Mold me into a copy editor!
September 29, 2008 2:29 PM   Subscribe

What sort of courses, experiences, certifications, degrees, etc. should I pursue to tailor me for a career in editorial publishing?

When I return to college in the spring, I'll be a sophomore. I want to use the next three years to make me into a dream applicant for a job in editorial publishing- proofreading or copy editing. Random House's example of an entry-level job, "Editorial Assistant", sounds like what I plan to apply for.

I'd like to work in fiction, preferably fantasy, but I'm not too picky. I also have an interest in art history and some knowledge of music. I really like learning and I know from a high school chemistry class that working my way through technical papers is a lot of fun, so I probably wouldn't mind a nonfiction editorial job. I don't think I'd like to work for a magazine. I want to stay the heck away from newspaper jobs. Oh, freelancing is also something I'd rather not do for a living (though I suppose it would be good while I'm in college). I love cubicles.

What sort of resume would make me attractive to a publishing company? I'll be attending one of Connecticut's state schools (not UConn, probably) so any ideas on majors and classes would be welcome. (SCSU has Journalism and English as majors, so I'm thinking a combination of the two would suit.) I've also been looking for relevant distance learning courses, but haven't had any luck. Money is not abundant, so I don't want to end up going to grad school.

Finally, what can I learn at home that will be valuable in an editing job? I know my vocabulary could use improving. My knowledge of grammar is lacking- I never learned grammar, I just got a feel for what's correct and incorrect through reading. Any good websites or books for this?

In short, I'm looking for all your knowledge regarding copy editing. I believe I've read all the pertinent MeFi questions, but please point me to any you feel I should pay particular attention to. (Er, to which I should pay particular attention?) Thanks!
posted by Baethan to Education (8 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Major in at least one thing that is not journalism or English. Preferably one of the sciences. You will have many many more opportunities as someone with a major (or minor or even substantial coursework) in, say, Biology or Economics than you will as someone with majors in English and journalism.

I loved my English major as an undergrad, but if I had it to do over again, I'd major in Biology or Earth Sciences and cover one of those beats for a magazine.
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:35 PM on September 29, 2008

Work on your school's newspaper or literary magazine. Get yourself a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, and the AP Manual, and familiarize yourself with their contents. Chicago, in particular, has excellent stuff about how publishing works - the various stages a book goes through, from ms to bookstore - and a good outline of proofreader's marks and what they mean.

I've been an editor for years and years. My formal, schooled knowledge of grammar is fairly abysmal, but because I grew up reading stuff beyond my grade level, I developed an "ear" for it fairly young.

Read and write a lot. Read as much good literature as you can - reading things that allow you to get used to things like grocer's apostrophes and the like will be detrimental.

If your school offers writing tutors or an academic help center, take advantage of it - first for your own work, and then, as you improve, as a tutor.
posted by rtha at 3:12 PM on September 29, 2008

There are lots of local small publishers or magazines (even if you don't ultimately want to work at one) in CT? Call them and ask if they need a part-time volunteer or intern, and help out as much as you can while you're in school.

Experience is really your best friend - lots of fresh-faced recent graduates apply for these jobs and you need to distinguish yourself... and the reference will really help.

And get a copy of Strunk and White, immediately.
posted by nkknkk at 3:41 PM on September 29, 2008

Subscribe to and absorb the following terrific blogs:
Bill Walsh's Blogslot
India Amos's India, Ink.
The Wall Street Journal's Style and Substance

If you're afraid your grammar skills aren't up to par, you should practice with grammar drills. Things like the misuse of "less" vs. "fewer" (recent post on Blogslot notwithstanding!) will need to leap off the page at you for you to be a stellar copyeditor.

I know you say you're not interested in working for a newspaper but I do think some journalism classes will be good for you—they taught me to be able to eyeball how much text will fit in a given amount of space, how to mercilessly trim the fat from something that was too wordy, and how to speed-check for grammatical errors. A "Reporting 101" class will definitely hammer home grammar and style for you, especially since they probably assign a 400-word article every day instead of the unhelpful "one long essay due by the end of the semester" that you might get out of a literature class.
posted by bcwinters at 3:48 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

One more thing: you could do worse than learning how to use Word properly (i.e. with all of the auto-correct junk turned off, and with tools from the Editorium installed) and getting your feet wet with programs like InDesign and InCopy.

