Five things I’ve learned from working as a copy editor

Zu den deutschsprachigen Blogs copy editor
Zu den deutschsprachigen Blogs copy editor

Angela is a sub-editor and writer based in Dublin, Ireland. She loves puns, poetry, travelling, petting strangers’ dogs, and comedy.

I have worked as a copy editor, in various forms, for the last ten years. With my red pen in hand and apostrophes at the ready, I have plodded along the pedant’s path, hitting more than a few obstacles on the way (Redundancy 2013 – I’m looking at you!).

From writing pun-tastic headings for an Irish tabloid, to giving vasectomy articles the ol’ chop-chop for a medical publication, it’s certainly a job that’s never been dull.

Most of my work has been for news outfits, both online and print. A newspaper copy editor (more commonly known as a sub-editor) is the guardian of a publication’s accuracy, literacy and readability.

With the decline of the print industry, newspaper sub-editing is, unfortunately, a dying trade. But the skills acquired can be applied to editing many types of text: academic essays, business reports, blog posts, press releases, e-books, and advertising copy.

Here are a few things I have learned along the way. I hope you find them useful in your editing endeavours.

1. Know the publication’s style – and be consistent

Before editing any text, you must become familiar with the tone of the publication and who the audience is. Should the tone be formal or informal? Is this a piece for the general public, or for a niche audience with specialist knowledge?

Most established magazines, newspapers and news websites will have a comprehensive ‘style guide’ to hand – a set of rules that guide the editorial style and tone of the publication.

This style guide might be anything from four pages long, to forty. I once worked at a tabloid newspaper that ordered sub-editors in its style guide to ‘use puns in headings, where appropriate’. One of the most fun jobs I have had!

Ignore a style guide at your peril. It is the copy editor’s ‘Bible’ that answers niggling questions such as: Are job titles written in upper case or lower case? Do we spell out numbers, or use a figure? Is it per cent, or %?

Consistency is important to maintain a professional feel and flow to any piece of writing. Constantly changing from one style to another will turn readers off.

If there is no pre-existing style guide, I recommend compiling your own  –  even if it’s just a one-page document  –  so the editing is consistent throughout.

2. It’s not about you

A college lecturer once said to me: “Good copy editing is like sewing – if done correctly, the stitches are barely visible.”

This is so true! Your job as a copy editor is to make the writing seamless, and like it or not, your aim is to make the writer look good, while you stand in the background. You must fix mistakes, fact check and rewrite – all while maintaining the writer’s voice.

Part of the job may also be to draw the reader in with intriguing headings, intros and photo captions. If you are also a writer, it can sometimes be difficult to step back and avoid letting your own style leak into the piece that you are editing.

But while copy editing it’s important to remember –  it’s not about you.

3. Get to the point

With the advent of social media and smartphones, people’s attention spans are shorter than ever. In 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds, but now it’s closer to 8 seconds!

You need to grab a reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs, to have any hope of them staying with you to the end of the piece. If you’re editing a blog or an article, often re-ordering the information can make all the difference to the flow of the piece.

The old school ‘Who, What, Where, When, Why’ structure is a good rule of thumb. When deciding on your first paragraph, ask yourself: Who is this article about, what have they done, where and when did it happen, and why did they do it?

Unless you are writing the next great murder mystery novel, my advice is: get to the point, and get there quickly!

4. If in doubt, leave it out

When checking any article, Google is your best friend. Don’t forget to cross-check street names, dates of events, medical terms, or any information you don’t know off the top of your head. Never just ‘assume’ something is correct.

Spelling people’s names incorrectly in a publication, especially print, is sure to earn you an email or phone call complaint. I once jumbled up the letters on the photo caption of a ‘Dr. Knut’. Needless to say, he was less than pleased.

If the writer is available by phone or email, don’t hesitate to check with them if something in their work is unclear or is ringing alarm bells. Use your gut instincts. And if you really can’t verify a piece of information, it’s better to remove it completely.

If in doubt, leave it out!

5. Always get a second eye

Even the most eagle-eyed sub-editor makes mistakes. Where possible, always get a second eye to check your work (as I should have done with the aforementioned doctor’s photo).

If a second person is not available, take a break from the piece before going back to recheck it. Tiredness and complacency can easily set in, and it is all too easy to let errors slip through.

Check, check and re-check.

Good luck with your editing careers!