If you aced high school or college English, you might make a successful copy editor. Because so many publications use editor titles differently, you’ll need to read each job description carefully to determine what the position you are looking at requires. In general, a copy editor focuses on grammatical correctness and adherence to house style, rather than making content changes.
Publications and websites use a variety of editors to manage the flow of content. These include executive editors and editors-in-chief who plan content and have management responsibilities, often doing little editing. A managing editor oversees the workflow for a publication or website. Senior editors often have a specialty area and may also write articles. Associate, assistant and junior editors provide research, fact-checking and other support to more senior editors. Copy editors focus on checking content for grammatical accuracy, usage and spelling. They might also help with the story’s structure, such as making sure paragraphs start with topic sentences if they contain multiple thoughts. Depending on the publication or website, copy editors usually do not work with writers as peers, such as suggesting content changes, reorganization of information or additional sources. This is the difference between line editing and story editing, which is performed by a more senior editor.
The main qualification for a copy editor is a thorough knowledge of the language, including grammar, usage and spelling. Grammar refers to the correctness of written sentences, while usage refers to common ways native speakers write or speak. If you know when to use “who” and “whom,” you might be a candidate for a copy editor position. The built-in spelling and grammar check functions of word processing software make a copy editor’s job much easier, but they should only be used to quickly clean up copy before you begin your work. Relying on these functions can let errors sneak through and expose weaknesses in your knowledge of basic copy editing skills. Copy editors often “tighten” copy, such as changing, “He lives in the state of Georgia,” to “He lives in Georgia.”
A copy editor must be able to proofread content and spot errors. Reliance on spelling and grammar checkers can lead to multiple errors and result in a copy editor’s termination. For example, you might spot an error such as “spell Czech,” but miss an “affect” that should be “effect.” Some novice copy editors read sentences backwards to prevent them from seeing groups of words as one thought, instead focusing on each word. Copy editors will look for awkward constructions, over use of the passive voice and sentences that end with prepositions.
Many publications and websites have a house style, or way in which certain words or phrases must be written in each article. For example, a magazine might receive three articles written by subject experts who are not professional writers. One might write “web site” throughout his article, another might write “Website” throughout hers, while the third might use “website.” A style guide sets the ruling for the usage. To prepare yourself for a career in editing, consider learning the Associated Press style guidelines, used by many journalistic organizations as their default style guide. The Chicago Manual of Style is another common choice. In addition to these guidelines, a publication or site might add a few of its own house style guidelines.
Sam Ashe-Edmunds has been writing and lecturing for decades. He has worked in the corporate and nonprofit arenas as a C-Suite executive, serving on several nonprofit boards. He is an internationally traveled sport science writer and lecturer. He has been published in print publications such as Entrepreneur, Tennis, SI for Kids, Chicago Tribune, Sacramento Bee, and on websites such Smart-Healthy-Living.net, SmartyCents and Youthletic. Edmunds has a bachelor's degree in journalism.