What Exactly Is a Copy Editor?
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Copy editors are not proofreaders, although reading proofs is often part of the job description. The difference is that proofreaders (a job title that scarcely exists anymore) are charged with simply looking for typographical and mechanical errors on copy that has already been typeset. Proofreaders -- and, indeed, copy editors reading proofs -- are often criticized rather than praised for making picky changes at that stage in the process, whereas the same changes might well be applauded at the copy-editing stage.
This is probably less true of copy editors in other fields, but newspaper copy editors are expected to be fully qualified journalists. Just as judges are lawyers, astronauts are pilots and FBI agents are cops, newspaper copy editors are reporters first. Many, probably most, of us have actual reporting experience, and those who don't are expected to at least have basic reporting skills. It used to be that copy editors were often burned-out (or even demoted) reporters or upper-level editors, but that phenomenon seems to be less common today.
A copy editor's mandate also includes keeping an eye out for libel (defamatory untruths that could lead to lawsuits) and errors of fact. The extent to which copy editors must verify facts varies widely. In magazine and book publishing, this is usually considered an essential task; sometimes it falls on the shoulders of a copy editor, but often it is the job of a separate fact checker. My experience, however, is in daily newspapers, where deadline constraints usually dictate that the writer must be trusted to get the facts right in the first place. Assigning editors (the reporters' direct supervisors, who usually edit stories for content and organization before they are sent to the copy desk) and copy editors will check "facts" that appear questionable, but they do not have the time to verify that every name is spelled correctly and every figure is accurate.
At some publications more than others, copy editors also have the liberty to rewrite. Copy editors are the last line of defense against bad writing, and writing can certainly be bad even when it's otherwise "clean." Tightening up wordy prose and smoothing awkward transitions are generally considered part of the copy editor's job, but more extensive rewriting usually has to be cleared with the assigning editor -- or, sometimes, the reporter. My experience has been that when rewriting is called for, copy editors usually "bounce" it back to the assigning editor or reporter rather than taking on the task themselves.
The "writing" portion of a copy editor's job generally consists mainly of headlines ("heds") and captions (or "cutlines"). Headline writing is an art in itself with its own set of intricate rules. Basically, the headline writer has to "tell the story" in a specified (usually short) space that depends on the number of columns the hed must cover and the typeface and point size in which it is being written. Headlines on feature stories often employ puns and other wordplay to draw the reader in, and it takes quite a knack to know when such a hed is clever and when it's just plain silly.
Captions are sometimes done by a photo desk (and National Geographic actually has an entire department devoted to them), but usually they're the copy desk's job. Cutlines are also an art form, and the balancing act in this case involves describing what's happening in the picture without stating the obvious.
At newspapers, some copy editors are called upon to do "layout" -- that is, to design pages. This may also involve deciding which stories, photos and graphics will run and which of those will be featured most prominently. Whereas large newspapers generally have separate desks dealing with national and international news, smaller newspapers have this luxury only with local news and must use copy editors as "wire editors" to monitor what the news services are reporting from around the globe. And sometimes the "wire editor" lays out the national and international pages. There are as many configurations as there are newspapers.
Finally, most copy editors have some sort of typesetting chores. "Rim" editors (the rank and file) usually have to insert the proper typesetting codes for headlines, and at some papers they have to do some elaborate pagination coding. The "slot" (supervisor) almost always has to do the actual typesetting, but today that just means hitting a key.