So you want to be an editor?

The editorial function is central to a publisher’s activities. To work in editorial is to act at centre stage, to help steer the publishing output of the company while at the same time exhorting, supporting and standing up for the interests of the authors whose intellectual output represents the sole reason for the company’s existence.

What do editors do? A simple question that requires a few paragraphs to answer … If you’re thinking of a career in Editorial, this blog might be of some use or interest. Please feel free to share, tweet, or post to anyone who you think might find it useful. (I teach Publishing, including Editing, at the University of Derby, but the views here are my own.)

Being an editor is widely considered one of the most desirable roles in publishing. Yet the word can mean different things to different people, and ‘editors’ can assume various forms. Experienced publishers may understand the subtle semantic differences, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some novitiates of the industry find it slightly baffling. So, then, what is an editor?

But, I hear you cry, we all know what editing is … it’s correcting someone else’s manuscript, or changing the text somehow in preparation for submission or publication. If you ask a friend, colleague or fellow student to edit your work, you’re usually asking them to be on the look-out for spelling errors, mistakes, inconsistencies, or  ‘howlers’. Within the profession these are some of the tasks undertaken by in-house or freelance copy-editors (in UK newspapers and magazine publishing they’re usually termed sub-editors).

A good copy-editor will indeed spot such infelicities in your use of language, as well as smooth out some of the wrinkles in your syntax and grammar, highlight factual errors or contradictions, suggest rewordings in order to remove ambiguity or improve clarity, or point out any number of textual problems that need addressing. (Experienced editors are often themselves good or even excellent writers.)

As the late, great copy-editor of Cambridge University Press, Judith Butcher, wrote, ‘The main aims of copy-editing are to remove any obstacles between the reader and what the author wants to convey and to find and solve any problems before the book goes to the typesetter, so that production can go ahead without interruption or unnecessary expense.’

A really good editor will go further, drawing attention, perhaps, to logical fallacies, problems of plot or characterisation, or errors of fact. He or she might help you, for instance, avoid unintentional pleonasm; query your use (or over-use) of cliché; gently dissuade you from deploying alliterative tricolons so often (but I do like them so …); suggest that you vary or reduce your sentence lengths; point out inconsistencies in your spelling or capitalisation, or hyphenation … and so on, and so on.

In such ways the very best editors can enhance and add real value to an author’s work, improving the flow of the narrative or the ‘quality’ (however one defines that) of the writing. Indeed, one aspect of recent arguments surrounding self-publishing is that authors might be well advised to avail themselves of the services of an editor and sign up with a publisher under a traditional contract. This is where, it is argued, publishers can really contribute in a tangible and meaningful way to the success of an author’s labours.

All right, then … that all seems clear enough. Alas, no, not quite.

An editor is much more than this. If one makes reference, for example, to the editor of a fiction house one is really talking about the publisher, the literary manager, the commissioning editor, the head, the chief, the boss, the person who decides what will get published and which authors will be commissioned to write what for the imprint. People in such lofty roles are unlikely to work with the actual texts, or to copy-edit what they publish. Rightly they will be more concerned with running the business, strategising, compiling shareholders’ reports, or sipping Prosecco with a favoured author at one of those delightful publisher’s lunches.

Just to be sure, at this point I decided to consult the oracle. I own five English dictionaries: a Collins; a Chambers; and three by Oxford University Press. (I like these best.) One of these is the Shorter (2 volume: A–Markworthy; Marl–Z plus Addenda), purchased in 1981 and on my desk every day since; another (which I rarely use) is the single-volume Concise; and the third is the Compact (whose sense of ironic whimsy brought us such wildly inaccurate names?). Of this last publication mine is the ‘micrographically reproduced’ edition in 21,300 pages in 2-point type (complete with magnifying glass), and I have just consulted this edition to try to discover the definitive meaning of ‘editor’ (or at least the meaning that was current when the lexicographers had arrived finally, bleary-eyed, at this part of the letter ‘e’).

There, we do indeed find the two definitions noted above: on the one hand, an editor is

‘one who prepares the literary work or another person, or number of persons, for publication, by selecting, revising, and arranging the material; also, one who prepares an edition of any literary work’.

Yet this is the second of the dictionary definitions. The first is more concise and quite to the point. Citing an early use of the word in this sense in 1649, the Compact OED says that an editor is

‘the publisher of a book (cf. Fr. éditeur)’.

