Ask the Editor is a column for your questions about the editing process and editors themselves. It’s a place to bring your conundrums and dilemmas and mixed feelings, no matter how big or small. Want to be considered? Learn more and submit your question.
I’m a college student majoring in English. I have had internships but not in the world of editing, but my dream is to be an editor and writer. Do you have any advice or guidance to offer on how to make this dream a reality?
Dear Desperate Gen-Zer:
I’m desperately glad you asked this question. You’ve hit on one of my main concerns in our industry: Anyone can hang out a shingle as an editor, which results in a very wide range of knowledge and experience levels. I love that you are interested in seeking out a path for developing your skills.
You say you want to be a writer too. That’s useful—the skills you learn in that pursuit are the core of becoming a good editor. In fact, although they are very different skill sets, much of what you can do to master one will serve you well in the other.
You’ve asked a pretty enormous question that I need to address in a manageable number of words, so I’m going to give the quick-and-dirty version of how to develop both careers through two essential approaches: Study and practice, with an emphasis on editing (not least because of the nature of this column).
Study the craft
Writing and editing both rest on the same foundation: an understanding of story craft and language. You learn how the sausage is made—and made well—and eventually internalize those skills so that they’re automatic; you don’t have to focus consciously on craft and mechanics because they become a part of you.
There are an overwhelming number of resources for expanding your skills. It’s a lifelong process; after 30 years in this business I’m still learning every day. I’m betting you’re already digging into some of them: craft books, classes, webinars, workshops, blogs and other outlets (like Jane’s!); conferences.
You’re already doing one great thing toward your career in majoring in English, which will give you a sound foundation for both writing and editing. (I can’t tell you how often I think back to my college papers in my own English major and think what wonderful training ground they were for learning to analyze and articulate a text’s effectiveness.)
Another thing you could do now is work with your university publications and gain skills in writing and hands-on editing.
For readers who are past their college days, there are reputable programs for learning editing skills, like those offered by the University of Chicago (the masterminds behind the industry-standard bible, The Chicago Manual of Style) and the Editorial Freelancers’ Association (EFA), taught by career editors.
Be discerning about where you learn—there are countless programs claiming to teach editing skills and offering self-declared certifications, but keep in mind there is no “official” set of standards, training programs, or governing body for offering editorial services. Caveat editor.
For insight into editing specifically, I can’t recommend highly enough master editor Sol Stein’s books Stein on Writing and How to Grow a Novel, and A. Scott Berg’s biography Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, which shows intimately how renowned editor Perkins worked with some of our most venerated authors. There’s even a new documentary, Turn Every Page, about the 50-year collaborative relationship between author Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb.
Try not to get too overwhelmed by the amount of info that’s out there—or to subscribe to one school of thought or system too slavishly. The many approaches and techniques you can learn are all tools for your toolbox that you can draw on. The more you learn, the greater your skill set as both a writer and an editor—and the better you will become at both.
You mention internships, and I’m so glad you did—editing is definitely an apprenticeship craft, one that’s most thoroughly and deeply learned by seeing it done and by practicing doing it—over and over and over again. There’s a reason for the system at publishing houses where editors work up from assistant to lead editors—there is no more effective way to learn this skill and craft.
This is a crucial place where training programs often fall short. The misconception that you can learn to be an editor simply from a course or certificate on editing can lead to bad editing, a cardinal sin in my mind that can do great damage to an author’s writing and psyche (and charge them for the “privilege”). In my opinion editors shouldn’t hawk their services before they’ve logged solid, relevant experience in the particular field where they’re working (e.g., publishing or academia or journalism, fiction or nonfiction, and specific genres).
There are so many excellent ways to do that—a couple of which I already mentioned above. But also:
Work with a publishing house as an intern or assistant editor
They are legion now, not just the Big Five in New York—find a small press near you. Back in my day (oh, how I love hearing old-people phrases like this come out of my mouth), I started as a freelance proofreader and copyeditor for the Big Six (at the time), long before electronic editing, when all revisions were made on hard copy and I got to see the editors’ and authors’ work right there on the pages I was reading, comments and all, and I learned what got changed and why.
If you can’t find a publisher in your area, try apprenticing with a reputable working pro. (I’ve mentored a number of high school and college students, both through school programs but also one-on-one when a student or fledgling editor contacted me directly.) This is a great way to see what makes for an effective edit firsthand—and to learn directly from a professional editor how they work, what they look for, and how they offer useful feedback to authors.
