Job: Copy editor
The Role: Copy editors are tasked with fixing grammar, spelling or word usage errors in written text. Copy editors typically occupy one link in an editing chain that includes substantive editing, stylistic editing, formatting and proofreading.
“The copy editor is the real detail person,” explained Greg Ioannou, the founder and president of Colborne Communications, a Toronto-based writing and editing company. “Everyone else is looking at the larger picture.”
Mr. Ioannou explains that copy editors are often associated with the publishing industry, but books, newspaper and magazines are no longer the primary customer for their services. Instead many work on a freelance basis editing medical documents, financial reports, government documents and within other niche industries.
While the role is primarily focused on finding imperfections in written copy, Mr. Ioannou says it’s difficult to maintain quality standards when staring at text for eight consecutive hours each day.
“Doing that all day every day is like coming to work and writing two exams one after another – it’s totally brain crunching – so it usually gets mixed in with something else,” he said. “Writing, working on a team, thinking through cover designs or whatever; it is so intensely focused, it’s hard to sit down for eight hours and do it.”
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Salary: A copy editor’s salary will range depending on the type of work they do, what additional skills they bring to the table and to a lesser extent where they’re based.
“If you’re in publishing, the entry level salary is going to be about 25 or 30 thousand [dollars per year] and it can get into the 60s, 70s and even 80s at the highest levels, but there are very few jobs in that level,” Mr. Ioannou said. “If you’re in Ottawa working on a federal government job, entry level is probably somewhere in the 60s.”
Historically, copy editors had an easier time finding clients in major cities, but the internet has made location less of a factor. Instead, salary is more commonly determined by the copy editor’s specialty, and whether they have additional training in niche fields.
“It’s possible to get six figures doing it in a financial or medical environment, because that requires specialized training,” Mr. Ioannou said. “Most medical editors also have some sort of medical training.”
Education: Copy editors have the option to become certified members of the Editors’ Association of Canada following the successful completion of two exams, though it is not a mandatory requirement.
“It’s aimed at people who have been working as an editor for at least five years, so you don’t need it to get in to the profession,” Mr. Ioannou said. “What it does do is give you credibility and a better chance of landing the higher-paid gigs.”
Instead copy editors are typically required to enroll in a college or university level copy editing course within a publishing or journalism program, but are often not required to complete the program.
“Usually the editing or publishing programs have a copy editing component,” Mr. Ioannou said. “It’s not at all unusual for students to take the half of the program they feel they need.”
Mr. Ioannou adds that an educational background in a field relevant to the type of content the editor is interested in editing – such as medicine, finance or government – is also an asset.
Job prospects: Like much of the publishing industry, full-time copy editing jobs have been on the decline in Canada for more than a decade, but they are largely being replaced by freelance and contract positions.
“The industry is not shrinking across the board; there are new opportunities everywhere,” Mr. Ioannou said. “It’s becoming part of the gig economy, and has been for a long time.”
Challenges: Like many freelance roles, copy editors may be challenged by the additional tasks associated with running a business, such as sales, marketing and accounting. The job itself can also be daunting, according to Mr. Ioannou, as a result of the complexity of the English language.
“There are some words after 40 years I have never learned to spell without having to check each time, there are grammatical wrinkles that are so obscure that you trip over them once every five or ten years,” he said. “It’s not as simple as it can seem.”
Why they do it: Copy editors are often attracted to the role out of a passion for the written word, and for the variety of work it provides.
“It’s like getting paid to read all day,” Mr. Ioannou said. “I pretty much work on something different every couple of days, and it can be anything from an accounting document to a mystery novel to a board game – it’s all over the map – and it can be pretty consistently entertaining.”
Misconceptions: Those with a background in English studies often feel they are well positioned to work as copy editors, but Mr. Ioannou says copy editing requires different training.
“When you’re teaching someone who is an English major or a former English teacher, you need to do some un-teaching; they’ve learned some grammatical rules that aren’t actual rules but conventions, and there are exceptions all over the place,” he said. “What you learned as a rule in high-school English may not apply when you edit a romance novel; language is flexible, and more variants are right than people are taught to think.”
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