An American Editor

June 23, 2014

The Practical Editor: What Does Professional Certification Look Like?

What Does Professional Certification Look Like?

by Erin Brenner

Rich Adin has talked about a desire for licensing copyeditors (see Evaluating Editors) to help prove their worth. It’s an idea that intrigues me. There are existing programs that offer certificates in copyediting, but these certify that you’ve completed a specific course load, not that you have experience and a tested level of mastery.

Worse, there’s no standard training program. You can take a single college course, several college-level courses, or public training courses in copyediting and learn vastly different, if useful, things. Each of them will say that you’re a copyeditor when you’re finished.

Not all copyeditors are trained equally, then.

So when I attended the Editors’ Association of Canada’s (EAC’s) national conference in Toronto this month, I was curious about the group’s certification program.

I talked to a lot of folks about it. Not everyone agrees on the value of it or that the way it’s currently set up is the best way. But love certification or hate it, EACers are passionate about this subject.

The EAC first formed a committee on certification in 1997, after talking about the need for it for a decade. Testing didn’t even begin until 2006. It was a long, slow process that has depended entirely on volunteers.

Here’s how the EAC approached creating its program.

Types of Editing and Standards

The EAC is open to all types of editors, so deciding what type certification should cover was a first step. The organization chose four categories to certify, with labels it found descriptive: proofreading, copyediting, stylistic (“clarifying meaning, eliminating jargon, smoothing language and other non-mechanical line-by-line editing”), and structural (“clarifying and/or reorganizing a manuscript for content and structure”).

Next, it had to define standards of what’s involved in these different types of editing. The standards, which are based on Canadian style, are reviewed periodically for possible updating.

I can only imagine the debates that occurred on what the standards should be. I’ve heard comments that the committee would debate for “months and months” over the standards and what they should encompass. That it took nearly a decade to get to the point of testing says something.

Testing and Grading

The EAC approaches certification similarly to how other industries approach it. Think accounting certification and medical boards. These aren’t certificates of learning, but of mastery and experience. As a result, the tests aren’t easy; only the foolish don’t prepare well for them.

Currently, the tests are on paper and in-person only, largely for security reasons. The committee is looking at ways to computerize the process and imitate better how most of us work.

Two tests are offered in November at various locations around Canada. You can earn certification in any of the categories — in any order — or take all four to become a Certified Professional Editor (CPE). You must score 80% to pass a test.

The EAC created a study guide for each of the tests, which includes practice tests and sample graded tests. It also offers a list of resources and study techniques. I heard more than once the advice to apply test-taking skills from your college years.

Because editing is so subjective and because this is a test of mastery, grading is a challenge. Tests are graded by hand by two trained graders with extensive answer keys. If the graders disagree on whether someone should pass or fail, a third grader is brought in. Then a marking (grading) analyst and an independent auditor review the graded tests.

Value

Earning certification is great confirmation of your abilities, but given the time and costs involved in getting it, it must be more than that. As Rich Adin has noted (see Who Speaks for the Freelance Editor?), the real value is in clients and employers understanding what it means to be a CPE and desiring to hire them over non-certified editors.

One editor I talked with noted how the scientists he edits for immediately changed their opinion of him when he became certified. Specialty degrees and certifications are something his clients understand. They now see him as a colleague rather than support staff.

At this stage, though, it’s up to individual editors to educate their clients on the value of certification. The EAC’s next step is to educate the Canadian hiring community. Already there has been headway: some job ads have stated that CPEs need not take the editing test when applying for the job. But there’s a long way to go yet.

Right for the United States?

For a program like this to work in the United States, we need two things: a strong professional organization and the liberal borrowing from or licensing of the EAC’s program. If Americans don’t have to start from scratch, we could get up to speed much quicker. Starting small by focusing on just copyediting certification would help, too. We could add more certifications as time goes on.

My big reservation is that there really isn’t an organization ready to take on this challenge. The American Copy Editors Society (ACES) is great, but it’s still heavily focused on journalism and has taken up the much-needed crusade against plagiarism and sloppy reporting. Other editor organizations are either focused on a specific type of editing (e.g., Board of Editors in the Life Sciences, which already has a certification) or are too local, lacking the resources for such an undertaking.

But maybe I’m wrong. Is there an editing organization out there ready to take on the challenge of creating a US certification program? Are there enough interested editors willing to form a new group to explore professional certification for American editors?

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks to Jeanne McKane, Frances Peck, Stan Backs, and everyone else who spoke with me about certification at the conference.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

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