldn’t hurt to read books about copy editing. The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller comes to mind, and there are others. But more important than reading books about editing is reading widely and deeply. The one thing I did as child that has helped me most was reading mostly nonfiction books. But my career has been in journalism. Perhaps those who wish to edit fiction learned most from reading well-written short stories and novels. My husband, an excellent writer and editor, learned to write by reading Mad Magazine.
Learn all you can about the business of publishing in print and online. I found that learning about search engine optimization (SEO) helped me make my headlines better, but you should know about SEO in case part of your job as a copy editor is to enhance copy for online searches. It is one more skill to add to your résumé. Develop your skills with editing software, including Microsoft Word, and design software such as InDesign.
If I were teaching a course in copy editing (which I’d love to do again!), I would have my students work hard on their lie-detection skill. The online world is riddled with hoaxes and pranks that could have been stopped by skeptical thinking. An alert copy editor can detect plagiarism and copyright violations too and, armed with the right knowledge, can head off legal problems for a writer or a publisher. If you are going to work in nonfiction writing, learn the basics of libel.
Career paths are often not straight thoroughfares. They sometimes take detours and switchbacks, and no one’s path will be the same as yours. If you truly want to be a copy editor, get the training and the experience and learn to market your skills.
Please, fellow copy editors, weigh in below in the comments with more advice or links. If I get more comments or suggestions on Facebook or Twitter, I will add to this post.
* A Twitter follower mentioned Words Into Type, another good book for editing advice.
** If you have another job now, you could volunteer to be the office copy editor/proofreader. You would make your current position more secure and get experience. If you do copy editing for friends, family, or co-workers, keep before and after copies of everything. These can become valuable material when you are vying for a professional job.
Another thought (1/21/2014): Developing expertise as a copy editor is more than just learning usage and style. A good copy editor develops skills at editing over time. I knew little about copy editing when I started working for a newspaper 37 years ago, and even 10 years into my career I was still naive and ignorant about fact-checking and legal issues. I gained that knowledge on the job. Nothing takes the place of rigorous feedback and experience.