In this article, I will show you how to become a copy editor, even if you don’t have a lot of experience in the field.
If you love books, words, grammar, literature, publishing, and have intrinsic attention to detail, you’re already halfway there.
Below you’ll find what the job entails, the requirements you need to get it, as well as ways to hone your craft and get paid more over time.
Are you ready? Let’s make things happen.
A step-by-step process for becoming a copy editor:
1. Who is a copy editor, and what does he or she do?
A copy editor is a person responsible for reviewing and correcting written materials. The aim is to make the copy accurate, free of errors, inconsistencies, omissions, as well as fit for a particular audience, and ready for publishing.
Copy editors usually work in a regular 9-to-5 environment (around 40 hours a week). But nowadays, many editors prefer to become freelancers and work from home. In this situation, you can set your work schedule.
The average salary of a copy editor is $59,330 per year. It can vary, depending on your experience, position in the company, and how much you’re willing to work (we’ll talk more about the salary below).
There are a couple of rungs on the editorial ladder so feel free to climb. You usually start as a copy editor, but you can go higher with time and become a copy chief or news editor. This would enable you to manage a group of copy editors.
There are three primary levels in copyediting: light, medium, and heavy. The type used will depend on time constraints, and the budget allowed for a particular manuscript.
Light copyediting includes:
- Taking care of spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes
- Cleaning up incorrect usage of words
- Ensuring consistency in terms of formatting
- Checking references
- Ensuring that the spelling and is relevant for the country of publication (for example, the US vs. the UK)
Medium copyediting includes:
- Taking care of all the light editing tasks
- Making sure the style of a manuscript is consistent
- Creating an index of the most important terms
- Changing passive voice to active voice
- Making sure that titles and headings are attention-grabbing
- Spotting and fixing incorrect statements
- Taking care of all the medium editing tasks
- Improving readability
- Ensuring there are smooth transitions between paragraphs and chapters
- Ensuring a whole manuscript has a logical structure
- Getting rid of wordiness, inappropriate jargon, and redundancies
There are also two primary types of editing – mechanical editing and substantive editing.
Mechanical editing is about following a strictly defined house style. You would ensure that style and grammar rules are consistent across the whole publication. This includes the usage of grammatical symbols, formatting, spelling, punctuation, correct use of language, as well as format of charts, tables, and visual materials.
Content editing (substantive editing) is all about ensuring that the structure and organization of the manuscript are correct. It includes messing with the manuscript much more, as well as taking care of internal inconsistencies and higher-level errors.
In summary: On a surface level, you’re responsible for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and word use. But usually, there is much more to it. You could also enforce house style rules, polish the structure of a manuscript, make sure that the style is consistent, and that the copy is clear and coherent.
Finally, you would also make the manuscript publishing-ready by providing oversight in terms of typography, art, and formatting. Each organization has its definition of what a copy editor does, so check the responsibilities of each position.
“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” Patricia Fuller
2. Your main duties as a copy editor
Below you can find a detailed list of responsibilities you may have to fulfill on a day-to-day basis:
- Evaluating manuscript submissions from writers
- Keeping in touch with authors and providing them with valuable feedback
- Sourcing new stories to publish
- Correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes (proofreading)
- Ensuring technical consistency (capitalization, spelling, numerals, fonts, hyphenation)
- Tying up all loose ends in the story (ensuring continuity and consistency)
- Fact-checking (names, dates, places, etc.)
- Making sure that the manuscript follows a particular house style
- Assuring that the text matches the publisher’s requirements in terms of style and length
- Avoiding legal issues (libel or breach of copyright). This is done in conjunction with the legal department so no worries.
- Following the rules of the specific style guide (such as the Chicago Manual of Style)
- Managing publishing projects, and making sure everything is published within particular deadlines
- Doing rewrites, writing headlines, and shaping leads for maximum impact
- Making sure that the copy is fit for a specific purpose and a particular audience
Important note: this is a broad overview of the possible responsibilities. The specific tasks will depend on your position within the company. You can always see what the particular job entails by analyzing individual job postings online.
