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Magazine copy editor learns to trust herself and break the rules

By Cristina Woodworth

University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Metta West was born to be a copy editor. She developed a fondness for grammar, writing and reading at a young age. Following in the footsteps of her mom and grandma, who were both grammarians, West learned to love the fine points of grammar and punctuation that make most people cringe. It wasn’t until her freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that West started considering a copy editing career, though. She was reading a newspaper one day in a journalism class taught by Professor Charlyene Berens when Berens asked West if she had ever looked into copy editing. West took some editing classes and never looked back.

West has been working for the past 3 ½ years as an associate copy editor for the Meredith Corp., which is a national publishing company that turns out magazines, books, cookbooks, digital content and more. Many people might think copy editors sit at their desks all day, reading content and making changes, but there is much more to it than that, West said in a phone interview. She is the lead copy editor for the magazines Renovation Style and Quilts and More. Being the lead copy editor means she sees these publications in two different forms: manuscript stage (rough draft) and proof stage (final draft). She is also the lead copy editor for all of the home decorating websites such as the Better Homes and Gardens website.

Metta West, far left, and fellow copy editors at the Meredith Corporation find time to relax at a company holiday party.

Being the lead copy editor for these publications is just one aspect of West’s job. She also helps copy edit basically any other content that comes in to Meredith. Whether it is a scrapbooking magazine, company newsletter, slideshow presentation or Facebook post, West  is there to read through and edit it. She proofreads the landing pages for all of Meredith’s websites once a week. Newsletters go out once a week as well; and there are always ongoing projects. Copy editors work on magazine content two to six months in advance. In the summer, they turn up the Christmas music and work on editing holiday stories. This may sound like a whole lot of work, but West said dabbling in lots of different publications is one of her favorite parts about the job. “You learn a little bit about a lot of topics,” she said. “I’ve done something in pretty much everything. It has inspired me to get into crafting and cooking. I’ve started experimenting.”

 Something else that West loves about her job is that she gets to read for a living. Sometimes she gets so immersed in different stories that she forgets to look at the grammar. “It’s great when a story does that for you,” she said. ”It means it’s well-written.”

 Although copy editing seemed like West’s natural career path, it has not been without challenges. West said the biggest problem she had when starting out was learning to trust herself. She would triple and quadruple check everything to the point that her efficiency was not very high. “I am a thorough worker and I had to learn to trust myself and the people behind me to check for errors,” West said. “I got a lot more confidence with time and experience.” Another challenge was learning that sometimes it’s OK to break the rules when it comes to grammar. When she first came to Meredith, West followed the grammar stylebook precisely, no exceptions. She said she has learned with experience, though, that breaking a rule can sometimes help with clarity or style. “Sometimes you just have to let go of a grammar rule,” West said. Although she backs this up by saying that she still “believes wholeheartedly in standing up for the English language.”

 West’s job has evolved over the years as the demand for digital content increased. She laughed as she talked about being an intern for Meredith in the summer of 2007 when she would look at websites and print pages off to highlight things that needed to be changed. “We weren’t tech savvy enough to just go in and make changes,” she said. “Now we have programs and the process figured out to change things online.” West also talked about the changes that came with the popularity of social networking sites.  The editors used to send all their tweets and Facebook posts through the copy editing department before publishing them, West explained. After a while, she said, people realized that this was an unnecessary step. “Now we have everyone send them off on their own,” she said of social networking posts. “We try to let them know if we notice mistakes. Copy editors have learned to let go of little mistakes. That’s a big change for us.” West says the overall workload and volume content has gone up as more things go digital. Stories can now come from all over the world via email and online sites. People also expect feedback to be faster, which forces West and her team to work faster. Other changes included learning new computer programs and incorporating search engine optimization into online stories.

 When asked if there was anything she didn’t like about being a copy editor, West paused for quite a while. “I guess there are some nitpicky tasks that are part of the copy editor workload,” she finally said. She explained how things printed and mailed from the office have to follow certain detailed postal rules, which can be a headache. West also works on the mastheads for all of the magazines. The masthead is the page in a magazine that lists all of the contributor’s information along with the corporate information. “That’s always so much fun to put together,” West said sarcastically. “No one really likes to do it.”

In 10 years, West said she still sees herself as a copy editor. Actually, she says she wants to be a copy editor for the rest of her life.

Some advice she has for aspiring student copy editors is to always be flexible and make things work. Copy editors need to remember that the overall goal is for consumers to understand and be clear on what a story is trying to communicate. She says one of the best skills a copy editor could have is learning the difference between web stories and printed stories. “It’s surprisingly different to understand how to write a beautifully written story as compared to a concise, digital blurb.”


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