Myth: Copy editors need to have a degree in journalism, English or literature.

When I decided to leave my post as head writer in a TV show to pursue a career as a copy editor in a publishing solutions firm, friends and family members were confused as to  how to react. Unfortunately, copy editing is not a popular career where I come from.

Most people would think they have a clear idea of what copy editing is or what copy editors do. After all, copy editing seems straightforward: editing copy. I thought that way too. But my first week on the job made me realize a lot of my assumptions were wrong.

Sources summarize copy editing as making copy correct, complete, concise, clear and consistent — the five Cs as the pros call them. It is often confused with either proofreading or developmental editing. You’d probably think that to be a successful copy editor, you’d have to love writing, or you’d need to be a grammar geek. But actually, the role goes beyond checking for subject-verb agreement and usage errors. So what does it actually take to be a copy editor?

Here, I try to list a number of misconceptions about copy editors and hopefully clarify what they actually do and what their role in the organization is. Some of these misconceptions are based on my experience, while others are from colleagues and notable posts by seasoned copy editors. Now, let’s bust them one by one.

Original image:  “New new new journalism” by Menomena (Flickr). Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-Sa 2.0) license.

Original image: “New new new journalism” by Menomena (Flickr). Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-Sa 2.0) license.

1. Copy editors need to have a degree in journalism, English or literature.

If you browse through job ads and profiles for copy editor posts, most of them do not require a specific degree. Of course, a firm grasp of the language is expected from any applicant, but it’s not something that can be proven by merely having an English or journalism degree. Usually, companies look at experience and require a qualifying exam to assess language and communication skills.

The technical training acquired through journalism and English courses would help, but an applicant may come from any discipline and still qualify for a copy editor post if his or her resume shows actual copy editing experience. So basically, anyone who has acquired experience enough to have the requisite language skills may be hired as a copy editor.

How does one gain experience and the language skills that would qualify?

Bill Walsh, copy editor at The Washington Post, recommends getting internships if you are still in college and would want to become a professional copy editor.

Nothing you learn in a journalism class will be anywhere near as valuable as actual experience, which brings me to the other part of my experience you should strive to emulate: Join the school paper.

Mark Nichol also provided similar advice to develop skills in addition to doing research about the job and learning through various resources.

So does it matter if you know the classical forms of literature, effective interview techniques, or how to diagram a sentence? Yes, it would help, but it is not required. Career intelligence site Vault.com doesn’t mention a degree or course requirement for its job description for the copy editor, but it says “a sharp eye and an almost unhealthy attention to detail” are needed for the role. There are a lot of other skills and traits that the job requires that a degree can’t guarantee. And most of the knowledge you need you can only learn as you do the job. For example, how do you deal with something you don’t know? Do you just let it slip or do you validate through research?

Although a particular degree is not a requirement, I’d say genuine interest in the language is. Our lead copy editor says copy editing skills may be acquired from “frequent self-exposure” to the language. If you’ve been exposed to enough material, you’ll know when something is misused or is not grammatical in a manuscript you’ve been assigned to copy edit.

You’ll have to love reading to thrive in this kind of job. And it’s not just reading fiction or reading for leisure; you’d have to be curious about everything that’s written. One value that copy editors bring to every publication, especially those with products targeted to the general public, is having the eyes of the common reader, who expect a lot from something that he or she bought.

This series will continue next week with more misconceptions. Meanwhile, let us know what you think. What courses would you recommend aspiring copy editors take? What other skills or traits do you think copy editors should have to succeed?


Mark Hilaria is the deputy managing editor of SENCOR‘s Editorial unit and serves in the editorial board of Project Chiron. This post is part of the “‘Good Writers Don’t Need Copy Editors’ and Other Myths” series,  edited by Kim Palanca and Adrian Claudio.

NEXT: Are newsrooms and magazines the only places for a copyediting career?

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