How to Become an Editor: A Guide for Beginners
Are you the kind of person who can glance over a block of text and spot all the typos immediately? Do you get a special kind of satisfaction from feeding back on friends’ essays? Have you always loved literature and dreamt of working with words, words, words (as Hamlet once said)?
If you answered “yes” to any or all of these questions, then you might be the perfect candidate to learn how to become an editor — and maybe even build a business out of it.
Of course, editing for a living is no picnic, and it takes quite a bit of work just to get started. But if you’re passionate, determined, and truly care about improving the written word, editing could be the career of a lifetime for you! Read on to find out what an editor does, which factors determine editing success, and how to become an editor in six simple steps.
What does an editor do?
The particulars of an editor’s job depend on the type(s) of editing they do. However, every professional editor needs sharp eyes, a patient and focused disposition, great communication skills, and — most of all — a strong sense of what works in a story.
An editor’s job is working with writers to transform their work into the best possible version of itself. This can mean anything from rephrasing a couple of sentences to restructuring the entire piece. However, all editing suggestions should ultimately be in service of three things:
- Refining the author’s voice;
- Achieving the piece’s purpose; and
- Ensuring that the audience understands the text itself.
Again, the specifics of this will vary based on the type of editing in question. A developmental editor, for example, looks at the “big picture” of a book and adjusts the narrative and overall style to whip it into shape — which can be a huge undertaking, especially if it’s the author’s first book.
Then a copy editor, sometimes called a line editor, evaluates the writing on a line-by-line basis: tweaking the prose to make it more effective, fixing spelling and grammar mistakes, and scouring for small inconsistencies that the developmental editor may have missed.
Proofreading is the last step in the editing process. This involves fixing all the tiny mistakes that neither the developmental nor copy editor noticed. It's also where typo-finding becomes crucial, as proofing is the final boundary between manuscript and publication — if a proofreader doesn’t catch those typos, they’re going in the published book.
These are the three main types of literary editing. Academic editors, news and magazine editors, blog and media editors, and others typically perform a combination of all three, though it can still be beneficial to specialize in one over the others.
💰 How much do editors make?
As of 2020, the average editor in the U.S. makes around $65-70k/year. An editor who’s just starting out will make less, more in the range of $30-50k depending on the quality and quantity of projects they take on. And an editor with years of experience and high-level expertise, such as a current or former Big 5 editor, can make up to $100k/year or even more.
In other words, editors make a respectable salary, especially once they’ve been in the industry for awhile. That said, you shouldn’t become an editor just for the paycheck; editing might pay well, but you have to earn your keep. This means day after day of close reading, thoughtful feedback, and communication with clients. All this is fulfilling, but it can also be quite draining — and if you don’t love editing, the money may not be worth it.
Of course, if all that sounds pretty reasonable to you, you could be the perfect fit. But how can you know if you’re cut out for an editing career, when you’ve never worked with authors or publishers before? Well, that leads into our next section…
Is editing right for you?
We’ve already covered a few things you need to be a good editor: attention to detail, patience, focus, and knowledge about what makes a good story in terms of both structure and prose itself. But even if you possess all these qualities and feel well-suited to editing, doing it for a living might be very different from what you’re expecting.
You can ask yourself the following questions to decide whether editing is the right career for you:
- What aspect(s) of editing am I interested in specifically?
- Do I have a solid grasp of what works narratively, stylistically, and thematically in today’s market — and if not, am I willing to learn?
- Am I capable of conveying my thoughts about other people’s writing in a clear and constructive manner?
- Can I read through dozens of pages per day without losing focus?
- Do I work well under pressure, or do I need lots of time and flexibility?
In order to become a successful editor, you need to have a genuine, passionate interest in editing from the outset. You should know whether you prefer developing stories themselves, or working through the gritty mechanics of writing (spelling, grammar, etc.).
As a book or publication editor, you also need to have your finger on the pulse of modern literary culture: what people like to read these days and why. And when communicating with writers about how to make their work better and more culturally appealing, you need to strike a delicate balance between honesty and diplomacy.
Finally, you have to love to read, as you’ll be combing through multiple pieces or chapters per day. You’ll also be tackling multiple projects at once — so if you have trouble juggling responsibilities, meeting deadlines, or generally working under pressure, an editing career probably isn’t for you.
