People ask a lot of interesting questions of me. As an author and editor, it comes with the job. My favourite questions come from eager individuals genuinely impassioned by reading, writing, and editing. I’ve been asked, “how do you become an editor?”; often, this question comes from youth and adults looking to pursue an editing career. My short answer: it really depends. Here are some of the key things you are going to need if you want to be an editor.
Have a Passion for Words
If you can’t stand reading, writing, grammar, punctuation, spelling … don’t become an editor. Understanding meaning and etymology, syntax and grammar, communication theories (why and how we communicate), and unravelling the mystery and magic of words is an editor’s life. An editor knows a lot about words. If you don’t care about the oxford comma, this maybe isn’t the right job for you.
An editor’s life is words, their livelihood is precision. Editors are like policy makers; they decide what rules apply to their clients and guide their clients to a consistent, reliable, professional product. Editors rely on systems, ethics, principles, industry best practices, rules, and conventions, as well as experience. From these an editor makes deliberate decisions tailored to the industry, manuscript, paragraph, or even word they edit.
Editors rely on (and create) tools such as style guides, dictionaries, and media to polish content and assist creators and publishers reach readers. As an example, a fiction editor in the United States or Canada usually uses The Chicago Manual of Style to determine grammar and format. Someone writing in Europe may use the Oxford English Dictionary to determine spelling and meaning. A doctorate student in computer science would likely use the IEEE Computer Society Style Guide to format their thesis and cite their references.
A skilled editor navigates the world of rules, conventions, and guides, and is able to research, decide, and communicate those decisions to their clients.
Stop Being a Perfectionist
I’ll let you in on a secret. It took a really long time for me to figure this out. No one gets it right 100% of the time. Striving to get work completed precisely and consistently is more cost and time effective, lends to solid results, and ensures you don’t burn out. Panicking and driving yourself into a pit of despair over a comma splice isn’t going to make you a successful editor.
Editors need to be detailed. They need to be precise. They also need to accept perfection doesn’t exist. Accepting mistakes and issuing corrections when necessary is a huge part of an editor’s job. Newspaper editors issue corrections (and even apologies) when a story is found to be erroneous. New editions of books are published with errors and facts corrected.
Decide What Type
There are many types of editors. While it’s always a good idea to expand your knowledge and experience, you’ll need to be self-aware. Are you better at coaching and content development, or fact checking? Can you trump US English spelling bees, but don’t understand why it’s spelled honour in Canada? Do you love academics, but hate fiction? Do you prefer to read genre fiction, or, balk at the idea of vampires?
Answering these types of questions can help you determine what type of editor you’re going to become. Once you know that, you’ll be able to focus your education, understand your clients and audiences, and know which style guides and dictionaries you’re going to be sleeping beside for the rest of your life. (Yes, your style guide(s) and dictionary will become more important to you than your cat, well almost.)
Editor associations often have definitions of types of editors and what they do.
Get the Right Education
There are university certificates and degrees that focus on journalism, language history, business editing, publishing, non-fiction writing, fiction writing… the list is endless. If your passion is ecology and editing, you may want a university degree or even doctorate in ecology, and a certificate in publishing. Or, you may want to be a business editor and need to take a certificate or degree in business communications. Do you want to freelance or work for a big publishing firm? They both require different levels of experience and education.
Associations like Editors Canada also offer certification courses, which may be all you want to take for now. Deciding what type of content you love editing and knowing your strengths will help you pick the right education. Research what qualification companies and clients you want to work for expect you to have.
There are also webinars, books, videos, and community classes. Never stop learning no matter what type of editor you are. It comes down to: if you aren’t willing to do a little research and invest in learning, you won’t be effective in your career.
Decide You Are a Professional
You are a professional editor. Act like one. Present yourself well, research and follow the industry and audience you serve, and get organized. Act like an entrepreneur if you’re freelancing. Choose the right education, understand billing and invoicing (and taxes), keep records of clients and their projects. Consult with lawyers. Understand contracts, copyrights and trademarks, political climates, and laws which affect content you edit. Protect yourself with the right insurance, contracts, and agreements.
Join editing and writing associations, take continuing education seriously, and network. Understand the ethics and what it means to be an editor who interacts with clients. Associations for editors and writers often outline expected ethics, and have disciplinary boards for members who violate these ethics. If you’re robbing your clients by only running their work through a spell-checker, you’re not going to have a good professional reputation.
Getting experience is difficult. Employers are searching for unicorns with decades of experience and multiple degrees of education. While that’s fine for someone who has been working in one industry for the last fifteen or twenty years, it’s not so fine if you’re trying to gain meaningful employment without those things. Thankfully, you can start getting editing experience right now.
Offer to edit for organizations you volunteer for, or join clubs or associations where you can act as a junior editor on a volunteer basis. Start beta/alpha reading to help authors in the industry you hope to edit in. Keep track of who you edit for and ask them to be references. Keep samples of your work (with the author’s permission), and build a portfolio. Everywhere you are there is an opportunity to develop your skills. Keep your eyes and ears open and don’t be afraid to pitch an idea to your manager or point out a key error (professionally) in a friend’s blog.
The New Oxford Style Manual by The University of Oxford
The Canadian Press Stylebook by The Canadian Press
The Copy Editor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn
The Chicago Manual of Style by The University of Chicago
Editing Canadian English by Editors Association of Canada
Gendered Talk at Work by Janet Holmes
Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnel-Ginet
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation by Jane Straus