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Copy Editor

Copy editors make sure that an author's text (or copy) is ready for publication, by checking that it is clear, easy to read, factually accurate, and grammatically correct.

They work on a range of publications, including books, journals, newspapers and magazines and on websites.

They may:

  • ensure that the text is well written, logically structured and appropriate for the target audience
  • correct grammar, spelling and punctuation
  • make sure that the text is written in the house style of the publication
  • check facts and liaise with the author to resolve any queries.

Copy editors on newspapers and magazines, who are usually called sub-editors, may also write headlines and introductory paragraphs for articles.

In-house copy editors usually work normal office hours, but may need to work longer to meet deadlines. Many copy editors work freelance and have some flexibility about when they work, but may have to work evenings and weekends. The flow of work can be irregular and part-time work is common. The work is desk based and mostly on screen.

Freelance copy editors negotiate their own fees. Salaries for employed staff range from around £16,000 to £60,000 a year.

Copy editors must have:

  • an excellent command of English, including good spelling and grammar
  • good concentration and meticulous attention to detail
  • the ability to produce high-quality work under pressure of deadlines
  • ICT skills
  • a love of writing and a feel for language.

Copy editors are employed by publishing firms, newspapers and magazines. Many other organisations also use copy editors on an in-house or freelance basis.

Copy editors usually start off in a junior role, such as editorial assistant or general reporter. Most have a degree, often in a related subject, such as English or journalism. A degree in a relevant subject may be required to work in specialist areas, such as science, economics or law.

An increasing number of publishing courses are available at various levels. A publishing qualification can provide valuable work experience and networking opportunities.

Once employed, copy editors learn on the job from experienced colleagues. They may undertake in-house training and there are also many short courses available.

With experience, they may move on to more complex or specialist editing jobs. In-house copy editors may progress to senior editorial roles. Experienced sub-editors may progress to chief sub-editor or production editor.

What is the work like?

Copy editors make sure that an author's text (or copy) is ready for publication, by checking that it is clear, easy to read, factually accurate and grammatically correct.

They may work on a range of publications, including books, journals, newspapers and magazines and websites and other online content. Some specialise in a particular area, such as medical or business publishing

A copy editor's duties may include:

  • ensuring that the text is well written, logically structured and appropriate for the target audience
  • correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation
  • making sure that the text is written in the house style of the publication
  • checking facts
  • liaising with the author to resolve any queries
  • alerting the publisher to potential legal problems, such as libel or breach of copyright
  • checking that illustrations and captions are correct.

Copy editors are not expected to rewrite the text completely. Their aim is to improve the text where necessary, while retaining the style of the author and publication.

On newspapers and magazines, copy editors may be called sub-editors and their duties may also include:

  • composing headlines
  • writing standfirsts (introductory paragraphs that draw the reader in)
  • editing stories to the right length
  • laying out stories to a set page design.

Most copy editors work on a computer, editing on screen, but they may also work with a printed (hard) copy of a manuscript. Increasingly, they may use a content management system (CMS), editing the text to fit into templates.

Copy editors liaise with clients, authors, typesetters, printers and publishers. Newspaper and magazine sub-editors work with newsroom and production colleagues.

Hours and environment

Hours vary depending on the role. In-house copy editors usually work normal office hours, but may need to work longer at busy times or to meet deadlines.

Many copy editors work freelance and have some flexibility about when they work, but may work extra hours to meet deadlines, including evenings and weekends. The flow of work can be irregular and part-time work is common.

Sub-editors are busiest just before a publication goes to print, which can be daily, weekly or monthly. Sub-editors on daily titles may work shifts, including early starts and late nights.

The work is desk based and usually on screen. In-house editors work in offices, which can be small and cramped or large and modern. Freelance copy editors usually work from home. There may be occasional travel for meetings.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

Freelance copy editors negotiate their own fees. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) can advise on freelance rates. The SfEP suggests a minimum rate of £20.75 an hour for copy-editing on paper, and £22.50 for on-screen work.

