Writing Careers – Copyeditor

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Do you wish there really were Grammar Police? Are you known for having a superior level of attention to detail? If so, you might be interested in a career in copyediting. Scroll down to read more about copyediting from a professional in the field – Debbie Friedman.

How did you get started as a copyeditor?

Oh boy, I sort of came to copyediting sideways. I had double majored in college in English and Theater and had wanted to work as an actor. I had been working as an SAT/ACT tutor for almost a decade, which was sometimes difficult with the last-minute nature of audition scheduling. I had a friend who works in publishing who had been telling me for years that I should proofread and copyedit for my day job. But I hadn’t taken the idea seriously because, as she’d informed me, I’d have to take some copyediting classes, which were a bit pricey and I was a bit broke. 

All the tutoring (which I did enjoy, but all the scheduling and driving, and driving, and scheduling) started to wear me down. And I was likely complaining to my friend, who, yet again recommended that I take a copyediting class and try to get work as a proofreader. For whatever reason (finances, most likely…but also my confidence in my grammar skills after a decade of SAT prep) the idea really took hold for me and I signed up for an online copyediting class. 

Once I’d finished the class, I reached out to my friend, who had another friend working as a production editor (the person who hires the freelancers for each book project) who was amazingly generous and willing to basically mentor me as I began to take on work. She had me take a proofreading test, and she personally sent me my first proofreading projects. There were a couple production editors who were incredibly generous with their time and gave me invaluable feedback. It can feel like you’re working blind sometimes, being freelance and not chatting with the people you submit your work to, so when an overworked production editor takes the time to give you advice, it’s precious.

Through my friends, I was recommended to production editors at other publishing houses, and as production editors I’d already worked with moved to other publishing houses, they would continue to send me work. I basically get most of my work within each publishing house through personal recommendations: a production editor I’ve worked with before recommends me to another production editor who, for whatever reason, can’t book someone they usually work with. 

And of course, I love the work, and it has become my job job, not just my day job.

What is a typical day like?

Pretty boring from the outside, I’m sure! I keep a calendar of all the projects I have, and how long I think each one will take me, and I set certain page goals for myself for each day. My husband’s schedule is not flexible, so I map my schedule over his. I work while he’s at work, taking a break for lunch and to walk the dog. (Walking the dog is surprisingly helpful because I spend so much time in one physical position, that it’s good to be able to move around in the middle of the day.)

Work-wise, what I’m actually doing varies slightly based on what kind of project I’m working on. But all my jobs basically involve proofreading for spelling and grammar, watching out for formatting, and checking that real people and places are spelled correctly. 

What training, education or preparation would help prepare someone for your job?

Most of the people I’ve talked to who are interested in this work already have a strong background in English (they majored in it in college or even hold a master’s, they’ve done some proofreading or copyediting for friends or at their jobs, etc.). Beyond that, though, there are some practicalities that are worth learning before a production editor might want to take a risk on you. It is my understanding that having taken a copyediting class makes your resume more viable when you’re applying for this type of work. But it’s also useful to know what types of things are expected of you. And what isn’t—a proofreader does not have the same responsibilities as a copyeditor,* and a proofreader who makes changes as though she’s a copyeditor will probably not get work again.

* More detail about the difference between proofreading and copyediting can be found in a follow-up post, which you can find by clicking here.

What skills do you think help you do your job well?

I think my desperate need to not be wrong about something actually suits me well for this. If I’m going to change an author’s words, I need to double check and make sure that I have a solid reason for doing so. I will look up grammar rules, idioms, various acceptable spellings, whatever the issue is, to make sure that I have evidence in my favor. 

Because I work on books in various stages of their publication process, I sometimes get to see the changes and notes that copyeditors have left authors and the notes that authors may have left in response. And after several years of doing this work, it has become clear to me that a copyeditor who is rigid in their approach to grammar and style does not make for a great copyeditor. Someone who “knows” all the rules and aggressively applies them the way their junior high school English teacher told them to is going to drive authors and production editors bonkers. 

A quick example: I had a discussion with a friend who had semi-professionally copyedited another friend’s manuscript. She told me she had changed all the “a myriad of” phrases to just “myriad” because “a myriad of” is incorrect. Well, slow your roll. Merriam-Webster’s is the dictionary that the publishing industry uses, and their online (and delightfully free) dictionary will occasionally have discussions on usage for various words and idiomatic phrases. And according to them:

Recent criticism of the use of myriad as a noun, both in the plural form myriads and in the phrase a myriad of, seems to reflect a mistaken belief that the word was originally and is still properly only an adjective. As the entries here show, however, the noun is in fact the older form, dating to the 16th century. The noun myriad has appeared in the works of such writers as Milton (plural myriads) and Thoreau (a myriad of), and it continues to occur frequently in reputable English. There is no reason to avoid it.