3. What are the requirements for becoming a copy editor?
By now, you must be wondering what specific requirements you need to meet to join the guild of wordsmiths.
Here’s a list of the main requirements:
- A bachelor’s degree (communications, publishing, media, journalism, literature, English language, public relations, or marketing and advertising). Domain-specific positions may require an extra degree or certification (for example, if you want to become an editor in the legal field).
- Close attention to detail. This one is crucial, as you need to be a stickler for grammar rules and spot even the tiniest spelling mistakes.
- Advanced knowledge of the English language. A great English dictionary should be your best friend, and you should absorb books all the time.
- Familiarity with pagination and manuscript formatting (optional)
- Knowledge of style guides (especially Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style).
- Basic computer skills (Windows or Mac environment)
- Being familiar with editing software (Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Grammarly, Ginger, Hemingway Editor, Google Docs)
- Having great organizational skills. That’s essential because you will need to keep an eye on deadlines and make sure to do tasks in the right order.
- Strong writing skills. This is quite obvious as you need to be an authority when it comes to language and communications.
- Knowing the rules of online publishing. Nowadays, this is more important than ever. That’s why you must have your website. It will act as your digital business card and show prospective employers that you know how to format and publish web copy. If you’re interested in starting your site, I recommend using Bluehost. That’s the host I am using which is cheap ($3.95 a month), and reliable.
4. What is an average copy editor’s salary?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on average, you can make $59,340 as a copy editor in the United States. That’s around $29 gross per hour.
Based on reports from 1000+ editors on Payscale.com, if you’re a newbie, you’ll get paid around $32,000 a year. But with a couple of years of experience, you can go as high as $75,000 a year. You can also count on small bonuses and profit-sharing schemes along the way.
If you have only one year of experience, you can expect around $38k per year. With about 5 years of experience, you’ll likely earn around $47k per year, and with 10+ years of experience, you can go as high as $60k – $70k.
Of course, your pay will largely depend on your location (you will earn more in New York than in Alabama). It will also depend on the company you’re working for (Vanity Fair will pay more than your local county newspaper).
If you work as a staff editor, you would usually earn more than if you were a freelancer. Working remotely has its benefits, but it can also mean working longer hours and having no extra perks that come with a 9-5 position. Also, as a freelancer, you will most likely be paid per project, not per hour. It means that your average rate can be higher, but you need to find a way to get regular projects from clients.
If you’re not living in an expensive city (or country), being a freelancer can be great. That’s because your earnings will be high relative to the average cost of living. For example, $60k in California is not worth a lot, but the same amount in Bali, Indonesia puts you in the top 10% of earners.
5. How to get a job as a copy editor
There are a couple of different ways in which you can get a job as a copy editor. Let’s take a look at the possibilities:
a) Get an apprenticeship as an editing assistant and move from there
This is the easiest way to get your foot in the door, as you can get an apprenticeship while still in college. If you prove yourself to be dependable, publishers will be happy to give you a full-time gig once you graduate.
However, you can apply for an apprenticeship fresh out of college too. Do not expect a high wage here. Instead, treat it as a stepping stone towards a proper career in the editing business.
b) Get a part-time or full-time job at an entry-level copy editor position
This is probably the best way to go for most people. Entry-level jobs in copyediting are easy to get. And if you prove yourself, you can advance to higher levels within an organization within 1 or 2 years.
If you don’t have previous experience, becoming an editorial assistant is your primary way of getting a full-time editor gig soon. To get the job, you need to meet at least some of the requirements mentioned above. Then you’re ready to apply to online job postings.
Your primary sources of editing job opportunities are:
You may also take a look at job postings in your local newspaper. While it’s a bit old-school, you can find unique opportunities there (and the competition will also be lower).
Before applying, make sure to pen a pristine cover letter and prepare a beautiful CV. Pay attention to details! If your prospective employer finds grammar mistakes in your cover letter or resume, your chances of getting the job are slim.
