Friday, August 14, 2009

Evaluating copy editors

If you happen to oversee copy editors, one of our nation’s fast-dwindling resources, you might be interested in some suggestions on how to evaluate their performance. If you are a civilian, unclear what copy editors do, apart from filing for unemployment insurance, this post will suggest to you what is being sacrificed at the publications you read.

These standards for evaluation are based on materials I used as head of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun. The most effective evaluations are thoughtful and detailed commentary on the copy editor’s work, laced with examples of solid work and work that could stand improvement, written in English. (I was once supplied with a little book of catch phrases to use in performance reviews; it goes against the grain for me to have a book pulped, but exceptions must sometimes be made.) You are welcome to assign percentage values to each category, or a 1-5-weak-to-strong ranking, if you prefer for your performance reviews to display a spurious mathematical exactitude.


If the copy editor takes a self-review seriously, instead of shying away from it as a document of self-incrimination, it can afford useful reflection. It does not have to be complex; consideration of four basic questions is adequate.

1. What strengths can I point to in my work?

2. In what areas do I need to make improvement?

3. What obstacles hamper me from doing better work?

4. What training would help me achieve better work?

(In Question 3, the copy editor might well consider personal matters as well as workplace circumstances.)


1. Knowledge of work

Identification and correction of errors of fact.

Identification and correction of errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and English usage.

Appropriate application of house style to texts.

Success in writing headlines that are accurate, which appropriately convey the tone and nature of articles, and which engage readers’ interest.

Mastery of the editing software.

2. Work judgments

Successful pacing — the ability to size up quickly the editing issues in a text and to deal with them appropriately while meeting deadlines.

Productivity — completion of an appropriate volume of work during the shift.

Successful revision of texts to achieve greater clarity, without introducing errors.

Ability to explain and justify editing changes.

Identification of flaws in focus, structure, organization, and tone in texts, with suitable recommendations for their correction.

Identification of potential ethical or legal issues, including libel, falsification, and plagiarism.

Overall quality of the copy editor’s work.

3. Collaboration

Ability to deal collegially and tactfully with authors, identifying and resolving issues in good time without acrimony.

Ability to maintain good relationships with assigning editors while dealing with editing issues in their writers’ work.

Ability to deal collegially with fellow copy editors, coordinating activities with a minimum of friction.

4. Intangibles

Ability to concentrate and disregard distractions.

Effectiveness under stress.

Willingness to accept change in routines and duties.

Display of initiative — taking necessary action instead of waiting to be instructed.

Receptivity to advice and instruction.

Willingness to take responsibility for the quality of work.


Effectiveness in planning and organizing the work of the desk to ensure productivity and appropriate quality of work.

Efficiency in scheduling to ensure that the level of staffing and the volume of work match, day to day.

Skill in testing, interviewing, and evaluating applicants.

Success in training new employees and providing any necessary additional training for experienced editors.

Willingness to help subordinates prepare themselves for promotion, placing them in situations where their abilities can be noticed.

Management of budget to contain expenses and provide adequate resources.

Insight and fairness in evaluating employees.

Readiness to undertake appropriate disciplinary action.

Sound judgment and good decisions.

Openness to innovation.

Readiness to accept responsibility.

Willingness to share the burden of the work alongside subordinates.