Corporate/institutional copyediting training, Part 1: Optimizing training time

Back in the days when I learned copyediting, we worked on hardcopy manuscripts, and the world itself was spinning at a rather much lower pace. We didn’t have any structured training; we were taught some titbits here and there, had some definite do’s and don’ts, some style points for every journal—and that’s it. The rest of the learning was on the job, and most people took a long time to learn, which was not only understandable but also accepted, as salaries were not high, and the profit margins were also higher.

Having a PhD in clinical biochemistry, I found the academic nature of STM copyediting to be fully satisfying to my intellect. Probably because of my background and my strong reading habit, I started reading books on the subject. Out of pure interest in what I was doing for a living, I used to stay back in the office and learn whatever I could—read that (in those days, rare) book on copyediting that I managed to find at the British Council Library, learn to use Microsoft Word (we didn’t have computers at home in those days), summarize the style points for a journal in my own way, etc.

I should say that I was completely focused on learning, just for the love of it—and simply surged ahead of most people without realizing it. A natural and straightforward consequence was that I had to lead a team quite early in my career.

I soon realized that training people and making them edit live manuscripts was no easy task; rather, it was a kind of hell let loose. The next ten years of my life were truly hectic, and I still thank my stars that I had the energy to do what I managed to do.

Wherever I worked, the management was interested—quite naturally—only in the output pages (numbers) and the quality of those pages; taking care of the training was basically my problem, my headache.  Even when I managed to train somebody, that person had to deliver, in terms of both quality and quantity. I soon realized that training and production had to be tied together. In those days, we didn’t have great software to take care of copyediting tracking. Sure, every company did have its own tracking for typesetting, but copyediting was basically left in the lurch. Why? Because we were—in those days—the only department that tracked things in terms of manuscript pages; the rest of the industry tracked things in terms of typeset pages (or number of images, as in the case of the scanning department).

I learned Microsoft Excel to manage my tracking. Tying training and production together meant having partially (incompletely) edited pages, which in turn meant tweaking my tracking system to accommodate these aspects of the process. In practice, this literally meant breaking down the production of a single manuscript/file into smaller chunks and accounting for each task as part of a total number of output pages. I soon realized that things were becoming quite complex, but I kept on working to make things better. Although I was trying to do about 20 things at a time in those days, I can now summarize all that into clear-cut pieces of a large puzzle.

Basic needs of a copyediting division

The following are what you would need for a smooth functioning of a copyediting division:

  • A well-defined workflow for copyediting
  • A copyediting trainer and a production manager
  • Copyediting training that is integrated with live production
  • Structured training that lets learning editors first practice (on dummy files) and then work on live manuscripts, where they edit only those aspects they have been trained on
  • A system to check everything done by the learning editors (yes, check one hundred percent of the work) as well as provide a complete written feedback (and a simple and clear-cut way of doing this)
  • Continuation of copyediting production by a senior editor (who continues to work on the remaining aspects of the manuscript after providing the written feedback)
  • Tracking the different aspects of copyediting production (governed by the copyediting workflow) to ensure that the sum of all the parts (the total output) matches the input (originally received standardized) pages

Copyedit workflow

Years of experimentation have helped me frame a definite workflow for copyediting. This simply means that copyeditors will have to work on their journal articles or book chapters in the following sequence (slightly different from the way we used to work in the days of hardcopy editing):

  • Element identification and styling
  • References (List of references and later Reference citations)
  • Tables and figure legends
  • Editorial markup of text (numbers, units, etc.)
  • Math (if applicable)
  • Line-by-line (language) editing

The first five of these relate to the mechanical, technical, and stylistic aspects of copyediting, and I refer to these collectively as Markup. (In the days of hardcopy editing, we used to refer to these tasks as marking up the manuscript for the typesetter. In the modern world, we do the same thing using formatting and Word styles or any of the markup languages—XML, HTML, and the like.)

The last one alone relates to the language aspects of copyediting.

The sequence of these tasks is all too important. (The question Why? would lead us to a different discussion altogether and can be subject of another blog.).

Copyediting trainer and production manager

For a full 12 years, I had to play the role of both copyediting trainer and production manager. It was only in the second half of my career that I had the luxury of having a separate production manager. But the earlier years of struggle helped me develop a system where the training and production are completely integrated. For this reason, the production manager must know how the training works and how it integrates with production. This is important, particularly during work allocation, when it is crucial to know which editor is at which stage of the learning/editing process.

