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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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A copy editor must have:
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.
National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ),
The New Granary, Station Road, Newport, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 3PL
Tel: 01799 544014
National Union of Journalists (NUJ),
Headland House, 308-312 Gray's Inn Road, London WC1X 8DP
Tel: 020 7278 7916
Periodicals Training Council (PTC),
c/o Periodical Publishers Association,
Queens House, 28 Kingsway, London WC2B 6JR
Tel: 020 7404 4166
The Publishers Association, 29b Montague Street, London WC1B 5BW
Tel: 020 7691 9191
The Publishing Training Centre at Book House,
45 East Hill, Wandsworth, London SW18 2QZ
Tel: 020 8874 2718
Society for Editors and Proofreaders,
Apsley House, 176 Upper Richmond Road, Putney, London SW15 2SH
Tel: 020 8785 6155
Society of Young Publishers, c/o The Bookseller,
Endeavour House, 189 Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2H 8TJ
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.