Are you editor material?

Editing is not a glamour career. If you want to be famous, it’s not what you can do to get there (though you can be an editor and be famous for something else; I know of examples). Nor is it a career that will make you rich. (In fact, freelance editing is hard to survive at if you’re not married to someone with a good salary. In-house editing jobs can, but don’t always, pay better, but they’re not so easy to find.) Nonetheless, there are many people who want to be editors, including some who offer their editing services to friends or colleagues, sometimes without being asked. So what are the characteristics of a person who could become a good editor?

Well, first of all, if you have a burning desire to fix other people’s prose, if the very sight of a minor grammatical error puts you into a rage, if anytime you see something written you know you could have written it better, if you are often heard to counsel your friends (without being asked) on how to improve their grammar or expressions, if you perhaps carry a marker with which to correct signs in grocery stores, DO NOT BECOME AN EDITOR. At least not until you’ve grown up and changed your personality.

If, on the other hand, you love language and think it’s fun, and you love communication and understand that what’s most important in communication is bringing minds together, and that the results dictate the means, you could become an editor.

If you always have to have things your way, STAY OUT OF EDITING. If making other people happy makes you happy, you may be editor material.

If you are often heard to say things like “That doesn’t matter” and “Why should I care about that?” and “I don’t know about that; it’s not important to me” and “Why do you know all these dumb, useless things,” you will never make any sort of decent editor. On the other hand, if other people often say things like that to you, you very well may! Certainly, if you are more likely to say “I wonder” and “Let’s find out” and “Let me look that up,” and if reading reference works and looking random things up out of sheer interest is something you have always done for fun, you have the right disposition to become an editor.

If you see something that you don’t recognize and don’t know the function of, and you conclude it’s useless, stay out of editing. If you see something that you don’t recognize and don’t know the function of, and it provokes in you an excited desire to find out what it is and what it does, you’re editor material.

20 responses to “Are you editor material?

  1. That said, I should also say that if you think rules are for suckers, you’re not going to make it in editing, but really, you’re also not likely to want to go into it in the first place. Editing involves sane, thoughtful, pragmatic choice and consistent application of rules, in full cognizance of their bases and limitations. (That’s not all it involves, of course.)

  2. Uplifting to read, thank you! Editors are avid students then, and like the best writers, Engaged and engaging teachers, adventurers.

  3. Very interesting post. My brother fits most of the categories you say should stay out of editing, but wants to be an editor. I fit most of the pro-editing qualities you list … but i want to ask about a few more qualities, and how you think they might fit.

    How about someone who loves to write, but never – ever finishes anything longer than an email or a poem? (Well, maybe an occasional essay.)

    Someone with a very limited ego. Almost never forceful in his opinions, though opinionated. Very diplomatic, but willing to stick by his guns (in a peaceful sense) when he feels something is of importance?

    • There are many very good editors who don’t write much. That may seem odd, but writing is active and editing is reactive. I can edit with distractions all around me. When I’m writing, I need peace. If you’re the sort of person who can finish work or school assignments on time, you can be an editor.

      As to your limited ego, etc., you sound as though you have very much the editor’s sort of personality. (You may need to learn to be assertive when it comes to getting a fair price for your work, but that’s a weakness for many editors.)

  4. This advice is so much more useful advice than “know your grammar.” You’ve described the “temperament” the job requires.
    When you mentioned that you won’t always get your way (So true!), did you also mean to imply patience? Perhaps they are inextricably bound up.
    One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that there is no “right,” only “clearer” and “more common.” And this has helped immensely in dealing with the previous point.

    • The way I see it, if you’re interested in being an editor, that means you’re interested in language, and if you combine that with the traits I describe, you will know grammar pretty well – and will look up and sort out the things you’re not sure of, and learn more and more all the time.

      Patience is a great virtue. I’ve always wanted to have it. I wish I would hurry up and get some. (Seriously, I am not by nature a patient person at all, and it’s one of my chiefest faults.)

  5. Many random reactions:

    I like the idea (gleaned from Terry Pratchett, but I doubt he originated it) that most rules exist to make you think before you break them.

    As to “Why do you know/care about all these dumb, useless things?” my wife says that sort of thing to me all the time!

    I find it interesting that you could take your last two paragraphs, substitute the word ‘scientist’ for ‘editor’ and pretty much be spot on. I’m neither an editor nor a scientist, but I admire both. (Though I’m told by a writer friend of mine that I would make a good copy editor [which, I know, isn’t the same thing].)

    I used to be a pretty heavy prescriptivist until I listened to John McWhorter’s TTC lecture series, Understanding Linguistics, which gave me the basis for understand why prescriptivism is, if not wrong outright, then at least misguided. Which made me able to read your occasional posts about language in agreement rather than in a rage. 🙂

    I do get irritated by signs in grocery stores, though.

    Oh, hey, seeing the Ngram viewer in your ‘blogroll’ reminds me: If you aren’t already subscribed (and you have time), you might be interested to check out Daniel Pink’s blog. Last month he started an occasional feature of comparing word trends using the viewer. So far he’s only done a couple; we’ll see if he continues.

    • A copy editor is, in fact, not only a kind of editor, but one of the main kinds. Most of the editors I know do mainly copyediting and substantive editing. For a run-down of the different types of editor, along with more on what an editor does and what it takes to be an editor, see “So, You Want to Be an Editor.” There is also a run-down of editorial skills at “Definitions of editorial skills.”

      I still get irritated by some bad usages. But more an more often now I’m amused, or at worst I just sigh wearily.

      I should say, just to spell out what I implied, that while hard-line prescriptivists shouldn’t be editors (they also shouldn’t be hard-line prescriptivists – nobody should be), ex-hard-line prescriptivists often make very good editors. After all, if you’re a hard-line prescriptivist, that means you care about language and have an eye for exceptions. If you can outgrow your pet mumpsimuses, you may very well make quite a good editor.

      Daniel Pink, eh? I’ll check him out. Thanks!

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  8. I often question my decision to pursue an editing career, and I wanted to say a quick thank you for this post. I’m currently employed as a proofreader for a financial services company, but the job title can be misleading as I spend more time editing and writing than I do proofreading. I found your blog in my weekly research for ways to improve as a writer/editor, and I’ve really enjoyed your views on language, literacy, and the world of professional editing. I don’t always have the highest opinion of my abilities, so thank you again for restoring my self-confidence. 🙂

  9. In my experience, a person doesn’t decide to become an editor at a later stage in life. Rather, it’s the result of a lifetime’s training. The vital skills an editor brings to the job are an understanding of what “the usual thing” is in any textual circumstance, and an ear for the music of language.

    Yes, I know that there are some editors who don’t write much, but I do not consider such persons to be peers. The best editors I know are also skilled writers. Because substantive and developmental and line editing require writing competence. If you lack writing ability, then copy editing may be the highest rung you can reach.

    General editing (as opposed to the technical kind) demands a familiarity with the canon of great literature. This means anyone under the age of 30 or so probably hasn’t read enough to be able to compare a given piece of writing against the best authors known. This point is arguable and could be debated, yet I’d rather trust my prose to be judged by an editor who has a deep working knowledge of the sort of writing that has stood the test of time.

    Another question I’d posit to the person wishing to enter the profession is: “Can you teach yourself the minutiae of any area of human endeavor?” One job might require a knowledge of nuclear physics, another a grasp of elevator mechanics, and another the details of hospice care. Whatever the project, an editor needs to get up to speed – and quickly. You have to drink in trivia as if it were life’s blood.

    Financially, the pay is pretty good if you specialize. Harlequin romances won’t pay nearly as much as working on academic material.

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