How to Become a Copy Editor in Australia

Categories
Editing

I walk you through what you need to become a professional copy editor in Australia.

Preface

Short on time?  Skip this section.

When I was planning this article, I checked Ahrefs (my go-to SEO tool) for keyword ideas about becoming a copy editor in Australia.  I did the same thing for a similar piece, ‘How to Become a Proofreader in Australia’, which yielded a bunch of useful keywords with good global search volumes.

This time, though, I came up short.  The few keywords I uncovered had pathetically low search volumes.  Even Google Suggest and Related Searches offered no help.

Why the difference?  Why is career advice for proofreading so heavily searched for while copy editing is so … ignored?

I think there are two reasons.

One, most people understand what proofreading is, whereas copy editing is still shrouded in a veil of ambiguity that sees it routinely conflated with proofreading and structural editing.  This higher degree of awareness results in more searches for proofreading.

Two, copy editing is a significantly harder field to enter.  Everyone who is fluent in English can proofread English documents – at least, to some extent.  Copy editing, though, requires vastly more technical skill, which drives away many entry-level editors.  They stick to proofreading because it’s easier, more in-demand and harder to get wrong.

So, if you’re reading this, congratulations.  You’re taking your first steps towards real editing – the kind that clients and employers happily pay upwards of $50 an hour for.  I’m going to share all the information you need to get started in your copy editing career, including practical tips about software choices, pricing and getting hired.

Let’s get into it.

What degrees do copy editors need?

Like most forms of editing, there are no specific university degrees available for copy editing.  Most editing education at universities occurs as units or courses within related degrees.

For example, when I attended Griffith University, the only editing course available was as a Creative Writing unit within a BA.  Most editing courses are packaged like this – here’s one from Curtin University which covers writing, editing and publishing within the same unit, despite the fact that each separate element probably merits its own degree.

So, unless you’ve undertaken a degree which features a course in editing, your next best options are either certificates/diplomas or online courses/workshops.

You can find an excellent list of what’s available on IPEd’s site.  While I’ve never studied either a cert or an online course in copy editing, I can see how they could be helpful.  Like we talked about earlier, copy editing requires more technical finesse than proofreading, so having a mentor/instructor is definitely useful.

Keep in mind that neither a degree nor a diploma/course is necessary for becoming a copy editor (we’ll talk more about getting employed later).

Should I take online copy editing courses?

If you’re new to the field of copy editing, you may find an online course helpful.  There are lots of nuances to copy editing that a professional instructor can walk you through, which is more effective and less expensive than muddling through and making mistakes.

While I’ve never taken an online copy editing course myself, here’s my advice for choosing a reputable one that won’t waste your money.

  1. Learn everything you can for free. We have a lot of useful information available on this site.
  2. Check whether the course summary is vague or gives specific details.  If you’re not sure exactly what you’ll be learning about, don’t spend money on it.
  3. Avoid courses who advertise that they have a ‘secret trick’ or ‘unique method’.  These are normally scams.

IPEd

IPEd are the Australian accreditation body for editing, and most professional editors should, at some point, try to become IPEd-accredited.  Not only do you get the cool post nominals ‘AE’ (Accredited Editor), but you also get listed on their national directory, which can be helpful for finding work.

To receive accreditation, you’ll have to sit the accreditation exam.  If you’re just starting out as a professional editor, this exam is not for you.  IPEd themselves recommend test-takers have at least three years of full-time editing experience.

Why?  Because the test is four hours long, costs $900 for a first-time non-IPEd member, and can only be sat every two years.  If you don’t pass, it’s going to cost you a lot of money and a long wait before you can try again, so you need to have an intimate knowledge of various editing scenarios to safely attempt it.

What skills do copy editors need?

Now that we know that a degree is helpful, but not necessary, for becoming a copy editor, let’s have a look at the type of skills you need to become a copy editor.

  • Excellent grammatical skills
  • A good eye for detail
  • A deep familiarity with a style guide
  • Understanding of publishing conventions
  • A technical understanding of voice

The first and most important trait a copy editor needs is a near-perfect understanding of grammar.  Despite the various elements of a piece you might work on as a copy editor, your bread-and-butter will be correcting and improving text.  I really can’t overstate the importance of this – without being an excellent grammarian, you simply won’t make it as a successful copy editor.

As with proofreading, you also need a good eye for detail.  Picking up textual errors and inconsistencies is a big part of copy editing, so you need to really pay attention.

