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Ed. Talks: How to Speak Copy Editor

An Ed. Talks Panel Continued

The Ed. Talks panel “How to Speak Copy Editor” was held on April 29. The in-depth look into the copy editor’s daily responsibilities and processes was deeply informative. So much so that we wanted to continue this inspirational talk off-camera. If you’re looking for more insights after watching the 1-hour event or just want useful tips on how to best communicate with your copy editors, read on.

What does a copy chief do and how did you get to that role. What would you suggest for people looking to follow that career path?

Guy Cunningham: As copy chief, I manage the copyediting department, including a staff of in-house copy editors and a team of recurring copy editors who work on a project-by-project basis. My role also means that I make the final decision on our copyediting, proofreading, and bookmaking standards, including our house style sheet. Finally, I represent the copyediting department at production meetings, work with other departments to resolve scheduling issues, and work with the rest of our managing editorial team to keep titles on schedule. I also continue to copyedit manuscripts (when I can).

My career actually started in editorial—when I was in graduate school, I worked as an editorial assistant for an academic/reference publisher. Since that publisher was quite small, they didn’t have a copyediting team. My manager there taught me how to proofread and copyedit, so I could help review the work of freelancers. Eventually, I left that job and began to freelance myself. After a year as a full-time freelancer, I took a part-time job as an in-house copy editor for Disney. About a year later, I was promoted to a full-time role. I gradually took on more responsibility—working on more important projects, reading behind other copy editors, etc.—and was eventually promoted to a senior copy editor role. I then moved over to a similar job at Penguin (which merged with Random House while I was there).

At PRH, I worked as a senior copy editor for a group of imprints now under the Penguin Workshop umbrella. I assigned work to freelancers, while also copyediting and proofreading various titles. After about four years in that role, I returned to Disney in order to take on my current position, which I’ve held for five years. Altogether, I’ve been in publishing for a little over twenty years.

Copyediting departments are often structured in different ways, depending on the publisher, so career paths often vary. One thing that I think is often overlooked is that it’s important to communicate with other departments. I’ve learned a lot about individual titles and authors simply by asking editors questions—indeed, the biggest benefit of working as an in-house copy editor or production editor is that you have opportunities to speak with editors, designers, and managing editors directly. You can grow a lot as a copy editor by simply listening to editors’ views about a particular author’s voice and also by hearing the kind of questions they have about the copyediting process. 

Beyond that, it’s important to continue expanding your skills, both as a copy editor—I make it a point to read or reread at least one book about copyediting or grammar every year—and as a publishing professional. I have a pretty diverse set of skills, and I acquired them by always making a point of asking to take on new responsibilities, no matter what my role is. The key is to always keep trying to grow and learn, and to stay curious about the industry as a whole.

What are the pros/cons to being a full-time employee for a house vs. a freelancer? Why go one route vs. the other

Christine Ma: Being a freelance copyeditor allows me to choose what I want to work on, and I can work from anywhere, whenever I want. But running your own business is hard. You set your own hours and deadlines, and you have to make sure you do the networking and marketing to get on publishers’ freelancer rosters. It definitely helped me to have in-house experience because I made a lot of valuable connections that way. I actually miss working in-house because, as a freelancer, I work on only one stage in the book production process, either copyediting or one of the proofreading passes. In-house, you get to see a project from the manuscript stage all the way until the final book comes in, and that includes reviewing any art and working on jacket copy and marketing materials. The downside is that most publishers will still require employees to be in the office when it’s safe to be, so you’d have to live within commuting distance. You also don’t get to copyedit a lot of full-length novels, since most of them get sent out to freelancers.

How should freelancers reach out to publishers for work?

Anna Dobbin: Occasionally publishers will post calls for freelance copy editors and proofreaders to their job boards, so keep an eye out for those. LinkedIn is the only platform that I would use for “cold calling” copy chiefs and managing editors for freelance work—I wouldn’t recommend contacting folks you haven’t met through any kind of social media. But probably the best way to reach out is with good old-fashioned word of mouth: If you know someone at a publisher, even if they don’t work in managing editorial, you can ask them to put you in touch with the person in charge of hiring freelancers. (This is how I got started freelancing—I was on the CBC’s Early Career Committee, where I met friends working at other publishers who helped me connect with their managing editorial teams.) From there, you’ll most likely have to take a copyediting test before you’ll get hired.

What can you do if your suggestions are rejected by the author?

Debbie DeFord-Minerva: If an initial correction or suggestion is rejected by the author, I explain why I feel the change must be made, including the editor in the conversation. In the end, it’s up to the editor to press further or let it go. If it’s a grammatical error or a sensitivity issue, we make that clear, so the author is able to make an informed choice.

How has your work changed over time? Do you think the role of copy editors has changed over the course of your career?

Anna Dobbin: Over time I’ve learned to be more sensitive to an author’s voice, and that it’s OK to deviate from traditional grammar and from house style if those choices serve the story. When I was starting out, I sort of clung to the rules—there was comfort and security in being able to point to a style guide or a dictionary, because I wasn’t confident in my abilities yet. But now I don’t cling quite so much to those resources, and I see copyediting as more of an art, or a conversation with an author, rather than an exercise in enforcing the rules.

Also, conscious language has become hugely important to me. And re: how the role of copy editors, in general, has changed over time, I think that particularly for copy editors who work on children’s books, there’s increasingly an expectation that we have knowledge of conscious language issues and of the ways that bias shows up in language. After all, we work on books for young people—and with young people, we want to make sure that we do no harm.

More resources for learning.

Christine Ma: To learn more about editing and to connect with other editors, I recommend ACES: The Society for Editing. (Disclosure: I’m on the Executive Board.) ACES has a quarterly member newsletter, a job board, editors for hire listings, a list of D&I resources, and more. The ACES Academy has a whole library of webcasts that are free for members, and they cover a range of topics, including grammar and language, setting up a freelance business, and using editing tools.

The Editorial Freelancers Association is another good organization for freelance editors.

At Conscious Style Guide, you’ll find a ton of links to articles and style guides about a variety of topics related to conscious language, including race and ethnicity, ability and disability, and gender, sex, and sexuality. There’s also a page dedicated to Creative Writing. (Disclosure: I’m on the Advisory Council.)

If you are looking to hire editors of color, Conscious Style Guide created the Editors of Color Database, and on that site, you’ll also find the Database of Diverse Databases.

Besides The Chicago Manual of Style, here are some books I’ve found extremely useful:

Watch this and other events on our CBC Videos page.

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