How to Become an Editor

copy editor working in office reading online

Do you love to read and have an eye for ways to improve an author’s writing? You could have a fulfilling future as a professional editor. Editors are hired by various organizations to ensure that printed or published materials are error-free and reader-friendly before they are released to the public.

The process of becoming an editor typically begins with earning an English degree. It is possible to become an editor with an academic background in a different humanities field. However, if you are still in high school and you already know you want to become an editor, you should plan on earning an English degree.

What Do Editors Do?

One of the interesting aspects of this career is the many hats an editor can wear. There are many kinds of editors, each with different daily responsibilities. The ultimate responsibility of every editor, however, is to improve the quality of written work.

Some of an editor’s specific tasks may include the following:

  • Hire, train and supervise writers and other editors
  • Develop content ideas and assign articles to writers
  • Fact-check pieces for accuracy prior to publication 
  • Rewrite copy or send a piece back to the writer for recommended revisions
  • Correct errors in punctuation, grammar, syntax and spelling
  • Ensure that each piece of writing follows established style guidelines

Editors can work for a variety of companies, ranging from book publishing houses and marketing agencies to newspapers and periodicals.

Understanding the Types of Editors

There are many types of editors; their specific roles often depend on the companies they work for. For example, an editor at a small marketing firm might work on numerous media, including press releases, website content and sales collateral. An editor at a book publishing house, however, would more likely focus on one specific genre or niche.

  • Developmental editor: Developmental editors are found in book publishing houses and agencies that provide services to independent (indie) authors. A developmental editor acts as a mentor in the craft of writing who provides big-picture help with issues such as plot lines, character development, settings and themes (or their nonfiction counterparts). In essence, a developmental editor helps shape the course of a story. Some developmental editors also provide guidance on a book’s market potential and on the writer’s development as a storyteller.
  • Acquisitions editor: Acquisitions editors also work in the book publishing industry. As counterintuitive as it might sound, acquisitions editors typically do very little editing work. Instead, these professionals are responsible for analyzing current market conditions, predicting trends among book readers, reviewing manuscripts submitted by literary agents and identifying talent whose work their employers may want to publish.
  • Editor-in-chief: An editor-in-chief often works for a newspaper, magazine or similar print or digital publication. The editor-in-chief, who is the organization’s highest-ranking editor, supervises the editors and writers, establishes the voice of the publication, sets publishing guidelines and has the final say on which pieces are published. This professional is also responsible for managing the budget, periodically writing editorials and representing the publication at public events such as conferences.
  • Managing editor: The managing editor reports to the editor-in-chief and supervises the publication’s daily operations. Managing editors have duties such as assigning articles, ensuring that pieces are written according to schedule, answering questions from the various editing departments and representing the publication when the editor-in-chief is unavailable.
  • Copy editor: Copy editors are grammar gurus who are responsible for ensuring that a piece adheres to style guidelines and is free of errors in punctuation, spelling, syntax and grammar. Copy editors also fact-check statements ensure the writing is free of potentially libelous statements and evaluate the entirety of the piece for consistency. Ultimately, copy editors ensure that a piece of writing is cohesive and consistent.
  • Proofreader: After the copy editor is finished with a piece, it goes to the proofreader. Proofreaders are not concerned with overall consistency or accuracy, and they do not carry out any rewrites. Rather, they double-check that the writing is free of errors in punctuation, grammar and syntax and that all the formatting (fonts, layout and spacing) is as it should be.

As you can see, there are many varieties of editors responsible for working on any given publication. One of the first steps in the process of becoming an editor is to narrow down the details of your career path.

It is important to understand that you will likely perform different roles at different stages of your career. You might start out as a copy editor or proofreader. You might then work your way up to the position of managing editor or developmental editor. Alternatively, you might begin — like many editors — as a professional writer before making the transition to editing.

How You Become an Editor: An Overview

The process of becoming an editor can begin in high school. Talk to your guidance counselor about adjusting your course load to suit your career ambitions. It is a good idea to take as many humanities courses as possible, including creative writing classes.

Additionally, editors need to be computer savvy, so do not hesitate to take computer literacy courses. Since many editors are freelancers who run their own businesses, it can be helpful to take an accounting course or a class in entrepreneurship. Lastly, consider taking courses that deepen your knowledge of subject areas you might like to specialize in (e.g., science-related courses if you see yourself as a future science magazine editor).

As you get closer to your high school graduation date, look for a college degree program that will support your career path. It is common for aspiring editors to earn a Bachelor of Arts in English with an Emphasis in Professional Writing or a similar degree.

During high school and college, you should explore internships and job-shadowing opportunities. Internships are particularly important for the book publishing niche, as it is customary for editors to work their way up from assistant-level positions. An internship will also enable you to build invaluable professional connections that can help you land your first full-time job after graduation.