I must state here that even when I had the luxury of having a production manager, copyediting training was always at the mercy of production pressures. But that is not a good thing for a corporate copyediting division. Copyeditors are intellectual creatures who are slowly trained to have tremendous focus on whatever they do. Copyediting is an intellectually tiring job that requires hard thinking and decision-making, and keeping copyeditors burdened with never-ending production pressures is the easiest way to bring down the morale of an editorial team.

I mention this because people often ask me how they can retain copyeditors. What copyeditors need is a periodic time off, amidst production pressures, to simply explore their own fallacies through editorial discussions. I would emphasize that this simple provision will be a fantastic investment for a company in the long term, rather than a waste of time (as is often perceived to be).

Copyediting training

The following is the general sequence of topics that I use for training people into copyediting. Note that this has many practical aspects thrown into it (in comparison with the general workflow for copyediting outlined just above).

  1. Basic PC settings and Microsoft Word shortcuts for a copyeditor
  2. Learning to use a Word styles template (this will have to be correlated with codes/tags if the organization's copyedit workflow uses the latter)
  3. Element identification and document styling
  4. List of references
  5. Reference citations (and cross-verifications)
  6. Editorial markup of text
  7. Math markup
  8. Tables, artwork, and figure legends
  9. Essentials of writing/editing
  10. Article use in the English language
  11. Abbreviations
  12. Hyphenation and en dash use
  13. Capitalization; handling of lists
  14. Italic, boldface, quotation marks; multiple adjectives
  15. Learning to use (and prepare some aspects of) an editorial style sheet
  16. Mastering the basics of written English (a deeper study of topic 9—over 60 hours of classroom training, excluding practice and mentoring)
  17. Introduction to word usage

Nature of the training and its practical applications

The training should not be one that focuses on a specific style; that may be the worst thing to do—but is unfortunately happening throughout the industry. The training should focus on teaching principles and preferences. The practice sessions in turn should help the editors get grounded on the principles and also follow preferences as may be appropriate to any given style. The aim is to have an editor who will be able to handle any journal or any (book) style with ease.

Attempting anything else in academic copyediting training points basically to a short-sighted approach and a waste of precious time—can liken it to a “penny wise and pound foolish” approach.

In a typical freelance scenario, learning all these can take quite a long time. (On my website, I indicate a two-year window to learn all these.) But in an in-house copyediting environment, it may be possible to focus (full-time) on training, practice, mentoring, and evaluation and thus cut-short the overall training time to as little as four months. For best results, it might be best to start off with about 15 people.

Such an approach will make financial sense—will make the approach viable. Most companies, however, do not seem to know how to make it happen. The practical reality is that people are trained on a particular style (and they often do not know anything else) and they take almost a year to reach anywhere near the level of independence I’m talking about (and without the capability of handling new styles, leave alone line-editing capabilities).

In my method, the editors would start producing from the second month of training (yes, I know what I am saying, and I mean it), would become independent by the end of the 4th or 5th month, learn more on the job for the next 4–5 months (with a gradual move toward maximum productivity), and be ready (by about 9 months) to learn about other things such as preparing an editorial style sheet, using macros for repetitive tasks, learning to build a Word template, exploring book editing, etc.

Need for copyediting training

Indian scenario

The general approach of many companies in India is to give a skeletal training in copyediting to the fresh recruits—level 1 (L1) training as it is often called. The training would mostly relate to modules 1–10 of the 17 modules (or topics) listed above. (Ideally, a basic training should cover at least modules 1–14.) Of these, modules 1 and 2 relate to Microsoft Word, 3–8 relate to mechanical, stylistic aspects of copyediting, and 9 and 10 relate to a correct understanding of grammar and punctuation.

In India, there has been no formal copyediting training in the industry for the last 10 years or so—when I say training, I mean a reproducible training that stands up to a basic threshold standard. Whatever “training” has happened in the last decade has been broadly related to these 10 areas, and it has often been left to the copyeditors to learn whatever else they could. But with no pressure on learning (no doubt related to the overall price reductions), copyeditors have, by and large, not developed an interest to learn more.