Now this is very interesting. Are the terms ‘publisher’ and ‘editor’ coterminous? Interchangeable? In theory, more or less, yes. But in practice not always, for in my experience most senior industry executives describe themselves as ‘publisher’, or CEO, or whatever, rather than ‘editor’. In this, the book industry differs markedly from the newspaper press and magazines, where the term ‘editor’ still retains its original French- and Latin-derived meaning, and where editors still write sometimes highly influential and thoughtful ‘editorial’ pieces. And thus we come to the third main meaning of ‘editor’ in the Compact OED:

a. ‘One who conducts a newspaper or periodical publication.’ b. ‘A person in charge of a particular section of a newspaper, e.g. of the financial news (City editor).’

In newspapers and magazines, the boss is indeed often known as the editor … The editor of publications such as The Times or the Guardian leads the editorial direction of the paper to a degree that is much more discernible and overt than in book publishing. To be sure, book publishers may choose which books they will publish on the basis of their own predilections, priorities and preferences. (Oh no, not another alliterative tricolon … I need an editor to stop me!) I’m not sure, though, that the reputation of a particular publishing house is principally dependent upon or derived from the political or moral stance of its proprietor. (Discuss …)

Fuzzy meanings

So, then, an editor can be the senior publisher who decides what will be published; or an editor (particularly a line editor, or a copy-editor, or in newspapers a sub-editor) can, alternatively, be someone who corrects a text in preparation for publication; or a newspaper or magazine proprietor.

Perhaps the very word has its own mystique, its own cachet. For these days it is also applied to a variety of roles that seemingly bear little resemblance to the dictionary definitions. Perhaps the title ‘commissioning editor’ is close enough to ‘publisher of a book’ to pass the semantic test. But what about the ‘production editor’ or ‘project editor’, who doesn’t edit text, but rather deals mainly with project management, often related to the organisation of workflows through freelance copy-editors, proofreaders, typesetters, designers, indexers, etc. Such ‘editors’ may, in fact, know more about critical path analysis and Gantt charts than about the finer points of language, style or syntax. Further, a glance through the publishing job advertisements will find a fairly liberal and loose use of the term: a ‘B2B [business to business] Editor’, for example, whose principal responsibilities are to ‘commission articles and features and report on market news’. Perhaps the reality is that in publishing everyone wants to have ‘editor’ somewhere in their job title?

So you want to be one?

I enjoy editing in both of its principal senses within book publishing. There is no better sensation than assisting, guiding and supporting an author to bring forth successfully the manuscript that you asked him or her to write. Senior publishers or commissioning editors with vision, sensitivity and real market nous can build and enhance the reputation of a publishing house – no matter if it’s scholarly or trade, fiction or non-fiction – and, despite the frequent frustrations and occasional failures inherent in the job, being a senior publishing editor can be a tremendously satisfying activity, one that lies right at the heart of the creative process.

Perhaps equally satisfying, in a different way, is to edit an author’s script and work with them to improve their writing, to make suggestions on style, punctuation or expression, and to help them project their own voice clearly. I know a large number of copy-editors who thoroughly enjoy this aspect of their work.

Writing style has been a concern of writers, editors and theorists since ancient times. Isocrates (436–338 BC) wrote a definitive guide to how one might structure a piece of writing for maximum effect (and his structure serves well to this day, especially for polemics, political writings, or student dissertations), while he described rhetoric (or ‘advanced style’) as ‘that endowment of our human nature which raises us above mere animality and enables us to live the civilised life’.

Tudor rhetorician George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poesie, 1588, much consulted by Shakespeare) knew just as well as his ancient counterparts, Aristotle and Cicero, that an appropriate choice of style, as well as sophisticated use of stylistic figures, is fundamental to truly effective writing. For, to be an effective and knowledgeable editor one has to understand all the figures, tropes and schemes that good authors deploy – and have always deployed – in their writing.

So, if you do decide that you’d like to be an editor, I hope that this article has helped you decide what type of editor you’d most like to be … commissioning new books, or working with authors to prepare their works for publication. In small companies you might even get a chance to do both. Perhaps many will start as one and work toward the other.

So, how does one become an editor? What skills, knowledge and attributes does one need? That, of course, will depend on which sector you’re interested in: fiction or non-fiction; scholarly, professional or trade; general audience or children’s. For my answers to all these questions, you have a choice: enrol, today (!) on the MA Publishing at the University of Derby, where the two modules ‘Editorial’ and ‘English for Editors’ deal in depth with the two types of editing described above; await a further blog post that I will try to complete this spring (to anyone I’ve taught over the years, or to anyone who knows me, it won’t come as a great surprise to learn that English language skills will feature high on that list); or read about the subject in one of the many books available. You may also join a growing range of publishing organisations in this field, such as BookMachine, or the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

Happy editing (whatever that means).

Author: Alistair Hodge

Hi I've been a non-fiction book publisher since 1984 and now also teach publishing at the University of Derby (new MA Publishing beginning September 2016; and from 2017 undergraduate courses too).

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