Seek out ways to get free/cheap copies from school; if you're a wiz at those programs you'll have a leg up over Yet Another Intern Who Has To Be Taught Not To Indent Using Spaces. Learn how to do H's and J's, write complex search-and-replace expressions, enter proper typographic characters like em dashes and ellipses, etc.

If this becomes second nature for you, you can spend more time concentrating on catching grammar problems (assuming that remains a "weak" spot for you) and less time hunting and pecking in a scary, expensive computer program.
posted by bcwinters at 3:55 PM on September 29, 2008

There are a number of editors out there who've blogged about how to become an editor. Here's one example that contains a link to an earlier, more detailed example, and here's another.

One thing you might want to think about is whether you want to be a copyeditor/proofreader or whether you want to be a "regular" editor, who acquires and/or develops projects. (The fact that you listed "editorial assistant" as your dream entry-level job makes me think it's the second.) While increasing your grammar skills, working on a college paper, or volunteering in your school's writing lab will help with both types of jobs, if you want to be an acq/dev editor, you should also consider working in a bookstore and familiarizing yourself with the sort of fiction you're interested in. You should also subscribe to some of the free industry email newsletters that are out there -- Publishers Lunch, PW Daily, etc. -- to familiarize yourself with the various publishing houses and imprints and what's being published at each one. (This is also very helpful with that!)

Finally, I strongly recommend an internship at a publisher or literary agency, if you can swing one. It will likely be unpaid, but will look great on your resume and will give you a good look at what sort of work you might actually doing as an editorial assistant.
posted by cider at 4:22 PM on September 29, 2008

Focus on the nuts and bolts -- know the proofreading marks, and learn Chicago and AP well enough to know what to look for and how to make marks and queries. Simply having an ear for language will not get you noticed, but turning in a copyediting test that's properly marked will. It's okay to write queries on the test, too, rather than make judgments about everything -- every house as its own conventions anyway, and no one expects you to know all that stuff at the start.

I'm an editor and a copyeditor -- mefimail me if you like.
posted by futility closet at 4:44 PM on September 29, 2008

I don't know if my experience is typical, but I had such a job fresh out of college, so here's my advice knowing that it's not going to mirror everybody's experience. I got a lot of interviews and the job I ended up taking was as an editorial assistant for a 'major' publisher. I hated it though, and ended up getting a job in technical publishing after a few months, then magazine publishing for a year or two, then into an entirely different field, so my first advice is to know that this is a field you want to work in. I'm not sure how you determine that, but my experience was that major publishing is the last place on earth for people who love books, but I'm cynical and admit that others may love this industry.

Keep in mind that 'major' book publishing is on the decline, and my experience is from 15 years ago, so things have certainly changed. Anyway, my advice is to make yourself as interesting as possible from a resume standpoint. You should do the things you've mentioned - major in a related field, take related courses if you can find them, work on the college's lit magazine, volunteer for somebody elses lit magazine, etc. I did a few of things while I was in college outside of what was typical - like organize benefit concerts and roadie for my friends band when they got signed to a major label - so I was able to spin these in my resume as 'Tour Manager' (my official title), Concert Promoter, etc - I didn't embelish anything, but they made me stand out. Granted not everybody can do that, but it certainly set me apart from other English majors. Be creative and do the things that fit your personality and interests, but it's important to do these things, IMO, because they're what show you're a creative, hardworking individual. It also helps to really know contemporary publishing, at least it did for me, when the topic came up of what I was reading and interested in during interviews. So majoring in English seems like a good idea, but I think it really helps to have a love of books at least for getting a job - once inside this seemed to matter very little, but it helped in the interview to show that I had a passion for reading/books and had some knowledge of how they get made.

You're close to NYC - see if you can score an internship as others have said. I think the biggest advantage to this is it'll give you a chance to see if its a world you want to be a part of.
posted by drobot at 6:22 PM on September 29, 2008

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