  • Salaries for employed copy editors may start from £16,000 a year.
  • With experience, salaries may rise to around £35,000.
  • Chief sub-editors on a national publication may earn up to £60,000 a year.

Skills and personal qualities

A copy editor must have:

  • an excellent command of English, including good spelling and grammar
  • good concentration and meticulous attention to detail
  • the ability to produce high-quality work under pressure of deadlines
  • judgment in applying house style
  • tact and diplomacy
  • flexibility and initiative
  • ICT skills.

Interests

It helps to have:

  • a love of writing and a feel for language
  • specialist interests that may develop into areas of work, such as technology, health or finance.

Getting in

Copy editors are employed by publishing companies, newspapers and magazines. Many publishing companies now use freelance copy editors and in-house opportunities are limited. However, many other organisations use copy editors to support their communications activities.

Nearly half the publishing workforce is based in London and the South East, but there is a more even distribution of work in the newspaper sector with national, regional and local news media.

Competition for freelance work is fierce and it is important to build up a good track record, delivering quality work on time. Freelance copy editors need to develop and maintain contacts. Membership of a professional organisation, such as the SfEP or Women in Publishing, can provide useful networking opportunities, support and advice.

Vacancies appear in national newspapers such as The Guardian, Independent, Times and Daily Telegraph or in trade publications, such as the Bookseller. There are also some specialist recruitment agencies. Freelance copy editors may find work by making direct approaches to companies.

The Society of Young Publishers (SYP) lists vacancies on its website. Sub-editor vacancies appear in the Press Gazette and on websites such as www.journalism.co.uk, www.bookcareers.com and www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk

Entry routes

Most copy editors have a degree and then gain experience in a junior role, such as editorial assistant. Sub-editors in newspapers and magazines often start off as general reporters.

Degrees may be in a related subject, such as English or journalism. A degree in a relevant subject may be required to work in specialist areas, such as science, economics or law.

The entry requirements for a degree are usually two or three A levels and five GCSEs (A*-C), including English or maths, or equivalent qualifications. The Diploma in creative and media may also be relevant.

There are many journalism courses available at different levels. The publishing industry recognises those accredited by the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ) and the Periodicals Training Council.

Some copy editors have a postgraduate publishing qualification and an increasing number of publishing courses are available at degree- and foundation degree-level. A publishing qualification is not essential but it can provide valuable work experience and networking opportunities.

Information about courses is available on the websites of the SfEP, United Kingdom Association for Publishing Education (UKAPE) and Skillset.

Some of the larger publishing companies may offer work experience placements or internships, but there is intense competition for places.

Training

Employed copy editors learn on the job, with support from more senior colleagues, and may also receive in-house training.

There are many short courses available from organisations such as the SfEP, the Publishing Training Centre, the NCTJ and the Periodical Publishers Association, some on a distance-learning basis, including copy-editing and on-screen editing skills, grammar, working freelance, handling illustrations and editing text in specialist subjects, such as maths, music or medicine.

Completion of courses may enable copy editors to be more selective about the work they take on.

Getting on

With experience, copy editors may move on to more complex editing jobs or they may choose to specialise in a particular subject area.

In-house copy editors may progress to more senior roles within publishing, such as commissioning editor or editor. They may change jobs frequently early in their careers in order to gain a wide range of experience and make contacts, which is also important for those who decide to work freelance. Freelance copy editors may also progress to project management roles.

Experienced sub-editors may progress to chief sub-editor or production editor, taking on more management responsibilities.

Further information

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

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

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

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

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

Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), Erico House, 93-99 Upper RichmondRoad, Putney, London SW15 2TG. 020 8785 5617. Website: www.sfep.org.uk

Society of Young Publishers. Website: www.thesyp.org.uk

United Kingdom Association for Publishing Education (UKAPE). Website: www.ukape.org

Women in Publishing. Website: www.wipub.org.uk

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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