Every so often we at IVP get asked what it takes, or how one prepares, to be an editor. The question came regularly enough that my predecessor at IVP, Jim Sire, jotted down some thoughts which we have since been passing on to folks for over two decades. His comments are just as relevant now as they were then, so here they are.
So you want to be an editor? Or, less boldly, so you want to consider being an editor? Here are some matters to take into account.
The bad news is that there is no particular education that prepares you to be an editor. The good news is that there is no particular education that prepares you to be an editor. Almost any education–and the more the better–will function quite well.
Being an editor requires skill, general knowledge and wisdom. If you have the last two, you can get the first one because wisdom already will have confirmed that you have the ability to edit and knowledge will have set you in the direction of learning the skill.
Journalism training may (but note, only may) be helpful. Sometimes it seems to teach the journalist that one can write about any subject equally well. The truth is that one can write about any subject equally badly; journalists prove this all the time.
I rather recommend composition courses in the English department when taught from the traditional standpoint that writing well includes writing clearly and concisely with imagination and verve.
A Liberal Arts Mind
A liberal arts mind is the most important quality for an editor to possess. A liberal arts mind is one that is interested in a very wide variety of subjects–sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, travel, people, ideas, politics, government, business. It is not a mind that is focused on only one topic, say, an insatiable desire to know all there is to know about the quark, the president of Czechoslovakia or the lifestyles of the poor and destitute.
If you had a hard time choosing a major in college–not because you found nothing interesting but because you found everything interesting–you have the fundamental makings of an editor, not just the editor of an artsy-craftsy journal for young sophisticates but also the editor of an engineering trade publication.
Editors need to be interested more in things than the writers they edit, for they need to know even more about the context of the article or book than the writer. They are the ones who help the writer meet the audience and the needs of the culture at large.
There is nothing that an editor knows that cannot be of value to his or her work.
If you do not have this insatiable curiosity about all kinds of things, you should probably not plan on a career in editing.
An Intense Interest and Knowledge About a Few Things
Even the person with a liberal arts mind should have the intensity of commitment to a few major interests such that he or she knows lots about them. Yes, you do need to select a major in college, and you need to realize that if you remain only a generalist you will have a mind too superficial to edit well.
So choose a few areas and become a modest expert in them. It will be in these areas that you may wish to seek editorial work. Combining interests and work will keep some of the boredom down. And there will be boredom.
A Stomach and Patience for Detail
Every editor must be willing to put up with (if not enjoy) detail work. Getting a manuscript ready for publication involves intense concentration on tiny matters–grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhetorical finesse, format, documentation.
Not every editor–especially acquisitions editors–are copy editors, but even acquisition editors need to be able to judge how difficult a manuscript will be for copy editors to edit.
An Ability to Write
If you do not like to write, stay away from editing. Most editors find themselves rewriting. It is a fairly well-kept secret (at least most readers I know don’t seem to know this) that some of the best-selling authors did not actually write their own books: Some produce scenarios, some taped meanderings, some lectures. Editors then take these (sometimes the thinnest of materials) and make something of them–often writing more than rewriting.
The best preparation for writing is writing. The best way to show prospective publishers that you can write is to show them something you have already published. Early on begin writing for publication yourself.
There is no personality or temperamental style that is more suited to editing than any other. But some skill at working with people is required.
On any given editorial project an editor’s main relationship as editor is with the author. Editors need to know how to improve writing without changing the distinctive style (if it is worth preserving) of the author. The work they edit should not give the impression that they wrote it. (But even when an editor has preserved the author’s style and improved the work, the author may take exception.)
If you have a difficult time letting people be who they are and say what they–not necessarily you–want to say, you will find editor-author relations difficult.
James W. Sire