To take your CV to the next level, you can use a service like Fiverr. It offers professional CV design gigs for as little as $25. Also, use a targeted approach and write a new cover letter for each job you apply to.
This extra effort will pay off because employers will see you took the time to read the job posting in detail. Stand out among 50 other candidates for the same position, and you stand a chance of getting an interview.
Pro tip: when applying for copy editing jobs, make sure you have a couple of editing samples to show to your prospective boss. An editing sample is a document (usually in Word format) where you show your editing chops by including corrections and revisions in the margin of the document. This is one of the best ways to show that you know what you’re doing.
c) Start with cheap freelance editing gigs and move from there
You can make a move to the editing world by starting with freelance editing gigs. They usually have much lower requirements than a position in an established company. The leading platforms you can use are Freelancer.com, UpWork.com, and Fiverr.com. By completing simple jobs online, you will get essential experience, as well as valuable editing samples.
The rates on these platforms are relatively low, but this shouldn’t stop you. Showing some editing experience on your CV will put you ahead of the competition when it comes to applying to actual, full-time editing positions.
d) Create your website and show off your impeccable grammar skills
Starting a blog can be an essential first step to getting a job as a full-time editor.
Imagine a scenario: two people are applying for the same position. One of them has a nice cover letter, a properly designed CV, and a few editing samples. The other one has all of the above plus a website with half a dozen long-form articles with proper formatting and eye-catching imagery. What do you think, who is going to get the job?
You can learn how to start a website in one day and then sign up with a host like Bluehost for as little as $3.95 per month. This is one of the best investments you can make in your editing career. It will improve your chances of getting a job, plus it will lead to many other opportunities and income streams along the way.
6. The advantages of being a copy editor
Here’s a quick list of advantages of being a copy editor:
- You wrestle with words all day long. If you’re like me, that’s a dream come true!
- You work in relative peace and don’t have to deal with people regularly (the best job for introverts?)
- Remote working is a viable possibility because you don’t have to be in the office all the time
- You help to shape manuscripts into works of art and possible bestsellers
- You get to read amazing (or not so amazing) manuscripts and learn a lot in the process
- You can branch out to do some work in the freelance arena (extra income!)
- You become a master of the English language, which can open many doors for you in the future
7. The disadvantages of being a copy editor
Here’s a quick list of advantages of being a copy editor:
- The job is a little bit repetitive as you have to deal with the same tasks over and over again.
- You will be sitting most of the time (but you can always get a standing desk)
- Analyzing dozens of manuscripts can strain your eyes
- You may lose some of your writerly voice, by editing works of other writers
- Depending on where you work, opportunities for career growth may not be so promising
- The job can be a bit thankless because no one notices you until you make a mistake
- The average salary is rather low (unless you work for a prestigious organization or take up side projects)
- Sometimes you will have to keep crazy deadlines and work around the clock to get a project finished
8. Becoming a freelance editor – one of the best remote working opportunities
This is one of the best possibilities to do the work you love on your terms. For many people, becoming a freelance editor is a dream come true. You can work from home or any place around the world for that matter, and if you play it right, you can get paid quite a lot.
Freelance editing is my specialty, and I adore it. I get paid per project, so I have more motivation to finish my tasks faster. Sitting all around just to let the time pass doesn’t do me any good.
Most editors can go freelance after earning two or three years of experience within a larger organization. It’s crucial that you first learn the ropes of the industry and become proficient at editing and client communications jobs. Once you have what it takes, you can start getting side projects, and then take a leap to become full-time.
This allows you to get paid while you’re backpacking in India or sipping coffee in your neighborhood cafe. Nuff said.
9. Why having a website is one of the best investments you can do
Starting your blog is an absolute must-have if you want to further your career and earn more money. Yes, it demands extra work, as well as gaining skills in the area of SEO, and basic web design.
