An American Editor

September 3, 2014

What Should Editors Read?

I recently wrote about the troubles my daughter is having with copyediting of her forthcoming book, The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s by Mariah Adin, in The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit. (By way of a quick update, those troubles continue. I have advised her that in future contracts, she should ask the publisher to agree to allow her to hire the copyeditor and the publisher be responsible for the amount it would pay for an editor it hired.) Her troubles, and continuing troubles, got me thinking about the education of editors.

In thinking about editor education, I realized that the education that an editor receives is not focused. Sure, there are courses that teach some of the fundamentals of how to be an editor, but, as has been argued on An American 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 of Copyediting; also worth reading are the comments to these essays.) Ruth Thaler-Carter wrote a while back about the need for continuing education (see On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process) and has often made a point of emphasizing the value of self-education through reading.

None of these essays address the questions of: What should editors read? and How much should editors read? It is these questions that, I think, are part of the root of the problems of poor and adequate editing. It is the answers to these questions that, I think, distinguish the great (better) editor from competing editors. I also think that the answers to these questions help separate struggling editors from very successful editors.

In discussions with colleagues about reading (What types of books do they read? How many books do they read? How do these books relate, if they relate at all, to the type of editing they do? — Note: Although I use the word book[s] to describe the reading material, it is just a shorthand term for the more general. Reading includes books, journals, magazines, newspapers, to name a few reading material sources; it excludes the material we read to edit.), I have discovered a wide range of reading habits.

Some colleagues read three or four books a year; others tend to read a much larger quantity, 100 or more books a year. Some subscribe to daily newspapers; others occasionally read news online. Some subscribe to general-interest magazines; others only to narrow-interest magazines.

What I have found is that those whose work as editors I consider topnotch read a wide variety of books and a large quantity of books. Similarly, some of those whose work I do not consider to be anything more than okay tend not to read outside of work or read very little and often in narrow genres. The same correlation appears to apply to “success” as an editor (defining “success” in financial terms).

What should an editor read?

The answer is really wrapped in the cloak of describing an editor’s function. If an editor is merely a human version of a spell-check system, then I suspect reading only a dictionary will suffice. But if we view the editor’s role as an author’s helpmate, a much more expansive role, then an editor needs to read a wide variety of things — both fiction and nonfiction. Every book that an editor reads teaches something, if the editor is open to receiving that information.

I have written about the books I buy and read in my On Today’s Bookshelf series of essays, the most recent of which was On Today’s Bookshelf (XVII). In addition to buying and reading those books, I subscribe to numerous periodicals and newspapers and even do some reading online. Does this make a difference in my editing? Yes, it does, because I acquire enough knowledge to ask questions about the material I am editing.

One colleague told me that he edits only fiction and thus doesn’t need to read broadly. I view that as a mistaken belief. Even fiction has to be grounded in reality or the reader will be adrift.

It is equally important to remember that the more broadly one reads, the more likely it is that one will pick up information they will use in their daily editing. For example, a new problem in my daughter’s book was the changing of the quote marks from single to double when it was a quote within a quote. To illustrate, as originally written the sentence might have been: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, ‘Do not return ever again!'” It became: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, “Do not return ever again!”” Reading books would teach you that the latter is incorrect, simply by its absence from any book.

Reading broadly also gives a sense of timeline. We learn by reading how history unfolds. This may be important in editing when a sequence of events seems to have strayed from the historical timeline we have learned, thus warranting a query. Or we might be able to point out that although two historical figures were contemporaries and knew each other, they subsequently fell apart or that the Napoleon of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was not the Napoleon of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. These may be important to know when editing a Victorian Steampunk novel or a romance novel set in the mid-1800s or a history of the Paris Commune or a biography of Alexander Dumas or Karl Marx.

How much should editors read?

As much as possible. When I speak with clients, I display a broad range of knowledge which gives them confidence in my abilities. When I write to clients, I often recommend books and articles to read because I have learned about their interests or because the information might affect something they have written.

It is important to remember that knowledge can be a marketing tool. By making use of acquired knowledge, an editor instills confidence in the client. It is hard to explain why a change should be made to a manuscript if all you have is a feeling that the change should be made.

Because of our profession, editors need to be widely read and constantly supplementing what they already know with what they have yet to learn. I think one component of the difference between a great (better) editor and the average editor is how broadly and how much the editor reads.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. I agree with you, but possibly because I read 3-4 newspapers a day and at least 100 books a year and like the argumentation that this gives me the chance of being a better editor! I don’t know where else you could get the wide-ranging general knowledge plus the instinct for how very complex sentences ought to flow — which isn’t to say you couldn’t, and perhaps someone will comment on how they do it without reading.
    Having said that, I often feel a bit of eye-strain after reading all day at work and for two or three hours in the evening. Some days I don’t read as much as I would like because of this.
    I would probably consider reading habits when evaluating whether an editorial assistant had the potential to learn editing. I’ve noticed that some assistants who don’t read for pleasure are not familiar with some very basic conventions that they would frequently encounter, had they been more widely read.
    I also agree with you that fiction should not be considered exempt. I’ve noticed some incorrect facts in presumably edited novels that I think an editor should have caught (assuming that the author didn’t stet). Such slips disrupt the illusion of truth that the novel is working to create.


