How do you know if you're a good editor? How do you get better?
June 28, 2017 10:56 AM   Subscribe

I've heard people say that writers make terrible editors, but I feel like I might be good at it?! I at least know that I enjoy doing it, and would like to do it more. I value critical feedback and find myself wishing for some kind of workshop to assess and build my editing skills. Does such a thing exist? How do editors become editors, anyhow? In short: How do you know if you're a good editor, how do you get better at it, and how do you find more editing work? Looking for personal anecdotes and resource recommendations. More details below the cut!

More context: I'm a writer in my mid-thirties with cobbled-together careers in freelancing, teaching, and nonprofit communications/development. I have an MFA in fiction (mixed bag, but really valued the workshop process, both giving and receiving feedback) and a small but growing list of publications. I've taught college writing and creative writing workshops. For the past year or so, I've been an associate editor (unpaid) for a well-regarded online film magazine, offering feedback and working with writers to revise their accepted pieces for publication. I LOVE this work and want to do more like it. These are shorter pieces; I haven't edited a book-length work, though that's certainly of interest.

So, I have lots of editing experience alongside all my other work. I've learned by doing. But I guess I'm looking for a more formal education or assessment of skills to gauge whether or not "editor" is a viable career goal. But before I go looking for work, I'd like to find out how I'm doing so far, and how I can do better. Is there a book I should be reading, or a class I can take? Can I ask professional editors for mentorship? Is this just one of those "learn the thing by doing the thing, and eventually you'll look up and realize you're good at it" situations?

(Yes, I realize the publishing industry is a sinking ship, but editorial skills are applicable in other industries. Not looking to become the next Gordon Lish, just trying to figure out what's out there, what I can/should be doing better/differently, whether or not this thing I love to do can also be a thing that pays me.)
posted by adastra to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I get the impression you're referring to substantive editing rather than copyediting (which is the bulk of my day job these days), and based on my experience it sounds like you've already got a good start. It's a been a few years since I've done any substantive work, but I can tell you what helped me transition into a copyediting career and make it viable (at least so far).

1. Be sure that you understand the tools you need to do the job. For substantive stuff that would involve understanding things like structure, and just as importantly, being able to articulate clearly and in the correct language what you see as strengths and weaknesses, and potential paths forward from your assessment. I found the copyediting equivalent (grammar) was one of the places I always stumbled; I could fix the problem, but I couldn't name it or talk about it clearly. This may be a solved problem for you, but if not I would suggest taking a substantive editing class, not so much to see if you have the right understanding, but to make sure you understand how to present and articulate that understanding in a way that's clear to your writers and other people in the industry.

2. Learn the process. It's possible you might find an editor who will mentor you, but every editor I know, of every stripe, is worked off their feet and doesn't really have time for that. This was another stumbling block for me: I had made my own process up as I went along, and after taking my copyediting course I learned that there were clearer, more efficient, and even fairer (to both me and the client) ways of doing things that were standard in the industry and that I never would have stumbled across without help. I took my course through a Toronto university's online/distance education program, but your local editor's guild/association/whatever may offer them. I even know a retired editor who teaches editing at a local community centre; courses are everywhere, and usually not too expensive. These courses don't have to be the editing equivalent of the Iowa Writers' Workshop; a solid overview of the basics will get the job done.

3. Make connections. I know I just said that we're all stupid busy (and we are), but we all also live and die by who we know. That you continue to get work is a great sign; you've obviously got something going on that people like, and you should foster those existing relationships, and add to them by going to industry events with the goal of meeting people, join and participate in industry groups, and so on. Having a community of people you can turn to for questions or help with clients, even if it's not in any sort of formal mentor/mentee relationship, is invaluable. Because of these relationships I've been sent clients by other editors who didn't have the time for their projects, have sent clients to other editors when I didn't have the time, and even just asked technical questions of industry friends who were always happy to help (and of course I reciprocate). In fact, that was a huge factor in getting my day job as a production editor. This is very much a word-of-mouth and reputation-driven industry.

4. Be patient. Substantive editing is pretty much the single hardest gig to get in the industry, because everybody wants it. I only got my one brief shot at it by launching my own publication. Most of the substantive editors I know got there because a) they worked their way up as copyeditors or line editors or slush pile readers or marketers or whatever first, and b) because they knew and were on good terms with a lot of people in the industry. In all cases they worked very hard at something related* for quite a few years first--and it seems like you're already doing that part.

I hope this helps!

*Weirdly, I honed a lot of my skills doing contract analysis and report writing and similar business-focused work in the construction industry. It helps if your "related" work is in traditional publishing, but it isn't always essential.
posted by Fish Sauce at 12:09 PM on June 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Is this just one of those "learn the thing by doing the thing, and eventually you'll look up and realize you're good at it" situations?

