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A student reads this blog?

A student at a Midwestern university wrote to me yesterday to say that she has been reading my blog for the past year and finds it valuable. And she asks for my advice about a career in copy editing. You know how often anyone asks me for advice about anything? I’m not going to pass this up.

Read widely. Read books. Read magazines. Read newspapers. Read website posts. Read quality stuff. Read some trash too. Read for instruction. Read for amusement. You won’t know much about how writing is being performed unless you read a lot, both the good and the bad.

Become more knowledgeable. An editor can never know too much. Increase your store of general information, and go deeper into areas that interest you. There should be at least a couple of areas in which people consult you regularly because of your known expertise.

Master the craft. Grammar and syntax are your tools. You need to understand the terminology, so that you can explain why you made a change when you are challenged. You have to know what the rules are, and what the bogus rules are. You need to be able to distinguish style guidelines and personal preferences from actual rules. You need to know who the reliable authorities are, and you have to be able to make sensible judgments when those reliable authorities disagree. (They will.)

Go deep. There is more to editing than punctuation and grammar. Train yourself to think analytically about focus, structure, and organization in the texts you edit. A lot of writers write intuitively; editors have to anatomize the parts and make sure that they work togther coherently.

Practice tact. Be courteous and professional to all the writers, no matter how inept and willful they may be. This will build character. Soon you will find that you have as much character as you can support without assistance.

Shun the Luddites. God knows who designed the software, but it probably wasn’t anyone who actually has to use it. Never mind how balky or infuriating it is. When you are confronted with the technology you need to do your job, get a grip on it, and stop whining.

Always admit when you’re wrong.

Don’t back down when you’re right.

Never, never, never heat fish in the office microwave.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (15)


After two decades in newsrooms with no shortage of balky equipment, combative writers and seafood lovers, I must recommend this post to anyone considering a career in copy editing. Thank you, John!

Should that be There is more TO editing than...?

And when you've done all that, stick with your McJob. Service with a smile can't be outsourced or downsized.

I'll second the motion about fish in the microwave. Unless you want people in the newsroom to hold you in total disgust.

More advice:
1) Read the corrections in publications. It shows you how writers (and editors) go wrong.
2) Rewrite the headlines in publications you read. Try to make them better.

I am a former English major who is pretty disappointed with most program's lack of focus on editing and other professional training. Literature classes are great, but they did not prepare me at all for the real world. I am five years out of school and still trying to figure out how to become an editor of some kind. I even went back to grad school, only to be disappointed with more literature classes and less professional training... (I can be emailed at if you have any advice!)

Actually, at least two students read your blog! Thanks for the advice.

Should I worry about ending up in AlizaEss's situation? My college also lacks "focus on editing and other professional training."

NIce post, however, I don't know who in their right mind would want to join us copy editors, given the state of publishing. But to you courageous souls with such aspirations, I wish you good luck and Godspeed and read, read, read.

The printed word isn't going away, it's just changing its address. Copy editors will always be needed by any company, large or small, that understands that quality is important.

I was wondering myself, just the other day, about how copy editing can be taught. I never came to any conclusions.

I suppose the only advice I can offer to wannabe copy editors is that you can't be afraid of or bored by PICKING NITS, because that's a lot of what copy editing is. And John is right -- you have to read. Read everything, and wonder how you could improve on it.

I attended the Laura Lippman book signing event a week or so ago and she made the same point. A lot of people tell her they want to write, but then confess that they don't read. Huh?

The biggest lack I found in technical writers I have mentored is any study of grammar at all. They didn't understand how the language was put together and why words are used as they are in the order they are used. I would very much recommend beginning and advanced grammar classes to anyone who wants to write or edit.

To the commenters who are students having trouble getting the editing training they want: Spend time following the links in the Copyeditors' Knowledge Base, accessed through the first 7 links atop this page: They'll help you find the tools and courses and networking you need to get into editing.

Argh! Movable Type, the softward that Mr. McIntyre's blog uses, made the period after the link I provide into part of the link. That makes the link unusable. Here's a working version of the link:

Double argh! I intended to type "link I provided." That's it for me--no more editing today!

thanxs for info...

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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