And there are plenty of fascinating discussions of this type in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

So as far as skills go, I really think the starting point is having a familiarity and skill with English grammar. But even more important is the intellectual curiosity and willingness to always be learning more, double checking your assumptions, and of course, attention to detail. 

(These are the types of discussions you ought to enjoy if you’re interested in this work…)

What type of person would be a good fit to be a copyeditor?

There are a number of different types of copyediting work out there, from advertising copy, to the copy in emails from health insurance companies, to websites, to cookbooks. I can really only speak to the work I do, which is with books, mainly fiction (though I do see the occasional nonfiction). 

For the work I do, I’d say a person who enjoys the above discussion and likes to stay focused on minutia for hours at a time. Sometimes my day is dominated by trying to understand what an author’s preference is regarding capitalization after a colon: Do they have a method behind their madness? Are they making their decisions willy-nilly? Should I just follow Chicago Style and be done with it? Does the production editor have strong feelings on the matter? This is the type of conundrum that makes my husband thankful he doesn’t work as a copyeditor. 

What are the downsides of your job?

I honestly do love the work, and I think most of the downsides I experience are the downsides of any freelance job. I don’t get benefits, I don’t get paid days off (so any vacation I take is tinged with the stress of being temporarily unemployed). I am constantly hustling for work and I can’t always control the ebb and flow as well as I’d like. If I’ve had a slow period of work (which never seems to line up with planned vacations!!), I feel obligated to take on a more-than-comfortable amount of work to make up for the lost cash flow. And if I’m caught in a overflow moment, I sometimes have to turn down work from production editors who might be reaching out to me for the first time—in other words, people I want to make a connection with. 

The other downside is that, if I’m in a slower period, I have to say yes to every job I’m offered…and I truly do loathe romance novels. So sometimes I have to say yes to a romance novel…

What are the upsides of your job?

Oh man, so many! I get to work from home, which as a real live homebody, is just a dream come true. I mean, some days I’m not out of my pajamas until four in the afternoon. 

But I genuinely enjoy the majority of the books I get to read. So I get to read books and get paid for it, and if you like reading, it’s just hard to beat that. Some of the books are on topics I wouldn’t normally seek out, so I get to learn new things, which is also a joy.

And of course, the up side to freelance work is that I have a flexible schedule. So, for instance, when a dear friend who lives far away tells you the day before that she’s flying in to LA for a wedding and could see you in the morning before she heads back to the airport, you can carve out some time for her visit (and then work into the night instead…that time doesn’t just go nowhere, people!).

What resources, professional journals, organizations or social media sites keep you informed about your industry?

Well, first and foremost is the Chicago Manual of Style—the style guide that’s the bedrock for all book publishing style. I pay to access the actual style manual online, but the website has other resources that I find useful as well. There’s a Q & A section that’s informative and entertaining, a Shop Talk blog where tons of different issues are discussed, and a user forum. 

I also use the Merriam-Webster dictionary online and reference their Dictionary of English Usage. Another useful reference book is the book Words into Type, which has a very detailed section on comma usage ☺.

I’m on the email list for ACES (the American Copy Editors’ Society). They have an annual conference I have not attended, but they also have blog posts and online resources I’ve taken advantage of. 

Whenever I am stuck on something and have trouble finding an answer in the above resources, I will check the Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips site, because her answers are always well researched. There are some great discussions of grammar on some of the newspaper websites (specifically the new York Times and Washington Post) but it’s worth being aware that style-wise, they follow AP style, not Chicago.

I’d also recommend The Subversive Copy Editor, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, and frankly Copyediting and Proofreading for Dummies. A lot of these resources (like Chicago and The Copyeditor’s Handbook) actually have lists of other resources they recommend.

Any words of advice for people interested in this job?

Honestly, this is the hardest part for me, because my understanding of the industry is that it is very difficult to break in to. I really only made it in because of a personal connection. I tried cold-contacting publishing houses and had no luck (though I’m very bad at that, so it could just be me). I’d say, start with educating yourself, then start to build your resume with jobs that are easier to get, and then start harassing HR departments from there. Or, try to make friends with a production editor ☺.

Debbie Friedman is a Brown University graduate with a BA in English and Theater Arts. Her manuscript for a YA novel, currently titled Star Dust, won SCBWI LA’s manuscript competition in the YA category at the 2018 Writers Day and was a runner up for SCBWI LA’s top prize, the Sue Alexander Grant; it also placed in the top ten in the Launch Pad Manuscript Competition. She’s an active member of SCBWI and works as a freelance proofreader and copyeditor for various publishers including Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Macmillan. She lives in Los Angeles with the love of her life (her dog) and her husband. Find out more at debbiefriedmanauthor.com