Seeking Resources for Copy Editors

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

Pretty soon I’m going to be entering the world of copy editing. I have copy editing experience, but I want to read and learn more about the profession. Right now I’m reading The Copy-Editing and Headline Handbook by Barbara G. Ellis. (Sounds real fun, I know!) It’s actually pretty interesting. Ellis goes into a lot of detail about headline counts, writing and editing captions, transition words and forbidden terms in text, and more.

I asked a couple of friends who are copy editors what they would suggest reading. One of them recommended the following books, some of which I’ve read:

Woe Is I and Words Fail Me, both by Patricia T. O’Connor.

The Elephants of Style and Lapsing Into a Comma, both by Bill Walsh of The Washington Post.

Writing Tools, by Roy Peter Clark.

She also suggested reading the American Copy Editors Society’s forums at and visiting Testy Copy Editors at

Another copy editor said that once you know the basics and are familiar with the AP Stylebook, copy editing is mostly a learned-on-the-job skill. He added:

If you have a good ear for writing, it helps you decide when a grammar rule can be bent or when a writer’s gimmick just isn’t working. Basically, readers should not notice the writing style, or any gimmickry or any of the mechanics of what they are reading – all they should have to think about is the subject of the story.

Check out a variety of stuff: How effectively Domino uses blurb-style writing; how The New Yorker’s writers take a complicated subject and boil it down to 10 inches; how sharp and witty Entertainment Weekly’s headlines are – but not so sharp and witty that the story itself is a letdown; or, how The New York Times Magazine’s stories tend to be about 15 inches too long, or how The Observer’s stuff doesn’t quite dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s.

Or, as far as books are concerned, how you can just sail effortlessly through Dean Koontz’s and JK Rowling’s novels, while every single word in Anthony Swofford’s or Annie Proulx’s works has a visceral punch. Polar opposites, but all rewarding.

Well said. I also like visiting The Grammar Girl’s Web site from time to time. Eats Shoots and Leaves and The Elements of Style are good resources, too.

What copy editing resources would you recommend?