What it Takes to be an Editor

Now that I’m becoming more known in the literary community, I’ve had people approach me for advice on how to break into an editing career. They all have this bright-eyed illusion of what being an editor entails, envisioning (as I did) days filled with nothing but reading. Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it? Every book lover’s dream job. But let’s have a candid (and snarky!) discussion about the reality of being an editor. Because that pretty image in your head is nothing like the real thing.

A lot of people falsely believe that writing and editing are parallel careers. They’re not. They’re more like distant cousins than the sibling status everyone thinks. If you enjoy the process of creation, editing is not for you. If you love reading, devouring books like life-saving sustenance, editing is not for you. And if you like entertainment that keeps your brain active and stimulated for hours, editing is not for you. If, however, you love puzzles, methodical routines, and helping others, then maybe you’re fit to be an editor.

The truth is, editing’s hard. It’s monotonous, dull, repetitive, and there is absolutely no glory in it. It’s messy, annoying, and time-consuming. And it uses absolutely none of your creative juices. It’s analytical, more than anything, relying on thought processes normally associated with math and logic, rather than those involved with writing. It requires a completely different skill set, and, contrary to popular belief, good writers do not necessarily make good editors. And vice versa.

The literary world is the only one I know of that doesn’t clearly differentiate between its specialized skills, lumping them into one single category — wordsmith. No one would expect a dentist to be able to perform heart surgery, so why can’t we figure out that editing and writing aren’t the same thing? Yes, they’re both grounded in a love for words. And both do conform to the rules of the English language (most of the time). But that’s pretty much where the similarities stop.

So what does it take to be an editor? Let’s find out.

Requirement #1: No Life (Workaholic)

You know those nights and weekends, holidays, family and friends? Kiss them all goodbye. If you want to be an editor, you better be a workaholic, because otherwise, you’ll be buried up to your eyeballs before you can blink. And don’t think that’s temporary. Oh no, you will never again have a moment to yourself. Your inbox will be filled to the breaking point every time you log in. Your morning run, every meal you eat, and even long car trips will become reading time. And sleep? Yeah, you’d probably get more of that if you’d popped out that baby your mom’s been nagging you to have.

Every single second of every day from the moment you get your first assignment will be filled with something. And if, God forbid, you take so much as an afternoon off, you’ll spend the next two weeks trying to climb back on top of the mountain.

Editors have one of the highest burn-out rates of any job on the market. If you survive past two years, you’re considered hard-core. Because none of us get to do what everyone somehow assumes we do: sit in our offices, leisurely sipping coffee and reading to our heart’s content. In fact, if we get to read at all during the day, it’s probably at home, or crammed into the fifteen empty minutes between tasks. The majority of an editor’s day actually consists of answering emails, planning out structural edits, line edits, project management, more emails and then more line edits. Reading’s at the bottom of the list, unfortunately.

So if you’re an anti-social, agoraphobic insomniac with a workaholic tendency, editing will be the perfect job for you. The rest of us have to learn how to juggle life and work. And sadly, life almost always loses.

Requirement #2: OCD (Detail-Oriented)

Editing is highly detail-oriented. It’s slow and tedious, and during the course of a single project, you’ll read each chapter so many times you could nearly recite the thing verbatim by the end. So being slightly OCD helps.

There’s a strange (as in sick) sense of satisfaction to be found in surgically removing and altering the smallest things (things normal humans don’t notice) in a sentence. As an editor, you don’t just gloss over everything, you hone it, until there’s absolutely no better way that statement could be phrased. There’s not an ounce of fluff left in the entire manuscript, and, by George, you made sure that thing sings! How long did it take you to do it? Here’s the kicker: about 6-8 months (that includes the amount of time spent back and forth in revisions with the actual author. Because, you know, editors don’t actually write the books). And how long does it take a reader to read those beautifully honed words? About a week, if you’re lucky. I actually watched someone breeze through a project I’d slaved on for nearly a year in a single afternoon!

The point here is that editors are a strange breed of OCD (ahem, I mean detail-oriented) individuals who hold themselves and their authors to a crazy standard of perfect, and will accept nothing less. If you’re not willing to read a manuscript 52 times, invest upwards of 6 months of your life into someone else’s work, then walk away. You’re not one of us.

