An American Editor

December 4, 2013

Is Editing Teachable?

There are two aspects to an editing career: business and editing itself. The business side of editing is clearly teachable. Its fundamentals are the same as for any business. The business side is not a craft; it is the application of rules and principles that stretch across trades even if modified to meet the needs of a particular trade.

The business side includes such things as record keeping, calculating rates, determining the services to provide, advertising, etc. — in other words, all of the same things that every other business has to do. The twin goals of the business side are to be profitable and to be efficient (see The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable and The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient).

Editing is different. It is a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught. How does one nurture and develop that skill? Are such high-level skills even sought in the market?

Unlike a painter whose contribution to art will last centuries, the contribution that an editor makes lasts until the next edition at best. Artists are not anonymous whereas editors are anonymous by design; it is the author who receives credit for the well-edited manuscript. Rarely does the editor’s name even appear, and when it does appear, it is difficult to ascertain what the editor’s contribution to the work was.

So does it matter (except to editors) whether an editor is highly skilled or average skilled? The market seems to think it doesn’t matter. A free market economy is based on the principle(s) that demand will cause prices to rise and fall and that greater skills will command greater money and greater demand. Perhaps that is true of some professions, but it doesn’t seem to be true in the editing economy.

Within the editing economy there is a narrow range of pricing and a broad range of requirements that accompany that range of pricing. Editors set a price for their services, but if the price is too high, find few takers. If anything, the free market acts as price depressor because the editing market does not value skills, it values price.

If editing skills were teachable, perhaps the market could be taught to value the skills. Because such skills are neither teachable nor transferable, the market views and reacts to what it considers average. It has no way to measure or see the differences in skillsets and apply different metrics to each of the skillsets. It is because these skills are not teachable that we cannot separate ourselves into tiers and demand pay equivalent to our tier. Nor can we rise from tier to tier as we gain experience and skills as no tiers exist.

When someone hires an editor, they have no realistic way of knowing whether they are getting the Michelangelo of editors or the average editor. We can proclaim our skills but each project provides its own challenges and how well an editor does changes with each project. On some projects an editor will demonstrate outstanding skills; on other projects, the same editor will struggle to be average.

It is the nature of editing.

Consequently, when we look for an editor, we ask the editor to pass a test or demonstrate mastery over grammar and spelling and usage. What we cannot and do not test for is that skillset, that spark of mastery or genius, that something that raises one editor above another. We look for and test for those things that are teachable. Perhaps that is a disservice to ourselves, to the editing profession, and to authors.

But the free market does not reward — and is not designed to reward — greater editorial skills, especially intangible, nondemonstrable skills. We need to remember that because of the ease of entry into the editing profession, dilution of the skills required to be an editor occurs. More importantly, ease of entry means that “everyone knows” what constitutes editing and what makes an editor a “good” editor.

How many times have we heard that so-and-so had to be a good editor because they teach English to fifth grade students? In the absence of “knowing” what makes a good editor, there would be no way to correlate teaching English with being a good editor. Similarly, it is also assumed that a degree in English Arts is the necessary educational background for a successful editing career. Yet professional editors know that neither teaching English nor having an English Arts degree assures that the person will be (or is) a good, let alone great, editor.

Editors favor independence and the solopreneur work style. Perhaps if we were less independent in our approach to the profession we could establish minimum “guild-type” requirements for entry into the profession and figure out a way to teach (or at learn) what is currently unteachable. I think that will be the only way to receive acknowledgement that, like with painters, there are levels of skill and mastery and the higher levels of skill and mastery require higher pay. Of course, in the market economy, especially when controlling and minimizing costs is a governing principle and editing remains a hidden benefit, this might be tomfoolery because few will be willing to pay for high-skill editors when average will do.

What do you think?


  1. Hi

    We do need to keep the editor skill set as high as possible. Having average editors will only lead to lower and lower standards – forever decreasing the average.As we cannot really teach an editor and make him/her into an “artist” we do need to look after those editors we find that possess that special nuance!




