Getting Started as an Editor

by Nina Hoeschele

Published at 2011-11-02

It’s not an easy world for new editors out there. The publishing industry is changing while job markets everywhere are suffering. And yet, if you’re the right kind of person, editing can be a fantastic career.

There is plenty of wisdom to be found out there from editors who are much more experienced than I am, but since my entry into the field was relatively recent, I can share some specifics about what exactly might be facing would-be editors today.
Here are three key things to remember as you get started.
1) Take a copyediting course.
I have to admit now that I came into editing with a touch of arrogance; the way I saw it, I knew plenty about grammar and spelling, so how much could a course teach me? It seems that this is a common sentiment—but every new editor can and will benefit from courses in editing. There is something of a language to copyediting; there are standard procedures and practices followed by most publishing houses, and it’s extremely beneficial to know about these before you get started. And, more literally, there is the language of proofreader’s marks to learn (these are the shorthand symbols that editors use when marking up a page).
Equally important is what you will learn about your own abilities by taking courses. (Copyediting is a must, but other, more advanced editing courses can be even more beneficial in this regard.) It’s easy to know what mistakes you can see in the text; it’s a lot harder to know what you don’t see, and everyone has some editorial weak spots that they have no idea about. That certainly was the case for me, and taking courses in editing allowed me to pinpoint those weak spots and work on them directly.
Professors in editing courses frequently refer to “training your eye.” In other words, editing literally involves reading words differently than you normally would. Our brains want to skip letters and get straight to the gist; when you’re editing, you must learn to resist this urge. It’s a constant battle with your brain to do the job right—and not everyone will be good at it. Take the opportunity to get some training first and figure out if editing is right for you.
2) Accumulate experience and build a network.
Experience is extremely important for getting editing work; most employers simply won’t have the time or budget to train you on the job. If you plan to be an editor, you should strongly consider applying for internships to get that crucial experience.
While many internships offer honorariums upon completion, it’s likely that your first few opportunities will be fairly poorly paid. So be ready to budget-stretch while you get some experience under your belt.
Also, be open to meeting your peers; this is another benefit of internships as well as a great argument for entering publishing courses. Both are easy ways to meet people in the industry, and you’ll be surprised how much work comes to you down the road from the people you meet in your classes and internships.
3) Plan for the future—and have hope!
There is a lot of talk out there about how the printed book is dying, how publishing companies are going under, how bookstores are being gobbled up by Amazon… Certainly, there’s a bit of a gloomy atmosphere hanging over the industry at the moment. But take heart! The changing industry and the emergence of eBooks don’t mean that editors are going to be out of work any time soon. We’re just going to have to start editing different media, and doing it in different ways. So don’t listen to anyone who tells you that this is a dying field; just work hard and keep up with the changes, and I’m sure you’ll find your place.
Good luck!