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Last updated on May 16, 2022

What Does a Copy Editor Do, and How Can You Become One?

For lovers of the written word, working as a copy editor offers the best of both worlds: you get to consume amazing new literature while helping writers create beautiful texts and build a sustainable publishing career for yourself. To get you started on this path, in this post we’ll provide a quick description of what the job entails, followed by six steps on how to become a copy editor yourself. 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 goes through a text line by line, corrects poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and refines language to make it clearer and cohesive in style. They also fix factual errors and inconsistencies to make sure the text is a good and accurate piece of writing. Copy editors can work on a full manuscript or something shorter like an online copy, an article for a publication, or even a newsletter.

How to Become a Copy Editor | Annotated example of a text being copy edited
Copy editors tinker with words to make texts more accurate and coherent to read.

What is the difference between editing and copy editing? 

Copy editing is only one type 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. 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. These types of editing jobs can all be done on a freelance basis. 

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 — instead they work on acquiring manuscripts, building the publisher’s catalog, and overlooking production.

How much do copy editors make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average copy editor salary in 2021 wasaround $46,010 per annum. Less experienced copy editors tend to land around $29,000-$34,000, while veterans who have held positions at major publishers can expect $60,000 or more. 

As a freelance editor, you set your own rates. On Reedsy, our copy editors charge an average of $0.021 per word and earn anywhere between $800-$1,200 per project, depending on the length of the text. The more experience you have, the more you can charge — so rates might start on the lower end but things will eventually be looking up. 

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How to become a copy editor in 6 practical steps

Now that you have a solid sense of what copy editing entails and how much it pays — does it sound like a career for you? If yes, then let’s take a look at how to become a copy editor:

1. Take a copy editing course 

Being a good writer does not guarantee that you’re a good copy editor. Instinctively, most native speakers don’t think about grammar rules when writing and tend to miss mistakes when reading because their brain corrects them automatically. A copy editor, however, must pay attention to little details like these. Should it be “James’ homework” or “James’s homework”? What’s the difference between e.g. and i.e., and is the author using them in the right context?

If you haven’t formally studied these rules, a certificate course can take you through them. Most courses will teach you practical skills to work with different author’s voices and be aware of diverse language choices (to make texts more inclusive and avoid microaggressions). A course is thus a great way to prepare you for a freelance copy editing career. 

How to Become a Copy Editor | Collage of logos of instutions that give editing courses
A certificate from one of these organizations can be a boost to your CV.

Quality copy editing certificates from reputable organizations will also enhance your CV in the eyes of clients. While it’s not strictly necessary to have a qualification, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have verification that you’ve been professionally trained. 

2. Study different style guides

Other than the standard language rules and practical interpersonal skills that a certification program can teach you, you’ll also have to do plenty of homework — including studying style guides. 

Style guides outline the writing and formatting standards for a piece of text. Think details like whether an em-dash comes with spaces on either of its sides, whether the Oxford comma is used, or what citations should look like. These tiny details can really elevate the professionalism of a piece of writing, but authors aren’t very good at perfecting them — which is where copy editors come in. 

In book publishing, the commonly used guide is the Chicago Manual of Style. For academic writing, there are more options going around, including AP, APA, and MLA. That said, each copy editing project may come with a different guide, and it’s best you brush up on what is appropriate to your niche. 

The more you know about these style guides, the better. Clients would appreciate your ability to not only make their writing correct and coherent but also professional in the eyes of readers. Luckily, these guides are available online as ebooks that you can refer to, but the more you learn while you train, the less work time you’ll spend scanning pages of guidelines. 

3. Focus on an editorial niche 

You may be tempted to accept any copy editing job coming your way when you first start out, but it’s always more effective if you can focus on specific areas. Think of it like this: a copy editor who works well with academic articles may be great at clarifying technical expressions and formatting in-line citations but they may not be used to the more poetic prose of literary fiction pieces. Logically, clients want to work with someone who knows their genre. 

