Careers in Copyediting: Tips for Creative Writers

Erica Olsen | March 2006

For writers who are looking for job options beyond academia, editorial work can seem like a natural choice. But an MFA in creative writing is not a stepping-stone to an editor’s job any more than it is to a teaching position. To get the teaching job, you need classroom experience and publications. To do editorial work, you need experience of another kind. Here’s an overview of the skills, training, and aptitude that creative writers need to pursue work as copy editors. For a broader perspective on editorial work, see the November 2001 Job List article, "Working in Publishing."

What Is Copyediting?

Copy editors work at all kinds of places-not just for book publishers, magazines, newspapers, and websites. Many editorial jobs lurk in the communications or marketing departments of universities and corporations (and typically are better paid than the equivalent jobs in book publishing). But what do copy editors do?

As The Chicago Manual of Style-the copy editor’s Bible, now in its fifteenth edition-puts it, copyediting "requires close attention to every detail in a manuscript, a thorough knowledge of what to look for and of the style to be followed, and the ability to make quick, logical, and defensible decisions."

If, right now, you’re wondering why "copy editor" is two words and "copyediting" is one-and why neither of them has a hyphen-you may have what it takes to do this type of work. The ability to copyedit goes beyond a solid grasp of grammar and punctuation rules (though this is essential). Copyediting can range from light to heavy, depending on the level of editing that a manuscript needs. Light editing might include correcting grammar, spelling, and punctuation; ensuring consistency of things such as capitalization, hyphenation, and treatment of numbers; and correcting incorrect word usage. (This kind of editing is sometimes called "line editing" or "mechanical editing.") At the other end of the spectrum, heavy editing involves substantive changes such as reshaping the manuscript through judicious cuts, reorganization, improved transitions, and so on. For a detailed description of an editor’s work, see the section called "The Manuscript Editor’s Responsibilities" in The Chicago Manual of Style.

Most of all, copyediting requires the ability to pay attention-to be fully engaged by the text you are reading, on two levels, content and appearance on the page. Copyediting is not reading for pleasure. If you are copyediting fiction, it would be fatal to get so caught up in the story that you fail to notice the consistency of capitalization, or the fact that a character who is bald in the first chapter has a full head of hair later on.

Being a good copy editor also requires tolerance for other writers’ voices. (Some words of warning: Do you have a thin skin when it comes to critiques of your own writing? Your work as an editor can be critiqued, too. And it can be depressing to spend your days improving the prose of others during those dry spells when your own words are going unpublished.) Fiction writer Rita Kasperek (MFA, University of Arizona), a communications coordinator in San Francisco who has taught copyediting at UC Berkeley Extension, reminds us that it is essential not to confuse one’s talents as a writer with an editor’s job description.

"Copyediting seems like an easy thing if you like words, but (in the beginning) it was hard for me as a writer to just focus on grammar," she says. "You have to be clear about drawing the line between writing and editing."

Copyediting is not an invitation to rewrite the author’s manuscript.

Getting the Skills

My own editorial career came about by accident. A few years after college, I had taken a semester-long course in copyediting from UC Berkeley Extension, which has a long-established certificate program in editing. When I moved to Missoula in 1996 to begin the MFA program at the University of Montana, I stumbled into proofreading for my first steady client, the guidebook publisher Falcon, which was based in Helena then (it is now an imprint of Globe Pequot). More freelance projects followed, for a variety of book publishers. Somewhere along the way, I became an editor. I had developed a range of skills and experience that could guarantee a steady paycheck-not a bad thing when literary magazines "pay" in copies.

Many writers who work as editors tell similar tales of job serendipity. Let’s face it, if you are in an MFA program, you probably made fewer visits to your college’s career planning office than your roommate who majored in engineering.

Poet Amanda Field (MFA, University of San Francisco) is the managing editor of the San Francisco–based literary magazine ZYZZYVA. Amanda began as an intern at ZYZZYVA. When the managing editor position opened up, she applied-and undertook her MFA while holding this job. When asked if she had formal training in editing, Amanda laughs. "I picked it up on the job!"

So why bother with a copyediting class? The benefits include:

• You can find out if you like the work. If you’ve never copyedited, taking a class can be a quick way to find out what the work is like and whether you have an aptitude for it.

• You can stand out from the crowd. Copyediting is not an entry-level position, but employers are inundated with resumes from English majors with no editing experience. And there are a lot of English majors out there. When I was hired at my current employer, there were some four hundred applicants for the position. If you’re new to editorial work, completing a class gives you something concrete to put on your resume while you’re building up work experience.

• You’ll be prepared for editing tests. When I took Beginning Copyediting at UC Berkeley Extension, there were tough weekly homework assignments, drawn from a copyediting textbook (Karen Judd’s Copyediting: A Practical Guide) and The Chicago Manual of Style. With training like this, you’ll be better prepared to face the range of challenges that come up on editing tests-a hurdle you will encounter frequently in getting both freelance and staff editing jobs.

