Join the Red Pen Society: an argument for copy editing

Editing is the bane of my existence. It’s monotonous. It’s time consuming. It’s well, hard. Choosing what words and sentences to amend or even eliminate often feels like butchering your own children. But what happens when you are entrusted with someone else’s baby? Acting in an official editing position in any capacity, be it for a manuscript, article, or publication of any kind, is an honor and a privilege—albeit a terrifying one.
Maybe you are one of the lucky ones, and taking out a red pen or sitting with a large cup of coffee at your computer with thousands of words waiting for the guillotine of your keystroke is an exciting task, not a daunting one. Bless you. Despite my undergraduate degree in journalism and years spent as a school newspaper editor, I still struggle with copy editing. But I am trying to change.
In the last three years of my PhD program I have helped edit texts for every member of my committee. I have worked as associate editor on a Liverpool special volume, as co-editor of an annotated bibliography for the Romantic Circles Pedagogy Edition, and as fact checker and copy editor for a Cambridge Companion. Essentially, I have taken every opportunity offered to me regardless of my own schedule or research. Yes, this made my life much busier, but it has also enhances my graduate experience immensely.
Below I will offer you a list of reasons why you too should take the editing opportunities that might present themselves, and perhaps even actively seek them out.
Your own work will benefit
I cannot tell you how considerably my own work has improved since I started editing the writing of others in the Romantic field. Not only did I finally give in to the Oxford comma (my one hold over from my journalism days), I have polished my tone, and improved my paragraph and sentence structure. Mistakes are often more visible when made by someone else, and I have been able to better identify the shortcomings in my own writing after correcting similar mistakes in the work of others.  Additionally, I have begun to keep a record of new sources I identify in the bibliographies of the texts I edit. This allows me to possess a readily available list of sources that others in the field found useful in the publication of their own work, providing a helpful guide for my own research.
Editing the work of other scholars is a great way to get on their radar and make connections. I will admit, it can be awkward if you need to suggest major changes to their text, and those situations must be handled delicately (especially if they are more established than you, which considering that I don’t have my degree yet, is pretty much everyone). Nevertheless copy editing allows you to interact with scholars in your field in a different way. Introductions to professors and students outside of your university are another bonus. And you get better name recognition at conferences and other scholarly events. Interacting with the editors at big-name presses is another great bonus. They might be able to recognize your name if your own manuscript crosses their desk at some point!
Insider access
There is no better way than to learn the ins and outs of different presses without the pressure of being an author yourself. You are not under the same pressure to create great, marketable content, but you do have access to the style guides and tips of the publishers. Not only will you know what kind of content the publishers are looking for, you can edit your own material to make less work for them and their copy editors.
Identification of current and future trends
As a copy editor you will have the opportunity to read chapters and articles from the biggest names in the field months or even years before they reach the public. This is a huge advantage with regard to your own research. Being one of the first people to see new material permits you to identify areas that have been over-researched or over-worked, which can better direct your own interests in value ways. It is also incredibly inspiring to study the latest work coming from the discipline. Nothing motivates me more than seeing excellent, innovative work.
Your name in print
Let’s be honest—even if it’s a couple pages in, seeing your name attached to a publication is a huge confidence and C.V. booster.
Expansion of career options
You know what is always in demand? A good editor. Whether it is for a publishing house, a newspaper, an online news site, or even a blog, employers need a second set of eyes to check their work (and avoid public embarrassment). If you’re really feeling crazy, check out a copy of the latest version of the Associated Press Style Guide (aka the journalist’s Bible) from your local library. Even if you stick to the academic world, this handy spiral bound book contains valuable abbreviations of popular terms, titles, and companies as well as punctuation standards for the industry. In my experience, a publishing house will more often than not defer to the AP guide if there are any gaps in their guidelines. Being an editor is a great line to have on your C.V., and “knowledge of AP style” is even better, especially if you want to apply for positions in the private, “industry job” sector. Overall, copy editing provides a rewarding experience even when it becomes tedious.