Myth: Copy editors work in newspapers or magazines only.

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. Last week, I talked about the misconception that copy editors need to have a specific academic degree. Now, here’s the second misconception:

Original image:  “Newsroom” by Caroline Treadway (Flickr). Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

Original image: “Newsroom” by Caroline Treadway on Flickr.
Used under a Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

2. Copy editors work in newspapers or magazines only.

The copy editor job title is of course more common in newspapers, but some other publishing companies also have copy editors on their payrolls. Copy editors are everywhere: in advertising companies, research firms, financial services, IT companies, government agencies, etc.

“Every person and organization that communicates needs a copy editor — someone with a fresh perspective to notice mistakes and make suggestions that might not occur to the original author.”

— Rooney and Witte, “Copy Editing for Professionals”

Wherever there’s content, someone should be there to copy edit. Because organizations need to communicate, whether internally or to their customers, all organizations basically need copy editors. Copy editors who are skilled in promoting themselves know this and can easily make hiring managers realize the value of copy editing in every organization, even those outside the publishing industry.

Also, the mindset developed and the skills acquired through years of experience as a copy editor are very valuable in other lines of work. In “Copy Editing for Professionals,” Edmund Rooney and Oliver Witte wrote about the philosophy and psychology of a professional copy editor. The role of the copy editor as the publication’s last line of defense against reputation risks and libel has been emphasized in numerous blogs and books, but Rooney and Witte also wrote that copy editors develop leadership attitude and concern for the team and the organization which make them potential manager material:

Everyone has an ego, but copy editors seem more content with the internal satisfactions of a job well done. Copy editors take pride in making reporters and the publication look good.

If you’re a skilled copy editor and you don’t feel that the newspaper or book publishing industry is where you want to grow, don’t think of switching careers just yet. Try making use of these skills in another organization or in another industry. In their annual conferences, the American Copy Editors Society includes a session that talks about career options beyond the newsroom. Check out the handout for “How Do I Get There? Copy Editing Beyond the Newsroom” for ideas.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s interested in working as a copy editor but doesn’t think the copy desk in newsrooms is an ideal work environment, the handout should affirm that not all copy editors work in newspapers. Charles Apples’ blog on the ACES site makes a good case for copy editors to enter other fields. His list of organizations and brands that would benefit from copyediting includes schools, sports organizations, manufacturers, game makers and even the KKK, among others.

Who among you are copy editors working in fields outside the media or book publishing? Where else do you think copy editors are needed?


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: Do you need to have superior vocabulary to be a copy editor?

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