Requirement #3: Skills (Not Just Grammar, Folks)

This should be a no-brainer. Clearly, an editor needs skills, right? But which skills?

There’s an assumption out there that editing consists of one thing — fixing grammar. Editors are all a bunch of pompous English professors who couldn’t sell their own writing, and so, bitterly hand down judgement on everyone’s inability to follow the rules of the English language. In short, we’re grammar Nazis, and that’s it. That assumption is incorrect. And why so many writers get taken advantage of by shoddy editors who do nothing but fix superficial punctuation and spelling mistakes. (**Ducks from the impending barrage of hatred.**)

A real editor does so much more than fix your grammar. They’ll do that too, but more importantly, they’ll fix your story in its entirety. From plot holes, character development, and timeline re-sequencing, to sentence smoothing, and fact/detail cross-referencing, an editor is a master storyteller. Not only do they fully understand the various narrative methods and their uses, but they do all this without compromising the writer’s voice. They’re chameleons, morphing into a version of the author and enhancing that person’s style so that no trace of the editor is visible to the outside world. (I mentioned there was no glory in editing, right? All the applause and accolades go solely to the author — as they should. You don’t exist to the world of readers.)

True editors can hold an entire book in their heads, shifting and reorganizing the narrative threads as needed. And the really good ones can do this with multiple projects at once. It’s a rare skill, and one that will instantly mark a professional from an amateur. This is the thing that the writers-turned-editors can’t compete with. What the grammar Nazis can’t ever hope to provide. This is the true skill of an editor. So the question is, does this sound like you? If yes, then congratulations, you’re an editor. If what I’ve said sounds like mumbo-jumbo or makes you cringe even the tiniest bit, then adios! You’re better off doing something else.

Requirement #4: Passion (Passion Trumps the Suckage)

This is the last requirement for becoming an editor, but I’d dare say it’s the most important one. Why? Because passion is what makes it all worthwhile; it’s what trumps all the suckage. As you can see, editing is kind of a sucky job. I mean, for some of us, it’s a calling, and we love it through and through. But to the outside world, it looks brutal, horrible, and leaves you wondering why, in God’s name, anyone would ever want to do it. The answer is pretty simple though: passion. Passion for storytelling, for books, and for the people who write them. If you don’t have this, you’ll never make it as an editor. You might survive for a little while. You may even enjoy it at first. But eventually, the incessant schedule will wear you down and you’ll walk away.

How do you know if you have it? The passion? I’m not sure. I don’t think there’s a quantifiable way to tell. But I’ll leave you with this to ponder:

Writers often talk about how writing is the best part of their day. How it’s a cathartic release, a joy. For them, the creation process is the most beautiful thing. But for an editor, a 100% born-to-be editor, it’s not. That joy will come from the part of the process every writer loathes. Where writers find relaxation pouring words onto a page, you’ll find it in rearranging those words. Where they find joy breathing life into new stories, you’ll find it in fixing them. To you, the best part will be feeling all those intricate puzzle pieces click into place, and then watching, like a proud teacher, as your author and their book graduate to take their place in the world of success.

It’s not a job for everyone, but if you have the skills and the passion, (if you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else,) then it just might be for you. I’m definitely 100% editor. Are you?


14 thoughts on “What it Takes to be an Editor

  1. Loved this little insight into your world. I have always though that a professional editor had a difficult role to play in the publishing business, but you’ve made me realise just how obsessive you also need to be. I can only be thankful that there are people out there who love the life you have described, and believe in us, the writers, enough to want to carry on.
    Great article.

    • Thanks, Melody!

      Yeah, it’s a difficult life, for sure, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s definitely a niche type career though–if it’s not your niche, then chances are good you’ll burn out. Thankfully, it is my niche, so I don’t expect to be going anywhere anytime soon! 😉

  2. A friend pointed me to this post. May I just say… “Exactly!” All of that. I already knew I wasn’t a (future) book author, but this makes it all the clearer that I’m a real editor, and there may be no escape.

    From “an anti-social, agoraphobic insomniac with a workaholic tendency…”

    • Thanks for reading! I’m glad you found the post helpful. And don’t worry, there’s no shame in being “an anti-social, agoraphobic insomniac with a workaholic tendency.” Welcome to the club! 😉

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