    Comment by Peter — December 4, 2013 @ 4:24 am | Reply

  2. I like your painting analogy and the idea of an editor’s guild. I would be great if we could have a way to identify and compensate editors based on their level of skill defined by a professional guild. Defining those levels is easier said than done, but I think it is necessary to protect working editors and those who hire them.


    Comment by tobintouch — December 4, 2013 @ 10:37 am | Reply

  3. I was a faculty member in two teacher credential programs, and for over 20 years helped teachers get a teaching credential. And teaching is very similar to editing. I had students who, no matter how hard I tried, were never going to become a great, or even, a “very good” teacher. A “poor” teacher is not remediable. I had other students who had the teaching “gene,” and I could nurture them and help develop their teaching skills so that they became excellent teachers.

    I definitely agree with you that an “editing course” cannot teach one how to be a very good editor. I think editing is an ability; it’s innate, not something learned in school. And one either has the editing “gene” or one doesn’t. The “gene” alone is not enough,of course. One has to “study” resources, and find technological tools that will help one be more efficient timewise.


    Comment by Dr. Mary-Anne Pops — December 4, 2013 @ 2:46 pm | Reply

  4. Editing skills can be nurtured and developed in a course setting, just as they can be in a one-on-one setting. No one is going to develop those skills on their own. Student editors *must* have feedback not only on mechanical changes but the more abstract changes as well. They must learn to recognize good writing and how to deconstruct it in order to fix faulty writing. They must also learn to recognize what is acceptable writing (e.g., tone, word choice) for the style of writing the author is attempting.

    These skills can be taught, but not every student can learn them. I have had students who couldn’t grasp the more abstract concepts, who wouldn’t make good editors. I have had others who, through lots of feedback and lots of hard work, have finally grasped the concepts. And I’ve taught still others who don’t seem to have to try at all; they just got it.

    But this is true of anything we try to learn. Some things will come easily, other things will require effort, and some things we’ll never understand. To say that editing can’t really be taught is wrong. It can be taught. It just can’t be learned by everyone.


    Comment by Erin Brenner (@ebrenner) — December 4, 2013 @ 6:38 pm | Reply

    • I agree with Erin and heartily disagree with Rich. There certainly ARE aspects of editing that can and should be taught; just like there are skills and sequences that doctors need to learn, but you can still end up with varying degrees in doctors’ capabilities (especially in their bedside manners).

      Mentoring would be a great addition, perhaps essential. But there are principles and sequences and checklists that must be learned and followed to edit adequately.

      Three of my favourite workbooks for teaching editing:
      1. Meeting Professional Editorial Standards

      2. Quick Fixes for Business Writing: An Eight-Step Editing Process to Find and Correct Common Readability Problems (which is the print version of a highly successful and influential workshop offered by the Editors’ Association of Canada)

      3. The Copyeditor’s Handbook‬: ‪A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, with Exercises and Answer Keys‬

      I got a bit long-winded, so I’ve posted the rest of my response on my blog. (Yes, even more long-winded than this!) There editors can also find my full list of recommendations for equipment, training, and resources.

      Thanks, Rich, for sparking important debate and asking (in a roundabout way perhaps) important questions. I think we could have a great dustup in a bar sometime, talking these things over, and leave great friends who love to disagree. Let’s set a date!


      Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — December 5, 2013 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

      • Adrienne, I’d love to set a date but my travel days are over. We’ll have to settle for a virtual drink.

        But to the more serious question. Anyone who wants to learn to be an editor can be taught how to make sure a sentence is complete, how to determine head levels, how to make sure that there isn’t a mix of tenses, how to correctly choose between “there” and “their” and when to use “your” and “you’re”, and myriad other things that editors do. And they can earn a living doing those things (especially today when that seems to be much of what editors are hired to do). But an editor, I believe, cannot be taught how to make a sentence “sing”. How do you teach an editor to be the reincarnation of Maxwell Perkins?

