Picture the scene: You’re at home, curled up on your couch, and you open that book you’ve been meaning to read for some time now. It’s riddled with misused apostrophes, abused commas, conflicting spellings (“work–life balance” in one instance and “work/life balance” in the next), inconsistently sized page margins, and underdeveloped storylines.
If you cringe at every error you come across (or it hurts to even think there’s such a book), then you just might have found your true calling: editing.
As a professional editor, it will be your job to catch each and every error in a piece of text, and help writers develop and polish their work. Essentially, you’ll safeguard the written word, and make sure the books, magazines, newspapers and blogs that readers consume are in tip-top shape.
Sounds amazing? Well, here’s your complete guide on how to become an editor — from someone who’s been there and done that.
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Editors work closely with writers to make sure that what they write is actually what they want to say, and that it matches the style of a publication.
Award-winning and best-selling author Meg Cabot said it best in her blog post about the writer–editor relationship: “Writers are cowboys. We ride around having a yeehaw-good time making stuff up… Editors (at least the good ones) are the sheriff[s]. The sheriff comes in and tells the cowboys to put the gun down and let the saloon girls go and stop pouring whiskey into the piano and get back to the range and herd the cattle.”
Essentially, editors act as the gatekeepers of the written word, and are tasked with polishing and refining a piece of text (like a book, story, article or academic paper) before it gets published.
Types of editors
There are four main types of editors, each one responsible for a particular stage of the publishing process:
- Developmental editor: Their role involves guiding writers in conceiving a topic, planning the overall structure and developing an outline, and sometimes coaching writers in their writing.
- Line editor: Line editing is all about reviewing the writing style, creative content and language use at the sentence and paragraph level.
- Copy editor: These editors focus on the detail of a piece of text, and are tasked with improving its readability and fitness, and ensuring it’s free of grammatical and factual errors.
- Proofreader: Proofreading is the last step in the publishing process and involves reviewing the final draft of a piece of text to ensure accuracy and consistency in grammar, spelling, punctuation and formatting.
Many specialize in a particular media format, like book, magazine, newspaper, web content or communications editing. They may also specialize in editing content for a specific industry, such as fashion, travel, medicine, law or science.
Duties and responsibilities
The exact day-to-day duties of an editor differ in each industry and their particular role but, for the most part, include:
- Reading content and correcting typographical, grammatical and syntactical errors, and ensuring content adheres to style guidelines and publication standards and policies
- Researching and verifying facts, dates and statistics using standard references sources
- Rewriting and improving text for clarity and readability
- Delivering actionable feedback and coaching writers to hone their work without sacrificing voice or directness
- Creating an editorial calendar, developing topic ideas, overseeing production, assigning projects and monitoring deadlines
- Liaising with or managing staff, including writers, designers, photographers, artists and other editors
If your heart is set on becoming an editor, it’s a good idea to first familiarize yourself with the particulars of the job so that there aren’t any unexpected surprises down the road. This section provides insights into the typical work environment, schedules and occupational hazards of editors, as well as overall job satisfaction levels.
Editors generally work in an office setting. Depending on the industry, this can be within a publishing house, newsroom, government agency, hospital, university, or media company. Most salaried editors work in-house, but there are also plenty of work-from-home jobs available as more and more companies move to a remote or hybrid work model.
Most editors are employed on a full-time basis and work a typical 40-hour workweek from Monday to Friday. Occasional overtime work is common, especially during busy periods, to meet production deadlines. Those who prepare morning or weekend publications and broadcasts, meanwhile, also work some nights and weekends.
Freelance editors generally have inconsistent work schedules, largely due to the unpredictable nature of their jobs. For example, they may have a packed schedule one day, juggling multiple projects at once, and work only a few hours the next.
The most common complaints that editors have about their jobs include stress, anxiety and fatigue, which are a result of the many hours they work, their heavy workloads and the pressures of dealing with multiple deadlines. If left unchecked, this can lead to job burnout and even clinical depression. Freelance editors, meanwhile, also have the added stress of finding work on an ongoing basis.
Because of their job’s highly sedentary nature, editors are also prone to repetitive motion injuries, particularly carpal tunnel syndrome and back pain. Sitting at a desk all day also increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.
Editors are generally satisfied with their role, although this largely depends on the size of the publication they work on. Indeed, editors who work for larger publications tend to report higher job satisfaction levels than those working at smaller publications, as they have greater responsibilities, higher salaries and better career advancement opportunities.
Personal interest and passion also play a big role in terms of job satisfaction. While you won’t typically receive recognition for your work, editing can be a highly rewarding job, as you can take a text from its low point to the best it can be, help writers get published, and even help jobseekers land a job with an error-free résumé.
There are currently an estimated 108,400 people working as editors in the US, 12,900 of which are self-employed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The highest concentration of employment is in the information services sector (which includes the publishing, broadcasting and telecommunications industries), where 58,600 editors are employed.
That said, the job market is expected to shrink by 5.1% between 2021 and 2031. This is largely due to traditional print publications losing ground to other media formats, with many titles lowering print frequency, ending print operations, or folding entirely.
Despite declining employment, however, the BLS projects an average 10,200 new jobs each year over the decade. Competition for these jobs is expected to be very robust, particularly those with major broadcasting and publishing firms.
Editors are among the highest-paid professionals within the media and communications industry, earning a mean annual wage of $76,400 (or $36.73 per hour), according to the BLS’s latest Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics survey. Comparatively, the national average yearly salary for all occupations across all industries in the US is $58,260.