But this is going to pay off big time if you’re willing to put in some sweat in it. You can set yourself up in one day with a host like Bluehost that will manage your website.
A few reasons why copy editors should have a website:
a) It will act as your business card in the publishing world. Applying for jobs is so much easier if you can show your well-designed site besides your cover letter, CV, and writing samples. In the past, I hired editors just because they had a website (and other candidates didn’t).
b) It will open all sorts of work opportunities for you in the future. If you do it right, your website will start attracting organic traffic from the search engines. People will start emailing you and ask if you have time to do a project for them. How’s that for a change? Now you’re the expert so you can be pickier.
c) It will allow you to earn more money. If you publish regularly and stick with it for two or three years, you can make $500 extra per month from your website. The best thing about this income is that you put the work upfront, but then reap the rewards over months and years.
10. How to become better at copy editing?
If you want to sharpen your skills and get promoted faster, do the following:
a) Read some of the best books about copyediting (more on that below)
b) Take some of the best courses about editing (more on that below as well)
c) Get certified as a copy editor. You can get a certificate from a university, as well as professional associations:
- Publishing Training Centre
- Society for Editors and Proofreaders
- Editorial Freelancers Association
- Writer’s Digest Copyediting Certification Course
- ACES: The Society for Editing
d) Read more books in general. The more you know about the world, the more equipped you will be to deal with all sorts of editing tasks.
11. Being bilingual or trilingual will give you more work opportunities
Learning new languages will open many doors for you. That’s because publishing houses, content marketing agencies, and magazines are looking for editors who can deal with two or three idioms.
These organizations face a simple choice. Either hire two editors – let’s say one for English and one for Spanish, or hire a two-in-one editor who can handle both languages. Option number two is more economically viable, and that’s what companies go for.
Sometimes you don’t even need to be at an advanced level with your second or third language. That’s because you may still have foreign-language editors under you, who’ll send the edited work for your review. It’s only vital that you can verify it and make sure it’s correct at a broader level.
12. Find your niche to earn more money
In the world of copy editing, specialists tend to earn more than generalists. If you have specific skills and knowledge in a particular domain, you can use it to get high-paying clients.
For example, if you’re an editor with knowledge of medicine, science, tech, law, business, sports, or any other narrow domain, you can set yourself up for success pretty quickly.
People in the pharmaceutical or tech industries have tons of money on their hands. They will willingly spend it if you show them your knowledge in their particular area.
13. Respect the editing guidelines and the stylebook
This is one of the best tips I can give you if you want to become successful at editing. All respectable organizations have specific editing guidelines and a stylebook.
In terms of style, 90% of companies use The Chicago Manual of Style, so do your best to devour it. It will spell out all the rules ever about language and the publishing world. Highly recommended.
Master the art of written and oral communication with this wonderful book. A must-read for those who seek to find their place in the world of print and online publications.
Also, each organization will have a particular house style. It contains rules about the appropriateness in terms of length, content, words, punctuation, formatting, links (if it’s a web publication), and other things you need to know. It’s best to print out this document and put it on your desk where you can see it at all times.
14. Don’t be afraid to point out mistakes
Many copy editors are afraid to use their red pen and point out mistakes in manuscripts. Don’t let this be you. You need to show confidence in your abilities and to be assertive with writers.
Yes, you are trying to kill their darlings, something they put months of their life in. But your job is to point out mistakes. Ultimately, this will improve the final product and make everyone happy.
“Authors who mourn with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.” – Christopher Hitchens
15. Learn how to keep the deadlines
This is a prerequisite for a successful career in copyediting. You shouldn’t only keep the deadlines; you should submit your edits faster than expected. Develop a reputation for being a fast worker, and more exciting projects will come to you.
This is especially true if you’re a freelancer. Most organizations have a couple of editors working for them and the fast ones get more projects and earn more money.
16. Learn how to better communicate with writers and clients
This one seems quite obvious, but it’s worth pointing out. You need to be kind when talking with others on the phone, through video chat, or email. Keep your woes to yourself and behave like a professional. Be concise in the way you speak and attack problems head-on.
