As we discussed in the “Types of Editing” article, there isn’t one thing meant by “editing”—literally dozens of types of editing and editors exist across many different industries. Though all of them do similar work related to improving text, this breadth of possibilities makes it difficult for newcomers to the field to know how and where to get started. Do I set my sights on one type of editing work and train specifically for that, or do I try to become as well-rounded as possible and hope to find a fit someday?
I don’t have a definitive answer to this question. But what I do have is my own experience of how I (more or less accidentally) became an editor. While my experience is by no means representative of what all editors do—for one thing, I’ve never done editing as my primary source of income—it does illustrate some of the opportunities you might encounter and choices you might find yourself making someday.
The first thing you should know is that I’ve always had a bit of a fraught relationship with writing. Pushing words around effectively is not something that came naturally to me, and it wasn’t until my early 20s that the light came on for me about how to be deliberately good at writing, as I explained in “My History with Writing.”
But once that light did come on, I got pretty invested. First, off, I took my first creative writing courses and changed my emphasis within the English major to writing creative nonfiction, going so far as to write a collection of personal essays as my honors thesis.° Second, I got a job as a Writing Fellow. At my university, the Writing Fellows program assigned peer mentors to students in non-English writing-intensive courses to help them over the course of an entire semester. So I would work with 10–12 students each term, giving them feedback on their drafts and meeting with them to discuss revisions.
Now, taking creative writing classes and tutoring students isn’t the same as being an editor, but it did start me thinking about writing in a new way. Instead of the old “get it done quickly and never look back” approach that I’d used for well over a decade as I suffered through writing assignments, I now took a “examine this writing and the writing process closely and try to deliberately improve it” approach. I did this with my own writing when it would be workshopped in the creative writing classes, but I did it much more as I workshopped other writers’ work, as a classmate and a Writing Fellow. It was the first time I’d ever been in the position of evaluating writing rather than merely being evaluated, and it was thrilling. I found I was pretty good at it, and because of my own fraught history with writing, I was naturally empathetic and tactful in giving feedback.
Faking My Way into a Job
I had the opportunity to go on a study abroad trip to London, England, between my junior and senior years; the trip involved about 50 students from my university, along with three professors and their families, living in a large flat in Notting Hill for two months where we held classes in the mornings and explored the city in the afternoons, the country on weekends. My little brother, a sophomore, came with.
Me (right) and my brother at Stonehenge. We found enough money to go on the trip, but not enough to buy a camera, so literally every pic we have of the trip is stolen from someone else.
There, we met and befriended a fellow student named Rachel.° One night we were chatting, and she told me she’d been employed by the religion department at our university as an editor, but that she wasn’t planning on returning to the job the next year. She said she thought I’d do great as an editor and that she’d talk me up to the boss if I wanted to apply.
Never one to turn down an opportunity, I took her up on the offer, and a few weeks after returning from England I had an interview set up for one afternoon. But let me be clear here: I had never actually edited anything, and I did not know anything about editing as a profession. All I had was an abundance of self-confidence and a strong recommendation from a person who really didn’t know my all that well.
It occurred to me the interviewer would probably ask me about my editing skills, so about half an hour before the interview, I looked up the proofreaders’ marks in the dictionary where I'd spied them before, and I tried my best to memorize as many as I could.
The proofreaders' marks as they appear in the Chicago Manual of Style
Image courtesy of The Chicago Manual of Style Online
It’s a good thing I did, because after fifteen minutes or so of the normal interview-type questions, the boss asked me to complete an “editing test”—that is, he gave me a paragraph on a piece of paper and asked me to edit it right there and then, using the proofreaders’ marks to indicate what changes I would recommend. I took the offered red pen and got to work, trying my best to remember the arcane marks needed to indicate deletions, transpositions, insertions, and the rest.
Reader: I got the job.
Now, I realize that it might not have been my faking a knowledge of those marks that got me the job—it’s entirely possible I used all the wrong marks but that my changes to the paragraph itself were impressive enough, or that Rachel’s recommendation (her dad was close friends with the interviewer’s boss) saved the day. I’ll never know.
