It’s a bit difficult to define exactly what editing is, what industries it is a part of, and what activities it comprises. The truth is that the words “editor” and “editing” are used for so many things across so many fields and media that there aren’t any clear boundaries to speak of.
Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, which is exactly what I do below. My hope is that by my explaining as many of the fields editors work in—along with the activities they do, the employers who hire them, and the titles they sometimes have—you’ve develop a better understanding of what it means to learn to be an editor yourself.
One quick note: for this article, I’m focusing on editors who work primarily with words—audio editors and film editors, for example, won’t be addressed.
Editing for Popular Publishing
Popular publishing is a multi-billion dollar industry that employs thousands of editors in dozens of different roles to help produce the lion’s share of the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction that fills shelves the world over. We’ll discuss two big divisions within editing in the publishing world: literary editing (which includes fiction and poetry) and nonfiction editing.
Let’s start with what most people picture when they think of an editor: someone who works for a major publishing house, helping authors of novels as they bring their writing to the world. Broadly speaking, we could call such people literary editors, though, as you’ll see, it’s not so simple, and this isn’t a specific industry term or job title, just a general description.
Literary editing involves quite a few tasks, and not all of them involve actually pushing words around on a page. For example, an acquisitions editor is someone who finds the content that a publishing house will seek to publish—novels, short stories, poetry, etc. In other words, they read submissions and decide which authors to offer contracts to.
A quick note about the publishing process: In modern publishing, especially at the big houses, almost all author manuscripts are submitted through a literary agent. In other words, the writer doesn’t submit their book directly to the publisher. Instead, they find an agent willing to represent their work. Why? A good agent already has relationships of trust with acquisitions editors at various publishers and is therefore better positioned to pitch the book in the right way to the right editor. In return, the agent gets a cut of the author’s earnings if the book sells.
Many agents act as the first editor a writer works with as they help the writing improve their draft in preparation for pitching it to publishers. In fact, it is not uncommon for an agent to be a former editor at a publishing house who has struck out on their own.
Once a manuscript is accepted, other editors might work with the author to improve it. Depending on the state of the manuscript when it is accepted and the desires of the publisher, this could involve editing at various levels. For example, at the heavy side of things, a developmental editor may suggest major changes to make the book as a whole more exciting or to plug up plot holes or better develop characters. Less intrusively, a copyeditor (sometimes called a manuscript editor or line editor) may help tighten up the dialogue in a scene or improve the flow of sentences generally. They might also work to ensure continuity—for example, if a character had brown hair in an earlier draft of a novel but then it was changed to black, the editor may hunt down all mentions of that color to make sure they’ve been updated, if that’s important to the quality of the book. And on the lighter side, a proofreader is there merely to fix grammatical and mechanical errors and bring things in line with the publisher’s style or standards.°
The work of editors in publishing houses is always shifting, as explained by Lynn Neary in her excellent story for NPR's All Things Considered entitled "What Exactly Does An Editor Do? The Role Has Changed Over Time."
Publishing houses don’t only put out fiction and poetry, of course. Nonfiction books of all kinds make up a substantial portion of the publishing industry’s yearly output, and the editing involved in producing such books is somewhat different.
First off, the acquisitions process is generally different for nonfiction books. With fiction, an author generally completes the entire manuscript and then finds an agent to represent the manuscript to publishers. The acquisitions editor at the publisher works with agents to find manuscripts for publishing, so the actual editing process begins with a completed book. With nonfiction, it’s common for books to be pitched to publishers before they are entirely written—a writer might approach an agent or publisher with a couple of sample chapters and a prospectus of the rest of the book—the acquisitions editor’s job is therefore quite different.°
Once a nonfiction book is under contract, the publisher may assign an editor to assist the writer throughout the drafting process; such editing might be called developmental or substantive editing. Completed chapters or entire manuscripts then need to be copyedited for clarity and correctness as well as consistency of style and to make sure the language is appropriate for the book’s target audience. Special attention must be paid to graphs, charts, diagrams, and other visual components of the text, and citations need to be confirmed as correct. Editors or other employees must be assigned to secure permission to use any copyrighted material. Editors may be assigned to compile an index for the book.
