Getting Started

How to Become an Editor

how-to-become-an-editor
Written by Kate Lopaze

If your email inbox is jammed with friends and family sending you little projects like resumes, reports, or other documents to review, you might already be an unofficial editor. If finding grammatical issues in public places makes you cringe, and you want to bust out your red pen every time someone uses “supposably” on Facebook, it might be time to take your hobby to the next (professional) level. Or, if you’re like me, you have an English-type degree and aren’t sure what you want to do with, but you do know that you love reading and writing, it could be the right path for you.

What Does An Editor Do?

There are lots of different kinds of editors. At the most basic level, an editor is someone who ensures the quality of writing—either print or digital. They may also:

  • manage projects from start to finish.
  • review topics in specialty areas (like medical, technical, or legal writing) for accuracy.
  • make decisions about what content should be included in a book, publication, or website.
  • select books for publication.
  • organize writing into a coherent structure.
  • copyedit and proofread material for grammar, style, and proper usage.
  • factcheck content before publication.
  • work with writers to shape, develop, and refine their writing—fiction or nonfiction.
  • rewriting content, or writing supplemental material, like introductions, headlines, notes, etc.
  • hire content writers.
  • consult on layout and design.
  • develop content strategies for publications or publishers.

You find editors wherever there are words presented to the public, basically. They’re employed by book publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, companies in all industries for in-house and corporate communications, websites, and other places that need to deal with content. Think of an editor as a content wrangler, in all of its many forms. Let’s look at some of the more common career paths for editors:

[via PayScale]

What Skills Do Editors Have?

Editors are multitaskers. They have to be writers, judges, fix-it-fast technicians, managers, and shepherds.

These are some of the most crucial skill sets that you’d need as an editor:

  • Editors are organizational enforcers. They work on deadlines (often short and unforgiving ones) and with sets of rules (like page limits or layouts) to make sure the writing is as good as it can be for the target format.
  • Strong writing and verbal skills are a must for editors. Sure, you may be working with other people’s writing instead of your own, but you need to be able to recognize good writing if you’re going to fix writing that needs a little help. That means you need to be able to understand what others are putting out there, and be able to revise/refine that as necessary. It also means you should be able to express your own thoughts clearly as well. Communicating back and forth is an essential part of any editor’s job.
  • Part of being an editor is not only making tough decisions about content or writing, but also communicating to the writer why you think these changes are important. This means being able to navigate sometimes difficult conversations with a broad array of personalities. Some writers are open to constructive feedback. Others…are not. True story: I once had an author email me on Christmas Eve, and let me know that I’d ruined her holiday by communicating a change to her book. Part of being a professional editor is being able to manage the writer/editor relationship with diplomacy and patience.
  • Always one of the bedrock freelance careers, freelance editing is one of the best ways to dip your toes into the career if you’re new to the field, or not quite sure this is what you want to do full-time. That means you need to have some hustle in you, networking and always on the lookout for potential new jobs.
  • You'll need attention to detail. “Close enough” should not be in your professional vocabulary as an editor. Whether it’s a fact that seems questionable or a stray comma, a pair of eagle eyes is one of your biggest professional assets as an editor.
  • Being an editor often means being able to roll with new technologies. Knowing the latest design and layout programs, or editing software, will be key in finding and keeping editorial jobs. Basic coding skills are a huge plus for your resume as well. Content is a fast-moving industry, so a red pen alone just won’t cut it anymore.
  • Content expertise is a must. There’s a big world of writing out there, and no one can be an editor for all things. Whichever lane you’re in, make sure you’re as knowledgeable as you can be. For example, if you specialize in editing medical writing for journals, read as much as you can in your field. Know your trends. If you’re an editor for an online food site, know what the latest foodie trends are.

What Education Do Editors Need?

There’s no hard-and-fast rule about how much education editor should have. You don’t need any special licensing or certification to be an editor. However, most editorial jobs do require at least a college degree. A degree usually assures a base line of reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, but you don’t necessarily have to have a degree in English, Literature, Creative Writing, or similar disciplines (though those do help if you want to go into traditional book editing). The most important part is having strong writing, verbal, and communication skills, and developing experience. And in fact, if you want to specialize in an area like legal editing or medical editing, a degree in one of those subject areas might be just as useful as English or Communications.

Editors should always be open to continuing education as well. Many schools, like New York University, Emerson College in Boston, and the University of Denver offer graduate programs in publishing. Many online schools, community colleges, four-year colleges and universities, and technical schools also offer individual classes in types of editing, proofreading, or other skill-building areas for editors. Editors may also want to take classes in graphic design, publishing software, web design, or project management to develop their supplemental skills as well. Sites like Mediabistro (which will become your new best friend, BTW, if you’re an editor) have great information about classes and training opportunities available to writers and editors.

Many editors start with internships at publishing companies or specific publications, to build skills and gain experience in the field.

To Freelance or Not to Freelance?

While there are traditional full-and part-time jobs out there for editors, many people opt to go the self-employment route, and create a freelance editing career path for themselves. This is also the way to go if you’re adopting editing as your side hustle before you make it your career. If you’re interested in becoming a freelance editor, two of the first things you should do are 1) build a great resume packed with strong experience bullet points, and 2) keep growing your network.

How Much Do Editors Get Paid?

Let’s just say that editing is a career you choose for love, not necessarily money. That’s not to say you can’t earn a living as an editor (you can!), but, well, when was the last time you heard anyone referred to as “millionaire editor So-and-So”? (If you have heard that recently, definitely let me know. Asking for a friend.) Because there are so many different kinds of editors working on different types of projects, the compensation levels vary too.

As a general group, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics pegs the median editorial salary at $56,010 per year, or $26.93 per hour. PayScale puts editor salaries in an even broader range, from $32,810 to $80,595

Here are some of the median pay stats for different kinds of editors:

  • Magazine Editor: $48,509
  • Copy Editor: $41,325
  • Associate Book Editor: $42,761
  • Content Manager: $53,575
  • Book Editor: $49,332
  • Web Editor: $48.030

Variable factors include level of experience, location (cities like New York and Chicago are often hot spots for editorial jobs), and full-time salary vs. freelance or project-based rates.

What is the Outlook for Editors?

While the field isn’t expected to grow as much as some industries (particularly tech and healthcare), editors are a perennial need, especially as people push to have quality content available in every conceivable print and digital form.

So what do you think? Are you ready to pick up your red pen (or red pen app) and start content-managing for your supper?

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