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A Primer on Medical Copyediting

A Primer on Medical Copyediting

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There are a lot of ways to work in health news and information beyond general interest journalism. Freelance medical copyeditor Katharine O'Moore-Klopf has been helping medical professionals and researchers write about their work for 16 years. O'Moore-Klopf blogs about her work and how she does it at EditorMom, a must-read site for anyone interested in this kind of editing. This week, she gives Career GPS a primer on what it takes to be a medical copyeditor.

Keep up with Career GPS posts and jobs via RSS or by bookmarking the blog. For this week's health media job opportunities, visit Kristen Natividad's post from yesterday.


In April, O'Moore-Klopf blogged about how she got started. She worked for book publishers as a production editor for 10 years before freelancing. She mined her network to create full-time work for herself.

At first, my clients were all former employers. When individual contacts at those several companies later moved on to jobs with other publishers, they "took me with them," and I then had freelance projects both from former employers and from the companies those contacts moved on to. Over the years, I got comfortable contacting new-to-me publishers for projects, and then after I was well enough established, new-to-me publishers contacted me to offer projects. I also developed a reputation for being skilled at ESL (English as a second language) medical editing. (My final former employer was a medical publisher, and I honed that skill while working for that company.) I didn't actively seek out such authors; publishers and satisfied ESL authors referred more such authors to me. Now, loads of them track me down.

O'Moore-Klopf answered questions by email -- with impeccable grammar and punctuation, I should add -- about what it takes to get into her line of work, from getting certified to office expenses and billable hours.

You're a full-time freelance editor with a focus on medical publishing, correct? What does that mean exactly? What kinds of projects do you work on and how long are your work hours?

Katharine O'Moore-Klopf

Yes, I am indeed a full-time freelance medical editor. I contract with publishers and with individual authors to edit medical textbooks, individual chapters for textbooks, medical journals, and individual manuscripts for submission to medical journals. I am board-certified as an editor in the life sciences, through the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences.

My specialty is ESL (English as a second language)--aka EFL (English as a foreign language)--medical editing. There are about 60 physician-researchers around the world, from about 20 different nations, who are repeat ESL-editing clients of mine, and I've had some who are just one-time clients. I edit their journal-article manuscripts before they submit the manuscripts to journals or after they have revised their manuscripts according to reviewers' recommendations. You can find a list here of the journals in which my ESL authors' articles have been published after I edited them.

Ostensibly, I work Monday through Friday, but often I work weekends too, to meet project deadlines. The total hours that I work each week can range from 35 to 50, depending on deadlines and whether I've overbooked myself. Because I am self-employed, I can choose the projects that I work on and can set my own work hours. If I want to take a weekday off, then, I can always make up the time on the weekend.

So you are asked to do more work than you can fit into a reasonable schedule? How many articles would you edit, say, in a month? How many requests do you turn down?

There are lots of clients who want my services, so yes, I do have to turn down some projects, refer some projects to colleagues, or request a longer editing schedule for some. In this economy, that's a delightful position to be in. I don't really have a typical work schedule. But here's my schedule for June:

  • On Thursdays and Fridays, I'm editing a cultural memoir written by a retired physicist who lives in the United States but was born in India and lived there through young adulthood.

  • On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, I'm editing articles for an upcoming issue of the Permanente Journal. I am the journal's sole freelance copyeditor, so I edit the bulk of the articles for each issue; a few are edited by staff members. I am also squeaking in a second edit for a company in Italy that produces medical monographs written by authors with varying levels of English proficiency.

  • On Saturdays and Sundays, I edit journal manuscripts for my ESL authors or, if I don't have any such manuscripts to edit, I do more work on Permanente Journal manuscripts.

Most of the time, unless an ESL author or I have interruptions in our schedules, it takes about a week to complete the editing process for a journal article: one round of substantive editing, a review of my edits by the author, and a quick cleanup edit. I try not to turn down my ESL regulars very often, because I want them to keep coming back to me. Most of them are willing to wait until I have an opening in my schedule for their project, unless they have a tight deadline for a specific journal.

Editing a non-ESL journal article usually takes me two days, unless it's a short case study. When it's not an issue-editing month for the Permanente Journal, I might fit in several more ESL-article projects and/or spend more days each week working on the memoir project. Editing of the book manuscript has been underway for several months; it's a huge project that the author will self-publish.

Why did you decide to get certified? What is that process like?

I decided to seek certification as an editor in the life sciences because although I learned medical editing on the job, back when I was employed by a medical publisher as a production editor, I have only a bachelor's degree in journalism and wanted something to show that I have earned my chops as a medical editor. In 2008, I took the certification exam administered by the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences. It's a rigorous 3-hour exam. I was nervous that I wouldn't pass it, not having a science degree, but I've been editing science for so long now that I had no problem passing. New-to-me clients are reassured by that certification that I know what I'm doing.