As an editor, my initial inclination is to say "dear lord no, it's a learn the thing by doing the thing and you'll never feel good enough at this thing situation," but that is unhelpful. If you want a concrete education and assessment, you might look into whether any of the colleges or universities around you has a copyediting course? Copyediting is a very specific skill, but one that tends to go overlooked by those of us who kind of fell into editing along the way. Also, virtually nobody hires an actual copyeditor anymore, so if you can bring that skill to a content-editing position you will be valuable beyond gold. Even though I'm a full decade into an editing career, I'm considering some CE coursework.

Depending upon the industries you're interested in, you might also consider choosing to master a particular style guide.

Don't know about the idea that writers make bad editors; I think that is more meant to imply that writers cannot edit THEMSELVES effectively. A good editor has to understand what goes into creating a sentence that expresses an idea clearly while still having the desired style and voice. Now, a person can know that without being skilled at creating those kinds of sentences, sure. But I don't see how being a skilled writer can *hurt*.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:10 PM on June 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

There is a growing demand for editors in business, especially in localization: can you make English that was written by someone for whom it's obviously not their native language, sound smooth and compelling to a native-speaking audience?

It's harder than it sounds, because you're not shifting from "choppy poor-grammar awkward business hype phrasing" to "interesting and useful information," but to "clickbaity US English business hype" in PPTs and RFI documents.

Other than localization, there's technical editing and standard business documentation editing, and more companies are becoming aware that they need to hire someone to do these things. Chicago Manual of Style and AP style are both useful. The Gregg Reference Manual is an amazingly useful book, of which potential employers will mostly be oblivious.

There are no standards for "professional editor." There is no specific way to get training, at least, not beyond the basics that most English classes teach and most students ignore. I do a lot of fanfic beta-reading/editing, and that gets me access to diverse writing styles and types of content.

Look for job listings for "copyeditor" and sometimes for "proofreader." Put your unpaid associate editor job on your resume, and dodge questions about how much it paid, or call it an internship. Look around at the job listings and see if the jobs you find look like you'd be qualified for them.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:17 PM on June 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know I said "copyediting jobs" and you're looking for "editing." The jobs are often listed as "copyeditor" even if they're looking for content editors.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:20 PM on June 28, 2017

As far as looking for work goes, I got started by freelancing, and I got my first freelance clients through connections from grad school. Researchers who aren't confident in their English, or researchers or creative writers who are confident but also meticulous and perfectionistic, will pay someone to look over their stuff before they submit it. That will largely be line editing and copy editing rather than content editing — most academics aren't confident enough to say "go ahead and reorganize this if it's unclear," to be honest, so you'll just be looking for grammar and style errors and tuning individual sentences — but it has its moments of fun amidst the tedium.

As an editor, my initial inclination is to say "dear lord no, it's a learn the thing by doing the thing and you'll never feel good enough at this thing situation," but that is unhelpful.

Unhelpful but kind of true.

One thing that's helped me with my impostor syndrome is working at a company big enough to have multiple content editors, and comparing my output with theirs — or even having one of them go back over something I edited. Give the same document to two editors and you'll get three different opinions, but if there's Clearly Wrong, Not Even A Judgment Call, Just Wrong stuff that you're consistently missing and others are consistently catching, then that's a sign you should be more careful.

But I only got hired here after I'd already been freelancing for a while, and I think that's been true for every other editor here. So it's quite possible that at first you're just going to need to power through without independent evaluation and tell yourself that if your freelance clients are happy then you're doing your job well enough.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:44 PM on June 28, 2017

Best answer: I've been working in communications largely as a writer for 11+ years and as I've gotten more experience, I've been doing more and more editing. I like doing it but it's hard. Editing for grammar is one thing but if someone sends me something to edit with a weak intro, I feel like groaning.

I know I'm a good editor because people tell me I am and ask for my assistance editing, not just at work where they have to but in my personal life. I also feel like I'm doing a good job when I read the final version of something I edited. It's satisfying. I also enjoy editing most when I can go back and forth with the writer. One day, I happened to be editing a story in Google docs while the writer was in the file. I made comments and edits that she responded to in real time. I really enjoyed that.

I think there are different kinds of editors for different types of writing. I don't think I could edit academic writing because I'm from a more journalistic background and I think I'd find academic writing too repetitive. I can be a butcher - if I asked for 600 words and someone gives me 850, I'll finish with 550. But I really like pulling out the parts of a story that are important and giving them the attention they deserve.

I think on a small team, the person doing the bulk of the editing doesn't always have the title "editor" but that might be more about my experience. Similarly I don't think most of the good editors I've worked with had formal training. Hope that helps!
posted by kat518 at 5:32 PM on June 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

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