Am I Too Old to Copyedit? 3 Questions for Those Who Wonder

Editor’s Corner

[March 22, 2018: At the request of one commenter, that person’s comments (and only that person’s comments) on this post have been removed.]

[Further clarification from Carol Saller: As an editor over sixty in frequent conversation with many other older editors, I consider it appropriate to ask these questions. I ask them of myself. I don’t presume to question anyone else’s skills. Readers may note that I have changed the title originally posted  (“Are You Too Old to Copyedit?”), and I apologize for the distress it caused some readers. ]

How does a professional copyeditor know when it’s time to retire? Freelancers especially may be tempted to sail on past the age at which in-house editors are encouraged to put down the red pencil. But in either case, how long is too long? Here are some questions to consider.

1. Are my editing skills slipping?

An editor of any age can have failures that lead to self-doubt. But it may be harder for older editors (like me) to dismiss failures as anomalies. How accurate is your own assessment? Do you merely imagine that lapses are happening more often?

♦ Suggestions: Test yourself on grammar, usage, and style (e.g., at ACES or CMOS Online). Monitor client complaints in a log to help determine whether problems are really more frequent or not. If you find the results reassuring, forge on! If you don’t, ask yourself question 2:

2. Are my powers deteriorating, or are my skills out of date?

Eyesight and memory may be affected by age, but don’t be quick to blame aging when clients find fault with your work. Older copyeditors are likely to have trained so long ago that their skills could use some brushing up. When was the last time you took a class, read an editing blog, or challenged yourself by learning new word-processing techniques? Are you keeping up with changes in language usage and style? Are you comfortable with social media?

♦ Suggestion: Editors of all ages can benefit from a few minutes a day reading language and editing blogs and participating in an editors’ group online, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, the Forum at The Chicago Manual of Style Online, or anywhere else editors in your field hang out. You’ll quickly get ideas on how to refresh your skills and which areas need it the most. (For a list of links to some good blogs, see the “Profession-Related Reading” page at KOK Edit.)

3. If I decide to give up copyediting, what are some alternatives?

Copyediting and proofreading at the superficial level (catching errors in spelling, punctuation, consistency, etc.) require a sharp mind and unwavering focus, and mature editors might feel slippage in that area. But the same editors might feel more confidence than ever in their editorial judgment, their ability to evaluate a document and advise the writer, their ability to coach young editors or writers, or their business acumen after years of freelancing experience.

♦ Suggestion: Consider shifting your energies to related fields of editing or publishing. Move into developmental editing or business consulting. An investment in further training might be well worth the time and expense. Rethinking your career to capitalize on your strengths might not only launch you from uncertainty to confidence but add years to your working life.

Top photo: Jean Le Tavernier, via Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Corner posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

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Carol SallerCarol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd editionCarol Saller’s books include The Subversive Copy Editor and the young adult novel Eddie’s War. You can find Carol online at Twitter (@SubvCopyEd) and at Writer, Editor, Helper.

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21 thoughts on “Am I Too Old to Copyedit? 3 Questions for Those Who Wonder

  1. As editors, why don’t we just look up “ageism” in Merriam Webster’s 11th? There it’s defined as “prejudice or discrimination against a particular age group, esp. the elderly.” And “prejudice” is ” injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one’s rights”–but also “preconceived judgment or opinion; an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge.”

    Obviously there’s no civil rights violation or damaging action being suggested toward aging copy editors in this article. It’s intended to encourage self-evaluation vs. denial of the realities of aging. It doesn’t say that we should put down our red pencils at a certain age, but it does refer to an age when “in-house editors are encouraged to put down the red pencil.” That sentence smacks more of ageism on the part of employers than on the part of the author.

    If we want to have productive conversations about realities, we need to distinguish between diverse personal opinions and negative judgments about the capacities of particular groups.

  2. And interesting and very enlightening Conversation on an important topic relative to a lot of folks not just copy editors. Carol, thank you for getting this ball rolling.

  3. I’m puzzled by the suggestion that this post might be ageist. Aging affects humans. Editors are humans. Therefore, aging affects editors. That’s a matter of biology. Contemplating how aging affects us, and when, is no more ageist than discussing when and why we might hang up our running shoes. As the comments on this post nicely illustrate, we are all visited by age differently. I quit running before age 50; a woman from my gym is smashing marathon records at 90. Surely it’s okay to discuss our differences and acknowledge the changes that aging brings. That’s not ageist. It’s honest. And human.

  4. As an outsider, I can say without any doubt this discussion is incredibly ageist. And deleting comments? That proves it. Unbelievable.

  5. I took no formal English or editing courses after high school but was essentially an editor without the title until I was 46 years old. That’s when I received an AA degree from a community college and a specialized certificate in copyediting from a state university simultaneously. Today at age 60, I have been an in-house book editor for a well known business author for more than ten years – and this month I find my name next to his as coeditors of a bestselling book with chapters from 44 leadership experts. Life is funny. If I had begun considering at 50 that I might be getting too old to edit, this never would have happened to me. My point is everyone is different. Some older editors are ready to retire and others, like me, have barely begun.

