An American Editor

July 3, 2013

What Makes an Editor a Professional?

The world is filled with editors and wanna-be editors. I suspect not a day goes by when, on some forum on the Internet, someone declares their passion for books and how much (and how long) they desire to be an editor. They then go on to ask how to become an editor.

Nearly any college graduate can be an editor — or claim to be one. Editing (setting aside the business aspects of the profession) is more of a knack skill than a taught skill. Yet even with that ease of entry into the world of editing, there is a difference between a professional editor and an editor.

Consider this: Would you consider an editor to be professional who did not own a dictionary? I wouldn’t, because I think one of the differences between a professional editor and an editor is that the professional invests in the tools of her trade. How much more fundamental to editing can something be than a dictionary?

Does the editor have to own the hardcopy version of the dictionary? No, but she should then have a subscription to the unabridged online version of the dictionary. There are lots of dictionaries available, but in my experience, there are only a couple that are generally recognized as being authoritative and not one of them is called The Free Dictionary.

Would you consider a person who asks what the differences are between the unabridged and the free versions of a standard dictionary, other than that the unabridged has more words (which one would expect if it is unabridged), to be a professional editor? I wouldn’t, and I would wonder what other necessary things they skip or resources they lack. What shortcuts will they take with my manuscript?

The standard response is that anything can be found on the Internet. That’s true as far as it goes. Anything can be found, but nothing assures that what is found is correct or accurate. Consider the cheap, heavily discounted medicines that you can buy over the Internet. Sometimes you get lucky and the medicine is exactly what it is supposed to be; more often, you have been scammed. The same is true with information resources. Anyone can set up a dictionary on the Internet — it doesn’t mean either the spelling or the definition of a word is correct. Editing has “standardized” on certain resources because, over many years, those resources have earned a reputation for reliability and accuracy.

The professional editor recognizes that a resource’s reputation is important and that using such resources is also a reflection of the type and level of work a client can expect from the editor. How does that fit with the idea of using the free version of an accepted reference?

What does the editor do if what she is looking for doesn’t appear in the free version? After all, we know that it costs money to create and maintain accurate resources; even Wikipedia has to raise millions of dollars annually (have we forgotten so quickly when Wikipedia was on the verge of having to shut down for lack of money?). So we know that the free version of a standard resource is not as complete as the paid-for version. Thus, we know that the editor who relies solely on free versions is not making full use of available resources.

What about someone who won’t use the unabridged version of that dictionary because there is a small fee? If an editor skimps on basic, standard resources, what else do/will that editor skimp on to the client’s detriment?

The professional editor takes pride not only in her skills but in the quality of her work. Quality is affected by the kinds and extent of resources of which the editor makes use. It is one thing to claim to be an editor, which many people can and do claim, but it is quite another thing to be a professional editor with full access to the basic resources needed to give a quality edit.

When I hire an editor, one of the things I ask for is a list of the resources on which they rely and whether they are using the free or premium version. I want to know because it helps me to “rate” the applicant’s professionalism. For example, much of my work is in medical editing. I would expect a medical editor to be a subscriber to medical spell-checking software. I think a medical editor should have, and be using, the two leading medical dictionaries.

I learned to ask these questions the hard way. A client once asked me how it was that the editor of a chapter didn’t correct misspellings of a several important medical terms. When I asked the editor, I discovered that the editor didn’t own a medical dictionary and didn’t use spell-checking — either medical or nonmedical. He thought his background as a medical transcriptionist was sufficient and that spell-checking software was distracting. That was a costly lesson to me.

Ultimately, the point is that the professional editor will invest in her business and will have access to the premium versions — whether in print or online — of the basic, standard tools used in the type of editing she performs. The nonprofessional editor will rely on free versions and alternates-to-the-standard resources that are free. The nonprofessional does not run his business as a business; he does not invest in his business; cost governs everything.

To be a professional editor, one must act as a professional and conduct one’s business in a professional manner. To be compensated as a professional one must be — and behave as — a professional. Cheapskating on basic resources is not professional.



  1. AE declared: “To be a professional editor, one must act as a professional and conduct one’s business in a professional manner. To be compensated as a professional one must be — and behave as — a professional. Cheapskating on basic resources is not professional.”

    ‘Scuse me, but sometimes low-cost or no-cost tools are necessary and effective. It’s a matter of what kind of work you do and what your clients demand. My business doesn’t need much; and because I don’t serve the high-dollar side of the publishing industry, I must keep my overhead as low as possible because my earnings will stay low unless I change niches or fields. Cost does, indeed, govern everything much of the time. I therefore only acquire additional or premium versions of tools and resources as I need them (that is, beyond the core resources I set up with after learning what was considered industry standard).

