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Posted on Jul 29, 2022

What is a Copy Editor: Responsibilities, Skills, and Salary

A copy editor revises other writers’ work line by line and checks for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. Additionally, copy editors improve a text’s readability by making sure that language, tone, and style are coherent and cohesive.

Read on if you want to learn more about what a copy editors’ responsibilities, skills, job opportunities, and expected salary are. 

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What does a copy editor do?

Illustration of a copy editor working

The role of a copy editor is to improve the overall quality of a manuscript by spotting mistakes in the language and tinkering with words. Rather than concerning themselves too much with big-picture issues such as character development or story structure, they make sure that the writing is as clear as it possibly can be, both on a sentence-by-sentence level and in the larger context of the manuscript.

Copy editors can work on a full manuscript or something shorter like an online copy, an article for a publication, or even a newsletter.

Some of their responsibilities may include: 

  • Checking for spelling, grammar, and capitalization;
  • Revising word usage, repetition, and dialogue tags;
  • Improving text formatting (e.g. use of bold and italics); 
  • Refine page layout (e.g. paragraph breaks and dialogue structure); 
  • Making sure that vocabulary is inclusive and appropriate;
  • Fix descriptive inconsistencies of characters, locations, etc.;
  • Fix unintentional POV/tense shifts.

However, some things fall outside the realm of copy editing, such as providing feedback on story structure or character development.

What is the difference between editing and copy editing?

Copy editing is just one of five types of editing. Typically, a piece of text needs to have a developmental edit (a revision of the content’s themes and structure) before it’s ready for a copy edit. 

Two texts edited, showing the difference between developmental editing and copy editing
A developmental editor is concerned with big-picture issues while a copy editor looks at the language itself.

Copy editors check the language and style to make sure everything is clear and correct, and then the piece is passed onto a proofreader, who does a final check to catch mistakes that slipped through the previous rounds. For nonfiction or historical fiction books, the text can be further revised by a fact-checker who ensures the accuracy and quality of information and sources cited. 

If you work in book publishing, editing can also be used to refer to the more administrative job of editorial assistants or production editors. These in-house positions tend to involve less line-by-line work than copy editing does — instead they work on acquiring manuscripts, building the publisher’s catalog, and overlooking production.

What skills does a copy editor need?

Copy editors showing different skills

While you don’t strictly need formal education to start a career as a copy editor, you’ll need a mix of technical and interpersonal skills to effectively do your job and collaborate with your clients.

Let’s briefly look at the most relevant ones. 

Excellent grasp of the English language

It goes without saying that you need to have expert knowledge of English grammar and syntax to be a good copy editor. Usually, you can learn the foundations by pursuing a degree in English, communication, or journalism, or enrolling in a course from respected institutions to get a copy editing certificate. But a copy editor will also need to have a certain degree of feeling for the language — they need to be able to trust their gut instinct and have an ear for what sounds right and what doesn’t.

Command of different style guides

On top of mastering the English language, you’ll need to get familiar with several editing style guides, from the Chicago Manual of Style to the AP Stylebook, as well as be aware of regional differences to make sure that the text you’re copy editing follows professional standards and is consistent throughout.

Strong work ethic and interpersonal skills

Copy editing can be a solitary venture, as you’ll spend lots of time reading lines on your own. To succeed in this business, it’s key to be focused, disciplined, and able to work independently. At the same time, you’ll need good communication skills in order to work with and retain clients, and collaborate with colleagues across departments. 

Computer literacy and organization skills

Most copy editing jobs require a solid understanding of editing software, such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, as well as email, calendar, and file management tools. Additionally, you need to be well-organized if you hope to take on more than one project at a time.

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Of course, having the skills and being able to prove it are two different things. To land your first jobs, you’ll also need relevant experience and a portfolio of articles or editing projects you’ve previously worked on. This will be a testament to your impeccable grammar and attention to details, and it will help you jumpstart your career. 

What job opportunities do copy editors have?

Illustration of a copy editor working at his desk

Copy editors can work with professionals from all kinds of industries to provide polished and clean texts, either as part of an in-house editing team, a marketing firm, or 一 as is often the case 一 independent freelancers. Most jobs will entail copy editing manuscripts, but also other types of content such as blog posts, newsletters, and social media ads.

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Copy editors in publishing

Some copy editors work in-house in the publishing industry. As such, they form part of an editing team, tasked primarily with reading and editing book proposals and manuscripts across different genres, but sometimes also with perfecting promotional materials for a book’s launch. 

Freelance copy editing

It is also common to work as a copy editor on a freelance basis. Freelance copy editors don’t work for a single organization, but rather collaborate with a pool of clients that they find through word-of-mouth, freelance gig sites, and marketplaces like Reedsy. The clients can be individual authors, journalists, or content managers 一 but they can also be companies and publishing houses, which nowadays turn to contractors more often. 

Of course, copy editors are needed in all fields where texts and marketing are involved (read: almost all fields) — not just book publishing — meaning that you can find work as a copy editor in a variety of industries, giving CPR to texts on topics as wide ranging as life insurance to the newest technological invention to hit the market.

Regardless of the field, both in-house and freelance copy editors can make good money, depending on their level of expertise. 

How much do copy editors make?

Illustration of a copy editor happy with her salary

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, copy editors in 2021 earned an average of $46,010. Less experienced copy editors tend to land between $29,000 and $34,000, while veterans who have held positions at major publishers can expect $60,000 or more. 

As a freelance editor, on the other hand, you set your own rates. On Reedsy marketplace, copy editors charge an average of $0.021 per word and earn anywhere between $800-$1,200 per project, depending on the word count. The more experience you have, the more you can charge — so rates might start on the lower end but as you get more projects under your belt, your rates should increase. 

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A copy editor is ultimately an advocate for professional writing who helps others raise the level of their craft and produce better books, articles, and overall content. If you’re interested in how to become a copy editor yourself, check out our guide for how to become a copy editor.