I recently did an interview with a high school student who was looking for information on becoming an editor. As some of the questions she asked were interesting, I compiled them for others who may be interested in a career as an editor.
Why did you choose to become an editor?
I decided to become an editor after I was offered a job and found I was very good at it and couldn’t wait to get to work each day.I had always loved reading, writing, working with words and correcting mistakes and I found editing uses all of those skills.. You could say I fell into editing and that’s the way it is for a lot of editors. We start out in another field and end up fixing the mistakes others make in their documents.
What’s your favourite part of the job?
The favourite part of my job is when I hand the manuscript back to the writer, knowing it is a stronger better book. It is exciting when I start working with a new manuscript because you don’t know anything about the story. But the best part is definitely getting the story into top shape and sending it out into the world.
Do you work on only one project at a time? Or more than one?
I work on multiple projects at a time. I prefer to work across multiple manuscripts or projects because it is more interesting and tends to be easier. If I’m having trouble (or not in the mood, waiting to hear back from an author) with one project/manuscript I can move to another.
What does an editor do?
There are four main levels of editing – Acquisitions, Content, Line and proofreading. I’ll explain from the last task to the first task.
Proofreading where you are looking for spelling and grammar mistakes. Proofreading is the very last time a book will get looked at before it gets sent to the printers so the reader is often reading the ‘proofs’ or ‘galley’s’.
Line editing is next step. Line editors are looking for spelling, grammar, punctuation and continuity errors and mistakes. They work with the document in a still raw state, normally in Microsoft word format. A line editor will mark the mistake or make a query and send it back to the author for the author to decide what to do about the mistake or for the writer to decide if it was a mistake in the first place. Sometimes, it is simply clumsy phrasing or a deliberate decision.
A content editor is the next. Content editors read the story looking for areas where:
• The characters don’t make sense, act out of character for no reason or just are acting/reacting in an unbelievable manner.
• The story is boring, uninteresting and not working.
• The sentences don’t read well.
• Mistakes, errors or confusion. One recent one I caught was a character who in one scene had a son and a daughter but in a scene at the end of the book had two sons, no daughters.
• Anything occurs that might confuse or pull a reader out of the story.
The content editor may also suggest new story arcs or directions, new ways of presenting mysteries or different ideas that the author might like to explore. If I’m working as a content editor and I think something will strengthen a story I mention it to the writer. If I think the story is weak in an area I tell the author and explain why I think it is weak. Everything I say is a suggestion that the writer can use in any way they would like to. Some suggestions they accept, some they reject and some we work with until both of us are happy. If I’m working on a non-fiction piece I will fact check to make sure everything is accurate and not going to cause any problems with the legal department.
Acquisitions editor is the final or first task. An acquisitions editor reads the manuscript and decides which if it fits the publishing company. An acquisitions editor can also suggest stories, ideas and titles they would like to see if necessary. An acquisitions editor spends a lot of time trying to convince other members of the publishing team that the book they love is the best book for the company to publish.
What other things does an editor do?
As I run my own freelance editing business, I also spend time working with marketing, communications, and business management. I spend a lot of time talking with or emailing authors about how to make their books better.
I spend a lot of time reading so I can understand the publishing world, what books are selling and what ideas are not. This is an important part of the business because I need to be able to tell the authors I’m working with if the idea and themes in their book are too similar to another book, have been done in a similar manner by someone else, or are just not selling at the moment and I’ve got to be able to tell if a story just plain doesn’t work. All of this relies on me reading a lot of books each year.
How hard is editing?
Is editing hard? Editing is physically not difficult. But editing is mentally draining because you are constantly having to think ‘is this the best it can be?’ and ‘what would make this better?’ or ‘will a reader believe that happened?’ and a million other questions. Plus all the time your mind is comparing the manuscript to everything else you’ve read to see if anything jumps out as being very similar. So by the end of the day, you are very tired, but often very excited as well.
How long does it take to edit a manuscript?
The amount of time taken to edit a manuscript is difficult to judge. First stage is quick because it’s a read through to get the overall story. Second stage takes a lot longer because this is where you are pulling the story apart and making it stronger and better. Once the manuscript goes back to the author, they will look through it and make some changes, then the story comes back for a third pass. This third pass can go back and forth between the writer and I until both of us are happy with the story. One book I’ve been working with took a month, another a year. It all depends on how strong the writing is to start with.
What is your main role as an editor?
My main role is to make sure the story is so amazing that the reader can’t put the book down and the writer is so amazed at what they’ve accomplished that they go write another book. Editing, particularly content editing, is one of the most invisible jobs in the world. A good content editor should be invisible. The reader shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between what I suggest and what the writer suggested. The writer should know the book is better/stronger/exactly what they wanted, because of the help from the editor.
What are career options like for an editor?
Career options as an editor depend very much on your ability to run your own business. There are fewer and fewer publishing companies offering full time in house employment as an editor and within the next ten years or so I can see freelancing and contracting being the only way to work within the editing field. But the freelancing and contracting field is expanding all the time. If you’re interested in editing study English at an advanced level (if that’s available to you) and read as much as possible in as many genres as you can.
What did you study at university?
Here in Australia we have a Bachelor of Arts Professional Writing and Publishing which covers editing, publishing project management as well as writing in a variety of genres. Other countries have differing options. The best advice I can give you is to explore and see what options exist for you.
I think that just about covers everything, but if I haven’t or you have more questions, feel free to ask more and I’ll answer as best I can.