Copy-editors and proofreaders ensure that material is clear and consistent, complete and credible, and that text is well written, grammatically correct and accessible.

They work on a range of publications, including:

  • books;
  • journals;
  • newspapers;
  • websites;
  • other electronic resources.

They may be required to correct spelling, grammar and layout (proofreading), or check content, impose consistent styles and reword or rewrite (copy-editing). This depends on the project, the employer or the client and their own specialist experience. Many copy-editors/proofreaders perform both functions in tandem.

They're employed by publishers, businesses and public bodies but increasingly on a freelance basis, so it's common for them to have several clients at the same time. Many people retrain for editorial work as a second or third career.

Responsibilities

Work activities depend on experience and whether you work in-house or freelance. They may include:

  • correcting spelling mistakes and grammatical errors;
  • sub-editing text written by a number of authors to ensure consistent house style;
  • working with IT-based publishing systems and databases, as well as via the internet, CD-ROMs or from paper manuscripts;
  • liaising regularly with authors and publishers by phone and email;
  • checking that authors have provided all the required materials and paperwork;
  • resolving queries directly with the author, e.g. style and text inconsistencies;
  • coding manuscripts for design features, such as hierarchy of headings, to instruct the production team;
  • creating artwork briefs to detail the content of illustrations;
  • ensuring that illustrations are correctly captioned and referred to in the text;
  • producing or working to a style checklist to ensure consistency in hyphenation, capitalisation, formatting of references, etc;
  • maintaining awareness of new words or phrases coming into popular usage with a view to ensuring they're appropriate for the readership;
  • discussing and resolving any potentially libellous sections with the commissioning editor and author;
  • retrieving articles from archives and rearranging within publications;
  • preparing preliminary pages for the title, contents and preface of a publication;
  • overseeing the work of indexers, typesetters and designers;
  • (increasingly for freelancers) typesetting and designing layout;
  • ensuring that publications are prepared on budget and to schedule;
  • (for those who are self-employed) managing marketing and business activities.

Salary

Salaries vary widely according to the nature of the work and the employer. Larger corporate publishers generally pay higher rates than traditional publishers.

  • The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) publishes suggested minimum hourly rates every year. 2015's rates are £22.50 an hour for proofreading, £26.20 for copy-editing, rising to around £30 for substantial editing or rewriting.
  • Rates for the project management of the entire process of editing from first manuscripts through to production are usually much higher than for copy-editing, at over £30 per hour.

Some employers pay a flat rate per piece of work.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary. Copy-editors based in-house generally work normal office hours but may need to work longer hours in busy periods. Deadlines may be very tight due to the nature of the work. Freelancers enjoy greater flexibility, as long as deadlines are met, although night-time work may be required if dealing with overseas clients.

What to expect

  • Publishers are based in towns and cities throughout the UK, although there are higher numbers in London, the South East and Edinburgh. Geographical proximity to publishers is not always relevant. Freelancers, for example, can receive work from all over the UK and overseas.
  • Getting freelance work can be challenging, particularly at the start of your career. Freelancers who progress from working in-house for publishers to independent work may find the transition easier, having built up useful contacts and gained support from more experienced colleagues.
  • Working from home on a freelance basis in a job where most contact with others is by phone or email can leave you feeling isolated. On the flip side, benefits of working from home include a high level of control over your environment and greater flexibility in working hours. Some freelancers work in cooperatives or for agencies to increase their personal support network.
  • Absence from home overnight and overseas work or travel is rare.

Qualifications

Although this area of work is open to all graduates, a degree in the following subjects may increase your chances:

  • publishing or publishing studies;
  • media or electronic media.

Graduates with a technical or science-based degree may find it easier to obtain freelance work for specialist publishers and society journals, particularly in the early stages of their career.

Entry with an HND or foundation degree only is unlikely, unless you can demonstrate an aptitude for the work or some highly relevant experience.

A relevant postgraduate qualification in publishing can increase your chances. There is a range of publishing qualifications available and it's important to choose one that is relevant to your interests and career plans. Links to courses are on The Society of Young Publishers (SYP) - Careers.