Of course, if you’re lacking in any of these areas, you can always develop them. At the end of the day, nothing should stop you from becoming an editor if that’s what you want to do! And if you feel confident that editing is your destined path, you’re ready for this next section: how to become an editor and build your career from the ground up.
How to become an editor in 6 steps
1. Read as much as you can
The first (and most practical) thing you can do to prepare for an editing career is to read, read, read. Of course, if you’re interested in becoming an editor, you’re probably already an avid reader. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your reading habits even more!
Specifically, you should start reading more pieces in your intended specialty. So if you want to become a literary fiction editor, pore over the New York Times Best Seller list to find the hottest new novels and short story collections. Or if you hope to become a lifestyle magazine editor, subscribe to Vogue and Town & Country so you can keep up with the latest voices, topics, and trends in that arena.
If you’re not sure what you want your specialty to be, that’s okay too! The main goal here is to sharpen your editorial senses — every book, article, and essay you read contributes to your understanding of what makes good writing (and what doesn’t). Try to break down and articulate the elements of works that are especially successful, so you can replicate those elements in your own projects down the line.
2. Earn your bachelor’s degree
This next step has become increasingly vital as the field has flooded with aspiring editors. In order to stand out as a skilled, qualified professional, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree — preferably in English, journalism, or communications. Yes, in days past, some editors could skate by on skill alone, but nowadays a degree is more or less required for an editing career.
The good news, it doesn’t have to be difficult, or even terribly expensive! You can complete your bachelor’s degree online or at state/city college, and your current employer might even be willing to pay your tuition if you’ve been working there for a certain amount of time. There are plenty of scholarship opportunities available for humanities students as well, and applying for them will have the helpful effect of boosting your writing and editing skills along the way.
Note having a bachelor’s degree in a non-editing-related subject will be sufficient as well. Though the aforementioned majors are ideal, it’s not so much about what you’ve learned in school as it is about having the degree. (After all, tons of people enjoy flourishing careers that are unrelated to their college majors.) What a degree really proves is that you’re smart, hardworking, and dedicated: all qualities that people desire in their editors.
3. Take internships and low-paying jobs
You’ve been reading all you can and have earned (or are well on your way to earning) that coveted bachelor’s degree. Now it’s time to obtain your first bit of professional editing work via internships and low-paying jobs.
As with getting your degree, this part is less about the work itself than it is about establishing yourself as an editor. One of the best ways to achieve this is by getting a job as an editorial assistant, or landing an internship with a publisher or publication!
Editing internships are great because, though you won’t make much money, you’ll have a steady stream of work coming in that you can use to hone your skills and grow your portfolio. You can search for editing internships on sites like Indeed and LinkedIn — and if you’re still in school, or have recently graduated, see what you can find through your college’s job search portal.
If you can’t find or can’t afford to take such an internship, you can look for short-term gigs on freelancing sites like Upwork. However, you’ll still need to create a compelling profile and strive to sell your services. You’ll also have to take jobs that don’t really interest you at first, and do every kind of editing work, no matter what your preference (for instance, you might plan to specialize in developmental editing, but you’ll be doing mostly copy and line editing for these gigs).
This part of your editing career is the definition of “the hustle.” You’ll be working long hours, not getting paid much, and feeling unsure about whether you even can be an editor. But if you manage to push through all that, you’ll emerge on the other side with plentiful knowledge and experience to serve as the foundation of your editing career.
4. Find your niche as an editor
The biggest silver lining of working so much is that you’ll start to form a very clear idea of your own editing niche: where your natural skills lie and what you most enjoy doing. So after a few months of experience, you should definitely be considering what kind of editor you want to be in the long-term!
We’ve already touched on the three main categories of literary editing (developmental, copy, and proofreading), but now let’s break down the most common types of editors, so you can think about which path you might want to pursue.
📘 Book editors
Book editors work on full-length manuscripts of 50,000 words or more. Consequently, this is the most intensive area of editing (especially if you want to become a developmental editor). However, book editing also offers a massive variety of projects to choose from: fiction, nonfiction, and all the different genres they contain.
As a book editor, you’ll directly influence the literary world and engage with exciting projects that look great on your résumé. In other words, it's an incredibly rewarding niche — but it’s also a major commitment, so make sure to familiarize yourself with the world of writing and publishing before you devote yourself to a book editing career.