Nonfiction manuscripts also need to be fact-checked. Fact-checking involves verifying that information such as names and dates are correct and confirming that quoted material has been correctly reproduced from the original sources.° Publishers insist on fact-checking to protect their reputations—even a small factual error can call the credibility of the book, the author, and even the entire house into question.
The final version of the book must be carefully proofread—both before typesetting and after. Careful attention must again be paid to charts, graphs, and visuals and to the formatting and correctness of citations, if they exist.
Editors who work on literary texts can have all kinds of titles depending on where they work, what they do, and how their roles are defined. Managing editor, copy editor, line editor: these can mean almost anything.
The obvious place for literary editors to work is in the big publishing houses we’re all familiar with from the spines of the books on our shelves. The “Big 5” is a common nickname for the five biggest publishers out there: Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, and Simon & Schuster.° Each of these behemoths contain several major subsidiary groups and dozens or even hundreds of imprints, and each of those imprints specializes in certain kinds of books.
But that’s not the only place literary editors are needed. In addition to the colossal publishing houses, there are hundreds of small, independent presses operating in every part of the United States (and all around the world, for that matter). Such presses usually specialize in a specific type of book or may publish books about or authors from a particular region.
Lastly, you should know that there are thousands of literary magazines out there—periodicals that publish fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and art. Many of these are based at universities (usually in the English department) and they are usually staffed by a faculty member and assisted by a team of graduate students volunteers and interns. Many literary editors get their first experience in reading submissions and working with authors by volunteering to help with their school’s lit mag.
Not all books are meant for a popular or even a special-interest audience, of course. A significant slice of the publishing world is devoted to scholarly and academic texts of various kinds. For example
- Textbooks are instructional books used in school, usually written by experts in their fields.
- Anthologies are collections of smaller works in book form. This can range from literature anthologies that collect famous poems, short stories, plays, and more from a particular historical era to collections of scholarly articles or chapters on a topic.
- Scholarly editions of literary and historical texts present the famous text, edited and footnoted by a scholarly expert, along with a critical introduction and other useful materials.
- A monograph is a scholarly book, usually written for a scholarly audience.
- Scholarly journals are periodicals where scholars publish articles detailing their research.
The process of producing such materials is similar to that of producing popular nonfiction described above, with some notable changes. First, scholarly work requires scholars to be involved at some parts of the writing and editing process. For example, the person in charge of a scholarly journal will usually be called something like the “managing editor” or some similar title, but what qualifies them to do that job is not their editing ability but their scholarly credentials. In other words, the managing editor of something is not usually an editor by trade; they are instead a prominent scholar in the field—usually with a PhD or other terminal degree—who presides over the journal’s activities. Their actual editing work is roughly the same as an acquisitions editor in popular publishing; in other words, they help decide what things to print.
The other major difference is that most scholarly work involves peer review. That is, before a submission is accepted and forwarded to the actual editing and publishing phases, it is sent to two or more peer reviewers. Peer reviewers, like the managing editor, are credentialed scholars in the field represented by the publication. Their job is to read the submission and determine whether the scholarship it contains is up to the standards of that field, i.e., the research methods, analysis, and conclusions are all acceptable. The peer reviewers can accept, reject, or solicit revisions on the submission, and the whole process is typically done blindly—that is, neither the reviewers nor the authors know who the others involved in the process are. Peer reviewers are often said to be part of the “editorial board” of the publication.
Once a submission makes it through all the “editors” of the peer review process, it then needs to be edited by actual editors using processes similar to those of nonfiction editors in popular publishing.
Even though many of the “editors” in scholarly editing are scholars, not editors, there is still a wide need for trained editors to participate all throughout the publishing process. Here are some of the places scholarly publishing takes place.