Once I had the job, I just needed to not lose it, so I threw myself into the work with my usual slogan of “fake it till you make it.” I learned the proofreaders’ marks in earnest by using them every day. I got a sense for the craft by paying attention to how other, more experienced colleagues edited texts. I discovered the editorial process and the levels of edit by watching documents move from acceptance to publication. I got eerily familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style. I got some one-on-one direction from my boss when I faltered here and there, and I didn’t let his careful mentorship bruise my ego but instead treated it as it was intended: an opportunity to grow.
The Religious Studies Center, as the religion department’s publishing arm was called, was a scholarly publisher that put out a quarterly journal of academic articles in religious studies and pedagogy as well as about a dozen books a year, many of them scholarly but some co-published with popular presses and meant for a general, coffee table book-buying audience. This meant I got to learn a lot about scholarly editing, popular nonfiction editing, and book production.
I also learned that editing can be a lot of fun. Our office, across the hall from the main office of the Center, where our bosses worked, was staffed entirely by students and tended to be a bit rollicking. In addition to half a dozen editors (either English or religious studies students), there were two dedicated typesetters (art students) and several research assistants (invariably history majors). We ranged from downright antisocial to certifiably popular, and our interests were wide-ranging, from sports to the Shakers and from storytelling to soul music. Despite such breadth in personalities and proclivities, we all seemed to gel around our shared interest in scholarly research and publication—we were unabashedly nerdy about it, but no one was being judged on that score. On the contrary, nerdiness was our shared currency, and we relished getting into discussions about obscure grammar rules and arcane religious history.
Not only the work environment, but the work itself I found to be oddly satisfying. Whereas in my own creative writing attempts I was stymied by the open-endedness of the effort—I could write literally anything at any time—as an editor, my job and its boundaries were well-defined. Fix what’s broken. Make clear what is ambiguous. Check sources for accuracy. Bring things in line with the house style. It was fun to work with words but not be overwhelmed by them. The difference between writing and editing felt like the difference between painting a picture and completing a jigsaw puzzle: both fun but for very different reasons.
Getting School Credit
Almost as soon as I started the job, I realized I was going to need to know more about what makes writing right—that is, about grammar and mechanics. After all, I was still pretty new when it came to deliberately producing good writing. Though my experience in creative writing classes and as a writing tutor had sharpened my instincts, the focus in both those activities is in what I would now call developmental editing, or considering the big picture of a text. At work, I was doing more copyediting and proofreading, which meant I had to know the difference between, say, a restrictive and unrestrictive modifier.°
So I enrolled in my English department’s grammar course, hoping it would supplement with knowledge what I was having to do by instinct and by constantly referring to the Chicago Manual.
The first day of class, the instructor gave us a pre-test to gauge our knowledge. It was full of tricky grammatical situations, and I could tell at a glance the point of the test was to trip us up. So I did the only logical thing: I figured out what I thought the answer was, and then I chose the farthest thing from it. After we’d completed the test individually, the instructor then walked the class through it question by question, revealing the right answers and explaining the wild grammar that underpinned each one. Then she asked, “Did anyone get them all right?”
Everyone glanced around while the instructor looked a bit self-satisfied. I raised my hand. “What?!” she said. “You did?”
“Yeah, but I guessed the opposite of what I thought, so it probably shouldn’t count,” I confessed.
“Well, that’s a first. Good job!” she answered.
The class did end up being helpful, not least because everything I learned was so immediately applicable, and everything I did on the job seemed to show up in the very next reading from the class. I was quickly becoming confident in my abilities as an editor.
One other thing: I also signed up for the internship class offered by the English department, which counted for elective credit towards my degree. Ever the mercenary, I thought, “Why not get credit and get paid at the same time?”
A note on being paid. This was the best paying job I ever had as a student and probably the best-paying job I’d ever had period.° The minimum wage at that time was between $5 and $6 an hour, which I’d made as a dishwasher at a pizza restaurant during my freshman year. Now I was making better than $10 and doing much more interesting work. I was learning that editing is a skilled trade and its practitioners are compensated accordingly.
