Last updated on Apr 06, 2023
How to Become an Editor: A Guide for Beginners
This post was written based on insights from professional editors in the Reedsy community, such as Clem Flanagan.
Any process that results in published writing involves an editor, which is why editors form key parts of several industries. If you’ve got an impeccable understanding of grammar and a discerning eye when it comes to identifying structural and conceptual flaws in a piece of writing, read on to find out how to become an editor yourself.
What does an editor do?
Editors plan, coordinate, and revise pieces of writing so that they are ready for publication as books, newspapers, blogs, magazines, or even websites and advertising material. Going through submissions, they decide what should be published based on the quality of the writing and what might appeal to readers. They then review and polish the content, structure, and prose of those stories to ensure correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as consistent and clear storytelling before publication.
The exact duties of a professional editor differ in each industry, with many extraneous tasks attached to the role in each field. For instance, video editors or podcast editors have different tasks from editors that deal with written material (which this article will focus on), who may deal with anything from manuscript editing to content editing on websites and beyond.
As we look at how someone might start a career in editing, we’ll learn more about the sheer variety of editing work — so let’s get started!
🤓 Curious about how much money an editor makes? Head to our post on editor salaries for more information.
How to become an editor in 6 steps
If you want to aid writers in bringing their ideas to life, here are six simple steps to follow to become a professional editor:
1. Choose your type and style of editing
Editing is a broad field, and it always helps to start by pointing your career in a direction: an area of publishing you would like to work in. As with every career, you never know where you might actually end up, but knowing the options and picking a lane can help you better prepare yourself in terms of getting the right qualifications and work experiences.
Here are the major types of editing that might be suited to someone with your skill and dedication:
A book editor works closely with writers to revise and streamline their manuscripts ahead of publication. This involves various types of editing, from editorial assessment (also known as manuscript evaluation), to developmental editing, to copy editing (and line editing), as well as query letter editing. Proofreading is also a form of editing which comes at the end of the process, and sometimes you will hear people refer to these draft stages as first, second, third and final pass editing.
All types of editing can be done on a freelance basis, but it is especially common when it comes to copy editing and proofreading, as publishers or authors commission external professionals for these services.
Aside from editing text, an editor working at a publisher may have different responsibilities depending on the structure and size of the imprint. They may have tasks such as budgeting, coordinating publication catalogs, and even typesetting, for instance.
They also need to be team players, as they are responsible for communicating with literary agents and authors, coordinating with other departments like marketing, design, and publicity, commissioning new titles, and performing routine administrative tasks such as writing cover blurbs, updating book metadata, and more.
💡Job titles: editorial assistant, assistant editor, editor, senior editor, commissioning editor, editorial director (note: these particular roles are listed from bottom to the top of the career advancement ladder).
News and magazine editing
A news or magazine editor is responsible for proofreading and structurally editing articles, fact-checking, ensuring consistency with the publication’s house style and relevance to the publication’s aims or themes (if any), commissioning articles from regular contributors, responding to pitches, and reporting to the publication’s editorial board. Sub-editors usually only work on editing text, and do not have any commissioning/managerial duties, whereas section editors develop the strategy and direction of their section and report to management.
💡 Job titles: section editor, associate editor, sub-editor, editor
Unsurprisingly, academic editing belongs to the sphere of scholarly output, so it’s usually a position held by someone with an academic education. This can be a full-time, in-house position at an academic publisher (e.g. Oxford University Press) or a voluntary, part-time contribution as a journal editor. Structural and copy editing are certainly important, but beyond that, these editors ensure academic rigor, objectivity, and ethical academic practice. The latter involves checking for plagiarism, fact-checking, verifying bibliographical data, or arranging for the creation of an index. Academic editors are also expected to coordinate the peer-review process and communicate feedback to authors.
💡 Job titles: academic editor, journal editor
A web editor is responsible for managing an organization’s digital content. The specifics will vary, but typical duties include editing articles or blog posts for publication, commissioning or assigning new pieces of content, deciding on subjects to be covered, using Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to attract organic traffic, making decisions about how posts are presented, as well as promoting said content on social media (or collaborating with social media marketers) to increase the reach of the product.
💡 Job titles: web editor, content editor, content manager, blog manager, head of content
A technical editor is not so concerned with grammatical correctness or fluency of expression: their main focus is to ensure that highly technical information is accurate and communicated clearly. For this reason, technical editors with expertise in the subject matter at hand are usually hired to apply their knowledge to a piece of writing. From checking that any equations and graphs are accurate to ensuring information complexity meets the knowledge level of the intended audience, a technical editor operates as a subject matter consultant.
💡 Job titles: technical editor, subject-matter expert (SME)
Legal editing involves working with writing in a legal context. Whether responsible for a particular legal organization’s output or an in-house editor at a legal publishing company, a legal editor’s job is not vastly different to that of a technical editor: the primary aim is to ensure accuracy and compliance with the aims of the publication at hand. A legal editor may also be responsible for compiling “digests” of court cases, researching legal issues, or analyzing legal news or developments.
💡 Job titles: legal editor, legal researcher, legal reporter
2. Get a degree or editing certificate
If you want to become an editor, you’ll typically need some relevant qualifications or training to back up your enthusiasm. These may come in several forms.
