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Last updated on Jun 24, 2021

What Does a Copy Editor Do? And How to Become One in 4 Steps

If you love the written word, then working as a copy editor will give you the best of both worlds. You get to consume amazing new literature and assist writers in creating beautiful texts that resonate with other readers! And the cherry on top is that you can do all this while building a sustainable publishing career for yourself.

Want to know more? You’ve come to the right place. Here we’ll provide a quick copy editor job description to help you decide if it’s the right path for you, followed by key tips on how to become a copy editor so you can get started right away! Let’s dive in.

Looking to hire a copy editor, not become one yourself? We’ve got 100+ copy editors available for hire right here.

What does a copy editor do?

A copy editor corrects poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation, refines language to be clearer and more engaging, and fixes factual errors and inconsistencies in a text. A copy editor may work on a full manuscript or something shorter — online copy, an article for a publication, or even a newsletter — going through line-by-line to make it more readable.

What is the difference between editing and copy editing? 

Given the definition above, you might think that copy editing sounds like any regular kind of editing. The truth is copy editing is only one type of editing — there are also other kinds like developmental editing, proofreading, and even managerial editing. While a copy edit involves a lot of stylistic consideration, a developmental edit analyzes the content of the text and how it was structured. A proofread is more about correcting syntax errors, and less about language style — you can get a fuller analysis of the differences in this post.

If you work in publishing, there are also administrative editor roles, like editorial assistants or production editors. These tend to deal less with the manuscript itself and more with the overall production of a book — and they’re often offered as in-house positions. Meanwhile, many copy editing gigs are freelance, and editors could work on them as a part-time endeavour or full-time editing job

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How much do copy editors make?

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, in 2020, the average copy editor salary is around $44,600/year. Less experienced copy editors will make closer to $25,000-$30,000, while veteran copy editors who have held positions at major publishers can make $60,000 or more.

As a freelance editor, you set your own rates. On Reedsy, our copy editors charge an average of $21/hour and earn anywhere between $1,000-$3,000 per project, depending on the length of the book. And remember, the more experience you have, the more you can charge — so might start on the lower end but things will eventually be looking up. 

Now that you’ve got a solid sense of what copy editing entails and how much it pays, let’s break down how to actually become a copy editor!

How to become a copy editor in 4 steps

You now know the job description and the salary — here's the steps you can take in order to become a copy editor:

1. Brush up on your skills

Copy editing is about being focused enough to notice any sentence that might hinder the text’s ability to deliver its message, whether in terms of readability or style — it’s more complex than understanding grammar and vocabulary. Here are some tips to help you strengthen the special skills you’ll need as a copy editor.

🎓 Take a course and earn a certificate

Even if you’re already well-versed in the mechanics of the English language — or whatever language(s) you choose to copy edit in — it never hurts to refresh your memory with a copy editing course. Courses are also a great way to update yourself to the latest conventions of the language, which changes all the time!

A copy editing certificate from a verified course also acts as a qualification to show employers and clients that you are a trained, knowledgeable professional. It’s not a requirement, but it can enhance your résumé and boost your chances of getting hired.

📝 File your mind on the whetstone of tough sentences

A great copy editor is both precise and efficient, able to instantly identify what’s wrong with any mis-written or murky sentence. To improve your own abilities here, try editing sample sentences with subtle mechanical problems — not just misspelled words or missing commas, but redundant phrasing, subject-verb disagreement, language inclusivity, and so on.

Where to find these sentences, you ask? Try Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor's Workbook for some classic practice. You can also take advantage of copy editing exercises online! Those who have exhausted more basic exercises might find the New York Times copy editing quizzes particularly stimulating:

nyt copy editor quiz
What’s wrong with this sentence? A sample from the NYT’s Copy Edit This! Quiz #1.

✅ ABC: Always be consistent

Just as important as accuracy in copy editing is consistency. Of course, when it comes to mechanics like spelling and grammar, you need to be both! But with things like which style guide you adhere to, the “correct” answer isn’t always universal.

