On Editing, Part Three: How to Become an Editor

Proofreading red pencil with various errors on paper

This has been a series of posts on disconnects. So far, the series has covered the disconnect between the editing people need and what they think they need and the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what an editor needs to make per hour. This last post is on the disconnect between English courses at school and editing in the real world, and it’s all the things I wish I would have known a few years ago.

A few months ago, I was having a drink with a fellow language-lover. We were catching up on where each other was at in her life, and she asked, “So, how does one go to school to be an editor, exactly?” The implication, I suppose, was that step one (I went to school) led to step two (I’m an editor). It’s not an unreasonable thing to assume.

I thought for a second and said, “Um…one doesn’t.”

That isn’t to say one can’t, necessarily. The college I went to offered two English major tracks: writing and literature. I chose the literature track (which, by the way, demanded just as much writing as the other track). At no point was there offered any class on advanced grammar, linguistics, or the skill of editing.

Now, larger and differently-focused schools may offer editing classes, especially if they’re well known for their journalism programs. Of course, being an editor in the journalism world often actually means you’re writing. But you can seek out schools with editing courses.

For some, though, that’s not the most practical course of action to take. Editing and advanced grammar classes are not very easy to come by, I’ve found. And even then, they’re courses, not degrees.

You do need a degree, of course. English is best, but you might be able to squeak in with a communications, journalism or marketing degree. But this isn’t the way you will learn how to be an editor. A degree is your way into the door of a company.

If you want to be an editor, your training is in your own hands. Here’s how you really learn how to be an editor.

Learn Your Grammar

The first thing you want to do is become more grammar-savvy than the layman. You probably already are, if you’re thinking about going into this field. But you need to strategize around defense, especially if you’re just starting out. Assume someone is going to call you on every edit you make. If you know the rules, you can make many of these changes with confidence.

Figure our your parts of speech, your dependent and independent clauses, and your active and passive verbs. Learn to speak the language of grammarians. It will help you begin to understand how sentences work, and when those secrets are unlocked, sentences will become putty in your hands. Instead of thinking, “There’s just something awkward about this,” you’ll think, “Oh, of course this sentence sounding sing-song-y. It has five prepositional phrases in a row.”

Here’s where you start: at the 90s-tastic but still very useful website Garden of Phrases. Start on page one and take the quiz. Then select “quizzes” from the dropdown and start taking them all. It’s a brutal wake-up call. But you need to know what you don’t know.

From there, learn to diagram sentences. I got this workbook: I don’t know if I’m crazy about it, but lots of people are. Don’t get too hung up in mastering 100% of the details right away, like I did. Just plow through it.

Also, become zen about Murphry’s Law, if you write as well. There will be at least five errors in every post I make about grammar and editing. I try not to post garbage or anything, but if I actually strived for 100% perfection in everything I wrote, no one would ever hear a peep from me. I would just be sitting in front of the keyboard, shaking in terror. Don’t get so worked up about the rules that you can’t function, but know them.

Learn Your Style Guides

Following a style guide is what makes sure all things in the text are harmonious. These guides deal with issues that aren’t usually a matter of grammar, and they aren’t dictating what’s universally right or wrong. You can write a date as 9/5/15 or you can write it as September 5th, 2015. Neither are wrong. But you shouldn’t use both styles in one text. That’s where style guides come in.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook are your two must-know guides. Learn the key differences between these two, and you’ll be in good shape. As a starter kit, buy a copy of each guide that’s one edition old–you’ll save money, and you can quickly find out what’s been updated in the new versions with a Google search. And for light reading, check out AP vs Chicago for the essential differences. It kills me that this blog is inactive because it’s been a marvelous resource to me over the years. Plus, the author is a delight.

You can check out my own in-house style guide I made for a company (and you can tell me about any grammar errors you find). Some of the decisions I made about style itself was because I was swimming upstream against legacy, but there is some advice in there you might find interesting.

Here are some books on general style that are beneficial and/or fun to read. They are not by any means holy grail resources, since so much of style is personal preference. (Except Steven Pinker’s book. Everything in there is gold.)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss–A little prescriptivist and “thou shalt” for my taste, but I’m better for reading it

Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh–and I can probably blindly recommend anything else he’s written. I loved this book and am dying to read his others. Bill is an editor for the Washington Post, and he is hilarious and brilliant. I don’t agree with every little thing he says in this book, but I love all of it anyway. He also does live chats called Grammar Geekery the first Thursday of every month, where he’s answered tons of my questions. But even if you don’t need answers, you should lurk just to watch his on-point, delightful snark at work.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White—Dated, troubling in many cases, perpetuates zombie rules, but, well, you have to at least have read it. You can’t be the editor that isn’t at least able to argue about Strunk and White.