    Comment by gem — September 3, 2014 @ 4:52 am | Reply

    • ..that they would have frequently encountered…


      Comment by gem — September 3, 2014 @ 4:53 am | Reply

  2. I read the NYTimes, Washington Post and local fishwrap daily; New Yorker weekly; Smithsonian, National Geographic, Redbook, Woman’s Day, Ladies Home Journal monthly; Copyediting, Editors Only, Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Poets & Writers, newsletters and magazines from my professional associations, and a couple of other professional publications as published; and three or four books a week – mostly mysteries, but also historical fiction (I’m on volume 27 of the 40-volume Morland Dynasty at the moment, interspersed with rereading old mysteries to break up the serious aspects of that series) and some nonfiction (probably not as much as I should). And I skim Wayne-the-Wonderful’s monthly Shutterbug and Popular Photography magazines.

    They all make me a better writer and editor in various ways, mainly because I’m constantly learning new things and seeing new ways to express ideas; I hope I never stop finding and absorbing new information. And my editorial eye is constantly sharpened by noticing the errors in all of them.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — September 3, 2014 @ 8:58 am | Reply

  3. Not only reading (books and all genres, online blogs, newspapers, posts, and anything far from my editing specialty) but experiencing life all contribute to shaping the ongoing education of any editor. For me, I take free online courses through known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), listen to The Great Courses on CD, and attend any and all community information events conducted by hospital systems, community organizations, religious groups, business clubs, and membership organizations. All contribute to deepening my own understanding of what I don’t know (but crave to find out). Good discussion.


    Comment by Sandra Wendel — September 3, 2014 @ 1:03 pm | Reply

  4. I read probably 85% of my time, divided between work and pleasure. Work, even though it’s mostly fiction, is an ongoing educational process because every book is different and I have to look up so many things just for simple fact checking (i.e., dates and proper nouns, which always results in picking up info about the subject). Every nonfiction job feels like a college-level course.

    When I started freelancing, the first thing I did was read Chicago Manual and Words into Type cover to cover. Now I keep those plus assorted reference volumes immediately to hand, and use them often. Meanwhile, the Internet has provided learning opportunities beyond what I could have imagined twenty years ago. I use it for work, for pleasure, and for general information gathering for myriad domestic and personal matters.

    For pleasure I read only the few types of novels I enjoy, plus a few magazines on diverse subjects (airplanes and forestry, for example). My scope gets broadened by reading for a review organization. All of it teaches me something every time. I rarely read nonfiction for pleasure. Instead I hang out with people very different from me and learn from them about all sorts of subjects. I also find professional forums to be educational in both their depth and diversity. Ditto films and documentaries.

    These reading habits have not made me an expert in anything. Instead, they give me a broad mental database and awareness of patterns that allow me to pause and question things that I then look up to verify. My focus as a fiction editor is on verisimilitude, so I make sure my authors’ stories are technically feasible. Can’t avoid educating myself in the process!


    Comment by Carolyn — September 4, 2014 @ 6:30 am | Reply

  5. An afterthought about the Internet:

    An effective way to keep one’s mental learning machine well oiled is to take the time to verify news stories and circulated items of interest or alarm. I’ve found that the short-lead-time information sources (news services, television, general online chatter) tend to be incomplete and often inaccurate compared to longer-lead-time info sources (magazines, books), which tend to be vetted at least partially, as well as more detailed because they are longer form and not produced under as much pressure. Obviously, there are exceptions to this “rule,” but in general I don’t accept news at face value because it usually represents the tip of a large and complex iceberg.


    Comment by Carolyn — September 4, 2014 @ 6:40 am | Reply

  6. I agree wholeheartedly. Also–how many languages can/does the editor read? I have edited several languages for English speakers who thought that they knew what they were saying or spelling. Can be very helpful!


    Comment by oghma2006 — September 4, 2014 @ 9:05 pm | Reply

  7. I’d say a major reason knowledge can be a “marketing tool” is because it helps an editor make a manuscript more intelligible.

    I work as a freelance copyeditor for non-English social sciences researchers who tend to produce manuscripts laden with language problems (lexical inaccuracies, syntactic errors, among others). Before getting to copyedit a manuscript, I access the literature (as much as possible) covered in it to grasp the working knowledge. This preparation, in particular, allows me to come to grips with unclear phrasing and revise them in a way that comes across as transparent.

    Doing so increases the chance of a research paper being accepted..


    Comment by Kuochan Lin — September 8, 2014 @ 10:52 am | Reply

  8. In short, anything and everything that garners some interest. I grew up on horror fiction and celebrity biographies, but I advanced into more academic and classical literature in college and graduate school. I work as a freelance copy editor and proofreader across a couple different genres, and I do a lot of work with authors directly. Being able to talk to them and explore their ideas fully takes a lot of base working knowledge from a wide variety of sources and platforms. So, I read a smattering of things: People, North American Review, Writer’s Digest articles, Rolling Stone, book reviews and literary journal articles, alumni newsletters, Rue Morgue and Fangoria, Entrepreneur, editing and writing guides or textbooks, publishing guides, Carol Wright Gifts, Ginny’s catalog, Montgomery Ward’s catalog, author and editor blogs, and I try to a lot of crossword puzzles! 🙂


    Comment by MeliSwenk — September 10, 2014 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

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