Debunking Some Myths about Copyediting and Proofreading

Maybe you're carrying around some archaic images in your skull about what copyediting and proofreading entail. If you assume that taking this career path means you'll be wearing nerdy glasses while forever flipping through dusty grammar tomes and making nice white sheets of paper bleed with the markings from your red or blue pencil, think again. The resources you turn to for advice on grammar, spelling, and usage are just as likely to be Web sites as reference books. And depending on your employer, you may make all your contributions via keyboard instead of red or blue pencil.

So put your nerdy glasses away (unless you really like them). The world of professional words is full of infectiously cool creative types — writers, editors, designers, and artists. They're movers and shakers with creative ideas and (almost always) a true love of reading, which means they're pretty fascinating to talk to at parties.

Here are some other myths to strike:

  • Copyeditors and proofreaders have to be students of literature and English, classically trained by Ivy League professors. If you couldn't diagram a sentence for a million bucks, don't worry about it. You don't need to know every nuance of the English language to be a copyeditor or proofreader. It helps to be an avid reader, but it doesn't matter whether you fall asleep at night reading Norton anthologies or copies of Sports Illustrated.
  • If you read for money, you'll never enjoy reading again. The running joke among copyeditors is that if anyone ever buys one a book, there'd better be some cash tucked into the table of contents or it won't get read. But that's just a joke. There's still no better thrill than putting your feet up and settling into a suspense thriller — without having to scour for errors. Chefs still enjoy tasty meals. Lifeguards still enjoy swimming. Proofreaders and copyeditors still enjoy reading.
    If reading is pleasurable to you now, it always will be. And you can pursue jobs that allow you to read the types of materials you find most interesting; don't assume that in order to preserve your love for romance novels, you'd better focus your professional efforts on scientific journals, for example. Stick with your passions, and chances are that you'll be inspired to do great work (which will lead to you getting even more jobs).
  • All that reading will destroy your eyes and your back. If you choose to copyedit or proofread, you won't be reading in the dim confines of a monastic cave. You'll be reading the way you normally do — as if you're perusing the morning newspaper or your favorite Web site. The difference is that you'll be a bit more focused on the content.

So copyediting and proofreading don't require an Ivy League degree, won't destroy your love of reading, and shouldn't cause your body to deteriorate. In place of these myths, here are some truths that may help you develop a better idea of what to expect from either profession:

  • Opportunities abound. As literacy rates and the global population grow, so grow the markets for proofreaders and copyeditors.
    Here's another reason you should have no trouble finding work as a copyeditor or proofreader: the World Wide Web. Before the Web came along, there were already lots of words being printed every day that needed to be copyedited and proofread. But with Web content thrown into that mix of (constantly changing) written communication, the possibilities for someone with your skills are limitless.
  • You get a paid education from either profession. This advice might sound familiar: "Get a good education so you can get a good job!" Well, editorial types have good jobs that give great educations.
    Your job as a copyeditor and proofreader is to get educated — oftentimes, with information you never would have happened upon in a library or bookstore. Whether you want to work with books, newspapers, Web sites, corporate reports, or bubblegum wrappers, you'll be introduced to information you never knew existed.
  • Your career can be as mobile as you need it to be. If you're looking for full-time employment that comes with an office (or at least a cubby), mobility may not matter much to you. But if you're given to roam, you're considering the right professions.
    Even if mobility isn't your key concern right now, the skills you develop as a copyeditor or proofreader can help you get work wherever you may wander during your lifetime. These days, few of us stay put for decades on end, so investing the effort in a career with this kind of portability makes a whole lot of sense.
  • If writing is your goal, copyediting and proofreading can carry you closer to it. Reading published work — or about-to-be-published work — can help you develop your own writing skills. Obviously, you could just read these pieces on your own and gain the same benefits. But why not get paid to do so? Besides, the processes of copyediting and proofreading require digesting text in ways that are atypical of a pleasure read. When you're hired to help make a publication as perfect as it can be, you pay some serious attention to every word on the page.
  • You'll have lots of fun stuff to talk about at your next class reunion. When you bump into an old acquaintance and he asks what you've been up to, won't it be fun to rattle off the latest books, magazines, or Web sites you've worked on? This line of work makes for good conversation. Don't be surprised if people ask you how they can get into it, too.
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