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Breaking into Copyediting, Part 1: Training Required

Magnifying glass over word career

There’s a popular idea that if you’re good at spotting typos, you can be a copyeditor. Spotting typos shows an eye for—and an interest in—details, and that’s a great start. But there’s so much more to catch.

A colleague recently shared some typical editing math. Given 15,540 words in a book chapter (62 manuscript pages) in which the editor makes 1,247 revisions with a 99% accuracy rate, there would still be 12 errors remaining. If the proofreader also has a 99% accuracy rate, that leaves 1 error for readers to find in the published book.

And a 99% accuracy rate is unrealistic. Most publishers are content with 90% or even 85%.

Typo-spotting may indicate that you may have a capacity for and an interest in editing, but editing is about more than finding the lone remaining error.

This is not to shame anyone into not exploring copyediting as a career. It’s a common misconception to think that editing means finding typos. Many people use proofreading as an umbrella term for everything from developmental editing to actual proofreading—and they don’t always understand that there’s an umbrella. Editors often have to educate noneditors about the realities of the job.

And really, why should editing be an exception? Don’t we all fantasize about alternative careers that seem more fun, more exciting, or more lucrative than they really are? When we look closer, we find out that there’s a lot more monotony and a lot less money involved than we thought.

So what do you need to work as a copyeditor?

What You Need to Know

Copyeditors need a base knowledge of grammar and how it works. I say “base,” but that base is beyond what many people learn in elementary and high schools. Subject–verb agreement, modifiers, and commas are all harder than you might think.

Beyond grammar, copyeditors need a strong foundation in:

  • Usage
  • At least one style manual
  • Language register
  • Writing styles, including voice and tone
  • Principles of editing, including fact-checking and querying
  • Usage of tables, graphics, and art
  • Permissions and other legal issues
  • A basic publishing process
  • Available reference works

This isn’t to say you have to be able to recite The Chicago Manual of Style or diagram a sentence to within an inch of its life. You need to be able to apply this knowledge and be willing to look things up often enough to confirm (or correct) your knowledge but not so often that it takes an hour to edit one sentence.

What You Need to Be Able to Do

Knowledge, of course, is only half the battle. You also have to be able to complete specific tasks:

  • Apply all the knowledge listed above to manuscripts without changing style and voice
  • Maintain a good working relationship with the author
  • Manage the time given for the edit; no project is without deadlines
  • Estimate editing time for a given project; freelancers need to be able to estimate costs, as well
  • Use Microsoft Word at an intermediate level (e.g., using Track Changes, AutoCorrect, spell check, macros, etc.)
  • Research language questions
  • Research factual questions

You’ll find editing easier if you have a working understanding of other common software, such as:

  • The rest of the MS Office suite
  • Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader
  • Adobe InCopy and/or InDesign
  • At least one content management system (e.g., WordPress)
  • Other word-processing software (e.g., Google Docs)

Don’t Give Up!

As I noted above, I’m not trying to discourage potential copyeditors. The opposite, in fact. More than one of my students were overwhelmed when they realized how much learning and training are involved in becoming a copyeditor. Once they understood what was ahead of them, they returned to being as enthusiastic as before, only now they were prepared for what was ahead of them.

You might have traits that would serve you well as an editor. You might do a job that’s related to editing. You might have a passion for words. These are all good indications that you’d like editing and could be good at it. When you combine these things with the necessary training, you can start on the path to becoming a professional copyeditor.

Next up: You’ve completed your training. Now what?

Originally published on on September 21, 2018.

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