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Get Paid to be a Word Nerd

Writers who leverage their skills as copy editors can earn bigger paychecks, diversify their portfolios and spend more time doing what they love. Learn how you could be one of them. by Rebecca Smith Hurd

Few writers grow up with dreams of one day becoming copy editors. I have no scientific data to back up this assertion, but my hunch is that most of us who imagined ourselves as professional wordsmiths—and ultimately pursued careers in publishing—had paths more akin to Hemingway’s in mind. Perhaps this is because, as editorial jobs go, copy editing is not very glamorous; it is painstaking and underappreciated. No one has ever won the Nobel Prize in Literature for double-checking an author’s use of sport-fishing terms or making sure that Santiago is spelled correctly in all references. Yet people with well-honed grammatical skills are an asset to any industry. What creator of any written material wants his work published without someone else’s careful eye giving it the once-over? Not me.

While earning my journalism degree, I wrote business, technology and general-interest articles for newspapers and magazines. I loved the adrenaline rush of reporting but hated the stress that inevitably followed, even after I’d met a deadline. Too often, I woke up in the middle of the night worrying that I’d forgotten some important detail or wishing that I’d approached a story in a more compelling way. Nothing I wrote appeased my inner perfectionist, and I began to wonder whether my personality was better suited to another line of work. The problem was, I’d invested everything in writing, and I loved the field.

Copy editing and proofreading had always piqued my interest, but at such a young age, I was afraid I wouldn’t be taken seriously. Fortunately, being told I can’t do something makes me want to prove that I can. To prepare for my first copy-editing test, I eagerly reread The Associated Press Stylebook. (My first pass, from cover to cover, was a dreadful forced march in college.) After scoring 98 percent on the closed-book exam, I realized that I had a knack for niggling. Since then, I’ve built my career around being a word nerd, from proofreading websites to overseeing the copy desk at a national magazine. I started freelancing full time in 2006, and today nearly half of my business involves editing. Frankly, it pays better than writing does—and I enjoy it more. I like the challenge of helping other writers solve linguistic puzzles and communicate clearly. I revel in policing proper punctuation, excising unnecessary adjectives and eradicating jargon. I derive a certain guilty pleasure from catching mistakes that other editors have missed. And I get a lot more sleep.

If you’re a writer with an eye for detail and an affinity for grammar, you may already have the basic skills you need to become a copy editor. Whether you’re looking for a new day job or for a means to diversify your freelance work, copy editing could be a viable option. One caveat: Editing others requires a shift in mindset. It’s not about you and your byline anymore. It’s about someone else, that writer’s voice, and overall quality control. But the underlying benefit is that grappling with other people’s grammar, syntax and style is likely to improve your writing, too. Think you’re ready to dive in? Here’s an overview that explains the role of copy editors in the editorial process, which style guides and essential technologies you’ll need to master, how to hone your judgment, and what it takes to ace a copy-editing test and get the job done.

Covering the Basics: The Job and Its Tools
The first step toward becoming a copy editor is to understand how the role differs from that of other editors. Copy editors generally read an article or book manuscript after the editor who assigned the work is satisfied with its contents and before the text goes to a designer for page layout. The copy editor corrects errors and inconsistencies in spelling, grammar and style, making sure the text conforms to industry standards and house rules.

Copy editors also are often expected to handle additional tasks, such as writing headlines, fact checking and proofreading. Fact checking entails verifying that the names, dates and other important details mentioned in a piece of writing are accurate, using both independent sources and materials provided by the writer. Proofreading involves double-checking the final page layouts and fixing any typos or errors that may have been missed during (or introduced after) copy editing, including bad punctuation, awkward line breaks and improper internal references (“continued on Page 123,” etc.). Many publishers and publications pay separate research editors and proofreaders to handle these jobs, but the editorial process varies from one company to the next. Some publishers employ full-time copy editors. Others hire freelancers. Still others use a combination of the two. And a few rely on writers and their primary editors to get everything right themselves (scary, but true).

