Some who are interested in a career in freelance writing may look upon the lowly copy editing profession with disdain. After all, such work involves little of the research and information gathering that is necessary to create an article in the first place.
However, copy editing carries its own fair share of challenges. These include needing a good knowledge of and attention to the fundamentals of writing and a careful attention to detail and accuracy in content and language.
Freelance copy editing is not merely a spinoff of freelance writing, but is an entirely separate and important discipline, as well as one that can be rewarding.
What is needed to become a successful copy editor?
One component is a familiarity with style guides. Print publications want to assure a uniform writing style and a consistent spelling and terminology for their articles. For example, the names of foreign leaders and places are often subject to different spellings (Qadhafi or Kadhafi or Gaddafi, for example).
Three of the top style guides are Associated Press (AP), Modern Language Association (MLA), and The Chicago Manual of Style. A knowledge of the expected styles is essential, so it’s a good idea to get a copy of each of these and look them over before plunging into the field of copyediting.
There is software available that can help. StyleEase for Mac and PC works with Microsoft Word and allows you to format documents in APA style. The software automates the formatting of your title page and bibliography, and it formats your text in accordance to the guidelines of the fifth edition of the APA manual, as well as helping to correctly enter your citations and references.
There’s another important skill for copy editors, however, and it’s one of the most time-consuming: fact checking. Correct use of facts is important to keeping a publication from being slapped with a misrepresentation or libel suit.
The first step in fact checking is to request the sources directly from the author and, if necessary, to call those sources to confirm statistics and quotations. The procedures for fact checking will vary from one publication to another, so be sure to find this out when you accept a job.
Although you may think that the function of a copyeditor is to heavily edit an article to bring it in conformance with the style guides and with what you think constitutes good writing, this is not the case! While you should be attuned for poor choice of words, spelling and grammar, copyediting that is too heavy-handed can offend a writer’s ego and create tensions between copy editor and staff.
Extensive rewriting just causes you more work anyway, so leave as much of the article untouched as possible, while ensuring that it conforms to style. In fact, if you need to make any substantial revisions to the text, it’s not a bad idea to consult with the writer beforehand. It’s an additional step, but one that will avoid bruised feelings.
If you’d rather not be tied down to a single publication, there are numerous opportunities for freelance copy editing available, both for big companies and for individuals. Educational publishers are especially in need of copyeditors, and there are also positions available with literary journals and book publishers.
To find such opportunities, scour the online job sites or make inquiries to individual companies. As in most fields, competition can be keen, so brush up on your interview technique and be sure you have plenty of samples available. Copy editing can provide a steady source of income, however, once you find an opening with a good company.
You can also find copy editing opportunities offered by individuals. These can provide a more varied and interesting flow of projects, with a more casual attitude regarding the style guides.
There are some drawbacks as well. Such projects can amount to little more than ghostwriting. Compensation can be hard to come by, and pay can vary widely. Some individuals may only be able to offer you a line on your resume. Consistent work can make up for low pay, but probably not from individuals.
There are some things you should watch out for before accepting copy editing projects. Figure out the amount you’ll need to make per hour along with an estimate of how long the project will take, and insist on that amount before accepting the offer. While this approach may turn off some, it will ensure that you get paid.
Copy editing can be a way to either make a full-time living or a little extra income, and it can even be a form of practice for freelance writing. The keys to success are a familiarity with the style guides, as well as grammar, spelling and usage.
Authored by Timothy Arends
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