Besides, “omit needless words” is an editorial mantra that should stand for all time. If nothing else, that phrase redeems much of the stylistic quackery.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda—Ben’s another great editor to keep tabs on, and this book will help you better understand the parts of speech and where they can go wrong.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker—A forward-thinking, beautifully written piece from a linguist who really understands how the written word works. I’ll be honest; I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it’s so far been my absolute favorite book on style. Pinker is in the descriptivist camp, and with his ideas come great freedom to believe writing is improving as we communicate more and more. (See here for a description of prescriptivist vs descriptivist schools of thought. Hint: descriptivists are always on the right side of history.) He is a fan of deflating self-important academic/business writing in order to communicate with simplicity and elegance.

Follow Thought Leaders and Have Reliable Sources

Subscribe to the blog Lingua Franca, and keep your eye on people like Ben Yagoda and Geoffrey Pullman. Follow the marvelous Tom Freeman at the Stroppy Editor, though keep in mind that he’s operating under a slightly different set of rules due to geographic location. (And if you’re not American, beg pardon—it’s actually Americans who are operating under the different rules, of course.) I also subscribe to Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, although you may want to avoid his blog if you have a low tolerance for politics. Keep tabs on the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) even if you don’t join. You can tweet to the editors at the Wichita Eagle @grammarmonkeys if you have any questions about grammar and editing. It’s an awesome service.

But most of all, if you have questions, learn where to go for answers you trust. If I can’t find answers in my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or if I know my question is purely grammar-related, I go to straight to the English Language Stack Exchange, where a meritocracy and a community of field experts guarantees a good answer. Search for your question before you ask. The community is a little hostile if they think you’re being lazy. But it’s my favorite resource, and it’s never steered me wrong. It also deals with really complex questions.

There are other good resources. Purdue’s OWL is not comprehensive, but it’s very useful and reliable. If you go to Google with a question, and anything shows up with the address “grammar.ccc.commnet.edu” attached to it, it’s going to be trustworthy—that’s the site with the Garden of Phrases. Things from Jane Strauss’ Grammar Book tend to be correct, as well, although I’d be wary of that site being out of the loop for too long. It’s also worth saying Grammar Girl is totally worth the hype. If she’s addressed your question, she’s got it right. Sometimes, but not always, academic resources can be helpful. Look for .edu as a tag at the end of the URL. But the correctness of .edu sites is not a given.

Also, if you have two editorial choices you’re wavering between, check out Google NGrams. It searches Google Books for your terms. That means you’re not necessarily looking up the right answer, but you are seeing at usage over time and trends. It’s useful for a lot of things. For instance, I can see that I’m not making the best decision by choosing to leave the space out of “copyeditor.”

Capture

Lastly, I hope it goes without saying that you never, never go to forums like Yahoo Answers. That’s where all truth goes to die.

Start Editing, Even if You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Offer to edit people’s blogs for free. Contact a small non-profit you love and offer to proofread their newsletter. Become an editor on your school newspaper or offer to do a little proofreading for your town’s community center. When you start, research the answer to absolutely EVERY question you have—never guess—and keep a list of your answers.

What really prepared me to be an editor had nothing to do with my coursework. It was tutoring at my writing center. Our writing center was no joke. I had four months of intensive training. I learned so much about research, argument structure, thesis-building, checking for coherency, writing for readers, how to self-edit, you name it. That was the true foundation to me becoming more than someone who just had a “feel” for what is right/wrong or clear/awkward. It was what bridged the gap between me just being a good second pair of eyes on text to being what is a real-deal editor. If you have an opportunity like this, take it. If you don’t have the opportunity for training like this, well, let me know. I was thinking of maybe starting a program that can do for others what this writing center did for me.

Have a Real Editor Look at Your Resume

Don’t have your mom read your resume. Don’t give it to college advisor. I mean, you can also do that. But if you’re applying to be an editor for the first time, you’ve got to get that resume in front of an actual editor. There are things you don’t know you’re doing wrong that can bump you off the radar if someone who knows what he/she’s doing is narrowing the field of applicants. I just looked at the resume I sent out as a fresh grad and I was horrified to see I had separated dates (as in “worked here September of 2010 through June of 2012”) with a hyphen instead of an n-dash. That might not seem like a big deal. But if I were hiring an assistant editor now and was looking through a pile of resumes, and all I’m looking for is a reason to throw some of them out, that hyphen tells me, “Oh. This person is too much of a newbie or doesn’t pay enough attention to detail to know that this isn’t how you treat dates.” Then I toss it to the side.

Get a real editor’s eyes on your resume. At least make sure the door doesn’t close prematurely.

I’m pleased to announce this part is pretty easy. I’m a real editor, and I’m happy to take a look at your resume if you’re starting out. No charge. I’m currently trying to build up good karma so I can go do something awful later and not be reincarnated as a cicada.

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