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ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

What No One Tells You About Being an Editor


The world of editing can be enticing to those who love delving into language and polishing up a text until it sings. Some see an editing project as a puzzle to be solved. And while people continue to write text (whether electronic or print) and middle schoolers who dread English class grow up to be writers, editors will always be needed.

I've been an editor for nearly 20 years, and during that time I've revamped my expectations about this field and discovered treasures I didn't expect. I'm here to reveal the secrets I've learned during my own professional experience.

Editing is a mind game

The bulk of the work editors do involves reviewing, considering another way to express an idea, and organizing text to fulfill its purpose. An ideal editor has a knack for noticing patterns and recognizing what's missing. Sometimes a writer struggles to express him- or herself, and the editor must take contextual clues to decipher what should be said (but of course, if no solution can be found, the editor should turn it back over to the writer to provide more clues). A sharp mind and a firm grasp on the language and connotations of words are necessary. Editing work requires focus, and since an editor can work anywhere in the world, it can be tricky to avoid distractions. Working from home at times can make focus very fleeting!

Editing involves different types of service

The term editing applies to a range of services, and sometimes their extent can widely vary. That means an editor must recognize the different types of editing a client might want and develop a repertoire of services that represent varying degrees of change within a text. The following are a few types of editing performed within the text world:

  • Developmental editing occurs usually as an early step within the writing process, when the writer has a rough idea for a novel or journal text. The editor looks at the big picture and guides the writer in putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Are there any plot holes? Are any key details being left out?
  • Content editing (also called substantive editing) is performed on a completed text that is still pretty rough. During this process, an editor looks to make sure the ideas are flowing well and that the plot or arguments make sense. He or she will make notes throughout the text to help strengthen weak areas or tweak the tone of the writer's work. Note: content editing does not include writing or rewriting. Editors can make suggestions during this process, but rewriting should represent an additional service (and a different billable rate!).
  • Line editing involves a more micro-level view of a text. A line editor does not move chapters around, but can move sentences around to polish the author's argument. He or she looks at word choices and sentence flow and makes changes accordingly. A line editor might or might not perform copyediting services.
  • Copyediting (or proofreading) is a light-handed review for grammar and other typographical errors on a fully completed text. Usually a client will request copyediting or line editing after developmental and content editing has been done, during which sections of text might have been moved around. Rearranging of text can leave verb tenses jumbled up, for example, so a careful copyedit will catch these errors before the text goes to print.

Here's another way to look at it: a developmental editor helps build a house with some good blueprints, and a content editor helps move the furniture around. The line editor makes sure the decorations tie the room together, and the copyeditor takes one last look around the house to make sure everything is in place.

Editors improve on the job

Despite years of training in the technical aspects of editing, editors fresh out of school might not have the expertise and sharp eye they think they do. My personal experience certainly confirmed this! During college, I got the education necessary to be a star editor. I completed internships. I edited the school paper. I was convinced I was the smartest, best editor EVER. Then, when I got my first editing job at the local television station editing program listings, I felt it was my time to shine. But I was certain that the company didn't know what they had—I was making mere pennies in exchange for my genius! I approached my boss, who listened to my case, but then kindly informed me that I hadn't demonstrated genius after all. I was making tons of mistakes. Mortified, I slinked back to my desk to take a closer look at my work. I learned to slow down and question my infallible eye, and over time I started to turn in a much better product. (Soon after that, I got my raise!)

Such an experience provided a turning point, but it wasn't the only one in my professional growth. After I graduated, I was hired with another company by another boss who offered kind but firm instruction. Our department implemented an internal quality assurance system in which we editors reviewed each other's edited work and pointed out each error we had missed. I hated this part. It was like every mark someone else caught (that I hadn't seen during the first read) was a point taken off my personal Editor Score. One peer even asked me if I was a non-native English speaker. Eventually it became clear to my boss and fellow employees that I didn't know where to put a comma in a sentence, and they offered some tough love to help me correct my course. Even today, after thousands of editing projects, I'm still learning new elements of the English language that can help strengthen a text.

Your own journey toward becoming an experienced, mature editor will include some bumps and bruises to the old ego, but these are the times you grow the most. This journey never ends, though; there is always something new to learn.

Editors must stay up to date on style guide standards

While you can master the basic linguistic rules of English, you can't know every current element of the writing world. Firstly, you will continuously gain exposure to new written material that opens your eyes to better expressions, methods to increase conciseness, and stronger composition. Secondly, style guides get updates regularly (it feels like every week!). Clients who want to be published need an editor who knows the rules of publishing, and these rules never stay the same. Luckily resources can be easily accessed online to help an editor stay up to date on which standards have changed. For example, the Purdue Writing Lab offers updated standards on MLA, APA, and Chicago styles, among others.

Editors get paid to read

In the spirit of continual learning, let's celebrate the secret benefit of editing: editors get to read a variety of materials on different topics. Depending on the client pool, editors can learn about current events, get a sneak peek at an up-and-coming novel, review a person's life history, peek into other cultures, and get insight into industries they would likely never broach otherwise. For example, one year I edited a report on the civil engineering details about a town in California. Later, at a party, I met an individual who worked in that industry, and even though I wasn't an expert, I contributed to a conversation on a subject that I wouldn't otherwise have known! It certainly made that conversation more enjoyable, and it enhanced my ability to establish human connection, which always makes life better.

Even if it never makes me an expert in another field, editing offers me exposure to new information that expands my worldview and broadens my mind. It's one of the aspects of being an editor that makes it so fulfilling. Editing is a rich and rewarding field that takes me to new, interesting places. If you're looking into an editing career, make sure to be patient with yourself and your clients, and be open to the ever-changing field of text and communication. Good luck!

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