Designate Time to Read Every Day

People come to this field from all walks of life and with a variety of academic and professional backgrounds. However, they all share one thing in common: an enduring passion for the written word. If you have your heart set on becoming an editor, you should read as much as you can as often as you can.

Ideally, both writers and editors should be voracious readers. Being well-read gives you an intuitive sense of what works and what does not and how to improve various pieces of writing.

It is best to spend most of your reading time within your intended niche. For instance, if you want to become the editor of a science magazine, you should read STEM field magazines regularly. If you want to become a developmental editor for a publishing house that specializes in literary fiction and urban fantasy novels, you should focus on books in those genres.

However, it is also important to read outside your intended niche. This is especially important in the early stages of your career, when necessity might compel you to accept a position that is not your dream job. Once you gain real-world work experience, you can begin the transition to your ideal work situation.

How to Become an Editor: Earning Your English Degree

The job of an editor is an intellectually challenging one. Accordingly, it is important to maintain good grades as an undergraduate student. Though the details of the English curriculum vary from one school to the next, most programs include topics like the following:

  • The craft of creative writing
  • The analysis of multicultural literature
  • The written word’s role in the marketing and PR fields
  • The development of technical and academic writing
  • The role of multimedia in 21st-century journalism

An English degree is a reading- and writing-intensive program that will help you fine-tune your skills. Although you will be reading quite a lot for your courses, you should also continue to read as much as you can on your own time. In addition, you might consider declaring a minor that reflects your interests and will help qualify you for a specific publishing niche.

Building Your Portfolio While You’re an Undergrad

All editors should possess better-than-average writing skills; otherwise, they would have a difficult time suggesting improvements to someone else’s writing. This means that in order to land your first full-time job as an editor or editorial assistant, you will need to prove that your writing skills are exceptional. This begs the question: How can you prove that you possess solid writing skills if you do not yet have professional experience writing for publication?

The solution is your portfolio. Throughout your college studies, you will be producing various pieces of writing for your classes. You may also complete a capstone project in your senior year. You should save all your writing during these years.

As you near your graduation date, you can begin reviewing all your writing and determining which pieces best showcase your writing talent. You will include these in your portfolio to show to potential employers.

You need not limit yourself to work produced for your classes. During your time as an undergrad, it is a good idea to get involved in relevant extracurricular activities.

For example, you can write for the school newspaper or alumni magazine and complete internships that require writing assignments. Work produced for these activities can also be included in your professional portfolio.

Do You Need a Graduate Degree to Become an Editor?

Most editors do not need a graduate degree. The exception is editors of academic or technical publications. Editors at academic or scientific journals and technical writing agencies may need to have a graduate degree.

However, you need not necessarily earn a graduate degree right away. After earning your bachelor’s degree, you can work on landing your first job. Then, as you acquire work experience, you can start thinking about going back to school on a part-time basis to earn a master’s degree.

Freelance vs. Employee: Weighing Your Options

The decision whether to become an in-house editor or a freelance editor is a major one that should be carefully considered. Know, however, that you can change your mind and shift your career path as time goes on. Many in-house editors make the transition to freelancing, and vice versa.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 14% of editors are freelancers and 35% work for publishers of books, newspapers, periodicals and directories. About 10% of editors work for professional, scientific and technical publishing services.*

There are benefits and drawbacks to each path. Freelance editors enjoy the following:

  • Flexible schedule
  • Ability to work from anywhere with a stable internet connection
  • Freedom to take on your preferred clients
  • Ability to set your own rates and specialize in your preferred field

However, freelance editors must also spend time managing their business, advertising their services and interacting with clients. Self-employed individuals must also pay more in taxes and may deal with an unpredictable income.

Some benefits of becoming an in-house editor include the following:

  • Predictable paycheck
  • Benefits, including healthcare and retirement
  • Consistent workflow
  • Paid time off
  • Enhanced credibility derived from working for an established organization

Of course, there are also drawbacks, such as a reduced ability to choose your own projects and less flexible scheduling.

The good news is that you need not make up your mind right now. Many professionals first go to work for established companies, where they polish their skills on the job and learn the tools of the trade. This also allows them to develop professional connections and build a reputation in their field.

Later, after acquiring some work experience, editors may decide to hang up their own shingle. As a freelancer, it is generally easier to attract clients once you have some work experience on your resume. Of course, an editor who has become a freelancer can also return to working as an in-house editor at a later date.

Students with a passion for language are encouraged to apply to the Bachelor of Arts in English with an Emphasis in Professional Writing program offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Grand Canyon University. Graduates will emerge with advanced writing and editing skills, along with a polished portfolio that sets them apart from other job candidates. Click on the Request Info button at the top of your screen to learn more about our supportive learning community and available degree options.

*COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Editors

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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