Seven Things An Editor Needs

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2012-04-17

Editing isn’t for everyone. It can be quite strenuous and demanding, as well as rewarding and satisfying. Those of us who are editors know that being good at what we do means developing a wide range of skills and attributes. I was recently asked what I look for in an editor, and after giving this some thought, I’ve come up with a list of seven things, each of which has helped me to polish my craft.

1. Focus and Discipline
Without focus, you are doomed. To edit means to read carefully, and this means sitting quietly for long periods of time, reading every word on every line on every page – not just once but a few times, and then some. Your mind has to be attending to the words in front of you. It cannot be wandering freely, planning your next meal or wondering if you have a new email waiting to be read. Keeping your mind on your work takes discipline. The combination of focus and discipline means your editing will be sharp and accurate.
2. Accepting Mistakes
“Step away from the book!” is a phrase my colleagues and I came up with at Sumach Press. No matter how hard we tried, there was bound to be a mistake, however small, in the final book. In editing, we aim for perfection, but we often miss the mark simply because of the vast number of details we deal with in any given publication. When a mistake surfaces, take it in stride. Not in resignation, but in recognition that mistakes are going to happen. The best way to handle a mistake is to acknowledge it and learn from it.
3. Keeping Up with Current Events
Listening to the radio, reading newspapers, popular magazines and journals, checking news online … whatever it takes to keep up with current events, do it. You must know what is going on in the world around you. Why? Because you need to be encyclopedic in your knowledge, just in case you come across something in your editing that isn’t quite right. You need to be able to spot the inaccuracy, the misquoted comment, the incorrect date or place, and you need to know a source where you can check it.
4. Developing Research Skills
In editing, we do a lot of fact-checking. With today’s wondrous Internet capabilities, checking facts is amazingly quick. The trick, though, is to know which Internet sources are reliable. Do not turn to Wikipedia for verification or information. Know how to find reliable sources online, and, of course, you can always visit your local library (or your own bookshelf) and use the dependable reference books of yore.
5. Keeping Up with Changes in Language
The evolution of languages is a fascinating thing, and English is no exception. Words we may not have used five years ago are now commonly accepted. Spellings change, meanings shift. How to keep up with these trends? Read everything, listen to news and documentaries, tune into conversations around you, listen to children and teens talking to each other. What words are they using and how? One of the greatest influences on today’s everyday language is social media. Believe it or not, LOL has appeared in a trade book we proofread, and we recently spotted OMG in an academic work we were editing. We may not be speaking in acronyms any time soon, but it’s good to know that they are creeping into our writing.
6. Keeping in Touch with Publishing Trends
At The Editing Company, we depend on Quill & Quire to keep us up to speed with changes in the publishing trade. We also attend seminars and workshops, and follow conversations on blogs and social media debating the latest technologies. We’ve discovered that if we don’t keep in touch with the changes, it is incredibly easy to be left behind. Today’s editors need to know what eXstyles is and why HTML metadata is important. We may not feel comfortable with these technological changes, but we need to know them because we are going to be working with them sooner or later.
7. Developing Diplomacy
One of our greatest assets as editors is how well we relate to our clients. We work with many different people — publishers, authors, business professionals — and these working relationships deserve care and respect. For me, diplomacy means being supportive of the client, editing the work with care, meeting deadlines, and handling differences with openness and calm. One of the most important forms of networking in our business is word of mouth. If you have clients who feel well treated and who know they can trust you with their work, they will spread the word and help you build your career.
Of course, there are so many more attributes and skills that editors bring to their work. These are just a few of the things I look for … what do you look for?