• You can meet people in publishing. Some of your classmates in a copyediting workshop may already work in publishing. They’re a great resource for information and job leads. If you do well in the class, ask your teacher if he or she would be willing to serve as a reference.

Classes and workshops-from basic instruction in proofreading and copyediting marks to substantive and technical editing-are available through university extension programs, as well as professional  associations such as Editcetera ( in the Bay Area and Media Bistro ( in major cities. These classes are usually quite affordable. If you are in school now, check into the offerings of your English, communications, or journalism department.

For more in-depth (and expensive) training in editorial work, consider the following highly regarded publishing courses:

• University of Chicago, Graham School of General Studies, Certificate Program in Editing;

• University of Denver Publishing Institute;

• Columbia Publishing Course (formerly Radcliffe Publishing Course); http://www.jrn.columbia.

• Pace University MS in publishing and several certificate programs;

These programs attract both recent graduates and people making a career change.

For good general information about the field of copyediting, see the websites of groups such as the Bay Area Editors’ Forum ( and Editorial Freelancers Association (

If you are still in school, take advantage of internship programs, or create your own. Volunteer your freelance services, with a small project or set number of hours. Future employers don’t need to know you did this work pro bono.

Working freelance can be a great way to get experience while you are in school or just starting to explore the field. Freelancing allows you to start with smaller, more manageable projects. If your goal is copyediting, consider starting with proofreading work, which demands similar skills but tends to pay a bit less. Proofreading is somewhat more visually oriented; since you’re working on projects just before they go to print, you’ll be checking design elements as well as text. Some publishers are more willing to take on new freelancers as proofreaders, and assign them copyediting work later.

Editorial Cross-Training
Expertise you already have-such as a hobby, a sport, or a foreign language-can help you get work as an editor. Cooks work on cookbooks, climbers work on rock climbing guides, and so on. One of the hardest editing tests I ever took was for Sunset magazine; part of the test was to copyedit instructions for sewing slipcovers. Unfortunately, my sewing skills are limited to replacing buttons (and no, I did not get that job!).

Sometimes one project is all it takes to convince the next client that you will bring something special to the job. One of my first freelance assignments was copyediting a guidebook to fishing in Maine. I was no expert on Maine (or fishing), but once I had that job on my resume, another publisher offered me work proofreading the Maine volume of the Roadside Geology series.

Cross-training is important. Especially in smaller workplaces, it helps to have a secondary set of skills. Today, many editorial jobs call for some knowledge of graphic design programs such as Quark or InDesign. Kim Todd (MFA, University of Montana)-author of the creative nonfiction book Tinkering with Eden (Norton) and the forthcoming Chrysalis (Harcourt), on 17th-century artist Maria Sibylla Merian-formerly worked as an in-house editor/graphic designer for the Sierra Club. For her, the mix of design work with editing enabled her to have creative energy left over for her own writing.

"Graphic design was a great complement to creative writing because it was visual rather than verbal," she says. "After spending hours on graphic design-fixing a photo or judging text solely on how it looked on the page-I felt rested when it was time to grapple with words rather than pictures."

Better Writing Through Copyediting

Not all writers want to teach, and editing is especially suited to those who prefer to work behind the scenes. Editorial work is also more easily left at the office. Kim Todd reflects, "As an instructor, I dream about being in front of the class all the time, while I’ve never dreamt about a manuscript that needed copyediting."

Creative writers who copyedit for a living may even find that the work helps their writing. Editing your own work is notoriously difficult, and the discipline of editing the work of others, under deadline, can help you hone your own prose.

The MFA workshops at the University of Montana were great, but they didn’t teach me to edit my stories into publishable form. I’d just slink away with the stack of critiques, go home, and write another story. Then I got my first full-time copyediting job, at a dot com company whose website had lots of boxed features with limited character counts. I learned to take 300-word drafts and distill them down to 150, 100, or 50 words, all while preserving the meaning. The practice has made it easier for me to look at my own drafts and cut what doesn’t need to be there.

Of course, a copyediting job presents writers with the same challenge as any full-time employment: making time for your own writing. When a day job involves similar activities as your creative work (sitting in front of the computer, marking a manuscript), it can be that much harder. So, while you are learning to love The Chicago Manual of Style, remember to carve out time for your own work. Because someday, your goal is to turn over your own manuscript-a novel, a collection of stories or poems, a work of creative nonfiction-to the discerning eye of another copy editor.


Erica Olsen (MFA, University of Montana) works as a copy editor at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in High Country News, ZYZZYVA, and other publications. In 2000, Falcon, a freelance client, published her reference book, Falcon Style Guide: A Comprehensive Guide for Travel and Outdoor Writers and Editors.

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