Thinking of Becoming an Editor?

by Renée Layberry




Photo by innoxiuss (Thinking at Hell’s gate) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Today I had a conversation online with someone who has a teacher’s degree and is interested in freelance editing to supplement their income. It sounds like a natural fit—and it very well could be—but it doesn’t automatically qualify one as an editor. It also doesn’t follow that anyone with strong grammar, reading, and writing skills can simply decide to be an editor and then become one in a matter of a few days or weeks.

Similarly, being a writer does not qualify one as an editor. Very few writers that I work with are able to edit their own work accurately and objectively, much less anyone else’s; it’s a completely different frame of mind. (I’ve had a very hard time writing creatively in the last year and a half that I’ve been editing full-time.)

My own experience—and I consider myself to be a relative neophyte—is that it’s an ongoing process that involves education, motivation, compulsion, inspiration, trial and error, humility, flexibility, teachability, and hard-won experience. I would add that it helps to have a love of language and communication, a desire to understand more than to be understood, and an inclination towards empathy, tact, and perfectionism.

If you’re brand-new to editing and want to explore the field, consider the following seven steps before building a website, designing a business card, and charging for services:

  • Start from scratch and build credibility. The quickest way to do this is to get some experience by performing pro-bono proofreads for people who will endorse you after the work is done. Not-for-profit organizations are a good place to start.
  • Acquire a solid dictionary and thesaurus (such as Cambridge or Oxford); you should also have a hard copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and/or the AP Stylebook on hand; there’s more to proofreading and editing than being strong in grammar and good at writing.
  • Subscribe to editing, literary agent, and publishing accounts on Twitter/Facebook; read the blogs of editors, your favourite writers, respected literary magazines (local, national, and international), and publishers (indie, vanity, and traditional).
  • Connect with a professional association such as the Editor’s Association of Canada. 
  • Consider an online course.
  • Start a blog and talk about publishing; write simple book reviews (they don’t need to be complicated) and interview authors.
  • Join Goodreads, if you haven’t already.

I don’t wish to imply that there are countless hoops to jump through before one is “allowed” to be an editor; there are no secret rituals, it’s not a rarefied society, and it’s not a holy calling. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be doing it. But in the same way that one is not a writer by virtue of owning a word processor, nor a graphic designer by owning a version of Photoshop, one is not an editor simply by dint of knowing basic grammar and how to read and spell.* It means, among many other things, having a good grasp of the technical aspects while being alive to the human aspect of language—and the humanity of the writer. When all that is in place, that’s when you can start thinking about becoming an editor.


* (But if you don’t know basic grammar or how to read or spell, you’re pretty much dead in the water.)