Grammatical literacy and a keen eye feed into the other big requirement of copy editing: being intimately familiar with a style guide.  A style guide (in the context of editing) is a standardised set of rules, spellings and formatting decisions which writers and editors can use to ensure consistency across multiple texts.  As a copy editor, you’ll use published style guides like the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, as well as house style guides, which are custom style guides developed for individual companies or books.

Publishing conventions – the specific norms and standards for particular mediums – are also incredibly important for copy editors.  Because copy editors improve text (versus just finding errors), they need to understand both the purpose of the text and the context in which it will be received.

You wouldn’t copy edit a novel in the same way you’d copy edit a news article.  If you edited a government tender in the same way you edited a blog article, you’d be in big trouble.

This can even manifest in things as basic as capitalisation – even if you’d never normally capitalise anything but first words and proper nouns, certain documents (like legal documents) require capitalisation of seemingly standard words, which you’d (incorrectly) amend if you didn’t understand the context and medium.

This is also true if your copy editing role involves working on formatting and graphic design.

Finally, the last major skill a good copy editor needs is an understanding of voice – both what it is and how to edit without compromising it.  I’d argue this is most important for copy editors working on novels, but it holds true for media and business editing as well.

What software and tools do copy editors need?

Copy editors need a few different things to be able to edit effectively:

  • A computer with Microsoft Word or similar word processing software installed. You can technically edit on iPads and other devices, but, in my opinion, a laptop or PC is better for both your focus and your health.  Similarly, although other programs can be used for editing, MS Word is the industry standard, and many clients will specifically ask for you to edit using Track Changes.
  • A dictionary in your relevant language.
  • A common style guide. There are plenty of different style guides out there, but I would recommend using either the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style for general editing.  I use AP because I like its clean, modern styling, but it’s really a matter of personal taste.
  • A grammar reference book. A good book about grammar can be helpful for checking issues you’re not sure about.
  • An email and an Internet connection.
  • A house style guide. If your client/workplace doesn’t have a pre-existing house style guide, you’ll need to develop one.  Most large brands with marking teams will already have some form of style guide, but it will often just include visual guidelines.

Other optional software and tools you might find helpful include:

  • PDF software, like Adobe Acrobat or Nitro Pro. Occasionally, you might be asked to convert PDF files to and from other formats, or even mark up existing PDF documents.
  • A comfortable workspace. If you’re lucky enough to work from home or work as a freelancer, I would recommend allocating a set workspace – whether that’s just a specific place at your dining table or a separate study room – that you use exclusively for work.  Make sure it’s comfortable (good lighting, good air flow) and that your seating and desk layout caters to long hours staring at a computer screen.  Personally, I have a standing desk set up in front of a window, with a standing mat to keep my feet comfortable, but you should find whatever set-up works for you.
  • Task management software. Tools like Asana will quickly become invaluable for scheduling tasks and managing workflows, especially if you’re running a freelance business with a variety of different clients.  Fun fact: Asana is free for up to 15 users, so, even if you’re in an in-house role, you can use it (for free) to manage your own personal tasks.

How much should I charge for copy editing?

When people ask me “how much should I charge for copy editing?”, they’re normally asking in the context of freelancing, so that’s what I’ll focus on here.

Like most freelance work, how much you charge for copy editing depends on:

  • Your experience
  • Your qualifications
  • The scope of the work
  • Competitors’ rates

Freelance copy editors’ rates (on platforms like Upwork and Fiverr) range from US$35 per hour to US$60+ per hour, which gives you a very, very rough idea of approximate pricing.  It’s important to remember, though, that service aggregation platforms are artificial selling environments, in that they prioritise vendors who have been there longer.  Most advertise the number of jobs vendors have completed on that platform, along with turnaround rates, customer satisfaction scores, and so on.

Why is this important?  Because it means that newcomers to those platforms face barriers to entry that don’t exist in, say, search engine results, or online job applications.  Good marketing, good testimonials and good sales tactics will still land you clients in normal environments – but, if you’re new to service aggregation platforms, the scales are balanced against you, regardless of how experienced you are or how good your work is, and you might well have to lower your prices to compete.

Regardless of whether you end up selling via one of these platforms or not, you still need to start by answering one simple question: how much am I happy to work for per hour?  This doesn’t mean ‘how much are you willing to accept per hour’, but, quite literally, what hourly amount do you feel comfortable with earning?

Here’s an example: when I started out editing assignments for my fellow uni students, I didn’t even have an hourly rate.  I just charged people based on how much they were willing to pay balanced against how badly I needed the money.

