Monday, January 16, 2012

How do you become a copy editor?

Here's a not uncommon question from a reader:
I stumbled upon your blog today while trying to look up insure versus ensure. My question is, how does one get involved in the copy editing field? Is this something you can do from home? I work in a library—if the budget cuts get nasty I want to have some other options available to me.
Good question. It seems every copy editor has a different path to this noble pursuit. Some seem to have been born to it. I took a more circuitous route.

Although I always loved to read—a habit my mother, an avid reader, instilled in me—I never thought I would write or edit words.

My dream was to become a photographer. For years, I seem to have seen the world through my camera—another gift from my mother, for my 16th birthday. I eventually realized my passion for photography was greater than my talent. That's when I switched to words.

Still, I didn't study English or literature or journalism. I studied political economy. After graduate school, I worked in a think tank on a book project. Two of the writers were non-native English speakers. They asked me to clean up their writing before it was sent out for review. I wasn't bad at editing and learned a lot on the job. I took some copy editing classes at the local university and improved my skills.

I later became a reporter and writer. Then an editor. And eventually a copy editor.

My advice to those interested in becoming a copy editor is to find someone to practice on. Edit a friend's writing. (I did this back in the day with my friend Steve, whose writing and spelling were atrocious. Our friendship survived my pedantic editing.) Or volunteer with an organization that puts out a newsletter or has a blog. Get some experience, and see if you even like copyediting. (I'll be honest: It's not glamorous work, though I do find it fulfilling.) Take some classes at the local university. Make some contacts, and see what happens.

That's how I became a copy editor. If you have a story or advice you'd like to share, please post it in the comments.

Copy editor T-shirt available at


  1. That t-shirt is marvellous!

    Like your reader who posed you the question about your journey, I arrived here after searching for "bated vs baited breath"; I wanted to ensure that, before writing to a magazine to ask about the sudden appearance of several typographical and grammatical errors in a single issue (this magazine is normally beautifully devoid of errors, or contains one or two, at most), I had the correct spelling (they used "baited," and not as a pun).

    My journey to your blog aside, I appreciated reading about your circuitous journey to copy-editing. Though not a copy-editor, I was one of eight proofreaders for a company that produces educational exercises for physicians. A background in biology or any of the physical sciences, really, was an asset; I was hired with my Bachelor's in Italian, with two minors (Spanish and Professional Writing in English). I hadn't studied science since high school. It turns out that, in this company, it was my polyglottism that made me shine, in addition to my training in Professional Writing, which included courses on proofreading and copy-editing. Though I worked there for only a year, leaving to do an internship in Italy and then pursue my current graduate studies, copy-editing was something that I'd always wanted to do. Becoming more skilled in proofreading, even in a field alien to my own area of study, proved to be a most rewarding and intellectually stimulating experience.

    I look forward to checking out your blog more often and reading what other readers have to say about their own journeys.

  2. Hi Kris, thanks (grazie, gracias) for your comments and your story. That's great. Good luck in your studies! (And I hope the magazine you were reading wasn't where I work...)


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