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Breaking into Copyediting, Part 4: When You’re “Mostly” Qualified

Magnifying glass over word career

Copyediting is a great second career for word lovers, but getting started can be a mystery. I started this series by exploring how to get training and how to continue that training. Last week, I shared several tips for applying to editing jobs, encouraging readers to apply only to jobs they’re qualified for. Not being a good fit won’t land you the job and will waste everyone’s time.

But what if you’re mostly qualified?

What Is “Mostly” Qualified?

Being mostly qualified means that you match 90 percent of the required skills and characteristics and that you can do 90 percent of the job’s tasks. Anything you’re lacking can’t be a major part of the job.

For example, if the ad asks for at least five years’ experience editing pharmaceutical copy and you have only one year, that’s a big gap. There’s a lot you don’t know yet, and any errors you make that aren’t caught can have serious consequences. But if you have fouryears’ experience, you likely have a good handle on the topic and know how to handle the risks.

I know, I know: Everyone fudges their qualifications; how can you compete with that? And you need to work and most of what’s out there requires more skills and experience than you have.

Those are very real, tough challenges. Getting started can sometimes be demoralizing. I searched for months and sent out hundreds of résumés when I started my career. And even as a seasoned editor, I have to put a good deal of effort into winning new clients and projects.

But understand:

  • The employer or client has the right to set reasonable requirements for the job. Unless you know differently, it’s wise to assume that there’s a reason for the requirements listed.
  • If you fudge and get found out, you’ll likely be fired—and it quickly becomes apparent when you don’t have enough editing skills.

When Fudging Fails

Laura Poole, a seasoned copyeditor and editor trainer, tells a story from the beginning of her editing career. At that time, she said, “I figured I could edit anything! I boldly applied for all the gigs I could, landing quite a few of them and learning skills and style manuals on the way.”

This worked well … until it didn’t.

Laura took on a software book for engineers that was outside her skill set. She thought it wouldn’t be too different from the general-audience computer books she had edited.

“I couldn’t make any sense of it,” she said, “and my confidence level went way down.” Although she asked for feedback as she turned in chapters, it wasn’t until halfway through that she got the feedback: she was fired.

The experience taught Laura a lesson she shares with others to this day. “I learned what my limits were,” she said, “and I stay away from topics that are outside my realm of experience, are uninteresting, or are beyond my skill set.”

Building Trust by Being Open

Being open about your skills doesn’t always mean you won’t get the job. If it’s the lack of a certain skill that the employer or client can work around or is willing to train you for, you may find yourself hired anyway—and you’ll have built trust in the process.

Recently, I worked on a book that had been written in InDesign. The author was a designer and he was comfortable with that software. However, I had never used InDesign, and I let him know that upfront.

After some discussion, we agreed that I would do the first (heaviest) edit in Word. After the author had dealt with those edits, I’d do subsequent rounds in InDesign—which he would provide a license for and train me on. It was a compromise that gave me valuable experience and let my client work mostly in his preferred software. Plus, he got to hire the editor he wanted.

Do’s and Don’ts of Applying

If you really are mostly qualified, what do you do?

  1. Don’t ignore any lack of skills you have. Someone really is ticking boxes and they will notice the lack. At best they’ll ignore your application and move on. At worst, they’ll remember you and judge you as dishonest, vowing never to hire you.
  2. Don’t beat yourself up over the lack. Hiring agents want people with confidence. Being negative about your skills will only push others away. If you don’t think you can do it, why should they?
  3. Do explain how you will overcome that obstacle—and be ready to go on Day 1 or on an agreed-upon date. Maybe you can learn the software before you start. Perhaps you don’t have the exact skill required but you have a related skill that will get the job done. Hiring agents also like people who can solve problems; show them how you solve this one.

By being upfront about any lack of a skill and how you can overcome it (or will), you’ll build trust and show initiative and problem-solving skills. Many hiring agents value such traits over minor skills they can teach you quickly.

Ultimately, you’re presenting yourself as the solution to someone’s problem, a person who can get the job done. If you’re not close, don’t waste their—or your—time.

But if you’re most of the way there and can find a workable solution, make your case and see how it goes.

Good luck!

Previous: How to get your first copyediting job.

A version of this article originally ran on on October 12, 2018.

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