Then, once I got my first ‘real’ client, I charged them a flat AU$30 per hour for everything (editing, writing, marketing and so on).  Later, as I accumulated experience, grew my client list and became a much, much better editor, I felt comfortable charging what I do now, which is $50 per hour.  In a few years, I’ll probably put my rates up slightly; if I ever complete a Masters or a PhD, I’d do the same.

Once you’ve worked that ‘happy number’ out, adjust it based on variables like:

  • Whether you have an undergraduate degree (standard), a post-graduate degree (charge more), or no degree (charge less)
  • Your business expenses (work out how much profit you’ll make)
  • Whether you’re doing work for private clients or businesses (private clients typically pay less)
  • Whether you’re editing business documents, books or media publications (you’ll normally charge less for books)
  • How much work you’ll receive per client (e.g. editing a 100,000-word book will give you much more money overall than a 700-word blog post, meaning you don’t have to spend as much on marketing and landing clients)
  • What your competitors are charging (research your niche, and adjust accordingly)

Where can I work as a copy editor?

There are three main industries you can work in as a copy editor:

  • Publishing
  • News media
  • Business

I’ve only ever worked in business, so any information presented about publishing or news media is based on research and not my own experience.

Publishing

Publishing firms or publishing houses are companies that publish books and journals, which typically have either a DOI name or an ISBN.  Publishing firms are the traditional way that published works are produced, although self-publishing is quickly establishing itself as an increasingly legitimate alternative.

So, as a copy editor, you can either gain employment as an in-house editor at a publishing firm, or work for both firms and self-publishers as a freelancer.

In-house roles are normally not clear-cut copy editing jobs.  Instead, many publishing firms want versatile editors who can edit plot, structure, flow and sentences, while also being able to assess market viability and proofread finished works.

Freelance copy editors, on the other hand, are typically employed by both self-publishers and firms to perform specific roles.  Offering multiple services – such as proofreading and structural/developmental editing – will definitely help you find more work, but it’s quite possible you’ll be retained just for copy editing.

News Media

I’ve drawn a distinction between book/journal publishers and news publishers (the media) because they use copy editors in very different ways.

Essentially, media copy editors edit the work of journalists and other writers, and typically edit at a very fast pace.  If you’re interested in working for a media company, I recommend reading this detailed article by Karen Ostergren, The Atlantic’s copy editor.

Business

Yes, both news companies and publishing firms are businesses, but that’s not what I’m talking about.  Business copy editors normally edit the business’s internal work, rather than its products.

This includes working on things like:

  • Marketing copy
  • Blog posts
  • White papers
  • Memorandums and prospecti
  • Tenders
  • Reports

While copy editing in business is definitely necessary, it’s also much harder to find work as a freelance business copy editor.  Why?  Because most marketing departments don’t have the budget for 2+ rounds of professional editing per piece, especially if it’s something with a predicted low ROI.  In my experience, most companies try to get their in-house marketers to do as much editing as possible, and only outsource for large or complicated projects.

If you’re wondering about in-house business copy editor roles, I can’t say I’ve ever seen one even advertised.  They may exist, but, if they do, they’re extremely rare.

How do I find entry-level copy editing jobs?

If you’re just starting out as an editor, you’re probably wondering how to find work.  Before you go job-hunting, here are a few tips to help get you prepared.

  1. Tidy up your resume. Editing can be a competitive industry, especially if the role in question is remote, so you need to make sure you stand out.  Emphasise any relevant communications experience/degrees, and learn about recruiting algorithms.
  2. Get some unpaid experience. If you’re having trouble landing your first copy editing gig, try completing an internship or completing work in exchange for testimonials.  Having three or four industry professionals who can certify that you know what you’re doing can go a long way to getting you an interview.  When possible, use existing connections, family and friends to get you work.
  3. Make sure your copy editing skills are up-to-speed. As a fledgling editor, you don’t have the experience your competitors do, so you need to make sure you have the knowledge.  Become intimately familiar with every aspect of grammar, memorise your style book, and keep practicing your editing.

Once you feel confident enough to begin looking for jobs, start looking at:

  • Job advertisement boards, like LinkedIn Jobs, Seek, Jora or Indeed.
  • Advertising on service aggregation sites, like Upwork, Freelancer and Fiverr.
  • Creating social media pages on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • Building a website to rank for relevant keywords.

As you complete more jobs and build up a portfolio, finding new work will become exponentially easier – landing that first real copy editing gig is the hardest part of your career.


If you’ve got questions about how to become a copy editor in Australia or about copy editing generally, email me, message me on LinkedIn or drop a comment below.

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *