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The Vine

The Tomato Nation advice column addresses your questions on etiquette, grammar, romance, and pet misbehavior. Ask The Readers about books or fashion today!

Home » The Vine

The Vine: May 8, 2013

Submitted by on May 8, 2013 – 9:17 AM20 Comments


Perusing the FAQ about the site, I noticed that you offer proofreading services. I've been looking to make a move from my current career to something involving more writing and editing, so I wondered if there's formal training I would need to get into the world of copy-editing, proofreading, etc.

I have a college education (and majored in English), and I know I have a knack for writing and catching mistakes. The last time I really had any kind of real education in grammar, though, was way back in middle school; I couldn't say with total confidence that I know all the particulars as well as I should.

Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to get into editing but doesn't have specifically relevant experience (other than a couple decades of being persnickety about grammar)?

Thank you,

Dear Nick,

I could have sworn I addressed a variation on this question at some point, but since I can't seem to find it…it's the old "how do I get experience when I don't have any experience" question. If I had it to do again, honestly, I would take a course — in a specialized area like legal proofreading that has 1) specific guidelines and 2) a regular supply of work. The courses cost money, but if you have a medical-editing credit, you get the medical-editing work, which bills higher.

It's probably not what you had in mind, but honestly, copy-editing isn't…going to be what you have in mind, probably. It's not like victoriously spotting a transposition in the New Yorker, which I still do and enjoy; you're slogging through 500-page industry manuals. On a Saturday, because it's not a day job, really, not anymore. But if you want to do a wider range of things — application essays, first chapters, et cetera — put it out there to your friends and on your LinkedIn, and take whatever work you can for free for a while. Do that for a while, and get recommendations in lieu of money. Put those gigs and recs on your c.v., and hope they generate other gigs and recs, paid ones.

It's one of those things you have to do to do, regardless. Browse around for a course or a webinar that will brush up your skills and give you something to point to, qualifications-wise, but also use that course to decide for yourself if it's a field you want to get into. And be real with yourself, because it's kind of like being a Mets fan — if you don't genuinely love the game, it's going to be a long slog.

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  • Anne says:

    I would add, too, that there are a lot of jobs out there that include a significant amount of this type of work without being exclusively copy editing/proofing. I worked as an editorial assistant right out of college, doing proofing and line checking and it was soul-suckingly boring.

    But now I'm a decade into a career as a high school English teacher, which has lots of grammar related work to scratch that itch of mine plus so much more.

  • courtney says:

    you also might want to get one or more style guides (Chicago Manual &/or AP, although my allegiances are with the former) & just read through them–a lot of Being an Editor is knowing stupid shit that most people don't care about (e.g., That Should Be an En-Dash, When to Capitalize Things, Where Hyphens Should Go, etc.). I actually took a certificate course in the CMoS, which really helped me a lot, but I imagine you could get a lot of the same benefits from a close study of the references themselves.

  • Rachel says:

    Does the company/organization that you're working for right now have anything that might need copy editing that you could volunteer to take on? For example, a company blog, a website, marketing collateral, email invitation templates, newsletters, job descriptions, sales proposals, an intranet, training documentation, internal/external presentations, etc. All these are things that I edit as part of my full-time editing job, but your company may not have someone looking at these things. If you're good at it and enjoy it, perhaps you can build your own copy-editing practice from within rather than striking out entirely on your own without experience.

  • J says:

    You could also consider more general communications/marketing positions. My degree is in communcations/PR, and a lot of what I have done over the course of my career is writing, editing and proofreading for brochures, newsletters, annual reports, web content, and other marketing materials.

    These types of positions are generally welcoming of English majors, and don't necessarily require any extra training that you would need to pay for out-of-pocket.

  • Jenn says:

    Seconding what J said. I was an English major, and I was hired as a proofreader in a marketing department. I do more than proofing, but it's a big part of my job.

    Before I was hired here, I had a temp job through an agency, and they had everyone interviewing take a proofreading test. You might be able to contact a temp agency and find out the tests they provide, then use them to see what you need to brush up on.

  • Krissa says:

    Piggy-backing on courtney's suggestion – if you're near a university, or even a decent high school where essays matter, find out what style manual they're using in each department and then offer proofing work to the students. Yes, a lot of college kids will not want to pay for it, but if this is their dissertation, (or a college entrance prep course, or whatever) the students and/or parents could pony over some cash.

  • Bo says:

    The financial services industry has plenty of room for nitpicky proofers and copyeditors in public relations, marketing (not just collateral, but websites and responses to requests for proposal, investor relations, and investment communications (equity and fixed income research, economics, strategy, analysis). Particularly with changes in regulation, there is a need for editors to translate from jargon to English. And because the financial companies risk being flagged by consumer complaints and fined, there is a focus on risk management that makes even smaller firms take language seriously. In addition to academic and medical practices, there is room for more editors in-house and freelance in finance.