Grad School and Literary Editing
Editing was fun, it paid well, and I found I enjoyed it quite a bit despite it seeming on the surface like incredibly boring work—but I still had no plans to be an editor professionally. By the time I graduated with my BA, I had been accepted to a master’s program in creative writing, where I hoped to further hone my skills as an essayist.
When I arrived, however, I discovered more opportunities to ply my editing craft. The university sponsored two literary journals, and though they were managed by faculty, the day-to-day work of editing was usually handled by grad student volunteers. A few times, I attended slush pile-reading parties where the staff of the journal bought pizza for a bunch of us creative writing students and we read submissions, looking for poems, short stories, and essays good enough to pass on to the real editors for consideration.
In my second year, a new full-time faculty member, Dinty Moore, was hired to teach creative nonfiction, and he brought with him the literary magazine he had founded. Brevity is an online-only lit mag devoted to creative nonfiction of 750 words of less, and at the time it was a big deal in the relatively small creative nonfiction world.° I was jazzed when Dinty asked me to intern for him for a semester, helping him to run the magazine. My primary job was to read submissions and narrow the list of potential acceptances by about 95%, forwarding the best of the best to him and the rest of the small editorial team for consideration. I also got to do a little working with authors to tighten their pieces before publication.
There was one opportunity I missed and one I made good use of in my work at Brevity.
First, the regret. Dinty was anxious to keep Brevity dynamic and relevant, and this was the time when robust web platforms like Drupal and Wordpress were coming into their own and social media was beginning to dominate how people surfed the web and shared content. I had some web design and coding experience, and I kept expressing interest in helping Dinty rebuild the magazine on one of these next-generation platforms so it could be more easily maintained and reach more readers…but I was too busy with the other parts of graduate school to ever commit to the project and the time it would require. At the end of my internship, Dinty thanked me, but he also didn’t ask me to extend my stay. Who knows what might’ve happened if I’d made better use of that opportunity?
But, bless his soul, Dinty did give me another great opportunity that I didn’t deserve. He had been asked to speak on a panel of creative nonfiction editors at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual conference, and rather than turn it down for being too busy, he suggested they ask his young managing editor—me—to speak in his place. And that’s how I found myself in Denver, Colorado, at a massive conference center, the first speaker on a panel held during the first break-out session of the biggest, most prestigious creative writers’ conference in America.
Creative nonfiction is always a bit underrepresented on a program dominated by fiction and poetry, and panels with editors (who have the power to accept and reject submissions) are always highly popular, so the room for that 8am Thursday panel was standing-room-only, line-out-the-door. Worse still, when I stood to deliver my remarks about what made for a good submission to a journal like Brevity, I discovered that not only was the mic not working but the next-room-over’s mic was playing through our room’s speakers.
Did I panic? Never. I took a breath and, shouting to be heard mic-less over the next-door presentation, delivered what is still one of my best lines: “Good morning, all. You won’t believe this, but this is exactly what I dreamed about last night.”
The crowd roared. The mic eventually got fixed. I made it through my first conference presentation and was complimented warmly for my remarks.
Despite that auspicious foray into literary editing, I never went back to it after leaving Brevity and graduating with my masters degree. In fact, I never went back to creative writing, really.° Over the next few years I attempted to get into doctoral programs in creative nonfiction (there aren’t many) with no luck. I got married and spent a few years as an adjunct professor teaching college composition classes and paying off student loans as best I could.
During this time, I did a bit of freelance editing by helping friends and family members put together resumes, cover letters, and school and scholarship applications. I mostly worked for free, just to keep my skills sharp and enjoy the thrill of improving someone else’s writing rather than be frustrated with my own.
It was at this time that I became aware of technical communication as another subfield within English studies, and the more I learned about it, the more it appealed to me. I already knew I liked editing, and I was discovering as an adjunct professor that teaching writing was extremely fulfilling to me. I had previously assumed that the only way for me to make it as a PhD student and later as a professor would be to continue on in creative writing—I wasn’t confident or crazy enough to try for a PhD in literature. But technical communication would allow me to combine my love of teaching, my expertise with words, and even my interest in web design into a single realm of study.
I applied to the tech comm program in the university where I was teaching and was accepted almost immediately.