        Everything you point to as being teachable makes someone a better business person or a better editor but not a great editor. It is like singing. You can teach me forever how to sing and I’ll never get an award (except, perhaps, for perseverance), or a leading role, as a singer. I simply do not have the innate talent or skill. I can master all of the mechanics and take classes every day for hours, but no one will mistake me for a singer. And the same is true of art.

        There is a spark, an innate gift, a talent, a something that cannot be taught in every artistic field and it is that which separates the average from the great. The same is true in editing.

        Yes, as you put it, “there are principles and sequences and checklists that must be learned and followed to edit adequately.” But editing adequately is not editing greatly. You can teach enough to edit adequately, you cannot teach editing greatness. There are writers and then there are great writers. The difference is not teachable. The same is true of editing.

        And you are correct, mediocre (or average) art can be taught. Even paint by numbers can produce acceptable art. But is that really what we are talking about?


        Comment by americaneditor — December 5, 2013 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

        • Well, I am glad you clarified that.

          Would a great editor have suggested changing your headline / thesis statement to say that “editing can be taught, but great editing takes innate ability”? I’m not sure she would. Because, while I do a lot of ghost writing in technical manuscripts, the sentences that “sing” are supposed to be the domain of the writer, not of the editor. Some ethics clauses from professional associations are pretty strict about editors not rewriting.

          This idea about teaching editing lacks parallelism with ideas on teaching most other skills. Just because we think virtuosos are born, not made, we don’t say those arts can’t be taught. Maybe the outstanding editors/ painters/ dancers, even lawyers, DO have something else, something we haven’t figured out how to teach — yet.

          Virtual cheers,


          Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — December 6, 2013 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

    • How do you recognize good writing? How do you learn to recognize good writing? Is a good writer a commercially successful writer? Are people who think James Joyce was a hack people who cannot recognize good writing or are those who proclaim him to be a great writer delusional?

      Basic editing skills can be taught. Just like a person can be taught to hit a baseball. You can spend hours and years learning how to hit a baseball yet still not be skilled enough to even make your high school team. There is something more that a great athlete has that an average athlete does not have no matter how much they are mentored, regardless of how much they practice.

      The same is true of editing. We can all be good editors and we can all strive to be great editors. Only some of us can attain that peak because what is required to attain it cannot be taught.


      Comment by americaneditor — December 5, 2013 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  5. I think it’s also worth pointing out that there are different levels of editing, and not every editor will have an aptitude for all of them. The person who has the training and ability to be a superb proofreader may be an average copy-editor or have a poor ability to critique a manuscript or substantively edit it. Or a great critiquer may be a poor proofreader, etc. This is why any form of accreditation is complex both to set up and to be understood by our clients. In the UK, the Society for Editors and Proofreaders has a ranged membership structure whereby members have to fulfil certain criteria in order to qualify for each level. After that, it’s up to the individual freelancer whether she or he uses this achievement as part of their quotation framework to persuade a client that the suggested fee is a worthwhile investment. I imagine Australian and Canadian editors (of all types) use their respective society-accreditation schemes in much the same way as SfEP members when they have the opportunity. Helping our clients to understand the different levels of editing, the skill sets required, and the value of the experience we bring to the table is something we all have to take responsibility for. Our industry is like many others. There are people who are outstanding at the job and people who are less so. Professional guilds and societies can only go so far, though. It’s ultimately about how we communicate and educate those we want to work for. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many self-publishing authors seem to be responsive to a value-on quotation that focuses not just on money but also on a portfolio of experience and testimonials/recommendations – how it doesn’t always come down to the lowest price. I think there is hope!


    Comment by Louise Harnby | Proofreader — December 5, 2013 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

    • Yes, Louise, Canadian editors use the Editors’ Association of Canada’s certification system ( to indicate which types of editing they excel at. The EAC certifies editors in structural editing, stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading. Anyone who passes all four tests is designated as a certified professional editor and entitled to put CPE after his or her name.