How to Become a Copy Editor | Illustration of book covers in different genres

As you test the waters, begin to think about what you enjoy doing the most, and what you’re best at. Consider your specialty on two levels:

  • The format: Do you want to work on news and magazine articles, SEO copies, or full-length books? 
  • The genre: Will the content be about politics or lifestyle; the tech industry or education; romance or thriller — or something else? 

Depending on the circumstances, you might not be able to specialize on what you truly want at first. But that is still something you can work towards. Editor Alyssa Matesic shared with us in a webinar that she worked on a lot of thrillers and suspense in her in-house career because that was the opportunity available at the time, but she always had an interest in creative nonfiction. When she started freelancing, she was able to enter a new niche in memoir editing. 

So don’t worry about getting it perfectly when you start out — begin with a genre you can work in, and read plenty of it to pinpoint its popular tropes, language styles, voice, etc. Become an expert, and highlight your expertise in your profile. Which leads us to the next step… 

4. Create a friendly, succinct profile

To succeed in freelance copy editing — or any kind of self-employment work — you need to have a good profile. This is your shopfront and your CV, where clients come to see whether you’re fit for their project. 

The structure we have for Reedsy profiles, and what we’d suggest for your website, goes as follows:

  • A brief introduction about yourself, qualifications, years of experience, and specialty; 
  • A detailed list of (relevant) employment experiences, if any; 
  • A portfolio of books (or texts) you’ve worked on; and 
  • Reviews and testimonials from former clients, if any. 

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Every part of your portfolio is testament to your work’s quality and professionalism, and ideally, your target client will be persuaded a little more with every line. You should highlight your niche, displaying work in your preferred genre front-and-center. Feel free to exclude far-removed pieces to keep things concise and cohesive. 

5. Find copy editing jobs 

You’ve got the skills, the profile, and perhaps even a little experience under your belt, copy editing a friend’s work or blog content. Now it’s time to find clients that will pay well for your services.

The most common sources for finding copy editing jobs are:

  • Publishing marketplaces like Reedsy;
  • Freelance gig sites like Upwork and Indeed;
  • Editorial societies’ job boards;
  • Occasional job postings on LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit; and
  • Major publishers (who maintain a database of regular freelancers). 

Be aware that you may run into freelancer scams on sites with less stringent criteria like Upwork. It is easier to start with those marketplaces, but aim to move to specialized marketplaces for your preferred industry as you progress. 

Be flexible with the projects you take on

Another tip to kickstart your career is to be flexible. We did say to train yourself as a copy editor and pick a niche, but you have to plan for the (common) scenario that your desired work opportunities won’t come knocking right away. Veteran copy editor Aja Pollock says: 

“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. Accept any work anyone will give you, on any type of book, so you have a chance to prove your worth.”

By the time the opportunity you dream of comes around, your CV will be strong enough to give you a proper chance of getting the job. 

6. Market your editing service with good word-of-mouth

One of the best ways to market yourself is to let others do the work. For a person interested in your copy editing service, nothing is more reassuring than to hear from your previous clients that you are understanding, professional, and excellent at polishing writing. 

So cultivate those positive customer testimonials early on and display them clearly on your website. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from your clients after each collaboration and encourage them to come back for other projects, or refer anyone in need of copy editing to you.

How to Become a Copy Editor | Screenshot of a search for editors on Reedsy
Reedsy automatically asks authors for star and written reviews after every project and displays it on your profile — so you don’t have to! 

A bonus tip: pay attention to the non-editing aspects of your collaboration. Writers who need editing can sometimes be afraid that editors are going to be critical and ask them to cut out phrases and sentences that they poured their heart into. Reassure them that you aren’t here to make them “kill their darlings”, but to point out places for improvement and suggest changes. You are on their team and you work to elevate their writing, not dictate it. This makes you a better creative collaborator and someone clients will be happy to recommend. 

For more tips on building strong partnerships with authors, check out this discussion between editors Allister Thompson and Ashely Wyrick on client retention strategies.

Being a copy editor can be fun and rewarding — not only do you get to read exciting new work, but you also get to be a part of authors’ wonderful journeys. We hope that  this guide has given you what you need in order to become a beloved copy editor. Good luck!

– Originally published on Dec 20, 2020