    I don’t feel that this prudence marks me as nonprofessional. All my tools — print or electronic, free or paid — are part of my professional kit, and I do my best with them, always learning and adapting — and always seeking more-efficient and less-expensive ways to work. So far, my system and behavior are professional enough to gain positive response, repeat clients, and many referrals. Pretty good for a cheapskate!


    Comment by Carolyn — July 3, 2013 @ 6:40 am | Reply

  2. Editing is much more than owning a dictionary, online or otherwise. I do agree with the author that editing is more of a knack than a taught skill, although both are important to hone. Until editors can be held to some sort of standard or credentialing, authors will have to do some checking themselves first by contacting other authors for references and referrals to savvy editors.


    Comment by Sandra Wendel — July 3, 2013 @ 10:03 am | Reply

    • I think one of the points AE is making is that absent any real standards or certification for editors, this is one measure to use in judging the professionalism of an editor. Owning or subscribing to a paid dictionary does not mean that the editor is skilled and experienced, but it’s one way, among others, to determine if the person is serious about editing, which does indicate a level of professionalism and, by extension, skill. For example, several years ago, I had a freelancer who had done some work for me but wasn’t up to speed on copyediting skills (I hired her to do editorial assistant type work; she wanted to do copyediting also). She was well-educated and motivated, but I thought it might not work out because she needed to learn some pretty basic stuff. She asked me for a list of books that she could buy and study. I gave her a list that included Chicago Manual of Style and M-W Collegiate Dictionary, neither of which is cheap (this was before either had online subscriptions, which aren’t cheap either!). She promptly bought both books (and the others I had listed) and studied them. She ultimately became a successful editor.


      Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 3, 2013 @ 10:35 am | Reply

  3. Carolyn is right that there’s always a balance between how much we need/want to net as income and how much we can/should spend on our businesses. But AE is talking about basic tools for editing in general (paid dictionary vs. free one) as well as for whatever specialized field you might be working in, like medical (paid medical dictionaries and spellcheckers vs. nothing or looking up words on free Internet sites), which are not extras. Obviously, we can’t buy every tool and app out there, but judicious investment in any business is crucial to success. I’ve found several great editing resources, tools, and apps through colleagues and discussion boards; I try them and buy or not depending on my needs and budget. Keep in mind that most of these have a free trial period, so you can try them out on live work to see if they’re worth the investment.

    For example, I recently did some work for a colleague/client in Australia. Her style guide called for using the Macquarie Dictionary. I checked out the website and found that it offered a one-month trial subscription, which was perfect for the short editing job I was doing. Besides the fact that the client stipulated this dictionary, I found it invaluable because there were many words in the text I was editing that either don’t exist in American English or are used in a totally different sense. If I do more work for this client (or other Australian English work), I’ll definitely invest in the paid subscription.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — July 3, 2013 @ 10:23 am | Reply

  4. I think dictionaries and tools are definitely one way to measure an editor’s professionalism. But before I asked what books were in an editor’s library, I would ask whether the person belonged to any organizations like EFA or ACES or participated in any online discussion groups or had paid out of pocket to take any editing or writing courses or attend conferences or classes. Knowing that a person sees the value in investing in their skills and continuing to learn tells me that a person is serious about their craft.


    Comment by Tammy — July 3, 2013 @ 11:42 am | Reply

    • I do not ask American editors about organizations to which they may belong because the only general national organization in the U.S. is EFA, and belonging to it is no indication or professionalism or lack of professionalism. EFA is primarily a social group. I view asking about EFA membership like asking if one belongs to LinkedIn or Facebook — much ado about nothing. It is not that these groups do not have some value; they do. It is just that these groups do not equate to professionalism. I think books in an editor’s library are a much better indicator of professionalism than social group membership.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 3, 2013 @ 12:43 pm | Reply

  5. The value of joining EFA has been discussed many a time on editing forums and I don’t mean to take up that debate here. I just find it interestingly ironic, in the context of this discussion, that I chose to join EFA because, as “the only general national organization in the U.S.” comprised of and supporting editors, I consider it a professional organization and display my membership as a professional credential. I also use it for professional purposes: job opportunities, education, resources, networking. For social interaction, I participate in other venues.


    Comment by Carolyn — July 3, 2013 @ 12:59 pm | Reply

    • Other than pay your membership dues, what do you have to do to have the right to display your membership? What are the requirements to join EFA that separates professional from nonprofessional? What tests did you have to take and pass in order to gain EFA membership and to display its logo?