  6. As Frances Peck says (above), there’s also the question of interest/energy, which may well be related to aging: your interests shift and, if you stop to notice, you’re no longer giving your best energy to copyediting. Important to pause and ask all these questions of yourself (and maybe your colleagues)!

    However, I’m pretty sure there are editors older than me (I’m 63) who still love this work and keep their skills sharp and can keep at it indefinitely. Those people are treasures because they have knowledge spanning so many decades. (Meanwhile YOUNG editors can be treasures for many reasons–for example, they may be experts on current pop culture.)

    It’s kinda like being an athlete: age does make a difference, but the difference it makes will not be the same for all practitioners.

  7. [March 22, 2018: At the request of the commenter, several comments on this post have been removed.]

  8. Carol, there is a great discussion of your blog post going on on the private email discussion list of the Editorial Freelancers Association. Too bad I can’t quote from it here. The gist of several of the posts is that it’s not ageist to talk about the potential effects of aging on editing; instead, it’s being realistic.

    • Well, since the entire thoughtful, detailed discussion about the ageism that was once in the comments of post has now been deleted “at the request of the writer,” it seems it’s unanimous. Put down the red pencil, everyone “over a certain age.” Don’t be “tempted” to continue working. You’re done.

      • LOL! Now it’s at the request of the “commenter” that all the critical comments were removed. I give up with all these revisions. At least the headline has been changed. That’s something.

  9. When I first saw the title, I thought for sure it was going to be about outgrowing or getting tired of the work and determining when it was time to move on. Copyediting doesn’t always seem like the most rewarding or lucrative line of work. Instead, the premise is that we can expect to see mental deterioration in our older years and should be honest with ourselves when it happens. Never say never. Luckily freelancers don’t have to deal with ageism in the workplace, but then again, there’s no one to hold them to task but themselves.

  10. This is a terrific and important post, Carol, and it addresses a topic that I too have discussed with other editors “of a certain age.” To be clear, I am 53. They are in their 60s. In my view, the aforesaid “of a certain age” includes us all.

    When the topic has come up, it’s always been spoken of in a muttered, shame-faced sort of way. “I decided to retire before I started making mistakes,” one told me. “I didn’t want to stay too long, to the point where I was second-guessing myself all the time,” said another.

    Who among us, people who’ve devoted our professional lives to being reliable and correct (as much as possible), wants to admit to fears of slipping? After all, doing so means, gulp!, coming Face to Face with Mortality. But better to admit those fears and act on them, in one of the excellent ways you’ve outlined, than be another editor I know (late 60s) who WAS slipping and had to be gently told this by a colleague.

    I’m still copyediting and proofreading, and for now I still feel as confident in the quality of my work as I did a decade or two ago. But I’m slower than I used to be. I’m aware of seeing more questions, pitfalls and possibilities in material. Copy sometimes seems less black and white now, and the remedies less straightforward. Is that a result of experience? A sign that I’m exercising more or better judgment? Maybe. I’d like to think so. But it could also be that my mind is slowing down, that the decisions don’t come as lightning-quick as they once did.

    One thing I am certain of is that my appetite for copyediting and proofreading is less keen now. Those levels of editing no longer get my pulse racing the way that substantive editing, rewriting and writing do. And of course teaching. That continues to feel as fresh and relevant as when I first addressed a class in my twenties. But “between” versus “among”? I know the difference, I assess the text, and I fix as needed. But for some reason, I care less than I used to.

  11. I have a day job and a freelancing life. Working alongside [much] younger people in the day job, I am struck daily by how much they don’t know, common facts that would aid one in editing. I know these facts from paying attention in school, my having gone to school a long time ago, a lifetime of reading, an avid curiosity, and from returning to school every ten years or so. The *only* advantage they have is more physical energy. I know I’m an anecdote of one, and that’s frowned upon in commenting circles, but I can’t be the *only* one who benefits from 30-40 years’ additional knowledge?

    This is an interesting topic, and I’m not offended that it was raised. I’m very aware of ageism in the workplace and indeed the world at large–that’s why I keep up with the freelancing: for when the day job comes to an end.

  12. Thanks for this, Carol. It’s an uncomfortable topic because of how we view aging in our society. But to maintain our self-respect and to continue to be useful, we have to ask ourselves questions like these. I will definitely keep these in mind as time marches on!

  13. Actually, I’m over sixty. And like everyone else over sixty, I know that older workers have a tough time in the job market. Please read my post – I agree with you! The quality of the work is what matters: editors of any age whose work is subpar can freshen their skills or focus on things they do better. —Carol Saller

  14. Thanks for commenting, Arlissp. I agree that these are good questions for anyone, not just copyeditors. But as a copyeditor of retirement age myself, I can’t see my post as “ageist.” As I noted more than once, an editor at any age can experience failures that lead to self-doubt! —Carol Saller

    • I love the assumption behind this comment: if we don’t use the phrase “older copyeditors,” then we’ll never be older(?) and won’t have to face the challenges of older age. Don’t talk about it, because then it might happen.

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