This professional approach will earn you the respect of others, so they’ll listen to your advice more readily.
17. The certifications you can obtain to become a copy editor
You can get certifications from the following organizations:
- Publishing Training Centre
- Society for Editors and Proofreaders
- Editorial Freelancers Association
- Writer’s Digest Copyediting Certification Course
- ACES: The Society for Editing
These are not essential for getting a job as a copy editor, but they can help. They are not as expensive as courses served by universities and start at as little as $150-$500. You can usually complete a certification course like this off business hours.
This is perfect if you already have a full-time job, but you’re thinking about moving to a position in the publishing world. It will take you around one month to get a certificate, for example in: “advanced copyediting,” “editorial skills for business” or “publishing strategy toolkit.”
18. The courses you can take about copy editing
Besides the above, you can also complete a couple of courses from companies like:
- The College of Media and Publishing
- Reed (Which has over 165 different courses related to editing and proofreading)
- The Writers Bureau
Many of these courses are self-paced so you can complete them in your own time. After completing each course, you will also get a diploma to include your CV. It will improve your chances of getting a job within the industry.
19. The best tools for a copy editor
The top tools you should use and master are:
- MS Word – the staple of the publishing word (master the “review” tab)
- Google Docs – Cloud-based word processor that allows you to collaborate with writers in real-time
- Grammarly – This is the best grammar checker in my opinion
- Ginger – a close competitor of Grammarly. It can be useful for small proofreading tasks.
- Textfixer – it allows you to get the rate of extra spaces in a manuscript.
- Scrivener – it’s the best software for book editing.
- Hemingway Editor – it’s an excellent tool for improving readability.
Here I also recommend you check my list of the best resources for bloggers and writers.
20. The books you can read to learn more about copy editing
Here’s a list of the top books you should read to become better at copyediting:
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys
- The Subversive Copy Editor
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers
- Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies
- The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English
21. What are the career paths you can take as a copy editor
If you want to move up in the publishing world, you can get a higher position in a larger organization within one or two years.
If you apply yourself and show enough ambition, you can one day become a copy chief or a managing editor. This means you would be responsible for managing a whole group of line editors. You would manage a range of publishing projects and ensure they meet specific standards and follow strict house style guidelines.
As a person with vast experience in language, you can also branch out into other avenues. You can become a freelancer and work directly with authors who have manuscripts they want to publish. Being a hired gun has its advantages as it allows you to work from anywhere and at the time of your choosing. You can also take up more projects and charge your clients more.
Another great thing you can do to further your career is to start your website and grow it fast by using your superior editing and publishing skills. As an editor, you have 90% of the knowledge required to start a successful online publishing platform. After a while, you could start earning money with advertising, affiliate marketing, and selling your own digital or printed books.
But if you prefer to stay within a larger organization and climb the corporate ladder, there are many other paths you can take.
It will all depend on the company you are working for, but here are the career possibilities:
- Communications director
- Copy chief
- Managing editor
- Communications project manager
- Brand director
- Editor at large
- Content marketing manager
- Art director
- Communications specialist
- Technical writer
- Contributing editor
- Creative services manager
- PR specialist (or manager)
- Media director
- Publications manager
- Web content manager
- Media relations specialist
- Publishing project manager
- Media relations manager
- Manager of corporate communications
To get a position higher in the organizational structure, you will need to add more skills to your repertoire. These include business skills, like management, accounting, legal, project management, forecasting, analytics, sales, marketing, etc.
I’m sure that reading this guide gave you at least a few valuable ideas on how to start your career as a copy editor. As you can see, it’s not as difficult as you might have expected. All you need is a passion for language, books, worldly affairs, and of course, attention to detail.
Being an editor is often a solitary endeavor suitable for introverts, but it doesn’t have to be. Always remember that besides the struggle with words, you should keep good relationships with fellow humans.
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