For example, if you’re doing academic or journalistic copy editing, you’ll want to know the AP Stylebook inside and out. But if you’re working on a manuscript, most authors and publishers prefer the Chicago Manual of Style. Some fiction authors even have their own vernacular, which means that you might have to fashion your own specific stylesheet to refer to. The important thing is you stay to one kind of spelling, grammar, and punctuation throughout each project. 

Consistency is also paramount when it comes to narrative details. In fiction, this mostly pertains to descriptions, i.e. making sure a character doesn’t have blue eyes in one scene and green eyes in another. In nonfiction, it means ensuring that all factual information is in agreement, possibly even fact-checking if it’s a rigorous text!

Finally, you’ll need to keep an eye on the author’s voice throughout the piece. This is a more nuanced consideration, as no two writers will have the same voice — but the more projects you work on, the better you get at noticing the particular style and consistency in each piece.

Learn more about the editing for voice and style in this detailed post on line editing.

2. Find copy editing jobs

Again, most copy editors work as freelancers, meaning they have to find and contract their own gigs. Where do they find these copy editing jobs? The most common sources are:

  • Publishing marketplaces like Reedsy
  • Freelance gig sites like Upwork and Indeed
  • Editorial societies’ job boards
  • Occasional job postings on LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit
  • Major publishers (they maintain a database of regular freelancers, though you’ll need to attract their attention through other jobs first)

As you’re starting out, be prepared to take low-paying part-time jobs and internships to establish yourself. You’ll have to remain wary of freelancer scams, but for the most part, you should be able to find legitimate copy editing jobs without too much trouble — they just might not be as well-paid as you’d like.

The good news is that if you use these opportunities wisely, you’ll build up your portfolio and create more connections in the industry, and soon you’ll have a solid profile to earn you some better jobs! A couple more tips to help you get there:

🎯 Start with one-off gigs, but aim for regular clients

One of the most accessible way to set your copy editing career in motion is to start with gig sites like Upwork and Indeed. On Upwork in particular, it’s easy to find copy editing jobs that you can use to quickly develop your portfolio.

upwork copy editor gig
An example of the sort of copy editing gig you’ll see on Upwork.

That said, as you’re picking and choosing, keep an eye out for people posting frequent or multiple jobs at a time. If you can impress them — and if they pay reasonably well — that’s a one-way ticket to sustainable copy editing! Not only will they keep coming back to you, but they’ll likely recommend you to others in their industry as well.

Pro tip: One surefire way to impress clients is by using a professional freelance proposal template to reach out to them.

🤸‍♀️ Be flexible with the projects you take on

Additionally, as you sift through job listings on sites like Indeed and Upwork, keep an open mind! Even if you don’t think a certain job is up your alley, it may lead to something more substantial or rewarding. Experienced copy editors will know that most early jobs aren’t usually very interesting — you’ll have to do a bit of grunt work before you can ascend, especially if you aspire to work for a major publication or publisher.

“Most production editors will want to test your skills on proofreads or even on slugging, which is checking that corrections marked in a previous set of proofs were properly made in the current pass,” says copy editor Aja Pollock. “Accept any work anyone will give you, on any type of book, so you have a chance to prove your worth.”

3. Master your niche

On the note of aspirations, as you’re building your portfolio, you’ll come to understand what you like doing best — whether that’s copy editing articles for newspapers or magazines, snappy posts designed for SEO, or full-length books. Within that medium, you’ll also start to get a sense of your preferred niche: book publishing, for instance, encompasses a lot of different genres

But to become a true expert in your niche, it’s not enough to just seek out relevant gigs. You’ll need to do some extra research to maximize your knowledge, stay updated on the latest practices and trends, and chase those valuable connections. Here’s how to proceed.

