What, then, makes for a great copyeditor? The criteria might surprise you.
A Great Copyeditor's Attitude
No characteristic contributes more to the qualities of a great copyeditor than the copyeditor's attitude.
Many copyeditors 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 a report that could lead to a promotion or crafting a novel they hope to be a best seller.
No matter their situation, I have found that the copyediting they benefited from most was provided by a copyeditor who thought of the person on the other side of the work, and who took a personal approach to the document.
A Great Copyeditor's Maturity
Some writers 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, 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.
In fact, older copyeditors—including those with more experience—can be less mature than their colleagues half their age.
What I look for in a great copyeditor, therefore, is not just knowledge of the rules and the talent to identify errors needing correction or improvements that can be made.
I look for the ability to copyedit 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 all signs the copyeditor lacks the maturity to do high-quality work.
A Great Copyeditor's Knowledge & Experience
Oddly, copyeditors who have a lot of knowledge rarely understand that knowledge by itself cannot replace experience, including how and when to make which changes and, equally importantly, how to relate to the writer who has poured so much effort into their work.
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 fail 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 humility and self-awareness to recognize when they do not know something and to take the time to look it up.
How Much Experience Is Enough?
There is no exact minimum number of words a person can copyedit to become a great copyeditor.
The key attributes I have described have less to do with having copyedited a certain number of words and more to do with life experiences outside the scope of copyediting.
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 minimally qualified freelancers to perform the work.
Indeed, 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 life experiences like these that copyeditors are able to gain the qualities that make them great.
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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published December 4, 2016, and last updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness June 15, 2022.