On copyediting

I hardly ever write about my 9-to-5 job, which is copyediting on a freelance basis in the scientific, technical, and medical (STM) market, because mostly it would come across as complaints, even though I like my job. I have been copyediting as a freelance full time for more than 10 years. I have lots and lots and lots of experience, although sometimes I think I can’t face editing yet another references section into the style du jour, or spending some quality time on PubMed to look up missing bibliographic information. Still, I like it way better than writing, which I also do for money. (I’m a good writer, but I’m a great editor.)

I often present at a professional conference about freelancing, where I give tips on getting freelance gigs in the STM market. Sometimes the participants e-mail me afterward and ask me to share my network with them, or find them work. I always say no. I recently received a similar inquiry via a colleague, and it’s an inquiry that I actually get a lot. It goes something like this:

I thought I might like to be a copyeditor, because I want to work from home. I really need a flexible schedule because of my other job/kids/disability/unfortunate geographical location. When I was an undergrad student, I was an English major! Everyone wanted me to read their papers and correct them. So I thought I might become a copyeditor. What advice do you have for me?

My advice, you say? My advice is, stop right there.

If the reason you want to copyedit is because you want to work from home, then you are better off beading and selling your stuff in Etsy. Why do I keep seeing this conflation? Wanting to copyedit is not the same as controlling your own time. I have never received an inquiry, for example, from someone who spoke about her collection of style manuals, or the difficulty in finding copies of Fowler’s; nor has anyone sent me pictures of how she has flagged her Chicago 15 and her AMA Manual of Style (10th ed.) with little index tabs. No. It’s all about wanting to work from home. And you know what? Not only is working from home tremendously isolating, but also you must be a self-starter who can organize her time. Not very many people can do this.

Index tabs on reference books
Index tabs on reference books

Further, everyone remarks on their skills as an English major, when being an English major has nothing to do with copyediting. In fact, in my market, copyeditors sell their scientific background—although that’s not relevant either. These copyeditor wannabes also often remark about their grammar skills. (Grammar is the least of your worries. Style those references! Write that missing abstract and query its approval! Reflow that table so the typesetter can use it!) In fact, the only relevant thing is, if everyone in college wanted you to read their paper—for free, presumably—you must be nice, and it’s always good to be nice. Clients like that. However, they like timeliness better.

So you want to copyedit! Although I will only share my network with people whose editing I am familiar with and can vouch for (usually this means people whom I have trained), here are some things I suppose you ought to know. You know, in case you actually want to copyedit, instead of having a flexible schedule.

1. Freelance copyediting is being offshored.

If you want to learn how to copyedit, you need an in-house job to gain experience. It’s that Catch-22: nobody will hire you without experience, but you need experience to get hired. Because freelance editing is being moved offshore to India, you need to be trained in a market niche. You will make contacts while in house that will help you launch a freelance career, and you will learn valuable things about the production process.

2. It’s possible to get editing gigs if you have no experience at all.

You can work your network and make it known you want to edit. This may garner you a gig: somebody is always writing a book to shop or to self-publish. But for a captive audience that will provide you will honest-to-goodness real, decent experience, I suggest that you contact your local nearby university and put in your name with the graduate school’s secretary as someone who will edit theses and dissertations. Sometimes masters or PhD students’ advisors make them get edited before they’ll pass the thesis and confer the degree. Usually these students will be nonnative speakers.

I personally refuse this work, but that’s only because I have been stiffed. I still resent that PhD student in petroleum science who still owes me $200! Some people like this work; I am simply not among them. Note that editing theses and dissertations has an ethical component: students must acknowledge you. You can find out the rules about this with google-fu. Note also that you’ll probably have to learn a new style for each new gig, so be ready to ask students for the style guide their discipline uses. They often won’t know, in which case, ask them to photocopy a couple articles for you from the best journal in their field, and base the style on that.

On these test gigs, you won’t make money, so don’t think you will. You’ll be spending too much time ripping out your hair, cursing the author, and frantically paging through style books. It’s a learning experience. If your client likes you, she’ll recommend you and you’ll get more gigs.