Regardless of title and responsibilities, all editors working for a publisher or publication rely on the same reference materials in order to produce a consistent product. For starters, this means following the same style guide. The current publishing-industry standards are the most recent editions of The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style; most organizations use one or the other. AP, which targets news outlets, specializes in current events, political correctness, business and sports terminology, and media law. Chicago, which caters to book publishers and academia, grapples with the use of italics, bibliographies, indexing, mathematics and scientific notation, and more. Available in print and online, both guides establish preferred spellings, punctuation and typographical formats, as well as which dictionary to follow, in order to avoid debates over, say, dialog versus dialogue. AP uses the latest edition of Webster’s New World; Chicago uses Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (

To simplify matters—or complicate them, depending on your point of view—many publications also have developed their own guidelines. These “in-house” style guides either replace or supersede industry standards in certain matters. For example, Merriam-Webster’s spells Web site as two words with a capital W. Chicago prefers website as one word, lowercased. Both are correct. In the traditional hierarchy, the style guide overrules the dictionary. But let’s suppose that the editors at want to stick with Web site for readability purposes. It becomes part of their in-house style guide, which trumps Chicago. In other words, a copy editor looks things up in the house style guide first, and then the general style guide, followed by the appropriate dictionary.

The best way to begin mastering any style guide is to read it—or at least flip through the sections most relevant to the type of work you aim to do. Think familiarize, not memorize. Simply knowing what’s inside can cut down on search times later and avoid unnecessarily exacerbating deadline stress, something that as a writer you can already appreciate.

Copy editors, especially those who plan to freelance, also need to be technologically savvy, because clients’ systems tend to differ. To this end, a basic working knowledge of Microsoft Word is mandatory. Its Track Changes feature, which marks up text as you type so that others can see your edits, is perhaps the most widely shared tool among writers and editors. It tells collaborators who altered what and when, and it enables users to review changes item by item before accepting or rejecting them. It allows you to insert notes and comments, as well.

Most publications also now depend upon either Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress to produce printed materials, in addition to a Web-based application (such as WordPress) for publishing material online. As the industry moves further from paper toward newer media, versatility will become crucial. (Don’t panic: This isn’t as difficult as it may sound. Invest in your future by spending some time with free or inexpensive tutorials available online, such as those offered by In the meantime, copy editors continue to mark up paper, too, using a standard set of proofreading symbols. You can find keys for these in AP, Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s.

Honing Your Judgment: Practice Makes Perfect
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the editorial process, style guides and tools, it’s time to try your hand at copy editing. You can practice your skills on virtually any written material you have on hand: newspaper or magazine articles, professional e-mails, the program from last night’s theater performance, a company newsletter, or scanned pages from the book you’re currently reading. If the copy is already in good shape, edit it to conform to another stylebook’s rules.

Ideally you’ll want to begin by scanning the entire article—or, in the case of a book, the author’s note or introduction—without making any changes, to give yourself context for your work. On a second, focused pass, correct spelling, grammar and style errors and flag any statements or terms you can’t sort out on your own. Copy editors typically query the author or assigning editor if facts seem amiss or don’t make sense. Your third and final read is to check your changes to ensure that your edits actually improved the text and that you yourself haven’t screwed anything up.

This all assumes, of course, that you’re working on a reasonable deadline. Other times, you’ll work under pressure. This is where all your preparation of reading stylebooks and taking tech tutorials comes in, allowing you to do your job quickly, efficiently and carefully. When in doubt, look things up; don’t guess or make assumptions. Trust your instincts. If you sense something’s wrong, delve deeper until you find resolution—just as you would when writing.

The real danger for writers who also copy edit is forgetting that we aren’t the text’s author. Just because we would express an idea differently doesn’t mean that we should, nor does it give us license to rewrite. Many fledgling copy editors wonder how far they should go with their edits. How does an editor determine whether a sentence needs tweaking or is best left alone? The only way to answer that is to ask more questions: Who wrote this? Who is the target reader? What information or ideas does the article in question aim to communicate? What are the organization’s expectations of me? All of these factors should influence your decisions. It would be ill-advised to tackle a carefully crafted essay by a celebrity author in exactly the same way as a community news story written by an intern. Adjust your approach accordingly.