Now, compound this scenario with the following:

  • The impact this approach may have had on copyeditors recruited year-on-year by companies
  • The increasingly larger volumes of work being given out to freelance editors
  • Intrinsic inability to provide solid feedback, in turn leading to a sense of powerlessness—of not being able to demand high quality work from the freelance editors

All these point to a dire need for copyediting training in the industry. There can also be other great opportunities for India as a whole when copyediting gets established here as a profession (see my other blog Offshore editorial function in India in scholarly/academic publishing: lost opportunities and potential for growth).

But even now, the most common request from companies is for L1 editing. What is probably not clear to many is that topics 1–17 are definite and basic aspects of standard copyediting at an international level. And that should be the basic level of training any company or organization should strive to provide for its editors.

The commonly heard statement (from both editors and companies alike) is this: We can handle L1 and L2 editing; but we are not able to handle L3 editing. We need help basically in that area.

As a professional editor with almost a quarter of a century of experience behind me, I feel sad to hear those words because I know that the ground reality is something else. Many editors, for example, have vague ideas about the use of italic and quotation marks in running text, about hyphenation and en dash use; many struggle with article use (non-native speakers do have a problem there); and most will not be able to spot long fragments and sentences made up of mixed thoughts—they may simply pass them off as complex writing. All these can be learned, practiced, and understood only by a detailed study of topics 11–17.

When a formal, full-time training can make an editor learn and apply all these principles in a matter of four months, that itself can be a great boon for the industry at this juncture. (Alas, we did not have such opportunities in our learning days!)

Global scenario

Of greater concern is the fact that a similar situation prevails all over the editorial world. There has been, over the last 20 years or so, a gradual loss of precious knowledge and expertise that was available earlier in publishing houses. The advantage of that system (alas, now almost lost!) was the in-built daily mentoring of budding editors for almost a year—a process that is so crucial for learning, for preserving the art, and for maintaining quality. The stark truth is that serious copyediting training has generally been lost across the globe, except in select places (where people still value the effectiveness of physical, in-person learning) and some institutions and editorial organizations that are trying all possible means of preserving the art.

For my part, I have managed to do something worthwhile in my life through years of devotion to the art—a trait that seems to be increasingly in danger of being viewed as a form of obsessive–compulsive disorder by modern minds with short attention spans. Extending my understanding of the human thinking process to copyediting has helped me evolve, over the years, a set of in-depth specifications for different levels of academic editing (Precise and uniform definitions of light, standard, and professional levels of editing—A proposal), which I presented at Editing Goes Global, the first international conference for editors, held by Editors’ Association of Canada (now Editors Canada), at Toronto in June 2015. I believe that the recommendations in the proposal can become, or at least form the basis for developing, industry-wide standards for editorial practices in academic editing.

No doubt editorial organizations in Canada, US, UK, Australia, and other regions have developed their own set of professional editorial standards. But because of the general level at which these standards are written and because of their broad coverage, these often define the general expectations. My recommendations are more at a micro level, at the level of daily learning of academic copyediting. But even here, some items mentioned in my recommendations are mere indicators of learning rather than definite specifications. I believe that these are pointers that a learning editor may be able to relate to in his or her daily life as an editor. The ideas presented there can be useful for

  • teaching and training
  • live editing
  • assessing work done by an editor
  • defining levels of editing
  • helping editors to move from one level to another
  • (and possibly) for teaching English at a certain (higher) level

The whole idea is to guide the thinking process of a budding editor and train the person to think like a professional editor and thus help meet the daily editorial challenges in accordance with the demands of the situation.

Structured training that integrates with production

I give below an overview of how copyediting training can be made effective and the training time in turn optimized to about four months.

  • By design, the first month is completely for training and practice
  • A learning editor starts contributing to production from the second month onward
  • An editor who is taught (say) element identification and document styling attends only to these things on a live manuscript
    • An experienced editor checks the work one hundred percent, provides a written feedback, and goes on to complete the rest of the copyediting on the manuscript
    • A still more effective way would be to let the learning copyeditors check each others' work (of course with written feedback) before passing it on to the experienced editor, who then checks it again 
  • An editor who is taught element identification/styling and reference styling attends only to these things on a live manuscript
    • Again, an experienced editor checks the work one hundred percent, provides a written feedback, and goes on to complete the rest of the copyediting on the manuscript
  • An editor who is taught element identification/styling, reference styling, and reference citations attends only to these three things
    • An experienced editor checks the work one hundred percent, provides a written feedback, and goes on to complete the rest of the copyediting on the manuscript
  • . . . and so on

Characteristics of the training–production link

There are many aspects to this integration of training and production, and I mention the salient aspects here (distilled from my years of testing).

