What Does a Copy Editor Do?

Updated January 26, 2023

A person using a laptop at home.

With the ability to work on a variety of content, working as a copy editor can be a very exciting and fulfilling job. Copy editing requires meticulous attention to detail, a deadline-oriented mindset and grammatical skills that can only be built through experience. In this article, we explore what a copy editor does and the steps you can take to become one.

What is a copy editor?

A copy editor is a professional who is able to work in a number of industries proofreading, fact-checking and editing content to make sure grammar, syntax and punctuation are used correctly and style guides are followed. They also help restructure copy to create better flow and clarity for audiences and ensure that writing tone and voice match company branding requirements. Some copy editors also manage projects and oversee the entire content production process.

Related: How To Become a Copy Editor: Qualifications and Best Practices

What are a copy editor’s duties and responsibilities?

Copy editors are tasked with a number of responsibilities, some of which include:

  • Maintaining adherence to style guides 

  • Working with writers to help them improve their research and article development skills

  • Editing copy to improve readability and concision

  • Proofreading copy to fix grammatical, spelling, punctuation and formatting errors

  • Verifying numerical information, such as dates and statistics, to ensure accuracy

  • Creating layouts for publications to arrange text, images and ads properly

  • Writing headlines 

A large portion of the work copy editors do is governed by the usage requirements of an in-house style guide or by clients’ guides if they work for an agency that produces copy for a variety of companies.

Copy editors normally are employed by newspapers, magazines and book publishers, but are needed in almost every industry. They may oversee work for print or online media, or a mixture of the two; some work as freelancers, accepting assignments on an as-needed basis.

Related: Copy Editor Cover Letter Examples and Templates

Copy editor skills

Building and strengthening the following skills will help you succeed in a copy-editing career:

Excellent writing skills

An exceptional understanding of language is needed to succeed as a copy editor. Copy editors must be able to read text and determine if it logically and clearly communicates information to the targeted audience while sticking to the style guide's requirements.

They have to make sure the voice, tone and structure are correct, and they must possess the ability to rewrite content to make it flow more naturally. These skills also include a strong grasp of sentence structure, grammar rules and proper punctuation, including how rules change depending on what writing style is required.  Common style guides include The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style and the Modern Language Association (MLA).

Ability to connect

Although a copy editor focuses on content, it's just as important for them to connect with others and possess interpersonal skills. Copy editors often work directly with writers and other clients, so having compassion and the ability to build positive relationships with others is a highly advantageous skill in this field.

Copy editors need to provide support and guidance to writers, offering encouragement and understanding. They also need to maintain professional relationships with corporate clients and in-house leadership.

Creative and inquisitive mind

Copy editors must have an interest in learning more about the topics they proofread and often need to come up with creative headlines and introductory paragraphs to grab readers’ attention. They might also need to take a common topic that many others have already covered and look for a way to write about it with a fresh perspective.

Copy editors working in advertising and marketing rely heavily on creativity and curiosity to develop exciting copy for website landing pages, company branding, social media and other content types used to influence a target audience.

Related: Creativity Skills: Definition, Tips and Examples

Meticulous attention to detail

The foundation of copy editing is guaranteeing error-free work. This requires diligent attention to detail, which could include noticing the smallest punctuation mistakes and ensuring that the flow of ideas throughout an entire text is properly structured.

Copy editors must be able to remember every component of a style guide and apply them to each piece of content they revise. They may also need to know more than one style guide and switch between these during their workday, which requires exceptional focus and dedication to the details of their work.

Organized and deadline-oriented mindset

Copy editors often juggle multiple projects at once and may work with many different writers, so they need to have impeccable organizational skills to structure their workday and stay on top of tasks.

This career is also very deadline-focused—sometimes copy editors will need to meet last-minute deadlines to reach ambitious company goals or make sure copy gets to print—so the ability to remain organized and calm under pressure is important.

Related: Editor vs. Proofreader: Here's What You Need To Know

How to become a copy editor

Follow these suggested steps to begin your career as a copy editor:

1. Obtain a college degree

Although copy editing doesn't require a bachelor's degree, many employers prefer candidates to have one in journalism, English, communications or related courses of study.

Journalism is one of the most common degrees for aspiring copy editors because coursework normally helps build skills related to:

  • Editing

  • Writing

  • Research and fact-checking

  • Print and web design

  • Media law and ethics

  • Publishing

English degrees also offer training in the English language, logic and different writing styles, all relevant to copy editing.

Coursework related to mass media and cross media can also make aspiring copy editors more desirable to employers. Mass media refers to all the forms of media that are used to reach large, diverse groups of people, and cross media is a form of marketing that uses mass-media for promotion.

2. Get an internship

Many companies provide internships for students in media-related fields looking for experience before they graduate and apply for jobs. An internship at a magazine, newspaper or nonprofit organization will help you apply the industry knowledge you're learning in school and build new skill sets to improve your chances of getting hired after college.

3. Gain work experience

Once you've obtained a bachelor's degree, the next step is to gain related experience. Many copy editors begin their careers as copywriters, editorial assistants or in other writing-related roles.

Copy editors are usually well-rounded communicators with knowledge in a variety of areas and years of experience, so find an entry-level position with career advancement opportunities to begin working your way up to a copy editor position.

3. Get certified

Copy editing roles don't require certifications, but they can help you look more desirable to employers and assist in advancing your skills. Some organizations that offer copy-editing certifications are:

  • Editorial Freelancers Association: Offers online courses and webinars on a number of copy-editing topics.

  • ACES Society for Editing: Offers basic and advanced self-paced editing certification programs.

Related: ​​Copyediting vs. Proofreading (Definitions, Differences and Similarities)

Copy editor job outlook and salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for all editorial employees is expected to be slower than average during the next decade. Changes within the media landscape are a major cause of this sluggish growth. The median wage for copy editors is estimated to be $63,400 with a base salary hovering around $45,651

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Jobs similar to copy editor

If you’re interested in copy editing, there are several adjacent career paths you can consider in the print and online media industries, including: 

  • Digital editor

  • Freelance writer

  • Technical editor

  • Proofreader

  • Journalist

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