Along similar lines, cut text to clarify, rather than adding. Writers almost always notice when editors put words in their mouths, but they rarely do when incorrect or extraneous verbiage is removed to make the writing clearer. When you need to add an explanation or rework a sentence, try to preserve the writer’s voice. Say you come across this sentence: John Smith is writing a book about impostors that, all told, includes the stories of 250 fakers. It’s awkwardly phrased and wordy. You could correct this any number of ways, but the writer chose the verb “to tell,” which makes sense in the context of a book. John Smith is writing a book that tells the stories of 250 impostors. The strongest copy edits make the writer’s own words work better.

Finding Work: Your First Gig
Competition for well-paid creative positions is, has been and always will be fierce. But that fact didn’t stop you from becoming a writer, and it shouldn’t deter you from pursuing copy-editing work, either.

If you’re already freelancing, use those professional relationships as leverage. Tell your clients that in addition to writing you now provide copy-editing and proofreading services. Ask to take their copy-editing test (more on this in a moment). Even if there are no current openings, there may be a future need—and you’ll be preapproved to step in. Offer to do a trial run as a proofreader the next time there’s a deadline crunch. Demonstrate that you’re willing and able to expand your role without letting it interfere with your writing assignments.

If you’re just getting started, breaking in can be tough, but it’s not impossible. One approach is to figure out who needs your services. Is a grocery store ad riddled with typos? Mark it up, take it to the manager and offer your help (for a fee, of course). Did a recent e-mail from your bank contain embarrassing grammatical mistakes? Send a corrected version to the CEO, with your contact information. Do you support a nonprofit group that needs help cleaning up its annual report? Volunteer in exchange for a professional reference. Sure, some people will say no, but sooner or later you’ll start amassing a portfolio of work to demonstrate your experience.

Using resources like those in the sidebar on Page 28, you can also search for listings from publishers, publications or websites posting copy-editing opportunities.

Many organizations require freelance and staff candidates to take a copy-editing test before they start work. Generally, you can expect these tests to feature material similar to the content that appears in the publication. You may or may not be allowed to use reference sources. You may need to take the test at their offices, under time constraints; you may be able to do it remotely, on your own time. Always inquire about the parameters of the test so that you can prepare accordingly.

To prep for a copy-editing test, read recently published articles to get a feel for the company’s subject matter and style. Brush up on the appropriate stylebook (which should become apparent in reading the published material), reviewing your weakest areas. When you sit down to take the test, take a deep breath and edit the content just as you would if you got the job. The whole point of this exercise is to demonstrate your editorial judgment and copy-editing skills to your future colleagues. If the bosses like what they see, you’ll be hearing from them.

Treat your freelance copy-editing assignments just as you would freelance writing assignments: Before you commit to anything, make sure you fully understand the deadline, the client’s expectations and the scope of the project. Negotiate all three as needed, along with your pay rate. Copy editors typically charge per hour or per project, and the average market rates vary by industry and location; ask for as much as you think you can reasonably command. In general, the expectation is that copy editors can read eight to 10 pages per hour, if the text is in good condition.

Keep reference materials up-to-date, because using an old version of a stylebook or a different dictionary leads to inconsistencies. Grammar rules and spelling evolve. (For this reason, online style guide subscriptions are excellent but make it impossible to work without your computer.) Keep your software updated, as well, because you’ll need to be able to manipulate files in your client’s preferred format.

Always be thorough, and play it safe. After you receive materials to edit, check to make sure you can open all documents and have the necessary software and fonts. Ask the client how she’d prefer you to mark things up (highlighting, Track Changes, bold type, etc.). Request anything that’s missing right away in case the client doesn’t respond immediately. Rename files by adding your initials to avoid any confusion with the original. Back everything up.

Finally, before turning in assignments, look over your work. This includes the note or e-mail you’ll write to accompany it. Provide any comments or supplementary information that may be helpful. Tell your client how much you enjoyed the assignment—and that you look forward to working together again. Your precision and professionalism probably won’t win a Nobel Prize, but they will help you build a successful career as a copy editor.

Learn how to develop article ideas magazine editors will find irresistible by considering:
Writer's Digest Handbook Of Magazine Article Writing

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