How to Become a Copy Editor: 5 Steps to Start Polishing Manuscripts
Being a copy editor means having the best of both worlds if you’re someone who loves the written word. On the one hand, you get to read amazing new literature; on the other, you get to dive in and help writers create beautiful texts that resonate with readers. And here’s the cherry on top: you can do all of this while building a strong, sustainable career for yourself.
Sound like your cup of tea? Then let’s get started! This post will walk you through how to become a copy editor in just six simple steps, starting with understanding what the job actually entails.
1. Research the scope of the job
Copy editing is a critical stage in the editing process, which aims to get a manuscript (or an online copy, a magazine article, a newsletter, etc.) ready for publication. In particular, a copy editor will look at a draft, sentence by sentence, to improve:
- Grammar and spelling;
- The accuracy of information used; and
- The consistency and strength of the prose.
As with proofreading, copy editing is a freelancing profession, although many copy editors also hold in-house positions as editorial assistants or production editors. Experience at a traditional publishing company can give you insights into the many types of editing involved in the craft, and therefore help you understand exactly how you fit into the process and what is expected of you as a copy editor. Editor Jasmin Kirkbride, who started out as an intern at Tenebris Books, says: “Being in-house developed me as an editor: I was able to get stuck into all the different stages of editing, and my manager at Periscope where I was an Editorial Assistant was generous, showing me the ropes in project management, so I could experience working on a book from the reader report right through to proofreading.”
And while it’s ideal to actually see the process unravel, we can give you a brief overview of several key distinctions in editing right here.
Copy editing vs. developmental editing vs. proofreading
The process of editing a book can be broken down into three broad phases: the developmental edit, the copy edit, and the proofread. The table below summarizes the key differences between them.
The copy edit is phase two of the editing process. You’ll work with the author to perfect the manuscript on a sentence level, making sure that the text reads smoothly and clearly. On top of that, you’ll help ensure that the writing is consistent (e.g. is the protagonist’s neighbor blue-eyed in Chapter 3, but green-eyed in Chapter 6?) and adheres to the standards of the appropriate style guide. If you are publishing in the US, this will tend to be the Chicago Manual of Style.
What you aren’t responsible for as a copy editor are the structure, pacing, and character development. That said, you can flag up these issues about that if you notice them.
Curious to see copy editors at work? You can learn by watching two professionals polish several manuscript extracts right here.
💰 How much does a professional copy editor make?
According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average salary of a copy editor is around $43,200 in 2019, although it ranges from $25,000 to $63,000.
As a freelancer, you set your own rates. On Reedsy, our copy editors charge an average of $21 per hour, and earn anywhere between $1,020-$2,550 per project, depending on the length of the book.
2. Brush up on your editing skills
Now that you’ve got an idea of what copy editing entails, it’s time to sharpen up your skills alongside the enthusiasm. Naturally, this means that you have to know grammar and spelling inside out.
If you want practice editing trickier sentences, check out Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook. You’ll find many exercises for you to test yourself, along with helpful tips. And if you want to level up your game even further, there are plenty of ways to go about that.
Take a course and earn a certificate
It often suffices to do your own research and practice — the quality of your work will attest to all the knowledge you have. However, if you’d like to let potential employers and clients know that you are a trustworthy, well-trained professional, consider taking editing classes organized by universities and editorial societies. Beyond giving you a certificate upon completion, these courses systematically take you through the process so that you have a practical understanding of what to do, rather than just a scholastic knowledge of the theory behind the English language.
Know your manuscript styles inside out
As we mentioned earlier, you’ll also want to know your manuscript styles. Whether you plan to do book or technical editing, there’s a typical format used that you should follow.
📚 If it’s a book (fiction or non-fiction), most publishers and agents ask for the standard format detailed in the Chicago Manual of Style.
🎓 If you’re doing academic copy editing, you might want to learn a couple or different reference and manuscript styles, such as the APA and the AP systems.
💻 If you’re working with website and social media content, make sure you know the best SEO practices to ensure optimal content.
If you plan on going down more technical routes, you’ll also need to have a firm grasp of other styles and special knowledge specific to that industry.
Learn to be an efficient fact-checker
Fact-checking isn’t just confined to non-fiction! When you work on a novel, you have to pay careful attention to the “facts” of the story as well.