Tested methodology
  • A well-thought-out method of training and a well-defined method of working on a manuscript is crucial.
  • Every editor learns and works on manuscripts in the same way (exceptional manuscripts that will need a different approach will always be exceptions).

Feedback and learning
  • The feedback mechanism must be such that the person is able to understand and learn from the mistakes made—and therefore makes fewer or no mistakes of the same type while working on successive manuscripts.
  • That way, when the trainer moves on to (say) the 3rd or 4th module, the learner would have grasped the 1st module aspects thoroughly (because of the daily feedback received on every file he or she has worked on).

Contained burden of checking
  • When an editor works on aspects learned in modules 4 and 5, the burden of checking (on the senior editor) does NOT increase, as he or she need not check what the editor has already learned (aspects relating to modules 1 and 2 or modules 1–3).
  • Equally important is that “certification of copyeditors” (evidence-based certification of ability to handle certain aspects) happens simply as part of the process workflow (the training–production integration).

Transparency, categorization, filtration, and optimization
  • Progress or nonprogress of the learner would be obvious as the system would be transparent to everyone, as everything done by the learner will be checked one hundred percent.
  • Learning editors will continue to learn; some may be slow learners requiring a longer handholding.
  • By months 1–3, some may realize that editing may not be their type of job and may even choose to opt out.
    • This is mainly because of the difficult nature of the job—not everyone, despite their eagerness, will be able to do copyediting. This also implies that HR must take time to recruit the right candidates (and may be even have a few extras).
    • A small subset of these, if they are still interested in academic type of work, may be allowed to try their hand at indexing (some may succeed there).

  • As mentioned earlier, certification of copyeditors happens simply as part of the process workflow.
  • This type of certification is something that can be banked upon, as it is based on checking many outputs of the same copyeditor over a period (instead of a single assessment made using a specific test).
  • Such copyeditors can be the wealth of an editorial department and can play great roles in building it further.

The process and the goal

  • Manuscript editing may now seem something like a relay race where one person (the learner) attends to specific aspects and another (senior or experienced) copyeditor completes the rest of the tasks and ensures editorial quality.
  • This splitting of the work is done only at the learning stage; gradually, the learning editor attends to all aspects of copyediting and then becomes independent.
  • The goal is to gradually make an editor do ALL aspects of the job; the goal is NOT splitting of the job into compartments and making different people handle different parts.
  • An manuscript-specific checklist ensures that all aspects of editing have been taken care of.

Pillars of editorial training

Any training in copyediting should have the following essential components:

  • Detailed training, purely because of the intellectual demands of the job
  • Time to practice whatever has been taught (on many files/manuscripts)
  • A solid feedback mechanism for testing the editor's understanding of all the formatting and mechanical aspects of copyediting
  • Group mentoring for line-by-line (language) editing
  • Many hours of individual mentoring to help a learner apply the concepts taught and to guide and mold the editor's thinking process to gradually mature to an acceptable level, in line with the demands of the academic editing

It is possible to set up and establish all these in a corporate/institutional setup. When such practices become part and parcel of an editorial division, they can naturally lead to an expectation of better quality of work from the freelance editors they give work to—and this drive must necessarily come from within the publishing industry.

Such a drive from an in-house editorial team would nudge some visionaries to think in terms of addressing the training needs of freelance editors. But that would be a separate topic altogether.

Making it work

I've presented a detailed overview of my corporate training model. To keep such a system running like a well-oiled engine, certain well-tested methods of assessing copyeditors as well as of giving feedback are undoubtedly necessary. The system I’ve developed has two sequential components:

  • Quality assurance—formatting and other mechanical aspects
  • Quality assurance—line-by-line (language) editing

I’ll discuss these two topics as two separate blogs. So stay tuned for Parts 2 and 3 of this three-part blog.

To be continued . . .


Please feel to comment on any aspect of this blog. If you like the concepts explained in this blog and would like to discuss copyediting training for your organization, please use the Contact form on this website to get in touch. Detailed week-by-week schedules of the training program, the number of hours of training, practice, feedback, group mentoring, and individual mentoring are all readily available, and can be tweaked for your specific requirements.

Some comments on this blog on Academic Editors Facebook group pasted here for the convenience of readers . . . 


Some comments on this blog on Editors' Association of Earth Facebook group pasted here for the convenience of readers . . . 


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