Nowadays, a bachelor’s degree is more or less required to pursue an editing career, especially if you want to start in publishing houses. There are no specialist editing degrees, but many writing-heavy programs that can give you a good stepping stone to the profession. Most editors hold an undergraduate degree in a related subject such as English, Journalism, Communications, or even Law, if you hope to become a legal editor.
That said, a bachelor’s degree in an entirely unrelated subject can still be very useful. Employers mainly want to know that you have the work ethic and transferable skills to handle a lot of text in editing programs and can organize yourself. This includes time management, ability to meet and juggle deadlines, and people skills. You can always learn technical editing skills later by consulting books on editing written by experienced professionals, or enroll yourself in one of the following courses.
In recent years, there has been a growth of publishing-specific postgraduate degrees for you to choose from. Universities are unlikely to offer degree courses exclusively dedicated to editing, but there are Master’s degrees in Publishing and Creative Writing or Publishing Studies which can give you a better understanding of the production chain and the writing craft.
Of course, a postgraduate degree is rather a big commitment, and it's not at all a prerequisite — many editors do not have postgraduate degrees, and build their craft through shorter courses or work experience instead.
Vocational certificates and training courses
Beyond higher education, there are still loads of short-term courses and certifications for copy editing, proofreading, journalism, or publishing that you can take. There are plenty of proofreading courses or short-term editing programs that provide a certificate that can teach you technical skills and boost your CV.
3. Gain experience through internships and freelancing
In an ideal world, you’d immediately find an entry-level position as an editorial assistant that gets your foot through the door so you can learn on the job. But despite being considered entry-level, editing positions can be competitive and usually require some prior engagement or experience with editing or writing. You may be able to nab one of these coveted roles if your CV contains relevant extracurriculars (such as being a student reporter or editor) but many aspiring editors start out by securing administrative work experience, an internship, or part-time editing experience as a freelancer. What these opportunities offer is a chance to get used to the workflow and editing software, experience working with authors and clients, hone your editing and communication skills, build your network, and grow your editorial portfolio.
To find book editing internships, check Indeed, LinkedIn and, if you’re still in school or recently graduated, your college’s job search portal. It’s also worth getting involved in Twitter — at least as a reader. Managing editors and publishers tweet about vacancies and networking events all the time!
If you can’t find (or can’t afford) to take an internship, look for short-term gigs on freelancing sites. Do note that, even with a compelling profile and plenty of self-marketing, you’ll probably have to take jobs that don’t really interest you at first. For instance, you might plan to specialize in developmental book editing, but you might find yourself copy editing blogs and academic essays to start with.
4. Apply for entry-level publishing and editorial positions
Freelance editor Clem Flanagan tells us that her years working in entry-level positions such as editorial assistant were crucial in forging her network and skills. The community is tight-knit and supportive, and most editors are happy to refer writers to fellow professionals who are either more experienced or looking for gigs. Authors themselves often recommend editors to their writer friends, so you should never underestimate the power of word of mouth. You may start small, but build that reputation by working entry-level jobs steadily and it’ll pay off.
This part of your editing career is the definition of “the hustle.” You’ll be working long hours, not getting paid much, and probably feeling frustrated. But if you can push through all that, you’ll emerge on the other side with the kind of knowledge and experience you can build a more sustainable career on. Hang in there!
5. Network with clients and publishing professionals
Assuming you’ve now got substantial editing experience, you’ll have naturally accrued some contacts in your industry, online or in real life. From literary agents to journalists, academics, and creative directors, you’ll know a good number of people in different positions within your field. And you might not realize it at first, but sub-fields of professional activity in a particular city, region, or even country (looking at UK book publishing) are a small world, where you’ll run into the same people throughout your career.
So be nice. Respond to strangers’ requests politely and thoughtfully, even if you want to decline. Introduce people who might like to work together to each other. Recommend hard workers. Put in a good word for entry-level assistants when you’ve progressed to a more senior level. Treat interns with patience and respect. Send people job opportunities you happen to see that they may be interested in. All of this, in other words being a kind, respectful, and decent person to work with, will help you in more ways than you can imagine.
This may not come in the form of a job offer divinely descending upon you from the heavens. But it’ll work in quiet ways that lead to people treating you well and taking you seriously, as well as giving you a nice boost of good karma as your career progresses.
6. Earn promotion to senior editor
With experience under your belt and a large network, you’ll start noticing where your natural skills lie and what you enjoy doing the most. So while you’re working on a variety of projects, you should be thinking about what kind of editor you’d like to be down the line. Even if you aren’t ready yet to move into a new role, keep your eyes open (read: apply your Twitter lurking skills) for new opportunities. Read through job descriptions for editorial roles within your industry and beyond it, and make a note of any recurring requirements, such as familiarity with specialist software or Search Engine Optimization.
You can then take steps to build the necessary skills to becoming a better editor in your free time or within your current role, with a view to transitioning to a different job. For example, an editorial assistant for the Lifestyle section of a magazine could find their way into nonfiction book publishing via a Lifestyle imprint that publishes health and food and drink titles. And if you’re happy with the niche you’re in, the ladder-climbing begins. Alternatively, you can look into starting your own business and becoming a freelance editor on Reedsy to exercise more control over your work days.
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Down the line, who knows what you’ll accomplish? A project you’ve worked on might just end up making the bestseller lists, or winning a Pulitzer Prize. One thing is for sure: if you’ve always wanted to make your mark in the world of culture, becoming an editor is an amazing way to do that.