What Exactly Is a Copy Editor?
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How do you start?
Where do you go?
Who do you need to know?
-- The Smiths, "The Boy With the Thorn in His Side"
I field a lot of career-advice questions from people who aren't able to ask such a question without committing two or three basic errors. So allow me to begin with the most important piece of advice anyone will ever offer: Be good. Damn good. (More on this later.)
I suppose my path toward a copy-editing career was about as straightforward as it gets. I spent four years getting a bachelor's degree in journalism at a college known for its journalism program, I got a job on the college newspaper as soon as I could, and I got a summer internship (actually, two summer internships) at a major metropolitan daily -- which hired me right after graduation. I paid my dues on the reporting side, and then I became an editor.
If you're just starting college (or still in college mode, no matter what your age) and you want to be a copy editor when you grow up, make "internship" your mantra. If the place that hires you as an intern likes you, that place will hire you full time. If the fit isn't quite so nice, you'll have invaluable experience and an invaluable addition to your resume. Nothing you learn in a journalism class will be anywhere near as valuable as actual experience, which brings me to the other part of my experience you should strive to emulate: Join the school paper. At the University of Arizona, my alma mater, the paper is an independent entity supported by advertising revenue. I learned my future job by actually doing that job, and that's a heck of a good way to learn. I got no class credit, but I got a respectable paycheck. Even if you end up at a college where the paper is more of a J-department organ, the experience is still the thing. Get it.
The question of whether you should major in journalism is more difficult. A lot of very good colleges don't even offer journalism as a major, and most newspapers wouldn't think twice about hiring a non-major if that non-major had significant school-paper and internship experience. The journalism degree is a more straight-ahead path to a journalism job, but those with the initiative to pursue non-classroom journalism opportunities might be more successful, in the long run, in a different area of study. This is perhaps more true for reporters than for copy editors, but keep in mind that a lot of journalism jobs are specialist jobs: If you're an economist and a journalist, for example, you'll be far more appealing to a newspaper's business section than a dime-a-dozen J-grad.
If you're looking to make a career change and don't have the option of going back to college, the words "lucky break" loom larger. If you have no journalism degree and no editing experience, you'll have to find some reason for a newspaper or magazine or other employer to give you a chance. My advice would be to comb the ads in Editor & Publisher magazine and start small. Copy editors are in high demand, so if you go far enough down the food chain you might find a paper that isn't exactly inundated with copy-editor applicants, and you might persuade the people there to give you a test or a tryout based on your eagerness. Memorize the AP stylebook and a good list of most commonly misspelled words and you'll out-test 90-something percent of the competition, no matter how much experience they have. If you can test well and interview well, you're in.
Keep in mind that there are plenty of copy-editing and "production editing" (copy editing plus layout and maybe paste-up and whatever) jobs at places other than newspapers. Non-profit organizations, big companies -- any place that publishes anything, even if it's just a newsletter. It might not be where you want to end up, but jobs like that can build a resume to the point where a daily newspaper would be willing to give you a chance. One of my younger brothers got an entry-level editing position mainly by knowing his stuff and testing well, and he's worked his way up through half a dozen jobs and is now doing quite well at his second daily newspaper. As you might imagine, geographical flexibility will go a long way toward determining your success via this route. If you're determined to start at an actual newspaper, this might mean living in a small town. If you decide to start with a non-newspaper editing job, a big city is the best place to look.
For more job-hunting tips and a great collection of help-wanted Web sites, visit the Detroit Free Press Jobs Page.