Aja Pollock, editor and proofreader of the likes of Ken Follett and Mary Higgins Clark, shares: “Keeping good notes about character details, and building a solid timeline are key skills. When you save an author and a production editor from a mistake that would be more embarrassing than a typo — like factual errors or timeline inconsistencies — they really remember you and appreciate you. This is especially important for mystery and crime writers, who often lose track of their twisty plots; save them from themselves and they’ll request you every time they have a new manuscript.”
3. Find copy editing jobs
As mentioned earlier, copy editing is all done on a freelance basis, which means you’re have to find gigs, often from places such as:
- Publishing houses’ postings (they each maintain a database of regular freelancers)
- Publishing marketplaces like Reedsy
- Freelancing sites like Indeed and Upwork
- Job boards of editorial societies
- Occasional job postings on LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit
Becoming a copy editor won’t be easy — be ready to take low-paying gigs and internships (but also be aware of freelacer scams), often on the side of another profession. Use those chances to prove your worth and build connections in the industry, and you’ll soon have a solid profile to back you up.
Be flexible with the projects you take on
With almost two decades of experience — both at traditional companies and as a full-time freelance editor — Aja advises new editors to take any kind of editorial job that comes their way, especially if it comes from a traditional publishing house. “Most production editors will want to test your skills on proofreads or even on slugging (which means checking that corrections marked in a previous set of proofs were properly made in the current pass),” she says. “Accept any work anyone will give you, on any type of book, so you have a chance to prove your worth.”
Pro-tip: Start by impressing your clients with a professional freelance proposal template.
4. Become an expert in a niche
As you build your profile, you might begin to realize what you really want to focus on. It’s often wise to specialize in a few specific genres, so that you become the go-to copy editor for authors and publishers when it comes to those niches.
To become an expert in your niche, it’s not enough to just seek out relevant gigs. You should also do extra research to polish your knowledge of the genre, which will involve reading up on your niche as well as keeping your eyes peeled for discussions among professionals.
Follow editorial societies if you’re a book editor
Some common practices in certain genres, for instance, are:
- Middle Grade and Fantasy is typically written in the past tense
- Literary Fiction authors tend to experiment more with the present tense
- Children’s Fiction tend to use alliterations, rhymes, and onomatopoeia
While you read them all the time, a lot of this knowledge isn’t actually known outside of the genre in question. That’s why it’s highly beneficial to join circles within your niche. There are courses and webinars that can gradually add onto your knowledge of different genres; editing societies such as the EFA and ACES organize these regularly. Some Reedsy Live webinars featuring experienced editors are also very informative, and they’re all free to access!
Follow marketing experts if you’re a website editor
No one keeps up with trends and changes as well as marketers. If your copy editing journey is heading down the route of website or newsletter editing, you also have to be aware of the latest optimal practices. To help with that, consider keeping tabs on the blogs of Moz, SEMRush, HubSpot — just to name a few.
5. Keep learning as you go
As with everything, building a career in copy editing is an ongoing process. You should always be finding new things to learn, be it knowledge about the genre or nuggets of wisdom regarding how to manage your work and your professional relationships. Stay connected to fellow editors as much as possible — you can even find them on Twitter (using #copyediting and #amediting) and Reddit (follow the r/editing thread). You never know who might bring you a new opportunity, or help you refine your skills.
Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind, as you develop your freelance editing business.
Approaching a manuscript
Every editor approaches a manuscript in their own way. Aja, for example, reveals that she usually reads a manuscript two times: “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 the most. Just remember that your ultimate goal is to help your client connect to their audience, so as to always keep their perspective in mind.
Working with clients
As a freelance editor, you can’t forget that you’re working on a writer’s brain-child, the product of their sweat and tears — naturally, they will be very attached to it. While most authors probably won’t kick up too much of a fuss when you suggest things akin to killing their darlings, some may put up a fight. To protect your working relationship as well as your integrity as an editor, you must learn to professionally and coherently communicate your suggestions. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, check out Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor to learn how to better negotiate with authors.
Becoming a crucial cog in the machine of the content creating business is not simple, but the fact that you get to help others harness the full power of the written word makes all the effort worthwhile. With these tips, we’re going to send you off into the world of copy editing. Good luck!