Those first few semesters, I felt like a total outsider. Here I was working on a doctorate in a field I hadn’t even heard of six months before. But technical communication is as much about practical experience and actually getting things done as it is about highfalutin theories, so in the end I fit in just fine, largely thanks to my background in editing and how it had made me extremely aware and conscientious about how I use words.
So when I saw a course being offered called “Technical Editing,” I signed right up. The class was being taught by Dr. Angela Eaton, who literally wrote the book on the subject.
See, there's her name right on the book.
I discovered that technical editing has a lot in common with scholarly editing in that both deal mostly with nonfiction texts that are filled with detail and often extensively documented. However, a big difference is that, while scholarly work is most often intended for a scholarly audience, technical documents are more often intended for a nonexpert audience, so the emphasis is on clearly and correctly transmitting information but doing so in a way that doesn’t alienate or discriminate against the uninformed. It was a fun challenge, and I took to it well given my solid foundation of previous experience.
Dr. Eaton had done a fair amount of freelance technical editing, so a lot of her instruction focused on client relations like sending transmittal letters to inform clients of what you’ve accomplished. And one day she casually mentioned that she still could command three figures an hour for her services.
I saw dollar signs—which is no wonder given I was now thirty years old, had never owned a car,° and had one kid (with another on the way).
I started freelancing more regularly, demanding an actual hourly rate, even of friends. After all, I could claim six or seven years’ experience across several employers at this point, and I would soon have a PhD in hand, so asking for $25 or $30 an hour didn’t seem unreasonable. I created a template editing agreement I asked clients to sign, and I sent invoices that I made on Microsoft Word. I even reported my earning on my taxes and everything.
My first big projects were friends’ dissertations, one in linguistics and one in accounting. I did some developmental editing by helping them better structure problematic chapters, and I copyedited and then proofread the entire things, ensuring correct documentation, headings structure, and consistency of key terms usage. I made enough money on these jobs to buy some diapers and a present here and there for my wife.
These successes led to other clients—I was too busy with school and teaching to seek out work, but it often came to me by referral. Each time I got a new job, I’d see if I could raise my rates a bit, both to reflect my growing experience but also because I was too tired and too busy to take on extra work that didn’t really pay.
The summer after I graduated with my PhD, I was asked by an engineering and construction firm a friend worked for to help them with a bid for a multi-million-dollar project, and I did the unthinkable: I asked for $80 and hour, plus a 10% bonus if they won the contract. I was sure that they’d laugh me out of the room for asking such an astronomical price, but they didn’t—they accepted it without question or delay.°
Thoughts on Freelancing
It might surprise you to hear that I didn't drop everything and pursue a career in freelance editing, charging ever higher rates from ever more prestigious clients. And believe me, I was tempted, especially when my day job wasn't as peachy as I wanted it to be.
But the truth is that, as fun as editing is, my true passion is in teaching. I'm happy and fulfilled being a college professor. It's nice knowing that, if I needed to, I could probably pay the bills as an editor—but that I don't have to. I'm happy taking on a well-paying job when it falls into my lap and I have the time, but I don't want to have to hustle to get such work.
Besides, freelancing isn't as glamorous and as profitable as I'm making it seem. Sure, I can ask and sometimes get $80 an hour or more, but I can't bill 40 hours a week no matter what I do. Some time each week must be devoted to finding clients (self-promotion is something I despise), doing paperwork (writing those invoices and cashing those checks don't just happen), and otherwise maintaining your business (yuck). And if you're self-employed, you have to remember to pay your self-employment taxes quarterly and arrange for things like health insurance and saving for retirement on your own.
Sure, if you do hustle and put together a regular stable of clients and push for good referrals, you can make as much money as you're willing to put in the time for. Or, if you'd rather have a steady (but likely smaller) paycheck, you could find a salaried editing job somewhere—they'll even do the taxes, health insurance, and retirement busywork for you. Either way, editing is a good job.
Well, I hope my life history has helped you a bit to better understand how one editor got his foot in the door of the industry. If I—a one-time college dropout—could get that deep into the profession largely on accident, who knows what you could do on purpose?
Opportunities are everywhere, so keep your eyes open and make use of them!