What skills do you need to be a copyeditor or proofreader?

1 May, 2024

I wish I had a penny for every time I’ve heard someone say ‘Proofreading is easy – you just need to be able to spot typos’. If only that were true!

That got me thinking about all the skills you really need to be an editor or proofreader. I’ve made a list of them here. Read on…

  • A love of reading and the written word. This is essential! Reading a wide range of books, articles, magazines, newspapers, blogs and so on will improve your knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation and style conventions. It will also broaden your general knowledge. Which leads on to…
  • Great general knowledge. This will enable you to spot errors when you’re working, and raise an author query. This saves an author’s blushes and makes the final text more trustworthy.
  • Knowledge of style sheets: being able to read, digest and stick to a style sheet. And being able to craft a great style sheet. (Here’s a blog post I wrote for the CIEP about creating a style sheet for a work of fiction.)
  • Judgement – knowing what to change and what you should leave. This is a topic of a blog post all on its own! (TL;DR: change all errors (of fact, SPaG, consistency, etc. If you’re not sure that the author has made an error, it’s best to check with them instead of going ahead and changing their text.)
  • Great English skills – knowledge of punctuation, grammar and spelling (that you keep updated by reading style guides and taking training, not a belief in zombie rules that you learned fifty years ago and have clung to ever since).
  • The ability to look things up.
  • The ability to look things up. It’s worth repeating, as it’s really important. An editor or proofreader spends most of their life looking things up (even things they think they know! ‘Think’ isn’t good enough), and has several reference books and style guides.
  • Communication skills. You can be the best editor in the world, but if you hate communicating with clients or you lack the ability to be diplomatic and tactful, yet clear about what a project needs, then you will find it hard to sustain a career as a freelance editor.
  • Being able to say no if a project is not for you or you don’t have the skill set to do it well…
  • …and being able to say yes to a job that is outside your comfort zone, if you’re prepared to take more training and learn how to do it well. Sometimes it pays to be brave, to take on a job to expand your skill set.
  • The ability to spot tyre-kickers and other clients you don’t want. If a client starts off being a PITA, my experience has told me that they will stay that way. You need to know when a client is being unreasonable – and when to say goodbye.
  • Motivation. You will often be working by yourself, at home. Can you focus well enough to do this without getting distracted? (‘I’ll just watch that episode of MasterChef before I start work… And I’ll pop a wash on. Ooh, I need to check Instagram…’)
  • Marketing skills. You might think that being a freelance editor means sitting in your home office all day, editing, but it doesn’t. Where does the work come from? You have to put yourself out there and find clients. And this means having a good website, being visible in directories such as the CIEP directory and the ALLi directory, and being active on social media such as LinkedIn.


These are just some of the skills you need to be an editor. I’ve spent years honing these skills while running my editorial business. Why not check out my website to find out more about me?