Work with the people who work with manuscripts
Interning with a literary agency can be another way to hone your skills in action. Reading endless submissions off the slush pile (your likely entry point at an agency) and learning what agents do and don’t respond to as effective and marketable work is invaluable training ground.
Any practice at analyzing a story and articulating its strengths and weakness is wonderful training: I worked in my baby days reading book and screenplay submissions and writing reports on them for a Hollywood producer, an ad agency that specialized in book campaigns, and a fledgling movie-review database engine.
Learn from IRL manuscripts
One of the most useful things I ever did as a budding editor was join an especially large critique group (more than 25 members) that met weekly and focused on a single submission each meeting. Not only did I get hands-on regular practice in analyzing and conveying what made a manuscript (someone else’s, crucial for objectivity) effective or not, but even more valuable: I got to hear many other viewpoints as well. It taught me what was useful feedback and what was not, gave me perspective on how subjective a craft editing is, and—not unimportant!—the difference between a positive and constructive approach and a dictatorial or righteous one. The latter offered little value to an author.
Another good way to learn: Sit in on as many industry-pro “read and critiques” as you possibly can—at conferences, retreats, classes, workshops. The great value of these lies in seeing what jumps out at these professionals and hearing why—and, in the best-case scenario, how they offer suggestions for addressing areas of weakness.
There are more and more opportunities to do this: Bestselling author George Saunders offers a regular Story Club on Substack where he and attendees analyze short stories for what makes them work (or not). I do something similar, though less highbrow, with book chapters and other forms of storytelling in my Analyze Like an Editor Story Club. Agent Peter Cox of Litopia offers a weekly Pop-up Submissions program where authors submit a page or two of their WIPs and it’s analyzed by Peter, his industry guests, and a “genius room” of fellow authors. Look for similar opportunities to see pros in action.
Learn from everything
I frequently proselytize the value for authors as well as editors in analyzing every single story you take in, in any medium. Steven King famously advised that “Writers write, and writers read,” and the second part of that is as important as the first—but not just reading (or watching) for pleasure, but with an analytical eye.
Get into the habit of analyzing everything: books you read, movies, TV shows, song lyrics, commercials and advertisements, even company slogans. They are all designed to do what any story does: elicit a reaction in the reader/viewer. How do they do that? What makes it effective (or not)? If you are on the edge of your seat in a book or movie, for instance, stop and consider what you are actually feeling and why—then trace back what elicited that reaction. Then go back and pick apart specifically, concretely how the storyteller set it up.
Learn by doing
Ultimately the best way to master both editing and writing is to do them as much as possible. With writing that means actually putting words on the page, editing them (more chances to learn your editing craft!), revising, polishing, and finishing a story—and then doing it again. And again. And again. When you’re ready, get your work out there: to agents, to publishers, to readers. Keep writing other things meanwhile.
With editing, start editing. This one is a little trickier, because good editors command commensurate rates, and they’re not cheap. If you aren’t yet experienced or skilled enough to warrant those rates it’s a bit unethical to charge them—so start small.
I did my first developmental editing jobs at very low rates—I had a solid track record as a copyeditor but not as a dev editor, and I didn’t feel right asking an author to take a huge financial chance on me. I was lucky enough to have become friendly with a few high-profile authors through my copyediting work (another benefit of that kind of training—contacts), and they were pleased with my work and told more author friends about me, and I built my résumé and skillset, gradually raising my rates as my skills and experience—and confidence!—increased.
Think of it like any other job—you work your way up in ability and experience, and your salary grows accordingly. Editing is not a quick-profit side hustle to make money off of authors—it’s a demanding, complex skill that takes extensive time, learning, and experience to master. When you are able to offer more, you can eventually charge more.
This may sound like a lot of training and work—and it is. But so is any highly skilled pursuit: You wouldn’t want a surgeon operating on you if she doesn’t have pretty extensive knowledge, skill, and experience.
But oh, it’s rewarding. As a writer you get to bring something new and unique into the world with every story you create—one that might also offer something meaningful to another soul.
Being an editor, in my “book,” is even better yet: You are the midwife to writers bringing hundreds, even thousands of stories into the world—and helping an author fully realize their own creative vision. It’s honestly among the most gratifying experiences I have ever had—and as an editor you get to do it every day.
Good luck to you, Gen Z. You’ve chosen a sometimes tough but often magnificent road. 😊