      Rich, I heartily agree with most of your argument. I’ve always thought someone either has the instinct for editing or they don’t. You can teach the mechanics, but you can’t teach the instinct and the ear. I’ve worked with several people who have completed post-secondary editing certificates at a respected university but who can’t actually edit. They understand the rules, but can’t instinctively apply them.

      I disagree, however, that there’s no way for the market to identify great editors. EAC certification tests for excellence, not merely for competence. Anyone who holds an EAC certification has demonstrated mastery of the craft. EAC-certified editors can and do earn higher fees than non-certified editors, because they can offer tangible proof that they’re highly skilled. They’ve demonstrated that they have both the instinct for editing text and the ability to communicate tactfully and effectively with authors. Of course, they do have to know which segments of the market can afford to pay higher fees.

      Thank you for sparking this discussion. It’s fascinating, and necessary if we are to raise the level of editing as a profession.

      Anne Brennan, CPE
      Co-Chair, Certification Steering Committee
      Editors’ Association of Canada


      Comment by Anne Brennan — December 10, 2013 @ 5:25 pm | Reply

  6. […] Rich Adin (An American Editor) asserted that editing is an art and cannot be taught. Well, Rich, I heartily disagree. Even art […]


    Pingback by Yes, editing can be taught » Right Angels and Polo Bears — December 5, 2013 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

  7. Kudos on this post, Richard. I heartily agree — a certain artistic aspect of editing cannot be learned. Its innate. Erin Brenner and Louise Harnby have summarized everything else I might have added. For an author, determining who is an elite editor and how to hire the best one for a particular project is a conundrum. If you want the best cabinet-maker or dentist, you get referrals and you view their work. But for most authors, it’s not possible to view an editor’s final work in such a simple manner before hiring them. A before-and-after of the project, for starters, would need to be viewed, if that would even be possible. As for testimonials and referrals, I don’t even put that much stead in them. An author may tell me I’ve done a brilliant job, but he’s not an editor. How does he really know that my work is the best he can get, better than any other editor he may have hired? I don’t know what the answer is. But your post and the comments have raised a difficult issue. I hope it continues to be debated.


    Comment by Arlene Prunkl — December 5, 2013 @ 4:27 pm | Reply

    • Of course, I *would* miss an apostrophe in that comment. It would be nice if the comments section here were editable!


      Comment by Arlene Prunkl — December 5, 2013 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

  8. “How many times have we heard that so-and-so had to be a good editor because they teach English to fifth grade students?”
    Amen, amen and amen.


    Comment by Michael Huber — December 6, 2013 @ 8:51 pm | Reply

  9. Editing, schmediting, art, schmart. The world has a place for paint-by-the-numbers portraits of Elvis on black velvet and for the Mona Lisa. And writing of all types abounds. Writing of differing types, purposes, and sophistication levels requires and deserves editing to make sure that the intent of the writer shines through whatever murk made its way onto the page by the writer’s lack of technical ability, unfamiliarity with the language (as with many excellent ESL writers), and simply the limitations of a single mind struggling to express ideas and feelings that are too close for the writer to be objective enough to see them through the eyes of the reader. At least in the freelance world, I don’t see the market having the discriminatory will or power to effectively grade between good and great editors. Most editing–like most writing–is probably aimed at making sure not all sentences squawk than making very many sentences sing. Most editors will have to be content with letting the writers whose work they edit judge the extent to which they elevate their work artistically.


    Comment by brelandg — December 6, 2013 @ 10:37 pm | Reply

  10. This is an interesting discussion. Let’s face it: Editing is a profession that most people simply fall into. No kid says, “Gee, I want to edit copy when I grow up.” Why would they? And it’s correct that the great majority of people in this country don’t value copy editing. It’s because the subject matter simply doesn’t interest them. Most people don’t realize that a good editor made the piece of writing they so enjoy that much better. It’s beyond being anonymous.

    One can go very far in this nation with good tech skills and zero language skills. Maybe that’s why the writing and editing is abysmal on most websites. So few people know the difference between “its” and “it’s” that it’s scary. We see dangling modifiers, bloated passages and vague and awkward construction. But it goes unnoticed. And try to point out errors and you’ll get an angry response.

