How to Become a Copy Editor
Put simply, a copy editor proofreads written material to fix errors. Copy editors usually get their hands on a piece of writing late in the process — usually, copy editing is the final step before a piece of “copy” (writing) is sent off to be published. Copy editors fix grammatical errors, spelling problems, English usage, and proper style. Every publication has its own set of guidelines for their writing, from the number of words, to specific phrases that need to be used, style elements, etc. The copy editor makes sure a writer’s copy fits the guidelines set by their publisher.
Is a copy editor a proofreader?
Sometimes reading proofs is part of the copy editor’s job description, but the term “proofreader” implies a lower level of skill than a good copy editor has. Proofreaders generally just look for typographical and mechanical errors on copy that has already been edited and (in the case of a newspaper )set for printing. Proofreaders aren’t allowed to make small changes, only to correct mistakes. A good copy editor will be praised for making a nit picky change in an article or piece of copy just before printing — usually, a change that late in the game is vital to that piece of copy.
Copy editors that work in journalism (newspapers, magazines, TV news, etc) are expected to be journalists in their own right. While this isn’t true for all copy editing positions, a news copy editor is a writer and a journalist first and a skilled editor second. Think of it like a judge — most judges start out as lawyers. Copy editors at your local paper must be skilled in multiple fields. Basic reporting skills and even some reporting experience are a must for copy editors at newspapers.
Do I need a college degree to be a copy editor?
Absolutely. In the golden age of newspapers, you may have been able to land a job at the copy desk with your skills and experience alone — but getting that experience and honing those skills today means having a degree in journalism, at the very least.
When you spend four years getting a bachelor’s degree in journalism (preferably at a flagship J-school like the University of Missouri or Columbia University) you learn all the skills necessary for copy editing work in many different venues. Landing a position with your college newspaper should be your first priority — you should work either as a reported or an editor or assistant and plan on working your way up the ranks as high as you can go. Through work with your school paper and time spent with professors (and even college job fairs) you should then try to land a summer internship with a reputable news source or copy department. The big metropolitan daily papers (think New York, Chicago, LA, etc) will look best when you start looking for real work. Most of the time, your internship will turn into a job offer, so you can start working right out of college. Hey, you gotta pay those student loans somehow. Usually, your first job will be as a reported, but switching over to the copy desk shouldn’t take long.
Do I need to major in journalism to be a copy editor?
The problem answering this question is that many top tier colleges don’t offer a journalism major, and in truth most newspapers or copy desks gladly hire people with degrees outside of journalism all the time. For people who have significant experience working for a paper or at an internship, a major in journalism is not a necessity. Sure, a journalism degree is the quickest path to a career in journalism, but it is not the only way. A degree in any of the written words or media arts is pretty much the same as a J-school degree, but even a Biology or Philosophy major would make a good copy editor if they have the right experience. In fact, having experience in more than one field could make you even more hirable. Say your major was in finance and you want to work for a paper — they may use your experience in finance to hire you for their newspaper’s business section.
What makes a job as a copy editor special?
You’re never going to make a ton of money as a copy editor. You’ll do lots of hard work for little financial reward. What’s the appeal of the job?
Most of the time, copy editors have unlimited liberty to make rewrites. Working as a copy editor for a major city paper means directly affecting that paper’s output. Copy editors spend their time tightening up wordy writing, correcting style problems, and creating better transitions in lengthy headline articles. Copy editors get to write lots of headlines (known in the industry as “heds”) and captions for photos (also known as “cutlines”) which are really high profile parts of the newspaper. Being in charge of headline writing gives you control over the paper’s overall look.
And about the salary, the truth isn’t pretty. Starting salaries are usually about $30,000 — for people just out of college with student loans and no savings, that is little more than a pittance. Copy editor salaries top out as high as $60,000 or more depending on the employer and the employee’s experience. On the positive side, jobs at copy desks usually come with great benefits and a retirement plan, so you may not have to be writing headlines until you’re 80.
You won’t have to spend your entire copy editing career in a newspaper office. There are plenty of jobs that require copy editing and production editing skills — you can work for non-profit organizations, large corporations writing press releases, and pretty much any job that publishes any amount of words, from a corporate newsletter to a lobbying firm’s government interactions. The best advice I have for someone who wants to work as a copy editor — be flexible about where you live. Working in the newspaper field means constantly looking for a better job, or one that pays better or offers better benefits. You may live in Chicago for a year, then on the West Coast for five before settling down south. For people who have writing skills and want to take part in the high stress and highly creative world of journalism, a job at the copy desk is a rewarding way to test their writing and organizational skills.