You may come across the occasional writer who will claim (wrongly) that they don’t need an editor, but you will seldom, if ever, meet a writer or editor who will say they don’t need a copy editor.
The role of a copy editor is often misunderstood or underestimated by those not in the business. Kara Verlaney, senior copy editor for The Verge, when asked to explain the role of a copy editor, put it this way: “Copy editing is about maintaining consistency and accuracy, which is what gives sites like The Verge the authority to tell our audience about a subject. Beyond checking for grammatical errors and extolling the Oxford comma, copy editors also monitor things like sensitivity and tone, style, source diversity, and clarity. The Verge’s process has copy editors checking pieces right before publish, so we’re often the last line of defense before something goes up on the site.”
We talked to Kara to find out how she does her job and what tools she uses.
What is your job at The Verge?
I’m a senior copy editor, and I’ve worked here for five years. My day-to-day responsibilities vary, but a large portion of my time is dedicated to editing... everything we publish. That includes news stories, longform features, Instagram captions, video assets — there are a lot of words!
What hardware tools do you use?
My sound preferences vary depending on the length and / or topic of the piece I’m editing. Sometimes I blast music; sometimes I enjoy silence while I read. While working remotely, I mostly rely on my AirPods Pro, which allow me to control the level of noise transparency. I also tend to move around my space a lot while I work, so I’m essentially glued to my 2019 MacBook Pro during the workday.
What software tools do you and your colleagues use for your work?
Various publications have created stylebooks to guide writers and editors — examples include The Chicago Manual of Style and the MLA Handbook. Each stylebook’s rules and formats differ slightly based on the content and audience, but consistency is universal.
Like many news organizations, our style largely follows The Associated Press Stylebook (otherwise known as the AP). Its online topical style guides and Ask the Editor sections can be great language resources (although sometimes the answers are confounding). The Verge’s default dictionary is Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged. It produces weekly vocabulary quizzes that are super fun, if that’s your thing. I have AP and M-W open at all times.
I do a majority of my editing in Google Docs or Vox Media’s CMS (content management system) Chorus, so I can leave comments and track changes.
What other tools do you use?
One facet of managing the copy desk is updating and maintaining The Verge’s style guide and communicating those rules to writers. Some of our house style is unique to our publication, so we differ somewhat from AP style. Language is constantly evolving and changing, so I need to stay on top of what other publications and style guides are doing to ensure our language stays relevant and inclusive.
I love using physical style manuals — any time I can avoid staring at a screen, I do! — but most of my hard copies are still gathering dust at the office. I did bring one home with me, though: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, which is essentially the lifeblood of any editor. The illustrated edition pictured at the top of this article was given to me as a gift, particularly due to its cover. (As my co-workers will tell you, I solicit pictures of dogs and other pets as a form of emotional currency.)
What advice do you have for people who are considering copy editing as a profession?
Being a copy editor is a very involved job. You have to communicate well with the writers, editors, and creators you work with; operate efficiently under some tight deadlines; and try to understand the essence of every story you read, cataloging some of that information to reference later. It’s fairly nuanced work for being so prescriptive.
I’d recommend reading as much as you can and refreshing your grammar skills. (The New York Times creates copy edit quizzes; I’ve gotten a perfect score on very few.) There are also tools like Grammarly that will highlight and explain various parts of speech and language rules, which some people find really helpful.
Mostly, you need a willingness to relearn (and unlearn) a bunch of rules you were probably taught in fourth grade English class. Language is learning!