    As for editing not being teachable — it is. But there’s no one to do it. Or very few, anyway. And of course some editors will be excellent and others average, but it’s the same in any endeavor. However, anyone who wants to become a full-time editor is likely to be totally committed, so they have that passion going for them. Many editors are freelance, so they’d better be damn good to make a living. I was a full-time newspaper editor for years, but publications are axing that particular department. They want writers, not editors. I still do it, but as a part-timer. We perform a skill that’s needed but not valued. Go figure.


    Comment by Peter Erikson — December 6, 2013 @ 11:47 pm | Reply

  11. I definitely agree that the market undervalues editing skills!

    But wow, I’m really baffled by the notion that editing can’t be taught because it’s “a skill.” Most of us learn most skills we have by being taught! Driving, cooking, sewing, ballroom dancing…. In general, we don’t become experts at them solely from lessons; the people who are the most skilled in most crafts have some innate talent and a lot of experience in addition to some teaching—and, ideally, some mentoring and knowledge exchange with colleagues.

    Taking an editing class won’t make you a great editor on its own, and some great editors never take a class. (Though I think most of the best ones are very open to learning from others in various ways, rather than simply depending on their own innate talent.)

    Actually, I teach both freelance editing business skills AND editing skills, and in my experience there are more aspects of the BUSINESS of freelance editing that are hard to teach, or at least harder for many people to learn, in a class or workshop than aspects of editing itself. Many editors I know have learned a lot about editing from courses but gained all their business savvy through trial and error. But ultimately it’s a similar situation—many aspects of it can be taught, but the MOST skilled business people (in any field, including editing) also have some innate skill and have learned a lot from experience.

    Just my 2 cents. Thanks for bringing up the topic—as a teacher of editing (Ryerson University in Toronto), I am always interested to read thoughts on editing pedagogy, even if the thought is that it doesn’t really exist! ;-p


    Comment by Elizabeth d'Anjou — December 7, 2013 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  12. […] an article on his blog An American Editor, Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by The Art of Editing, or Should Writers Use the Singular “They”? | change it up editing — December 17, 2013 @ 12:01 am | Reply

  13. […] Rich Adin | An American Editor: Is editing teachable? […]


    Pingback by Listen Now: Editing CAN be taught » Right Angels and Polo Bears — December 22, 2013 @ 11:56 pm | Reply

  14. […] Is editing teachable? Probably, but only to a point. […]


    Pingback by Five (Belated) Links for a Final Friday (December) | Janna R. White Content and Editing — December 30, 2013 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  15. […] even debate some of Rich Adin’s ideas and expand on others. Can you really not teach copyediting? Is there really no such thing as light, medium, and heavy copyedits? Perhaps I’m biased on these […]


    Pingback by The Practical Editor: Working the Real World | An American Editor — February 24, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  16. […] How are editors graded? Find out what an American editor feels by reading his blog. (An American Editor) […]


    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: February’s linguistic links round-up « BoldFace — February 26, 2014 @ 10:07 am | Reply

  17. […] while back, Rich Adin wrote in a blog post, Is Editing Teachable?, that copyediting can’t be taught. He […]


    Pingback by The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting | An American Editor — May 19, 2014 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  18. […] to teach. In fact, some would maintain that it can’t be taught at all. In his post titled, “Is Editing Teachable?” Rich Adin says […]


    Pingback by Is It Possible to Teach Editing? | Linda Taylor's Blog — June 19, 2014 @ 11:17 am | Reply

  19. […] Editor, I do not believe any of these courses can teach one to be a good editor. (For my view, see Is Editing Teachable?; for a contrary view, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art […]


    Pingback by What Should Editors Read? | An American Editor — September 3, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  20. […] an article on his blog An American Editor, Rich Adin […]


    Pingback by The Art of Editing, or Should Writers Use the Singular “They”? — January 14, 2017 @ 5:02 pm | Reply

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