      Comment by americaneditor — July 3, 2013 @ 1:53 pm | Reply

      • Since EFA is an association, not a certifying body, all I had to do was claim to be an editor (full or part time, self-employed or salaried) and pay the dues. It is a matter of trust that we all are who/what we claim we are; and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to pay the dues without actually being an editor and desiring to gain from that, though it probably happens. I do not use their logo for anything. When I said “display my membership” I meant that I announce the fact of my membership on my resume, website, and often in communications with clients and prospects. The professional clout this provides is more meaningful to people who are not actively involved in the publishing industry, such as indie authors, who comprise a proportion of my clients. Many of them, in their arduous search for an editor via Internet, come across EFA and take the impression that it is an organized body of professionals, and trust that credentialed editors will be available for their inquiries. It’s definitely about inference, not about proven skill. (A similar trust thing occurs with new authors trying to find an agent. Members of AAR [Association of Authors’ Representatives] only have to declare that they are a literary or dramatic agent and adhere to the organization’s code of ethics, plus pay the dues. Gurus advise authors to look for AAR membership as an indicator of higher rate of reliability, integrity, and and professionalism than agents without it.) Belonging to EFA does the same thing. Regardless of what editors and affiliated people might think of it as an organization, EFA is a real entity and it doesn’t scam people and is a much safer bet for authors than the dartboard of the Internet or directories. I would tend to agree, given the editors I know who belong to it.


        Comment by Carolyn — July 3, 2013 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

  6. It’s true that you don’t have to prove any skill set to join EFA, but I think a person who makes the effort and pays the not insignificant dues to join is showing a willingness to invest in their career. That seems parallel to me to the way you look at whether a would-be editor is serious enough to invest in particular books or resources. I don’t have to prove any level of expertise to buy a dictionary, and just owning one doesn’t prove I know how to use it. Plus, EFA membership was not the only option I mentioned above that I look to as indicators of an editor’s professionalism.


    Comment by Tammy — July 3, 2013 @ 3:38 pm | Reply

    • Tammy, when I hire an editor, I don’t care about their social contacts, I care about their editing skills. That is why EFA membership is meaningless — it is not an indication of their skills or professionalism, just that they are members of a social organization. But the dictionary tells me more. Why would I want to hire an editor to edit medical books who doesn’t own a medical dictionary?


      Comment by americaneditor — July 3, 2013 @ 5:28 pm | Reply

      • Sorry, Rich, I guess I’m not communicating very well. I would in no way try to say what standards you should use when you look to hire editors. I was intending to reply more to your overall question of what makes an editor a professional. I don’t own a medical dictionary, but I deem myself and other editors I know to be professionals because of other tools we own and use, organizations we belong to, and activities we take part in. I know editors who are highly professional who don’t belong to EFA, but when I talk to someone who claims to be an editor but doesn’t belong to any writing or editing organization or participate in conferences, continuing education, discussion lists, etc., it does make me wonder.


        Comment by Tammy — July 3, 2013 @ 6:01 pm | Reply

  7. Which general-use dictionaries do you think are best to subscribe to?


    Comment by Terre — July 4, 2013 @ 11:00 am | Reply

    • It is not a question of which I like and don’t like, but which ones my clients ask that I use. An editor should subscribe to or own the dictionaries that the clients request. If the decision was solely left up to me, my first choice would be the American Heritage Dictionary 5th ed. Most of my clients request Merriam-Webster’s Co9llegiate 11th ed.


      Comment by americaneditor — July 4, 2013 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  8. I don’t disagree that editing is a knack, but that shouldn’t negate the benefit of formal training and education to hone the knack, which strike me as far more important credentials than which reference books you own or what organizations you belong to.
    I took a series of upper-level editing classes at the university while completing my degree in English. At the same time, I worked under a professional editor for nearly two years in what amounted to an intensive apprenticeship. I’ve also taken “advanced” and “refresher” editing courses throughout my career.

    If I were going to hire an editor myself, those are the sorts of credentials I would ask for. That, and evidence of the editor’s depth of actual experience (and clients’ satisfaction) on similar projects. Has s/he worked for discerning clients? Can s/he supply references? What types of editing has s/he done? How many thousands of hours of actual editing time does s/he have under his/her belt (similar to a pilot’s flight time)? These are the credentials that matter.


    Comment by Will Harmon — July 8, 2013 @ 1:26 pm | Reply

    • I like the idea of pilot’s logbook but must say that if I ever had to produce that credential (i.e., my hours of experience), I’d be completely unable. Or else would have to make a wild guesstimate that might make me look like a liar or an exaggerator because I couldn’t support it.


      Comment by Carolyn — July 8, 2013 @ 2:45 pm | Reply

      • Carolyn, I suppose I didn’t mean a literal count of total hours–more just some indication of an editor’s depth of hands-on experience, such as what titles they’ve edited. That said, I *do* keep a record of hours by project, and have since I started 28 years ago. So it wouldn’t take too much to come up with a total. I also keep a list of all the works I’ve edited, by year. Most of these are published books, so I include the finished page count, publisher, and date. Such record keeping is important–it’s part of how I track my own productivity and workflow, and it also helps me win clients and assignments. At the very least, as your career rolls along, you build a decent resume.


        Comment by Will Harmon — July 8, 2013 @ 6:16 pm | Reply

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