Monday, April 30, 2012

Want to be an editor when you grow up? :)

This question came to me via my editing page rather than this blog, but I thought I would answer it here.

My wife wants to try her hand at editing. She didn't study it, but has a natural cnack for it. I would like to know what is needed to become an editor, or at least a private editor. Does an editor required to have contacts from the start or can she start by doing the actual editing and building her client base?
Are there any things we need to be aware of before heading this way?

Oh, boy. This might not be the answer you want, but I will be truthful. There is certainly a knack to editing, or an instinct, if you will. I just know that I can see things in the way the words lay down on the page, and things like grammar and mechanics came easily to me. I've had that knack my whole life, but -- and this is kind of the bad news -- it's not enough, on its own, to make someone a good editor. It's an essential start, but it's not enough on its own.

So what else do you need? Hmm. A list.
  • You have to have good eyesight, and you have to be willing to sacrifice it. Eyestrain is a constant issue in this business.
  • You have to be able to read quickly, but it's a very particular kind of reading. Reading for pleasure is not the same as the kind of analytical reading we do with a manuscript. You have to be able to not only absorb the page quickly, but also spot the flaws and fixes very quickly.
  • You have to know when to leave it alone. This is probably the hardest thing to learn, and it can take a long time to really get the trick of editing without interfering.
  • You have to have a truly advanced understanding of grammar. If you have only one set of grammar rules in which you can operate fluidly, you are at a disadvantage, and so are your clients. You have to be able to assess the author's native grammar patterns and know how to correct their errors, which is different from making it conform to your rules. And you have to be able to balance that native grammar with house rules, which is how editors sometimes get wild-eyed over things like serial commas.
  • Above grammar, you have to understand sentence structure in a deep way. You have to understand how and why changing a sentence will change the way the reader absorbs it. It's a matter of controlling impact and pace.
  • Ditto that understanding for paragraphs, scenes, subplots, and so on.
  • You have to be able to correctly identify narrative elements and know how to shift story elements from one narrative element to another. 
  • You have to know point of view cold. I'm not talking about mere pronouns here. I'm talking about the way a character's perspective will influence the text, and how to work within and around that perspective.
  • You need some understanding of market forces and how that affects reader preferences and manuscript choices. I don't edit children's or MG books because I lack the knowledge in these areas to make the editing process valuable and reliable.
  • Contacts and reputation help. A lot. Mentors are essential.
So how do you get these things? I have a degree in creative writing (and another in law, which came in handy for contract negotiation and similar tasks). I built a network while I was in school, and after school, I was fortunate enough to be able to work as a literary agent. This put me in the position of having to navigate a slush pile, and in my opinion, there is no single greater way to learn editing than to make selection decisions. First you have to choose your manuscripts, then you have to get those manuscripts ready for the market -- and that's where you really earn your stripes. It's not so much reading the submissions (which is a great task for learning all on its own) but the process on the whole. You select something because you love certain aspects and are willing to fix other aspects. You work to fix those aspects, and you learn how much work it takes to tackle those particular problems, and you know better next time whether to acquire a manuscript with that particular cocktail of pros and cons. You learn your own strengths and weaknesses as a fixer of books.

In the beginning, especially, it helps to have seasoned bosses or mentors to help you with the process. I was grateful to have people who could guide me. When I had a question about the fixability of a particular issue, I had people I could ask. Later, after I became managing editor and then chief executive editor, I found myself in the position of being the one to help other, newer editors. That's a whole 'nother kind of skills-sharpening process, and it's very different from the way we teach and train writers. Part of what we have to do as editors is maintain objectivity about the book -- we can adore the writers and their books, and we often do develop close relationships with authors, but we can't let love of the book cloud the process, even if it was love of the book that led to the acquisition. It's sometimes difficult to be intimately connected to a project you love, and still, somehow, by some trick of mind and heart, remain separate from it. And I found it was even harder to help other editors find that balance -- and thank god, I had excellent editors on my staff. They made up for my weakness in this regard.

The best editors I know have all put in long hours in agencies and publishing houses. They've come up through the ranks, learning from seasoned pros, and most of them have degrees in literature or rhetoric or writing. A surprising number of them have teaching experience, too, which is more valuable than you might guess. I don't know how to substitute for that kind of background. Are there inexperienced people outside the publishing ranks with a talent for editing? Yes. Absolutely. I have no doubt of it. But it's how that talent is honed and developed that takes it from instinct to art.

And I just don't know how you get there on your own, without the help of seasoned mentors. Or, maybe I should say, I know I wouldn't be where I am today without the help of others. Maybe others could do it on their own, but man, that is not a task I envy anyone. You know the old saying, you don't know what you don't know? That's the trouble with a craft like writing and editing -- you can be excellent at one or more aspects, but if you haven't been exposed to the ones that don't come naturally, if you haven't had someone take you in hand and show you what you missed, how can you learn what you don't know? There are books, certainly, but there's really no substitute for working on a manuscript with someone smarter than you acting as your fallback. Theory is all fine and well, but it's the application of the theory that matters most.

So this is to say, I don't think anyone should start off as a private editor. I think that's something you grow into. A good starting position would be as an editorial assistant or an assistant to an agent, something that would put you in a position to be able to read and read and read some more. Raw work, not finished books. There are also quite a lot of digital presses who will hire new editors, but they generally pay wages that make their editors envious of children working in third-world factories. But it's a great way to get a lot of experience very quickly, so in the right circumstances, it might be the way to go.

Good luck! And have fun -- this really is a fun job!



Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I'm linking to this, printing it, and sharing it around the world.

Oh, and thanks for being MY mentor. After seeing this, the fact that you have done all you have for me has knocked my socks off.

Chihuahua0 said...

I'm also linking it. The list you provide at the beginning of the post is well-rounded and to-the-point.

Alicia said...

You know, if I were dreaming of the dream career, it would be pitching in the major leagues, or earning big buck in investment banking. Editing isn't really dreamy. :)

CourtneyC said...

Awesome post, Theresa. I count myself as one of the lucky ones to benefit from all your experience and wisdom.

Edittorrent said...

Aw, thanks! The greatest joy in this business is the way we get to watch talent grow and develop, and Susan and Courtney, you have both been a source of joy, but for very different reasons!

Alicia, don't you think that in some ways, this is more a calling than a choice? Nobody would choose this if they could choose something else instead -- something with easier hours and better pay! And yet, there's nothing I would rather do. I've tried. I've tried working in other jobs. Nothing satisfies quite like this, and I'm lucky that I can get paid to do it.