Skills & Expertise

What Does a Copy Editor Do?

If you're a super speller and a great grammarian, and have a killer eye for details, this always-in-demand role could be the one for you

Are you fanatical about the use or non-use of serial commas? Does misuse of “their,” “they’re,” and “there” drive you insane? Does an article that vacillates between “10” and “ten” make your blood boil? How about channeling that talent into a copy editor job?

We got a few professional copy editors extraordinaire to spill the beans for you on the position. Read what they had to say—we promise you won’t find any mistakes in our write-up.

What exactly does a copy editor do?

Sure, copy editors correct misspellings (it’s “supersede,” not “supercede”) and whip grammar into shape (between you and me, don’t let a writer get away with “between you and I”), but there’s a lot more to it.

These grammar Svengalis are also charged with reviewing content for proper punctuation, usage and syntax; creating and/or updating in-house style rules; fine-tuning structure, tone, and voice; and ensuring clarity, coherence, and logical flow and consistency in words, typography, art, and style.

“Style can include the specifics of any particular publishing company, as well as the type of guide being used, such as the Chicago Manual of Style,” says Ciara Larkin, a senior copy editor in book publishing at Thomson Reuters.

Some copy editors also function as proofreaders, fact-checkers, and even project managers who oversee workflow and communicate with other departments throughout the production process, Larkin says. At some companies, duties include performing rewrites, writing headlines, and reshaping leads.

What skills are required to be a copy editor?
This should go without saying, but what the heck: Know the English language like the back of your hand, says Larkin, who notes proper spelling and grammar are undervalued these days.

There’s no getting around attention to detail, says Jenna Rose Robbins, an editor, writer and web consultant at Siteseeing Media & Web Consulting. “And some people just can’t be taught because it requires a specific type of focus,” she adds. “I know some amazing line editors who are terrible copy editors.”

You need to know Associated Press and/or Chicago style. “This is just something that has to be learned, like memorizing the periodic table of the elements, only in more detail,” Robbins says.

You also need to be curious and crazy organized, says Jennifer Bright Reich, co-founder and editorial director of Momosa Publishing. The ability to meet deadlines is also important.

Who is a copy editor’s boss?
It varies by company, but a copy chief, editor-in-chief, or managing editor is the usual suspect.

What do you need to get ahead in this position?
It takes an undying desire to produce perfect copy to excel at this job. “Copy editing is one of those rare cases where perfectionism is an asset,” Robbins says.

How can you get your foot in the door?
A degree in journalism or English could help, but your knack for the English language is your ace in the hole. “I’ve never heard of anyone getting a copy-editing job based on a degree or certification,” says Robbins. “Almost every copy editor I’ve known has had impeccable grammar skills.” Show yours off by interning, freelancing, or starting your own sharply written, error-free blog.

How the future is shaping up for copy editors

As we wrap up this dive into the world of copy editing, let’s gaze into the crystal ball and explore what the future holds for this meticulous and crucial profession. The world of publishing and content creation is ever-evolving, and so is the role of a copy editor.

In the coming years, the rise of digital media and AI technologies will likely transform how copy editors work, but fear not – this is less about replacement and more about enhancement. For instance, while AI can help with basic spell checks and grammar, the nuanced understanding of context, style, and tone still lies in the human domain. Embracing these tech tools can free up your time for more complex editing tasks where your expertise truly shines.

Moreover, the increasing demand for content across diverse digital platforms presents new opportunities for copy editors. We’re talking about editing for websites, apps, multimedia presentations, and even virtual reality experiences. The core principles of clear, coherent, and engaging content remain the same, but the ways to apply them are multiplying.

For those looking to future-proof their copy editing career, it’s about being adaptable, continuously learning, and expanding your skills beyond traditional boundaries. Stay curious about new publishing platforms, familiarize yourself with basic SEO principles, and maybe dabble in some content strategy. Learn about new immersive technologies and gameplay.

Remember, at its heart, copy editing is about safeguarding the quality of information in an age of information overload. It’s a noble pursuit, and as we step into the future, your role becomes not just about correcting commas and catching typos but also about upholding the integrity and clarity of information in our digital world.

So, keep honing those skills, embrace the changes, and leap into the opportunities that lie ahead. The future of copy editing is bright and needs sharp minds like yours. Now go forth and edit boldly in this brave new world!

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