📝 News and magazine editors
News and magazine editors work on news, feature, and opinion pieces for a given publication, most of which clock in at around 1,000-2,000 words. So each individual assignment is fairly easy to get through, but as a news or magazine editor, you’ll be expected to edit multiple articles each day — often going through multiple rounds of editing on each article. For this specialty, a degree in journalism or communications is essential, and you’ll probably need a foot-in-the-door internship or personal connection to snag a decent position as well.
🎓 Academic editors
Academic editors work on research papers, theses, and dissertations. These can be anywhere from 20 to 200 pages, so depending on your specialty, you might be working on pieces that are basically manuscripts themselves. In order to make a career out of academic editing, you will need a post-grad degree in the relevant subject and the ability to wade through lots of dense text. It’s certainly not for everyone, and is usually only a viable career option for those who already have a master’s or PhD.
👩💻 Web editors
Web editors create and edit content for various online sources. As a web editor, you’ll need to know how to apply search engine optimization (SEO) tactics, and how to publish your writing with tools like WordPress and other content management systems. This is a good choice of specialty for those hoping to gain applicable skills in an increasingly Internet-based world, but it may be hard to find clients yourself, especially at first.
As you rise in your chosen field, particularly at a publication, you may also become a managing editor or even an editor-in-chief (EIC). These roles come with specific requirements and greater responsibilities, but if you’re just starting out as an editor, you don’t need to worry about them yet — it’s just good to know that there are always more rungs on the editing ladder, which means more opportunities for your career to grow down the line.
5. Chase better editing jobs
Once you have some general experience under your belt and you’ve determined your niche, it’s time to go after that niche work with all you’ve got. So if you want to be a book editor, home in on book editing jobs. If your dream is to become the EIC of a well-known magazine, edit tons of articles and constantly check their website (and LinkedIn) for job listings.
And if you don’t have one already, you should build a website to advertise your services and portfolio. Though profiles on other job platforms will help, it’s important to carve out your own space on the web, so clients can see you are a dedicated professional! You can even blog about editing-related topics to demonstrate your expertise and attract clients.
Now is also the time to pull out all the stops when it comes to networking, both online and in person. If you’re struggling to capture the job(s) you really want, rack your brain for any people you know — however randomly or distantly — who work in that field, and reach out to them for help. Ask your current or former teachers, your coworkers, your parents, your friends, and your friends’ friends whether they can give you a boost.
Think of this as the culmination of all your efforts. You’ve gained the necessary experience and proven to yourself that you can perform your dream editing job. Now you just need other people to give you a chance… so keep asking around, because you never know who might say “yes.”
6. Take the leap as a freelancer
And if you don’t want to work for a publisher, company, or publication, you can always work for yourself as a freelance editor! Indeed, once you’ve earned enough work through your own efforts, it can be incredibly empowering (not to mention lucrative) to continue your career as a freelancer.
We’ve actually written a full guide to freelance editing, and another article on tips for success as a freelance editor. Make sure to check out those resources if you want to freelance edit for a living. The only other thing we’d mention is to join groups that will facilitate this work on both a personal and a professional level.
You can join the ACES Society for Editing for $75/year, which will provide you with a fantastic community of fellow editors and tips on how to improve your work. You can also join the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) for a slightly heftier price tag of $180 annually and a couple more perks, such as group health insurance.
If a membership-based editing society isn’t in the cards (or budget) for you, you can always join free editing groups on Facebook and on various forums to get advice and find an encouraging community.
And of course, one of the most valuable things you can do as a freelance editor is to join an agency that will connect you with potential clients. This gives you all the security of working for a publisher or publication, while still retaining the freedom of choosing your own clients and hours.
No matter which editing path you follow, there will always be downsides: the low starting pay, the long hours, and the potential for burnout, to name a few. But if you’re truly meant to become an editor, the rewards — having so much independence, using your creativity, and the utterly unique nature of the work — will be more than enough to satisfy you.
And who knows? A project of yours might just end up making the best seller lists, or winning a Pulitzer Prize. One thing is for sure: if you’ve always wanted to make your mark on the literary landscape, becoming an editor is an amazing way to do just that. 💯
Got any more questions (or comments) about how to become an editor? You can email us at email@example.com.