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Posted on Dec 20, 2020

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 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.

As in the proofreading profession, most copy editors work as full-time freelancers, although some may hold in-house positions as editorial assistants or production editors. Of course, in-house copy editors only work on one type of material, whereas freelance copy editors can pick and choose their projects. One day they might be polishing the prose of an exciting new book, while the next they might be plucking the typos from a magazine article.

This is perhaps the greatest upside of being a freelance copy editor: if you choose your projects wisely, you’ll never get bored! That said, if you’re serious about a career as a copy editor, you’ll also want to cultivate a niche. We’ll talk more about doing this in the how-to section below.

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How much do copy editors make?

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average copy editor salary is around $43,200/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. So if you manage to copy edit 20 books per year (about one book every 2-3 weeks), you’ll be comfortably well-off.

And remember, the more experience you have, the more you can charge — so even if you’re averaging $15/hour when you first start out, after editing multiple books your first year, you could conceivably raise your rates to $20/hour or more.

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

1. Brush up on your skills

First and foremost, if you want to succeed as a copy editor, you’ll need a strong grasp of the necessary skills. This means sharpening your knowledge of spelling and grammar, familiarizing yourself with the relevant style guide(s), and more. Here are some tips to help you out.

🎓 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. You may discover little-known rules you’ll need to remember as a professional editor, or a weakness in your technique that you can correct before it ruins your reputation.

Furthermore, having a copy editing certificate from a verified course shows 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, especially as a brand-new editor on the scene.

📝 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 split infinitives, redundant phrasing, subject-verb disagreement, and so on.

Where to find these sentences, you ask? Try Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook, which has tons of helpful copy editing tips and exercises to test yourself. Or for more slightly technical, advanced material, check out its companion, The Copyeditor's Workbook. 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. Fortunately, you can always look things up in the stylebook you’re using — just don’t muddle your standards across mediums!

Consistency is also paramount when it comes to narrative details. In fiction, this mostly pertains to descriptions: making sure a character doesn’t have blue eyes in one scene and green eyes in another, or that two people aren’t suddenly right next to each other after being on opposite sides of the room. In nonfiction, it means making sure that all factual information is in agreement, possibly even fact-checking if it’s a rigorous text!

Finally, you’ll need to ensure the author’s voice is consistent throughout the piece. This is a more nuanced consideration, as no two writers will have the same voice — but the more voice adjustments you make in the course of copy editing, the better you’ll become at this.

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

The best (and really only) way to set your copy editing career in motion is to start with gig sites like Upwork and, to a lesser extent, 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 going to be 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: for example, in-depth feature pieces for publications, or historical romance books (romance is the biggest genre in self-publishing, so you’ll see no shortage of these manuscripts as a new book editor!).

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! Even 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 have standard, across-the-board practices for you to reference in each area, as well as courses and webinars so you can learn more.

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

Yes, we just said there’s more to this than seeking out relevant gigs. But at the end of the day, you can’t just keep researching, honing your skills, and hoping for the right work to fall into your lap! If you’re months (or years) into your journey as a freelance copy editor and still hardly getting the jobs you want, that means you need to hustle a little more.

In addition to checking those gig sites and editorial society job boards regularly, 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.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to get creative! As we said, you might just snag a job at a publication by asking outright if they need a copy editor. Another tack is requesting an “informational interview” with a current editor at such a publication, or another freelance editor who works in your niche. You’ll get more insight into what the job is like day-to-day, and they might remember you and reach out again when they have something for you to do.

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. Still, most authors tend to accept their copy editors’ suggestions without too much of a fight (otherwise they wouldn’t have hired one in the first place!).

But when you get a client who resists your suggestions, it’s still 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!