University presses are similar to independent presses, but they are associated with or owned by a university and are usually nonprofit organizations. Most university presses specialize in scholarly nonfiction, of course, and many also publish literary fiction and poetry, so university presses need editors of all types and abilities.
Many popular publishers actually publish academic and scholarly work, often through imprints, so it’s possible to be in scholarly editing and still be employed by one of the big houses or a major independent press. For example:
- Bedford/St. Martin’s, which is a subsidiary of Macmillan, publishes primarily college textbooks related to the humanities.
- Houghton Mifflin, a name you might remember from your grade school textbooks, is an independent publisher of Pre K–12 educational materials.
- W. W. Norton is an independent publisher known especially for its massive anthologies so often used in literature classes as well as its Norton Critical Editions, which present famous pieces of literature with all the scholarly trimmings.
- Routledge and Taylor and Francis collectively publish thousands of scholarly journals and books.
Editing in Journalism
Often running in parallel to the world of book editing we’ve discussed is the world of editing in journalism, that is, in newspapers, magazines, websites, etc. As with scholarly editing, however, journalistic editing has a few key differences even while the core of the editing activity remains the same.
Specifically, it should be noted that the higher-level editors in any newspaper or magazine are almost certainly people trained specifically as journalists. While they are certainly interested in the things all editors care about—clear and correct writing, etc.—the truth is that their bigger concern is the function of the press in presenting the news of the day along with useful analysis, commentary, and opinion in ways that appropriately manage bias. So even though the top jobs at most newspapers and magazines have “editor” in their titles, the work they do is both broader and more specific than the general idea of “editing” we’re working with here.
Still, there are lots of jobs for those that can edit all across the journalism world. Articles need to be copyedited, fact-checked, and proofread, and different media outlets have different editorial processes in place to get that work done.
The obvious employers here are newspapers and news magazines, but let’s take a wider view of what journalism includes.
First off, be aware that not all news outlets are traditional print outlets anymore. All major print outlets now have extensive online presences, and many news outlets—such as Vox, Vice, Slate, and HuffPost—were born in the internet-age and have never really had a print version to speak of. Also, be aware that such outlets are constantly experimenting with new forms of media. The New York Times, for example, now regularly produces video content, podcasts, recipes, and even virtual reality videos, all of which need editors at some point in the production process.
Additionally, there are more than just hard news outlets. General-interest and special-interest magazines and websites need editors to work on stories of all types. Especially for special-interest publications, training in journalism is less important that sharing the special interest of the publication—for example, all the editors at Fine Woodworking magazine are, reportedly, experienced woodworkers.
At last we come to the least known area of editing: technical editing. Technical editors are, simply put, editors who work on technical writing of any sort: instructions, lab reports, grant proposals, informational brochures and pamphlets, technical specifications, reference works, and more.
As in the types of editing discussed above, technical editors can be involved with documents at all stages of development. For example, they can work with writers of technical texts early in the process, helping to create an effective outline or define a proper voice or diction to guide writers as they write. Or they can come in once a draft has been completed and perform what is generally known as copyediting, making sure the document is clear and consistent and that readers will find it easy to use and comprehend—to this end, technical editors often create and use stylesheets detailing how terms in the document are to be spelled, abbreviated, used, and more. As with any nonfiction editing, technical editors can be involved in fact-checking and proofreading, and they might additionally pay special attention to the visual presentation of a document, ensuring its system of headings is consistent or its usage of captions on charts and graphs is strong. Lastly, technical editors are often responsible for making sure documents adhere to the house style of the lab, business, or organization.
One way technical editing is perhaps different from all the other types of editing described above is that technical editors often find themselves working with people who don’t consider themselves, first and foremost, writers. Whereas literary, nonfiction, and journalism editors primarily work with people who would describe themselves as writers, authors, or journalists, technical editors are often working with subject-matter experts who struggle to communicate their very specialized knowledge to a nonexpert audience. For this reason, many characterize technical editors as being advocates for the reader—in other words, their job is to make sure the author’s message is sensical and accessible to a reader who doesn’t share that author’s expertise and context.