📖 Read extensively in your niche

If you’re hoping to become a go-to copy editor for a niche and haven’t yet read its biggest names, drop everything and do so immediately! If you’re pretty familiar with your niche, take this chance to explore its somewhat lesser-known contributors — for instance, if you want to edit contemporary literary fiction and you’ve already read everything by Sally Rooney, try Kiley Reid and Rachel Khong. Or if you’re going the publication route, look at indie literary magazines. You might even consider reaching out to ask if they need a copy editor!

As you consume these works, pay attention not only to the mechanics, but also to the flow of the prose. How are sentences structured to balance each other out and ensure good pacing? What sort of language and literary devices crop up again and again? Again, as a copy editor, your job isn’t just to fix obvious errors, but also to shape the author’s style and voice; a strong sense of what successful works in your niche sound like is critical.

🖋 Join editorial societies

editorial societies: aces and efa

Joining an editorial society like ACES or the EFA can also be quite helpful when it comes to understanding the conventions and trends of your niche. There’s only so much you can gather from your own reading — societies like these let you network with editors who’ve been there and who can share plenty of wisdom. From face-to-face events to Twitter chats, communities are the perfect place to be enriching your professional knowledge. 

What’s more, editorial societies have their own job boards to which members get exclusive access, typically with much more interesting and lucrative gigs than you’d find on Upwork and Indeed! Between these job boards and other networking opportunities, a professional editorial society is often worth the membership fee.

💬 Ask around for jobs

Once you've gotten a network (however small), you can start using it to your advantage! Word-of-mouth is one of the best sources of jobs for most editors, so don't hesitate to  ask fellow editors in your niche where they find jobs, and let them know you’d be grateful for them to recommend you. If you can show them that you’re a thoughtful copy editor, they might start coming to you with their overflow work — a win-win, since that way they don’t have to disappoint clients when they’re too busy.

And in the spirit of flexibility, remember that you might just snag a job at a publication by asking outright if they need a copy editor, even when you haven't seen their listing. So long as you do some research on that publisher and reach out politely but enthusiastically to the right person (like a managing editor), you might end up having a getting a job.

4. Keep learning as you go

Even with all these tips in your pocket, remember that building your copy editing career will take time. Always look out for new things to learn and ways to network! Stay connected to your fellow editors as much as possible — you can find them on Twitter (using hashtags like #copyediting and #amediting) and Reddit (follow the r/editing thread). You never know who might bring you a new opportunity or some sage advice!

Here are some final things to keep in mind as you develop your freelance editing business.

✍️ Approaching each piece

Though every copy editor has their own approach, you’ll want to develop a standard procedure of your own so that you can dive into each project right away. Aja Pollock, for example, usually reads through each manuscript at least twice: “On the second read, as much as possible, I want to read like a reader, not an editor. You catch different things that way.”

Keep at it, and you too will find a method that suits you and your niche. Remember that your number-one goal should always be to improve the reader’s connection and comprehension — like Pollock, you should probably do at least one read-through where you try to see things from the reader’s perspective and clarify anything they might miss.

💼 Working with clients

Perhaps most importantly, always remember that you’re working on a writer’s brain-child, the product of their blood, sweat, and tears; it’s only natural they’ll be very attached to it. Though most authors tend to be cooperative, sometimes you might come across a client who resists your suggestions. It’s important to proceed diplomatically — again, it’s their baby! Start with the inarguable changes: fixing typos, grammatical errors, and glaring inconsistencies. Once you’ve presented these to the writer in question, you can ease them into additional rounds of more subjective stylistic editing.

It may help to have a video call to talk through your edits, as many people respond better to face-to-face communication than the cold comfort of Google Doc suggestions and email chains. (Though of course, all your written communication should be a model of professionalism and efficient response times as well!) For more tips on how to communicate well with clients, pick up some books on editing such as Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor.

Final thoughts

As you’ve probably gathered, becoming a crucial cog in the machine of content creation is no easy feat. But if you have the passion, dedication, and sharp eyes to get the job done, you’re sure to succeed as a copy editor — and helping others harness the full power of the written word will make all your efforts worthwhile. Good luck!

– Originally published on Dec 20, 2020