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 copy editors extraordinaire to spill the beans 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. Duties at some companies also include performing rewrites, writing headlines and reshaping leads.

Check out open copy editor positions on Mediabistro’s job board.

What skills are required?
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, cofounder 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 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. “This 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. “Most every copy editor I’ve known has just had impeccable grammar skills.” Show yours off by interning, freelancing or starting your own sharply written, error-free blog.

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