3. Choose a market and join a relevant professional organization.

Some people think they can get work via some sort of online service like Craigslist. It’s better to choose your market, join the relevant editing organization, and then get gigs through this network. These organizations often publish job information listings. For the medical market, for example, the American Medical Writers Association has a portion of their Web site dedicated to jobs—nicely targeted jobs, although most are in house and not freelance.

Horror stories about Craigslist abound, including the “edit this as a test” scam, where the contact gives you what you think is an unpaid test, but on live copy. All the candidates get a chapter of this volume. Shocker! No candidate gets the gig, but the contact person ends up with an edited book. This is unethical, my friends. You should always be paid if your test is on live copy. Always. Even if your contact person has to fix it before it gets typeset. Always.

If you decide your burning desire is to edit fiction, I can’t help you, because that’s not my market. I’ve been given to understand that those jobs mostly go to ex-employees, so the house knows them; I’ve also been given to understand that copyediting fiction is moving out of the houses and into the hands of the authors, so becoming an author’s editor is an up-and-coming job choice for copyeditors.

4. I’m not going to tell you how much to charge.

Do your own research on this one. There are many freelance editing and writing organizations that publish salary surveys, broken down by hour or by page. (Tip: they ought to work out to be the same.) My clients don’t negotiate. My income has greatly decreased since the crash, but before that, my income had stalled: I hit the top of the rate scale, and the rate scale hasn’t budged for I’d say 5 or 6 years. Before that, it actually went down because the typesetting was being moved offshore. My clients lowered my pay because I didn’t have to SGML tag the documents anymore; I could just edit a Word document. Do less, get paid less.

5. Copyediting is insanely picky, and not everyone is cut out to do it.

Clients with whom I have contact almost always comment on the extreme pickiness of the work I do—sometimes with bemused appreciation, sometimes with annoyance (“Why is that important?”). Many people cannot sustain this level of detail. To test yourself, you might try copyediting a single reference listing of, say, 75 entries to four different styles. There’s no need to fact-check, but don’t forget to look up those journal abbreviations, if you don’t happen to have them memorized! Is it tedious, or are you swept up in the joy of pattern matching and suddenly desirous of learning wildcard searches? When you’re done, print it out, and revisit it the next day. How many errors do you have?

It’s all like that. All of it.

I have no idea how to assess whether someone will be a good copyeditor. I’ve trained a number of good people, and I’ve fired people who simply never got it. I do know that there’s an editorial eye that goes beyond spotting amusing typos in a menu, or—oh dear—reading undergrad English papers as a favor to a pal. It’s visceral. It hurts. As a copyeditor friend of mine has said, “I would rather kill a puppy than deliberately present something incorrectly.”

I know just how she feels.

This text is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. If you duplicate the post, please also copy the picture and host it yourself. This post was originally written on May 9, 2010. It may be freely copied anywhere. If you read this document a site other than its original, I may not see any comments you might append, and I’d love to hear from you. Please comment at the original blog post if you wish me to see your remarks.

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2 thoughts on “On copyediting

  1. Thank you for voicing how I feel when people say, “I’m good at spelling and grammar, and I’d like to be able to stay home with my kids and do what you do. Can you tell me who you do work for?” They don’t mean to be insulting, but I do feel kind of insulted. I have been working as a full-time independent editor for 15 years, worked part-time before that for another 8 years, and worked as a full-time editor in a major publishing house before that. I don’t even know where to begin to tell them that it’s not something you can just pick up to make money at home. It’s like someone coming up to an attorney and saying, “I read a lot of Lisa Scottlione novels, so I was wondering if I could do some attorney work from home on the side.” Or to a master carpenter, “I really liked assembling my Ikea desk, so I was wondering, how do I get work as a cabinet maker?” Of course, people do have to start somewhere. So I feel less insulted when novices ask for advice about how to get their foot in the door. But like you, I’m not going to offer my clients to these folks, whose abilities I have no idea about.

  2. Hi,
    I found your post via a Google search for “copyediting from home” and have to say thank you. Yes, I have an English degree (I was never the person people ran to for editing though; they knew I’d be “too” picky about the things they didn’t think would matter) and obviously was wondering if copyediting from home was something I should look into doing. My internet searching wasn’t yielding much in the way of anything helpful until I found your post. I started grinning at “stop right there” and continued to do so as I read the rest. Thanks for taking the time to write that out as it is the most helpful thing I have found so far.

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