Editor salaries vary depending on a variety of factors, like employer, industry and level of experience. For example, top earners make as much as $129,420 a year, while those in the bottom 10th percentile generally only earn $36,970.
Location also plays a big role in regards to earnings. Editors who work in the state of New York are the highest earners across the US, commanding an average annual salary of $102,400. They’re followed by editors in the District of Columbia and the states of Massachusetts, California and Washington, earning $99,400, $80,940, $79,570 and $79,430 a year, respectively.
The infographic below sums up the average salaries for editors in the US:
It takes a certain type of person to succeed as an editor, and you’ll need a specific set of both learned skills (skills that you can gain with a little effort and practice) and natural qualities (characteristics that are part of your personality) — in particular:
- Attention to detail: As an editor, you’ll need to be meticulous in your work to ensure that even the smallest of errors and inconsistencies in content are corrected.
- Problem-solving skills: Like most jobs, problems are bound to arise when dealing with workflows, production schedules, writers and assignments. It will be up to you to identify these issues and find appropriate solutions, as well having the ability to make critical decisions.
- Computer skills: Editors mainly work on a computer and, as such, need to be proficient in using word processing and publishing software. Web content editors, meanwhile, generally also need a basic understanding of HTML coding.
- Writing skills: A successful editor is also a skilled writer, as they often need to rewrite entire sentences or paragraphs. They also have an in-depth understanding of grammar and mechanics.
- Time management skills: Juggling multiple projects and deadlines is part of the deal for editors, so you’ll need to be able to effectively manage your time, stay organized and prioritize your workload.
- Interpersonal skills: A large part of the job involves communicating and collaborating directly with writers, including giving them constructive feedback.
Now that you know what the job entails and what kind of skills you’ll need, it’s time to start preparing for the journey ahead. Here are the steps to take to become an editor, including the experience and qualifications that you’ll need:
Step 1: Determine if it’s the right job for you
When choosing any career, the first step to take is to gain a clear understanding of your interests, ambitions, skills and personality. This will help you narrow down your career options and determine whether you’re really willing to commit the time and effort to becoming an editor (or something else entirely).
If you’re still not quite sure what to do, taking a career test can be helpful in expediting the process of finding the right career. Our very own test, CareerHunter, for example, will accurately evaluate your compatibility with the job of an editor and over 200 other professions — so you can be sure that you end up doing something that you love.
Step 2: Focus on the right subjects at school
If you’re serious about becoming an editor, you should begin preparing in high school.
Make the most of English classes, paying special attention to grammar, vocabulary and book formatting. These classes will cover classic and period literature, research, and writing — all of which will prove useful in a career in editing.
Meanwhile, make sure to focus on developing your computer skills, as your job as an editor will largely involve using desktop or electronic publishing software.
It’s also a good idea to participate in relevant extracurricular activities, like book clubs and creative writing clubs. Likewise, writing or editing for your school newspaper or magazine can help you develop your knowledge and further prepare for the role.
Step 3: Complete a bachelor’s degree program
It’s possible to become an editor without formal education — for example, you can gain specialist knowledge of the role through classroom or online training in journalism, editing or grammar. (You’ll find plenty of free online courses, but these are unlikely to cover the full spectrum of topics available in paid courses.)
That said, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism, communications or a related field will significantly improve your employability and fast-track your way into a career in editing. This is particularly true if you’re hoping to find work in a publishing house or a newsroom, for example, where only degree holders are generally considered for roles.
Step 4: Take up an internship
An editorial internship (whether paid or unpaid) with a leading publisher can go a long way in helping you prepare for a career in editing. Indeed, you’ll gain real-world work experience, learn the ins and outs of the industry and the profession itself, as well as sharpen your skills. It might even lead to a full-time job!
Internships are often a compulsory part of bachelor’s degree programs. But even if the program you’re pursuing doesn’t require participation in an internship, it’s still a good idea to take up one anyway — whether over the summer break or upon graduation. (Some degree programs, meanwhile, require prospective students to have some related work experience, so it might be worth considering a summer internship while you’re still in high school, too.)
Step 5: Consider earning a master’s degree
Completing a postgraduate qualification isn’t always necessary to work as an editor. Indeed, only 17% of jobs require a master’s degree, according to the Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network.
That said, a master’s degree can certainly strengthen your candidacy when applying for jobs — particularly if you’re looking to specialize in an area like medical, legal or scientific editing.
Some employers may also require specialist training in a subject related to their industry — for example, a fashion magazine will typically hire editors with work experience or a formal education in fashion.
Step 6: Join a professional association
Although joining a professional association is completely optional, it’s a sure-fire way to bolster your credibility among employers and clients alike — especially if you don’t go down the formal education route to becoming an editor.
Not only is association membership a great thing to add to your résumé, but it also gives you access to certification programs, workshops, conferences, publication subscription discounts, and networking opportunities with like-minded professionals.
Some of the industry-leading professional associations for editors that are worth checking out include:
- ACES: The Society for Editing
- National Association of Independent Writers & Editors
- Editorial Freelancers Association
This, of course, is just the beginning. Once you’ve made it as an editor, you’ll still need to invest time (and money) in your career if you want to get ahead. This involves actively staying abreast of industry trends, completing specialist courses, and attending seminars and conferences.
As you build your experience and portfolio, you’ll be able to gradually move through the ranks to senior editor, managing editor and, finally, editor-in-chief of a publication.
And, if you’re passionate about the written word (and protecting the English language from misplaced commas), it’s worth the time and effort investment.
Got a question about becoming and working as an editor? Leave a comment below!