There are costs involved in BELS certification. First, there is a $50 application fee, which you send in by postal mail with a completed application and the required documentation. Then there is the exam fee of $200. BELS holds the exams several times a year at different locations around the world. I definitely recommend certification for all editors in the life sciences. The best way to prepare for the certification exam is to spend a few years working as an editor in the life sciences, because the exam tests the skills that are used on the job, whether that job entails employment or freelancing.

Do you find the work you do interesting? What kind of temperament do you think does well in this kind of editing?

I love, love, love editing the materials that I do. I feel as if what I do makes at least a small difference in the world in two ways:

  1. In general, by helping physicians communicate research that will enable other physicians to treat their patients more effectively;

  2. Specifically related to ESL editing, by increasing cross-cultural cooperation and communication one pair of people (an author and me) at a time

To succeed as an editor in general, you must be quite detail-oriented, question everything you read, remain aware that you don't know everything, and enjoy searching for answers. To succeed as a medical editor, you need not only the right training but also a desire to constantly learn; you must be fascinated with the human body -- how it works, how it malfunctions, and how to treat its diseases and disorders. To succeed as a medical editor working with ESL manuscripts, you must love solving puzzles (What is this author really trying to say here?), have a deep respect for the differences and similarities among cultures, be patient, be diplomatic, and be eager to create trust and long-term working relationships.

Do you think reporters or writers can transition into this kind of editing? (There are a lot of health reporters looking for work these days.)

Sure, reporters and writers can transition to medical editing. But because most of it is done by freelancers, if you want to become a medical copyeditor, you will have to become very good at running your own business. That means you'll be constantly marketing your services, because no boss will be around to hand you assignments. If you can't learn to like or at least tolerate marketing tasks, freelance medical editing is not for you.

But the advent of social-media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) has made marketing so much easier than it was when I started freelancing in 1995. Back then, I had to make lots of cold calls and write lots of prospecting letters to prospective clients. In 2009, I tweeted a series of marketing tips for self-employed editors; I compiled them here.

It's vital that anyone making the switch to freelance medical editing to join professional associations and email groups (to learn from colleagues and to network) and engage in continuing education. Here is a page of links to various profession-related organizations, many of which have members-only e-mail lists, plus their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Editors, whether they are employees or freelancers, will find the Copyeditors' Knowledge Base, accessed through the first 7 links atop this page, invaluable.

What range of compensation should someone expect or ask for as a freelance medical editor?

Very well established ones might gross $50,000 annually if they choose their clients carefully (including avoiding production packagers). But keep in mind too that you will have to spend several hundred dollars a month for health insurance premiums and spend money on business expenses. My business expenses run somewhere between $6,000 and $8,000 per year without taking health insurance into account, and those figures don't always include costs for continuing education, which are tax deductible but which I've cut down on because of the economic recession. The categories for my business expenses include:

-Access to specific medical-journal articles to use for style
-Accountant's fees
-Banking fees
-Computer and peripherals
-Domain-name renewals
-DSL Internet connection
-Office supplies
-Phone expenses
-Promotional materials
-Reference books and CDs/DVDs
-Shipping expenses
-Subscriptions and professional dues
-Travel expenses (conferences, client meetings, etc.)
-Web-site hosting

Also remember that if you work 40 billable hours per week, you still must find some time every day to do some marketing so that you can avoid the feast-or-famine merry-go-round. I don't know that many editorial freelancers who put in 40 hours a week; a typical workweek can range from 25 to 35 hours and can run higher than 40 hours if there's a rush project going on. But life often intervenes -- you or family members or pets get sick, your house or condo or apartment needs too-noisy-for-you-to-concentrate-on-editing repairs, you want to do something besides work -- so you won't always get in as many billable hours as you plan. Plus, some work time isn't overtly billable: responding to clients' phone calls and e-mails, working up an estimate for a client, paying your business bills, and so on.

What are production packagers and why should freelancers avoid them?

Packagers are service brokers; they're project managers. A book packager handles any number of tasks for a book publisher on specific books chosen by the publisher, including lining up freelancers to do the copyediting, book design and layout and page makeup, proofreading, and even printing. A journal packager does the same tasks for a journal publisher, except that each journal's design has usually already been set up and doesn't vary from one issue to the next.

Packagers are notoriously cheap, because they take a cut of the fees that they pay freelancers, and publishers are using their services in the first place to cut costs. For those editors wanting to break into medical publishing, packagers can be a good place to start. But if you want to earn a livable income, you'll want to move on from packagers to working directly with publishers and individual authors as soon as you can.

Quick Tips and Links From This Q&A:
Get certified with the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences
KOK Edit's Marketing Tips for Freelancers
Post your resume with the Editorial Freelancers Association
KOK Edit's Copyeditor's Knowledge Base

Learn more about freelancing in health:
Samuel Loewenberg: Making a Living Covering Global Health
Career Profiles: Freelance careers take time to develop
Career Profile: Former Boston Globe Deputy Editor Karen Weintraub Turns Freelancer
Work for free or cheap: Job and freelance opportunities of a certain kind

(Photo "Stack" by wenzday01 on Flickr Creative Commons)


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