How to Be a Copy Editor

Organize the tools of your trade and keep them at your fingertips.

Organize the tools of your trade and keep them at your fingertips.

If a copy editor position has opened at your company and you are a detail-oriented person with a love of the English language, you may be on track to make a smart career move. Even without experience, you can prove yourself to be a conscientious editor by following some of the “golden rules” of the trade. Remember: copy editors aren’t born; they finesse their skill with experience.

Read as much as you can from your company’s library so that you can get a feel for the publication's “voice.” Some publications, especially medical journals, prefer a more formal style in which jargon is acceptable. By contrast, many consumer publications promote a conversational tone -- as if the writer is “talking” to the reader in a casual, informal manner.

Select a good online dictionary and grammar source and keep them minimized on your computer screen at all times. Expect to refer to them frequently. These sources are a matter of preference, but arguably two of the best are the Merriam Webster online dictionary and the Purdue owl website.

Familiarize yourself with the AP Stylebook, which is referred to as “the journalist’s bible.” The Associated Press also operates an online version of its style guide. Keep your company’s house style book handy, too, because if there is a dispute between these two sources, your house style preferences will almost always prevail. For example, the AP Stylebook calls for the “p” in “president “ to be capitalized only when it precedes a formal title and to be lowercased otherwise. Your company, however, may wish that your company president -- as well as others in top positions -- be referred to in the more deferential capitalized manner at all times.

Invest in some of journalism’s “junior bibles,” such as William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style” and “The Complete Word Book” by Mary DeVries. These books focus on the art and science of producing clear and concise sentences. They also provide lists of commonly misused words, such as “affect” and “effect,” and homophones, such as “meet” and “meat.” The topics covered in these books, including deleting clichés and redundant words and phrases, will help you sharpen your skills as a copy editor.

Develop the good habit of reading copy at least twice. It may be difficult to compartmentalize your mind so that you are reading the first time for grammar -- such as sentence structure, parallelism and verb tenses -- and again for spelling and punctuation. After all, if you spot a spelling error during the first read, you should correct it immediately rather than wait for the second review. Many successful copy editors read a piece three times: the first read serves as a quick review, just to get a feel for the content. The second read is the most labor intensive, in which they make changes and corrections. The third is to proofread the final version, focusing on punctuation and typos. Develop a system that works for you, as long as it is thorough and methodical.

Resign yourself to editing copy in a very different way than you are probably used to reading it. No matter how many reviews you ultimately decide to give each piece you are responsible for editing, you will have to slow down your normal reading pace. Some copy editors read copy aloud or, if they work in the presence of others, read a sentence in a staccato manner so that they can “hear” how a sentence sounds.

Strive to improve copy by improving clarity, not just making corrections. To accomplish this, it helps to read as a reader, placing yourself in the reader’s shoes as you dissect copy. If you stumble over a definition or explanation in confusion, chances are a reader will, too.

Learn standard proofreading symbols, which are listed as “editing marks” in the back of the AP Stylebook. Your high school and college teachers probably used these symbols, too. They include underlining a letter three times to indicate that it should be capitalized and putting a strike through a letter that should be lowercased. Copy editors use these universal symbols to correct hard copy, which, depending on your organization, you may use to communicate changes to other editors or graphic designers. You may find that reading and editing from a piece of paper gives you a different and more reflective perspective than reading from a computer screen.

Embrace the role of fact-checker, which may include phoning sources to check quotes and checking facts in online sources. Fact-checking helps to maintain the credibility and good name of your organization. For example, you may decide in your role as an editor that even though information from an online source sounds reasonable and credible, you should eliminate it because the website has a commercial purpose. In this way, you may help set quality control standards at your organization.

Ask questions of the contributing writer in a positive, constructive manner. Approach the writer with a sense of collaboration, for the two of you really are a team whose twin talents will produce the best written efforts for your organization.

Tip

  • Learn all you can about the topics you will be editing so that you can make intelligent changes and ask thoughtful questions. Every job has a learning curve, and with a curious, open mind, yours should be relatively smooth.
 

References

About the Author

With education, health care and small business marketing as her core interests, M.T. Wroblewski has penned pieces for Woman's Day, Family Circle, Ladies Home Journal and many newspapers and magazines. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University.

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