Graduates hoping to enter this career may find it difficult to gain an in-house role immediately. It may, however, be possible to start as an editorial assistant and to get involved in proofreading and working on editing texts, in order to progress to copy-editing after one or two years.

Identify smaller and perhaps less well-known publishers to begin with who may be more likely, or able, to offer work. This can help develop a network of contacts and will enable you to build up a strong portfolio when making applications to larger companies later on.

Generally, the way to get freelance work is by sending a CV and speculative application directly to potential employers and by making and maintaining contacts in the industry. Take a look in appropriate directories, for example SfEP Directory of Editorial Services, for details of contacts. Attend trade fairs, read trade publications and get to know the key players in the field. Also, try to focus on a particular specialist area as this will help you identify companies and publishers to target.

It is also advisable to get involved with relevant professional organisations such as:

Skills

You will need to show evidence of the following:

  • a thorough knowledge of English language (or the language the publication is written in);
  • a methodical working style;
  • concentration, accuracy and great attention to detail;
  • the ability to multitask;
  • tact and diplomacy for negotiating changes with authors;
  • the ability to work to tight deadlines;
  • self-motivation;
  • IT skills.

For those working on a self-employed basis, business skills in areas such as tax, marketing and cash flow are vital.

Work experience

Pre-entry experience is advisable, preferably within a publishing environment, although gaining this type of experience in an editorial role may be more difficult.

Try to find work on university magazines, websites or publications or spend some time working in a bookshop or library. Think of creative ways to gain the relevant experience of editing and proofreading as early as possible.

Employers

The vast majority of copy-editors and proofreaders are self-employed and work on a freelance basis. There is a limited number of in-house positions, particularly with very large publishers, and competition can be fierce.

Employers within the book publishing sector include companies that produce general or consumer books. These include best-selling fiction and non-fiction. However, it is more difficult to obtain editing work in fiction and other areas are more likely to provide work. These include:

  • children's books;
  • educational publications;
  • reference works;
  • scientific, medical and technical publications;
  • academic publications.

The market in corporate publishing is developing. Large, commercial organisations produce their own staff magazines, newsletters and publicity materials and may employ freelancers for all, or part, of the production process.

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies tend to advertise senior-level vacancies; for example, see:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Copy-editors and proofreaders based in-house are likely to undergo some basic training while they are working, which usually includes shadowing and receiving support from more experienced colleagues.

A variety of training courses are provided by professional organisations, such as:

Technical skills are a key part of this career and need to be updated on an ongoing basis, particularly in response to developments in technology. These organisations provide a range of technical courses, available on a seminar or distance-learning basis, covering areas such as:

  • copy-editing and on-screen editing skills;
  • grammar;
  • editing an in-house production.

The SfEP also provides courses on developing a successful career as a freelancer and offers several levels of membership: entry-level, intermediate, professional and advanced professional.

There are a variety of courses so it is important to be selective and strategic in your choice.

Career prospects

Copy-editors and proofreaders generally begin by editing text at a fairly basic level before progressing to more complex editing and restructuring, which is more highly paid.

With experience, freelance copy-editors and proofreaders can begin to focus on a preferred area of work and on a particular subject area, such as science, medicine or food writing.

It is also possible to move into a project management role if you are working freelance or a managing/desk editor role if you are based in-house. These roles involve managing a publication over a longer period of time and subcontracting or allocating work to copy-editors and indexers. Within the largest publishing houses this can be a natural progression, though it is not always the chosen route. Other experienced copy-editors have progressed into offering a complete package of editing, typesetting and on-screen layout.

In-house copy-editors tend to move between jobs frequently during the early years of their career to develop the widest range of experience and contacts as possible. This is especially important for those considering freelance work in the future.

Whichever route you intend to take, it's advisable to join either:

  • SfEP;
  • SYP.

Membership offers support and opportunities for professional networking in what can often be an isolated role, such as SfEP's local groups which meet up regularly.

Making and maintaining contacts in the industry is vital for developing a successful career as a copy-editor or proofreader. While well-targeted speculative applications may lead to work, being known to editors and commissioning editors within publishing companies is an equally common way of securing work and moving up the career ladder.