Also unlike the other types of editing, technical editing doesn’t have an obvious, distinct place of employment like a publishing house or a newspaper office. Instead, technical editors are employed all over, at any organization that needs the services they provide. This can include any of the following:
- Research facilities and labs, where technical writers and editors might help the researchers communicate their findings to the public or write proposals to gain funding for new research projects
- Engineering firms, where they might help produce proposals to bid for government contracts or produce documentation about mechanical and electrical components
- Government offices, where they might polish reports or help produce brochures and pamphlets for the public
- Nonprofit organizations, where they could help compose grant proposals to get funding for new initiatives or periodic reports detailing to stakeholders what good the organization accomplished
- Consumer goods manufacturers, where they might work on instruction manuals, packaging, troubleshooting guides, and more, for products ranging from printers to smart watches to microwaves and lawnmowers.
This list is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technical editing, since almost every part of modern society—from the public sector of government and education to the private sector, which includes every type of business imaginable—has some need to convey specialized information in a clear way to some audience or another.
We’ve discussed the most prominent areas editors work, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. Just think of all the places you encounter text in your life—movie scripts, ad campaigns, catalogs and mailers, websites upon websites of every type and function. Any place there’s text, it’s likely there’s an editor or two helping to whip that text into shape.
The trick is that the path into those lesser known editing jobs isn’t obvious or clear. If you asked a thousand editors—each working in a different one of those unique, out-of-the-spotlight editing jobs—how they ended up in that position, you’d get a thousand different answers. Such is the nature of editing as a profession.
One important way editors work that we haven’t discussed yet is freelance. Being a freelancer means you work on a project-by-project basis with clients that hire and pay you directly, rather than working a salaried position at a company. Because editing is a skill that is useful to so many other fields, freelancing is a viable option for all types of editing. There are freelance book editors, freelance factcheckers, freelance technical editors, etc. There are freelancers out there who specialize in every level and process of editing, from the developmental stuff down to the final proofreading.
A Few Final Points
I hope you can see that, although editors work in a wide variety of fields, the basic activities that they are engaged in are broadly the same—even when the types of documents they work on, the job titles they are given, and the clients they work with all change.
Though the inconsistency in naming editors’ positions and activities makes it hard to map out the landscape of field of editing, the consistency of what editors do means that, no matter what type of editing you hope to do someday, the fundamentals are the same. Editors of all stripes are experts at figuring out what a document needs to get its message across to the audience. They revel in the power of words and the infinite ways they can combine to create infinite effects. They excel at the nitty-gritty work of making things precise and correct, of bringing punctuation and usage into alignment with a house style or consistent authorial voice. Editors are mediators between author and audience, advocating for each in turn. Editors are midwives and coaches, pit crew team members and sous chefs.
This overlap in the fundamental skills and mindset means that it can be easy for editors to move around over the course of their career—it’s easy to imagine a technical editor getting into the publishing of how-to manuals or a nonfiction book editor moving into magazine editing. On the other hand, however, much of what makes an editor most capable is the specialized knowledge they develop as they work in one area over time—many editors carve out specific niches for themselves. Those niches are often the result of a secondary expertise they brought with them to editing in the first place—an interest in software development, an understanding of horticulture, a love of poetry. But they are just as often the result of chance as one specialized job led to the next, which led to the next, and so on.
So, in conclusion, I recommend you keep three things in mind as you develop as an editor:
- Focus on mastering the fundamentals of editing, which will be useful no matter what work you end up doing.
- Don’t ignore your other interests and expertises, since you never know how they might help you someday.
- Never be opposed to learning a new skill or working with a new type of client or text, since you never know what new horizons they may unlock.
Good luck, and happy editing!