Adding a Credential for the Gig Economy
Certificate Program in Copy Editing
After a concert, classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia was asked why he had played a particular piece so fast. The interviewer, perhaps expecting an aesthetic response, lost his words when Segovia responded with a glint in his eye: “Because I can.”
That became my answer, years ago, in my wild and misspent youth, when people asked why I had become a paramedic. It seemed so simple: not everyone could stay calm in an emergency or could stand the sight of blood. I could.
Recently, when people asked me why I signed up for a university certificate program in copy editing, my surface answer was the same: because I can. I had the aptitude—evidenced by a degree in Writing Seminars, a few publications under my belt as an author, and a few more as a technical editor. The decision also reflected a love of learning, the appeal of adding a skill that would let me supplement my income while working from home in my bunny slippers, and a desire for a change in scenery from my regular grind—working to educate the masses about cyber security.
The program I chose consists of four courses: a grammar lab, and copy editing levels 1–3, where you start with a light copy edit and finish with a heavy copy edit of a partial thesis which has been rigged with landmines ranging from mechanical issues (spelling and punctuation errors) to logic faults, an instance of plagiarism, facts that need checking, and insensitivity in the text, requiring the editor to be alert to gender and racial bias. As our instructor noted, many of us found that paper vexing.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Part of the course requirements included posting to an online group discussion forum. As an introverted hermit who genuinely believes that the collective noun for a large group of people should be a “no thanks,” I dreaded the discussion board. At the start of the first course, I counted up the points required for various assignments and exams to see if I could forgo the discussion part of the course and still pass.
But then, a funny thing happened. The other students were unfailingly kind, insightful, and interesting. The instructors (Lourdes Venard and Suzanne Sanders) built the students up while providing useful feedback. Could I have found my tribe?
Those already working as editors and writers shared tips and tools—transparent sticky notes, multiple monitors, websites for fact checking and formatting titles in various cases, where to look for work, how to deal with problem clients, and the risks of using platforms that require editors to install invasive tracking software to verify hours worked.
Change and Evolution
Languages change and evolve. Now, people use data as singular without dire consequences. The AP Style Guide is OK with discarding the serial comma. (The Chicago Manual of Style is not.) Some people use the word womxn rather than woman. And then there’s the growing acceptance of “they” as a singular pronoun: “This is my friend Jody. They are a talented copy editor.” Gah! While the idea is to avoid problems when referring to people whose genders you do not know or to get around those awkward him or her constructions, it’s going to take some effort for me to adjust to that change.
During the second-level copy editing course (medium edits), the instructor introduced mastermind groups and said she was considering making the groups a requirement for future classes. In a surprising change, I found my hermit self volunteering to form such a group. Other students were opposed to required groups, so a classmate and I formed a “small, but mighty” mastermind group.
We encouraged one another to set weekly goals and meet them. During this time, my mastermind partner launched a brilliant website. Then another student joined us. By the end of the final course, a classmate set up an online group for those who wanted to keep in touch, and more than half the class joined.
What Does Earning a Copy Editing Certificate Get You?
Completing the program:
- shows that you can finish what you start, which is important to those who hire freelancers
- indicates that you are willing to invest in education and yourself
- provides external validation in the form of feedback from instructors and peers, many of whom are already working as editors
- provides a venue for safe failure—if you are bad at copy editing, better to find out before you make an error that costs a fortune or damages a reputation
- gives you a taste of the work before you commit to a career change
- offers a baseline and standard for the work—several of us gained a greater appreciation for the restraint involved in copy editing (with few exceptions, the objective is to make the author’s voice clearer and stronger, not to change it to be more like your voice)
- helps you network
Is the Future in the Career or the Individual?
The same year that I earned a liberal arts degree, my friend Peter received a degree in accounting and went to work for one of the big 8 firms (now the big 4). He suggested that my degree qualified me to serve french fries. “The future,” I assured him, “is in the individual, not the career.” And I made good on that belief, rising through the ranks at the consulting firm where I worked as quickly as he did at his accounting job.
It turns out that companies will pay a lot for the ability to communicate. Coworkers with fresh degrees in computer science felt they should know things, so they didn’t ask questions and were often in the dark. Unlike them, I was able to dig for answers and write reports that management could understand. Soon, customers were making by-name requests to have me assigned to their projects. It’s worth noting that I had a fantastic mentor (thanks, John).
Finding Work as a Freelancer
In search of a new mentor and editing adventures, I joined the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) and began to receive emails with jobs on offer to all members. Many of the email job listings ask for copy editors with PhD's in the associated field and 5–50 years experience. Do they not realize the value of cold readers? Of freshly minted editors who will be more than thorough because they are new? Perhaps their subject matter is for a narrow audience, and their criteria for editors make sense—people with knowledge of the field may be more likely to catch an error. I know that I couldn’t check the math in an engineering manuscript on my own.
Despite the challenge of finding starter work on the EFA lists, I hold with the idea that there is work out there for those who seek it and deliver value. The future is still in the individual more than the career. That said, working as an individual copy editor is not scalable. You are limited by the number of hours you can work or projects you can take on. Can you support yourself as a copy editor? Of course. Are there other careers where you can earn more? Of course. Copy editing is a valuable skill; but for me, it’s one tool in the box. And tools are meant to be employed. I needed to gain experience.
