The Editor's cCorner

What Qualities Make for a Great Copyeditor?

As the owner and editor in chief of one of the leading companies providing online editing and proofreading services, I take pride in the high-quality work of my editors, and hold hiring only the best copyeditors in the business to be my highest priority.  What then makes for a great copyeditor?  The criteria might surprise you.

A Great Copyeditor’s Attitude

In my experience, there is no characteristic that contributes more to the qualities of a great copyeditor than attitude.  Many people out there know the detailed rules of punctuation, and almost as many know how to craft a strong sentence.  Among them are those who write in their cover letters, when applying to work for my company, that they are “always finding errors in everything they read” or can “spot errors from a mile away.”  While on the surface they may seem like well-qualified candidates, what I have seen is that those making this kind of statement about themselves generally let cynicism and arrogance guide their work.


Think about it:  Who would you rather have editing your document, someone whose only goal is to point out your faults, or someone who knows how to do so in an encouraging and supportive manner?  Our clients come to us because they need help.  They can be writing English as a second language, drafting reports that could lead to promotions at work, or crafting novels they hope to be best sellers.  No matter their situation, I have found that the editing and proofreading they have benefited from the most was provided by a copyeditor who took a personal approach to the document, and provided his or her suggested corrections with the understanding that a real human being would be receiving them.

A Great Copyeditor’s Maturity

Though some may consider maturity to be an attribute that falls under attitude, I separate it out, as you will soon see, to give it its full attention.  I do it also to dispel certain myths regarding what makes a great copyeditor.  Some may believe that only older copyeditors make for a great copyeditor, while others believe only younger minds have the flexibility to see documents in a fresh light.  While the age of the copyeditor does play a role—as I will discuss in the next section—a great copyeditor’s maturity has little to do with how old he or she is.


As I suggested in the section on attitude, one of the characteristics of a great copyeditor is humility.  While humility is a trait that is generally acquired with age, it is not always the case.  The result is that older copyeditors—including those with more experience—can often be less mature than their colleagues half their age.


What I look for in a great copyeditor, therefore, is not just knowledge of all the rules, and the talent to identify errors needing correction or improvements that can be made.  I look for the ability to edit and proofread our clients’ work while staying within each client’s unique voice and style.  This includes, for example, not using a word that is either too simple or too complex for the text, and therefore one that obviously does not fit for the vocabulary our client is using.  Of even greater concern would be a copyeditor who imposes his or her own voice on a document.  Such a copyeditor will redraft entire sections or make other corrections whose result would be a text our client could not—or would not—have written.  These are signs the copyeditor lacks the maturity to do high-quality work.

A Great Copyeditor’s Knowledge and Experience

I put knowledge and experience together under the same category, because having the one does not directly imply having the other.  Oddly, copyeditors who have a lot of knowledge rarely understand that knowledge by itself cannot replace experience.  More worrisome, though, are copyeditors who believe they are more experienced than they really are.


Given the right tools and opportunity, many copyeditors with the talent for doing so can learn the rules and guidelines needed to do great work.  However, once they have obtained an above-average knowledge, many have failed to learn the key to learning the rules and guidelines, which is that, while it can help the work to go more efficiently, it is not important actually to have all of them memorized.  The great copyeditors know that the purpose of studying the rules and guidelines is not to be able to have them all memorized, but to achieve the more significant ability to recognize when they do not know something and to take the time to look them up.


This, as you can see, dovetails with experience.  When we think of “experience,” though, what do we really mean?  Are we discussing the exact number of words, or do we mean something else?


As you have probably recognized in what I have described so far, there is no exact number of words a person can edit and proofread in order to become a great copyeditor.  Many of the key attributes have less to do with having reviewed a particular number of words and more to do with life experiences outside the scope of proofreading and editing.  For example, simply editing 1,000,000 words will not give a copyeditor either the humility or the maturity to be great.  This can be most easily seen in the quality of work done by high-volume editing and proofreading services like those provided by CreateSpace, Lulu, and others who use freelancers to perform the work. Instead, what makes the difference is a variety of life experiences, like having been the primary caregiver for an elderly relative or having worked in various settings with colleagues and superiors of differing personalities.  It is only through these kinds of experiences that copyeditors are able to gain the qualities that make them great.

Posted in Copy Editing

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