    If you do build a freelance practice, it is geographically agnostic. With so much editing being done on line, you don't have to be near the work. Even hard-copy editing (some of the social science journals are still in hard-copy markup) is overnighted to competent freelancers.

    I've been in the game so long, and my entry was such a Kismet-laced fairy tale (I was a trained singer who'd worked as a secretary in publishing and then printing for years, but walked into my first editorial job a managing editor), I can't really tell you how to get from there to here. But here isn't so very dire, especially if you combine your word sense with a knack for technology. Knowing how to think through an automation project (with vendor selection) for production of the graphic, numeric, or compliance-related portions of technical or quantitative publications gives you a leg up within many organizations.

    Good luck!

  • Liz says:

    I was a journalism major in college, and I sort of fell into the editing/proofreading/indexing part of it all through my first job out of school. I eventually got a job in journalism, but I still e/p/i
    on the side so I have money for things like retiring and college tuition for my daughter, since my "real" job pays squat.
    It can be mind-deadeningly boring many days, but you may get occasional assignments that remind you why you like the work. Of course, I also get textbooks to edit that were quite possibly "written" by people who hired a bunch of monkeys to string words together. And for the princely sum of not-very-much you get to turn their "prose" into something readable. "Oh, and can we have those 900 pages in 48 hours (total)?"
    (Can you tell I've been skipping sleep this week to make a ridiculous deadline for some moron who can get a book contract but doesn't know the difference between its and it's? Among other things…)
    In short, are you sure you want to do it? I used to love to read, now I can't pick up a book without proofing/editing it. The pay is mostly peanuts, and the work is much, much harder and less satisfying than I ever thought it could be. The best part is proofing/editing the acknowledgments, where the author thanks "Joe Schmo, my editor, for all of his hard work in turning my humble thoughts into something you'll want to read".
    Hint, my name isn't Joe, and if he actually DID anything to make those thoughts readable, I'm the queen of England.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    This has nothing to do with the actual question, but: does anyone remember an article that made the rounds a year or three ago, about a guy who made his living writing college papers for students, for a fee? It was presented as appalling that the students were so blatantly cheating/not actually getting the super expensive education their parents shelled out for (and it of course WAS appalling), but the thing that hit me the most was the beyond wretched, beyond sub-par writing skills of these high school graduate, Ivy-League school attending humans.

    Just the emails he got, requesting a paper, on, say, the themes of The Scarlet Letter, were so grotesquely misspelled, so grammatically bereft, with punctuation like a drive by spray and pray, that you'd think this person had been raised by wolves, or Ents, just somebody's discarded Blackberry that had had its innards hopelessly scrambled.

    None of them had, to quote Elizabeth Bennett, ever been taught to think on serious subjects, and yet they all were completely sure of themselves, their intelligence, and their place in society, that they deserved good, high paying jobs, that they deserved everything.

  • Jen S 2.0 says:

    Another Jen agreeing with J and Jen. I work in the Office of Communications and Outreach at a government agency. I write (blog posts, newsletters, articles, speeches, PowerPoint presentations, web postings), I content-edit, I copyedit, I proofread. That's probably 70% of my job. There are people who do even more editing here. You might not immediately think "government = editing and proofing," but every agency likely has a bunch of us document-producers. Look in unexpected places for jobs with unexpected elements.

    Also please note that my background is in psychology and public policy. I've sort of backed into this field.

  • Hollie says:

    Jen S 1.0, is this the article? (Either way, this is a fascinating read….)

  • Kim says:

    Another pattern to be aware of is that many fields or large organizations go through a pendulum-swing process in their relationship to editing. I'm a tech writer/editor (or, as the address book has it, a "Content Developer") for a large software company, and I've seen it repeatedly for the past two decades: a team decides that they don't need professional, trained editors. We're all smart! We can communicate! We'll just kind of peer-check each other's stuff real quick-like and slap it up online! This goes on for 18 months or so, and then either something egregiously offensive/idiotic/legally unsound gets posted to the web, or a senior manager realizes that he or she can't review every single word produced by a team of 30 people…and we rehire an editorial staff. So…your luck in finding an editorial role might be somewhat dependent on where a given workplace is in that cycle.

  • Deborah says:

    KIm, my first managing editor job ended after 18 months when we acquired another company whose CEO became our CEO. His comment upon letting me and the staff go was, "What do we need editors for, we're all PhDs." Oh man, I'd rather edit high school students than someone with that attitude.

