What Does a Copy Editor Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Image by Nushua Ashjaee. © The Balance 2019

Copy editors are the grammatical gatekeepers of the media world. They read over stories—or, as the content is called in industry terms, “copy”—and check for everything from typos to nonsensical sentences to errant commas. Copy editors have historically worked at newspapers, book publishers, and magazines. Of course, there also are a multitude of jobs outside of the media world for copy editors.

Any company that produces content for use in publications such as websites, annual corporate reports, or clothing manufacturer catalogs, might need a copy editor to vet stories and other content to ensure grammatical correctness.

Copy editors can work in a wide array of industries in the private and public sectors. Also, many copy editing positions, like some fact-checking positions, are part-time because many companies, especially magazine publishers, only need copy editing done when they’re finishing (or in media terms, “closing”) an issue.

Copy Editor Duties & Responsibilities

This job requires candidates to be able to perform duties that include the following:

  • Proofread text and correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors
  • Verify factual correctness of information, such as dates and statistics
  • Check text for style, readability, and adherence to editorial policies
  • Arrange page layouts of photos, articles, and advertisements
  • Rewrite text to improve clarity and readability

While there are basic rules of grammar that remain fixed, a copy editor, along with journalists and writers, needs to know AP Style, which is a usage guide provided by the Associated Press—the country’s biggest newswire service. Most newspapers (and many magazines) have adopted AP style. Since this a “style” guide, it’s not providing overarching rules of grammar but, rather, specific rules that have to do with everything from the serial comma to when you write a number out in letters as opposed to listing it in numeric form. Also, while AP style is the standard, especially among news outlets, there are other style guides.

Copy Editor Salary

A copy editor's salary varies widely, depending on the amount of experience, the job's geographical location, the type of publication, and other factors.

  • Median Annual Salary: $58,870 ($28.25/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $114,460 ($55.03/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $30,830 ($14.82/hour)

Education, Training, & Certification

There is no formal training required to be a copy editor, but in general, people with these jobs have a love of language and a very firm grasp of English usage, as well as a love for detail and a sharp eye.

  • College degree: While a degree is not necessary, employers usually prefer candidates with a bachelor's degree in journalism, English, or communications.
  • Related experience: Employers may look for experience with other types of media, such as television, newspapers, or social media.
  • Testing: Just about every copy editing job requires applicants to pass copy editing tests, which entail going over a sample story and correcting mistakes. These tests, like writing tests (which many journalists and editors must take), are standard across the industry.
  • Certifications: If you're looking to enter the field without previous copy editing experience, relevant studies—a copy editing certification, for example—an help you get your foot in the door.

Copy Editor Skills & Competencies

It's not enough to have a sharp eye, writing experience, and good grammar knowledge. The following skills will help you excel as a copy editor:

  • Creativity: Copy editors must be curious, creative, and knowledgeable about a broad variety of topics.
  • Good judgment: For non-fiction pieces, copy editors must determine whether enough evidence exists to report on a story, and have a strong grasp of the ethics of certain stories.
  • Detail-orientation: A main task of the job is to make written work error-free, and to ensure that it matches the publication's required style.
  • Interpersonal skills: Good communication and interpersonal skills help editors communicate with tact and encouragement to writers.
  • Writing skills: Copy editors must be able to write clearly and with good logic, and ensure that content has correct punctuation, grammar, and syntax.

Job Outlook

The industry of your focus may depend on whether you are looking for the most employment opportunities or the highest pay. The newspaper and publishing industries are naturally where you will find the highest number of copy editors jobs available. As of May 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers among the top industries where you're likely to find more career choices in this field.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for copy editors over the next decade relative to other occupations and industries is weak, driven by the pressures print media faces from online publications. Although some growth will take place for editors of online media, the number of available jobs is declining.

Employment is expected to grow by about 1% over the next 10 years, which is slower growth than the average for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. Growth for other media and communication workers is projected to grow slightly faster, at 6% over the next 10 years.

These growth rates compare to the projected 7% growth for all occupations. Editors who have learned to adapt to online media work and work comfortably with using digital and electronic tools will find they have an advantage when searching for jobs.

Work Environment

While most copy editors work in office buildings, more of them have begun working from virtual locations. Copy editor jobs in office environments tend to exist in big entertainment and media markets, such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

On the job, copy editors may find themselves overseeing multiple writing projects, which can, in some cases, lead to fatigue and stress. Copy editors that are self-employed face the additional task of looking for new work while completing current projects.

Work Schedule

Copy editors typically work 40 hours per week, and their daily schedules revolve around production deadlines and the duties of their specific position. The environment is often busy, with deadline pressure and stress related to ensuring all published information is accurate. When working towards a deadline, many copy editors will need to put in longer hours, and according to the BLS, in 2016, one out of five copy editors said they work over 40 hours per week.

How to Get the Job

APPLY

Look at job-search resources like Indeed.com, Monster.com, and Glassdoor.com for available positions. You can also visit The American Copy Editors Society's job bank. If you want a copy editing job that pays higher than the average salary, check out the securities industry.

Copy editors are an essential part of the team that publishes annual reports and financial statements for shareholders, potential investors and government regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. A copy editor in the financial industry can earn nearly twice the average salary.

FIND A COPY EDITOR VOLUNTEER OPPORTUNITY

Look for an opportunity to do volunteer copy editing that could help you gain experience or turn into paid work through online sites such as VolunteerMatch.org. You can also contact various non-profit organizations directly and volunteer your copy-editing services.

FIND AN INTERNSHIP

Get guidance by working with an experienced copy editor. You can find copy editing internships through online job search sites.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in copy editing may also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • Technical writer: $70,930
  • Marketing/Advertising manager: $129,380
  • Writer/Author: $61,820