Skills That Can Make You More Valuable as a Copy Editor

When the American Copy Editors Society meets in Philadelphia this week for its annual conference, survival skills will be high on the agenda.

Not too terribly long ago, the copy editing role was regarded as "mission critical." No copy editors, no paper. A few turns ago on this winding downward slope, though, some people began questioning why we needed to have journalists whose main job was to correct other journalists' work. Others asked why newsrooms need people who don't create content. Both questions reflect simplistic thinking.

Media General's announcement last Wednesday that it is consolidating copy editing and page design for its three metro newspapers is a further erosion of copy editors' sense of security. I'd like to suggest a few skills that can help return some of the luster to the value of having copy editors.

If you run a trend search on job posting words on, you'll see that the proportion of ads calling for copy editors runs downhill. Ads for editors are about flat. Those for proofreaders are down. This measurement is crude, but it is one of the best we have.

So, what things are trending up that copy editors can do? SEO, or search-engine-optimization, tagging and analytics are all gaining speed. And there is no place in the process better for elevating content for the Web than on the copy desk.

Not all of these skills involve editing, of course. Tagging content does not make it better, it just makes it easier to find. It requires a slightly different skill set than traditional copy editing skills, but it is not much different from the coding and formatting that copy editors have done for generations. Some training and growth in that direction could help people get jobs.

A deeper understanding of how to optimize stories for the Web can only help the stories and the copy editor who is trying to hold onto a job in a rapidly changing news environment. Headlines that read well on the printed page can fall flat when Google is looking for them; it takes a shrewd copy editor to write both kinds of headlines.

I would put one more non-editing skill on the copy editor's plate, and that is XML tagging. XML stands for Extensible Markup Language. It has a lot of variations, but one of the things it does is that it can help publishers produce content for a variety of platforms. It helps publishers live up to the promise that content is "platform agnostic," that is, delivered to consumers in the way they prefer. XML is written in plain text, like HTML, but it acts differently.

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For example, XML tags in an article or book make it possible to deliver that book to readers in print form, on an iPad, a Kindle, phones and a variety of platforms without having to re-edit and redesign everything.

One of the best places in a work-flow to add those instructions is at the editing stage. Recently, I've seen ads from places such as McClatchy-Tribune Regional News, the (Rochester, N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle, McGraw Hill, Harvard, and MTV Networks looking for those skills. In combination with editing, it could be a skill that extends some careers.

Question about your career or job? E-mail Joe for an answer.

  • Joe Grimm

    Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He runs the JobsPage Website.


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