    And the missing ")" in my prior post goes after the other ")".

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Hollie, yep, that's it. That person wanting the 75 page paper is probably making six figures now.

  • JC says:

    A lot of good advice here. I started my publishing career as a copy/production editor, and the company in question spent 6 months training me to do the work, including their style. That's the idea kind of experience, or some kind of course if you can find it. Definitely bear in mind that a lot of the work, especially these days, will be about editing to match a particular house style along with work that would have fallen under typesetting not so long ago. I did a freelance gig once where I was responsible for a lot of styling and tagging, so this just echos want Sars and other said–don't expect this job to be about tweaking some grammar or awkward turns of phrase.

    However you approach it, avoid sending out resumes and cover letters that say you have "a love of language" or the like. As someone who used to be in charge of hiring freelancers, I can tell you that those go straight into the garbage. Figure out a way to get some experience, per the suggestions above, and then go with that.

  • Cat_slave says:

    That was a seriously scary article.

  • Rbelle says:

    Deborah, ha! I do technical editing for computer science journals – I edit almost *entirely* PhDs, and I've yet to encounter an article that couldn't do with some help.

    I don't have a lot of advice that hasn't already been given except maybe that there's really no better training than actually doing the work, especially if the house style for your first job requires extensive editing. You don't say whether you want to be a freelancer specifically, or get a full-time job in editing/publishing. Either way, I would suggest looking for an entry-level position (requirements usually include a BA, not necessarily in English, and taking an editing test) that you're willing to work at for a few years at least before trying to freelance, if that's where you'd like to end up.

    I worked for a publisher for 9 years before quitting to do freelance work for the same company, so I didn't have to establish my FL cred from the ground up. While many, many places hire and need copyeditors and proofreaders, the learning curve for the more lucrative types of technical work can be steep. The top-earning freelancers for my main client are all people who worked in-house first, and because of the line by line editing we had to do, I feel fairly confident in my ability to do many kinds of editing, for many kinds of clients. It's much harder to break into technical fields with a less technical background, or at least to make money at it.

    I would also caution that, as others have said, loving language and grammar and all of that does not necessarily mean you'll love the work. Yes, there are occasional moments when I still get a thrill over having turned something fairly unreadable into something that makes sense. But most of it is boring, and I get more from knowing I'm good at what I do than from … well, what I actually do. And it can also turn you into the type of person who spends half an hour working on an email or blog comment (ahem) because you've said you're an editor, and the expectation now is that you won't make mistakes.

  • Caitlin M says:

    If you can put the money into it, some university extension programs include publishing curricula that offer courses in grammar review for editors and copyediting. I have personal experience with NYU and UC Berkeley, and Berkeley now offers its courses online:

    The advantages of taking a course or two over studying up with the various books out there include, as Sars says, dipping your toe in to see what's involved and if you really want that, but also feedback on your skills and the opportunity to ask questions of the very experienced editors who teach them–about both the material and the professional outlook.

    Having taken a course won't get you gigs, so you'll still need to pursue the experience using the good advice offered above. And if you decide you really love the work but aren't interested in pursuing it as a freelancer, it's possible that the training could help you win some editing work in the context of another job title in a full-time position somewhere.

  • cinderkeys says:

    It is a good sign that, after mentioning your degree in English, you say this:

    I couldn't say with total confidence that I know all the particulars as well as I should.

    A lot of people believe that an English degree automatically qualifies them for this kind of work. It doesn't. But the fact that you know this means you're in a good mental place to pick it up. Plus, there were no errors in your letter. You'd be surprised at how rare that is. Or maybe you wouldn't. :)

    When I decided I was interested in copyediting, I applied for a freelance job editing magazine articles. The senior editor didn't care that I had no formal experience. She gave me a copyediting test, and I passed it. Possibly the most valuable thing I learned (from the test itself) was that style guides were a thing. Theirs was a lot shorter than the AP Stylebook or Chicago Manual of Style, and it provided a nice introduction to what kinds of things vary from publication to publication (serial commas: yes or no; when to spell out numbers; how to spell copy editor/copy-editor/copyeditor).

    Good luck!

  • Sharon says:

    If you are interested in plain language editing you might look into reworking Wikipedia entries into what they call Simple English. As they say, "articles in the Simple English Wikipedia use fewer words and easier grammar than the ordinary English Wikipedia. The Simple English Wikipedia is also for people with different needs, such as students, children, adults with learning difficulties, and people who are trying to learn English. Other people may use the Simple English Wikipedia because simple language helps them to understand unfamiliar topics or complex ideas."
    Not-for-profit, gives you experience (and hey, you'll get published! if anonymously), and it shows initiative on your part!

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