Shadow Editing: Trading Work for Experience
So, I offered my services for free to a book editor. She would send me a manuscript, and I’d edit it and send her the file, then she’d send her edits so I could see what I’d missed. She got the benefit of a second set of eyes on the work and I got to see how a real editor handled the manuscript. First, she sent me a science fiction novel. I eagerly dove in, but the water was icy, and I feared my heart would stop before I could get to the other side of that pond.
The author had no foundation in craft. The book read like it was written by someone who had received an A in second grade English and decided she was destined to write a novel … but she didn’t educate herself about story or dialog (or grammar). Feeling like a failure, I sent the manuscript back claiming it was not ready for a copy edit.
The next book was a memoir. Like poetry and personal essays, memoir is a difficult genre to sell, unless you’re Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) or Cheryl Strayed (Wild) or Paul Kalanithi (When Breath Becomes Air), so I was immensely relieved that this turned out to be an actual book. It had an emotional arc, growth for the characters as they transcended problems, and the writing was decent. This one was ready for a copy edit. Huzzah!
The next one was a fantasy novel of 400 mind-bendingly overwritten pages. Kudos to the author for completing a 400-page book. That alone is an act of courage that deserves respect. And, the author showed a strong, vivid imagination. Parts of the world she built were intriguing. But… sweet Deity on a segway…. There were story problems and word problems and, and, and … this book didn’t need a copy editor so much as a developmental editor.
The manuscript was crying out for someone to cut the forest of dead wood, to explain how to turn a value in a scene, to satisfy the audience with an ending, and to do all this while nurturing the author and not destroying her confidence. The author wanted to pay for a single-pass copy edit, not developmental editing. Her work is promising, but it will not find an audience as it stands, even with a copy edit. This was incredibly frustrating for the hired editor, who has a background in television writing and knows how to pull a story together.
Book Coaching: A New Business
I tucked tail and ran after 100 pages, because I realized that I’m not ready to help authors at that stage and level of writing. But, the gauntlet is down. I have begun to learn about book coaching, a new field brought about by changes in the publishing industry.
Author and entrepreneur, Jennie Nash, defines a book coach as:
1. A strategic professional who guides writers through the creative process of developing a book.
2. Someone with book-seeing superpowers who helps writers bring their vision to life by providing consistent, compassionate, honest editorial feedback while they write.
3. A shepherd, a guide, a project manager, a cheerleader.
Jennie is working on a new book about how to read books all day and get paid for it. Sounds wonderful. I took a few of Jennie’s seminars. Then I enrolled in her Business of Book Coaching course. Next, I plan to take her Author Accelerator Advanced Book Coach training program. To prepare, I’ve been reading Robert McKee, Lisa Cron, and Shawn Coyne.
The drawback is that some of the magic is gone. Peeking behind the editing curtain has resulted in my noticing errors in books, including the ones I read for pleasure. My favorite fantasy author misused the word nauseous (he meant nauseated) in his latest release, and it distracted me from the story. Just last week, I finished a book by a Wharton Business School instructor who included diverse examples of negotiations achieved by people of various cultures and nationalities.
Yet, his writing showed a bias against women in three different chapters. Astounding. Especially given that in one chapter, he mentions a woman who experienced gender bias and confronted her male colleague, asking him what he was thinking when he disrespected her in front of others. There’s enough irony there to cure pernicious anemia. Before taking the copy editing courses, I might not have paid attention to the bias in his writing. And I’ll bet a shiny nickel that the author is unaware of what he’s done.
A classmate who is a successful ghostwriter, an author in her own right, and a newspaper columnist wrote about the copy editing program. She concluded that the most important thing she learned is that she doesn’t want to be a copy editor. That is so valuable. It reminds me of the scene in Game of Thrones where Arya refuses Gendry’s marriage proposal. “That’s not me,” she says. When I heard her say that, something in me cheered, because knowing what you don‘t want from life is a step toward knowing what you do want.
The Adventure Continues
I enrolled in the copy editing certificate program because I could. And I’m glad I did. I met some amazing, warm, talented, and dedicated people. I hope to continue those connections. My resume has a new credential, and I’ve demonstrated that I can finish (at least some) of what I start.
Copy editing is not something I want to do for the long term, but it’s put me on the path to something that I think could be sustainable, meaningful, and possibly lucrative: book coaching. When some friends heard that I was interested in book coaching as a career change, they relayed messages from their husbands: “Why does she want to do that?” and “Doesn’t she know there’s no money in book editing?”
A gentle reminder, gentlemen: the future is in the individual, not the career. Remember the story of the engineer who is called for an emergency job? The engineer shows up, walks around, and finally taps on a pipe, which gets the system working again. The invoice, for $1,000, meets with objections. So, the engineer itemizes the invoice: tapping on pipe – $1, knowing where to tap – $999.
I’m off to improve my knowledge of where to tap. Because I can.