Copy Editor

The Job and What's Involved

A copy editor makes sure that a text is readable, accurate and ready for publication.

They may work on a range of publications, including:

- Books - fictional and factual
- Trade, technical or academic journals
- Newspapers and magazines
- Business publications
- Websites and other online content

The role includes:

  • Checking text to ensure it is well written, logically structured and in the right style for the intended audience.
  • Correcting grammar and spelling.
  • Ensuring the text is in line with the publisher's 'house style' - for example, that hyphens, capital letters and optional spellings are used consistently.
  • Checking facts.
  • Raising queries with the author.
  • Being alert to any potential legal problems in the text, such as libelous statements or breach of copyright, and discussing them with the publisher.
  • Checking illustrations and captions are correct.

Copy editors are seldom expected to rewrite work completely. Rather, they aim to maintain the style of the author and publication.

On newspapers and magazines, copy editors are usually called sub-editors. As well as the tasks above, they may also:

  • Compose headlines for each article.
  • Write 'standfirsts' - introductory paragraphs that sum up a story and draw the reader in.
  • Edit stories to fit a set word count.
  • Lay out stories to a set page design.

Copy editors often work on screen, using IT publishing systems, but they may also work with paper manuscripts.

Freelance copy editors often work alone, but they may need to liaise closely with writers, typesetters, printers and publishers. Newspaper and magazine sub-editors work with newsroom and production colleagues.

The role is often combined with proofreading.

Many copy editors work freelance and so have some flexibility over their working hours. However, they may be required to work long hours to meet project deadlines. The flow of work can be uneven. Part-time work is common.

Employed copy editors work normal office hours, but may need to work extra hours as print times approach.

Sub-editors' hours depend on the publication. They are busiest just before the publication is due to go to print, and this can be on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Sub-editors working on daily titles may work shifts, including some early starts and late nights.

The work is desk-based, usually working on screen. Freelance copy editors often work from home. There may be occasional travel for meetings.

Salaries for employed copy editors may start at around £16,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Copy editors are employed by publishing firms, newspapers and magazines. Other major organisations, such as public relations and advertising agencies, retailers, government agencies and professional associations, also use copy editors on an in-house or freelance basis.

Copy editors are based all over the UK, with a concentration of publishers in London and South East England.

Many copy editors are self-employed, and work for many different clients.

Competition can be keen. It is helpful to look for early work experience with a relevant employer. It can be particularly challenging to find freelance work - commissions depend on building a good track record and contacts.

Vacancies appear in national and trade newspapers, including The Bookseller and Publishing News. The Society of Young Publishers (SYP), a voluntary organisation open to anyone in publishing or hoping to be, lists vacancies on its website. Sub-editor vacancies appear in the Press Gazette and on websites such as www.journalism.co.uk and www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk.

Education and Training

Most copy editors start off in a more junior role. For example, it may be possible to join a publishing firm as an editorial assistant and progress to copy editing.

Sub-editors in newspapers and magazines often start off as general reporters, having first completed a vocational course in journalism.

There are no set qualifications, but many copy editors have a degree. This may be in a related subject, such as English, publishing, media or journalism. A science-based degree may allow graduates to work in specialist technical publishing, and a degree in economics or business studies could provide a grounding for work in financial journalism.

The entry requirements for degrees are usually at least two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including English or maths, or equivalent qualifications.

Some copy editors also have a postgraduate publishing qualification. Courses are listed on the website of the Publishers Association.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Once employed, copy editors learn from experienced colleagues.

Various short courses are available. SfEP offers courses for freelancers and in-house staff, based in London and occasionally in Edinburgh, York and Bristol. It also offers networking and mentoring opportunities for members. Organisations such as the Publishing Training Centre offer copy editing courses by distance learning.

The NCTJ offers a preliminary sub-editing qualification alongside its standard reporting exam. Trainees who have passed this exam and gained 18 months' newspaper experience can sit for a National Certificate in Sub-editing.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A copy editor must have:

  • Excellent written English, including good spelling and grammar.
  • A meticulous approach to their work and an eye for detail.
  • The ability to maintain high-quality work while meeting tight deadlines.
  • An inquisitive mind.
  • A good concentration, to focus on texts that may be lengthy or dull.
  • Judgment in applying house style.
  • A tactful approach when dealing with writers.
  • The ability to retain the author's 'voice' after editing.

Your Long Term Prospects

In-house copy editors may need to change jobs frequently to advance in their careers. After gaining experience, they may seek promotion to more complex editing jobs or to a desk editor role, commissioning and managing publications.

Freelance copy editors progress by building a track record. It is possible to advance through the SfEP membership tiers. They may choose to specialise in a particular field of publishing.

Experienced sub-editors may take on management responsibilities as chief sub-editor or production editor.

Get Further Information

National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ),
The New Granary, Station Road, Newport, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 3PL
Tel: 01799 544014
Website: www.nctj.com

National Union of Journalists (NUJ),
Headland House, 308-312 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8DP
Tel: 020 7278 7916
Website: www.nuj.org.uk

Periodicals Training Council (PTC),
c/o Periodical Publishers Association,
Queens House, 28 Kingsway, London WC2B 6JR
Tel: 020 7404 4166
Website: www.ppa.co.uk

The Publishers Association, 29b Montague Street, London WC1B 5BW
Tel: 020 7691 9191
Website: www.publishers.org.uk

The Publishing Training Centre at Book House,
45 East Hill, Wandsworth, London SW18 2QZ
Tel: 020 8874 2718
Website: www.train4publishing.co.uk

Society for Editors and Proofreaders,
Apsley House, 176 Upper Richmond Road, Putney, London SW15 2SH
Tel: 020 8785 6155
Website: www.sfep.org.uk

Society of Young Publishers, c/o The Bookseller,
Endeavour House, 189 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8TJ
Website: www.thesyp.org.uk

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