An American Editor

June 13, 2016

On the Basics: So You Want to be an Editor (or Proofreader)

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Someone recently posted to an editors’ group on Facebook:

“I’ve read the official list on how to become an editor:
“1. Call yourself an editor.
“2. Start editing.”

We know that it takes a lot more than those two steps! In the poster’s defense, she followed that “list” by asking how colleagues got started in editing, and might have intended it as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but social media is full of people who say they want to work as editors or proofreaders, either in-house or freelance, with no clue about what it takes to be such a professional.

Being an editor is a laudable goal; editors are essential to finished works — whether in print or online, books on paper or electronic devices, magazines or journals, newspapers or newsletters, articles or essays, blogs or websites, even ads — that readers can follow and understand easily. However, it does take more than a degree in or teaching English, noticing errors in your daily newspaper and the books you read, or just saying “I am an editor” to be a skilled professional who adds value to someone’s writing work and deserves to be paid well for that work.

Most of the subscribers to An American Editor are probably already experienced and working as editors, but equally probably often get those classic “How do I get paid to edit?” or “How do I get started in editing?” inquiries. Here are some tips and guidelines for yourself or for those who ask you what it takes to be a professional editor or proofreader, along with resources for training, finding work in the field, and more.

Important Skills

It takes a number of skills and characteristics to be an editor (most of which also apply to proofreaders), including:

  • An excellent knowledge of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage, so ingrained that you rarely have to double-check such aspects of a document — but also so realistic that you know when to stop and check. That is often a result of strong training back in grade school or high school, or self-training later on in life.
  • A sharp eye for consistency and accuracy, even if you aren’t doing fact-checking (that’s a separate step or process, although some editors include fact-checking in their services and most will flag items of fact that seem a bit off for the author or client to check and fix). Some of us seem to have been born with this skill, but it’s also something you can train yourself in.
  • Detail-oriented — what some people might call nitpicky, but professionals know is essential to catching errors and inconsistencies.
  • Organized — both for yourself, in terms of following a regular process or approach, and for the client or project, in terms of doing or suggesting what a document needs to ensure a logical flow of information.
  • Self-effacing, because the author’s voice rules; if your ego needs the visibility of bylines, be the writer.
  • Tactful in dealing with authors or clients, some of whom can be difficult to work with and some of whom may have delicate egos where their projects are concerned. It takes skill and tact to ask the right questions or point out problems in a way that doesn’t upset the author/client. Authors with hurt feelings won’t respond well to edits.
  • Tolerance for jargon — knowing when it has to remain in a document, which can be the case in some fields or professions; some jargon is a term of art.
  • A good memory — for new facts, cross-pollination of information, style guidelines, and the ways things are done in different parts of a manuscript. The sharper your memory, the less time you’ll have to spend on checking and looking up things in a manuscript.

Tools of the trade

To work effectively and professionally as an editor, you need:

  • Internet access, because editing today is a global business and because the Internet is how most of us will be found, receive and send back projects, communicate with clients and colleagues, do research, double-check style elements, etc.
  • Microsoft Word (Mac or PC), which is the leading word-processing program of the day, no matter how many of us hate it. Just remember not to rely exclusively on its spell- and grammar-check functions, because they are not foolproof. Spellcheck will not flag correctly words that are the wrong choice or an inadvertently repeated phrase, and the grammar-check is infamous for its inaccuracies.
  • Adobe Acrobat or other “PDF” maker/editor, since an increasing number of clients expect editors to work on documents in that format.
  • Style manuals as appropriate for the types of documents you might edit — not just having the manual at hand, but knowing it well, and knowing when to check either the book or the online version, whether to refresh and confirm your instincts or defend a change to a client. (Anyone who doesn’t know what a style manual is has a ways to go before being able to say “I’m a professional editor.”)
  • Dictionaries, even if you’re a skilled speller, because you never know when a new word might pop up, a client might question one of your corrections, or you might suddenly draw a blank on the correct spelling of a word.
  • Guides to grammar and usage, to provide refreshers or reminders and, again, defend changes to clients as needed.
  • Memberships in professional organizations and/or online forums like Copyediting-L and the Editors Association of Earth group on Facebook, for access to colleagues and resources you might need when projects present especially knotty problems or you just could use some encouragement and advice.
  • Productivity resources, for automating much of the editorial process (especially for academic or large projects), so your brain and eyes are more free to focus on substance and you can work more quickly, which is especially important if you plan to freelance: Jack Lyon’s Editor’s Toolkit Plus 2014 from The Editorium, which contains The Editorium’s most widely used macros in a single package; Daniel Heuman’s PerfectIt from Intelligent Editing; Paul Beverly’s macros; and Rich Adin’s EditTools from wordsnSync Ltd.

Optional but still useful: Fax capability, because some clients still like to send or receive projects that way or use faxing for contracts, and knowledge of proofreading marks and clear printing/handwriting, for those projects that clients ask to be edited on paper. Again, these requests may not arise often, but they do still come up, as I know from current experience. Proofreading marks also can be used as stamps when editing or proofing PDFs.

Who Goes First?

One of the cardinal rules of editing is to respect and retain the author’s voice. The author comes first. An editor has to learn to subsume his or her personality in the editing process and often has to live with invisibility or anonymity (although there are authors who thank their editors, either in formal acknowledgments or online in forums such as LinkedIn). If your ego needs the visibility of a byline or your own voice predominating a work, step away from editing and do the writing yourself.

Resources for Training

You may be relieved to know that many skilled, successful editors don’t have formal training as editors. In a recent Facebook group conversation, for example, more than 40 people in just a day or two said they had either no degree at all or none related to editing. This can be seen as a drawback for our field, as Rich has discussed here a number of times, but it’s an advantage for those who have learned on the job and developed strong skills on their own, without formal training or coursework.

That doesn’t mean someone can leap into editing as a professional without some training or experience, no matter how many untrained, inexperienced people hang out their shingles and fool clients into thinking it’s worth hiring them.

Useful resources for training in editing include the following.

General

Specialties

Further listings

That First Editing Job

Once you have the skills, tools, and resources in place, be sure to read Bernadette Cash’s “Getting That First Job: Advice from a Technical Recruiter,” which provides tips for finding an editing job in the tech field that can be applied to other kinds of editing.

Words of Wisdom

One of my Facebook editing colleagues reported recently that Ann Goldstein, copy editor at the New Yorker magazine and also a translator, recently told an audience at a writers’ conference in Auckland, New Zealand, that “if you want to be a good editor, the most important thing is to read. Read a lot!” I would concur. The more you read, the better you will edit. Reading in a wide range of fields and a variety of publications, from books to magazines to newspapers to blogs and newsletters, will expand your sense of what works in written material, as well as add to your general knowledge of trends and events that might crop up in the works you edit.

How have you developed your skills — what kinds of training and education have you used to become an editor, or evolve into a better one? What do you consider an essential skill or ability for an editor?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

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