Exploring this Job

One of the best ways to explore the field of editing is to work on a school newspaper or other publication. The experience you gain will definitely be helpful, even if your duties are not strictly editorial. Being involved in writing, reporting, digital production, proofreading, printing, or any other task will help you to understand editing and how it relates to the entire field of publishing.

If you cannot work for the school paper, try to land a part-time job with a local newspaper or newsletter, or publish your own newsletter or start a blog. You may try combining another interest with your interest in editing. For example, if you are interested in environmental issues, you might want to start a newsletter or blog that deals with environmental problems and solutions in your community.

Another useful project is keeping a journal. In fact, any writing project will be helpful, since editing and writing are inextricably linked. Write something every day. Try to rework your writing until it is as good as you can make it. Try different kinds of writing, such as letters to the editor, short stories, poetry, essays, comedic prose, and plays.

ACES: The Society for Editing offers a wide variety of resources for aspiring and professional copy editors at its Web site (https://aceseditors.org). These include articles about copyediting, a blog and forum, editing guidelines, grammar guide quizzes, and suggested books and Web sites. The society also offers membership to college students who are pursuing course work in communications. 

The Job

Editors work for many kinds of publishers, publications, corporations, and other organizations. Editors' titles vary widely, not only from one area of publishing to another but also within each area.

Although some editors write for the organizations that employ them, most editors work with material provided by writers. For this reason, one of the most important steps in the editing process is acquiring the work of writers. In the fields of book and journal publishing, that work is usually performed by acquisitions editors, who are sometimes called acquiring editors. Acquisitions editors may either generate their own ideas or use ideas provided by their publishers or other staff members. If they begin with an idea, they look for writers who can create an effective book or article based on that idea. One benefit of that method is that such ideas are ones that the editors believe are likely to be commercially successful or intellectually successful or both. Often, however, editors use ideas that they receive from writers in the form of proposals.

In some cases, the acquisitions editor will receive a complete manuscript from an author instead of a proposal. Most of the time, however, the writer will submit a query letter or e-mail that asks whether the editor is interested in a particular idea. If the editor believes that the idea has potential and is suitable for the publishing house, the editor will discuss the idea further with the writer. Unless the writer is well known or is known and trusted by the editor, the editor usually asks the writer for a sample chapter or section. If the editor likes the sample chapter and believes that the author can complete an acceptable manuscript, the publishing house will enter into a contract with the writer. In some cases, the editor will prepare that contract; in others, the publisher or someone else will prepare the contract at the publishing house. The contract will specify when the manuscript is due, how much the author will be paid, how long the manuscript must be, and what will happen if the author cannot deliver a manuscript that the editor believes is suitable for publication, among other things.

After the contract has been signed, the writer will begin work. The acquisitions editor must keep track of the author's progress. Publishing budgets must be prepared in advance so that vendors can be paid and books can be advertised, so it is important that the manuscript be delivered by the due date. Some authors work well on their own and complete their work efficiently and effectively. In many cases, however, authors have problems. They may need advice from the editor regarding content, style, or organization of information. Often, the editor will want to see parts of the manuscript as they are completed. That way, any problems in the writer's work can be identified and solved as soon as possible.

Some typical problems are statements the writer makes that may leave the publisher open to charges of libel or plagiarism. If this problem arises, the editor will require the writer to revise the manuscript. If the writer uses materials that were created by other people (such as long quotations, tables, or artwork), it may be necessary to request permission to use those materials. If permission is required but is not given, the materials cannot be used. It is usually the author's job to obtain permission, but sometimes the editor performs that task. In any case, the editor must make sure that necessary permissions are obtained. When an acceptable manuscript has been delivered, the acquisition editor's job is usually complete.

Some publishing houses have editors who specialize in working with authors. These developmental editors do not acquire manuscripts. Instead, they make sure the author stays on schedule and does a good job of writing and organizing his or her material.

Once an acceptable manuscript has been delivered to the publishing house, it is turned over to a copy editor. This editor's job is to read the manuscript carefully and make sure that it is sufficiently well written, factually correct (sometimes this job is done by a researcher or fact checker), grammatically correct, and appropriate in tone and style for its intended readers. Any errors or problems in a published piece reflect badly not only on the author but also on the publishing house.

The copy editor must be an expert in the English language, have a keen eye for detail, and know how to identify problems. The editor will simply correct some kinds of errors, but in some cases—especially when the piece deals with specialized material—the editor may need to ask, or query, the author about certain points. An editor must never change something that he or she does not understand, since one of the worst errors an editor can make is to change something that is correct to something that is incorrect.

After the copy editor has edited the manuscript, it may be (but is not always) sent to the author for review. When the editor and author have agreed on the final copy, the editor or a graphic designer will prepare the text (and accompanying photos, illustrations, etc.) for publication. For digital publications, the editor or designer uses HTML or similar coding to prepare the text. For print publications, editors or designers lay out the manuscript by using page-layout design programs such as Adobe InDesign or QuarkXpress.

After the manuscript has been prepared for publication, galleys are usually sent in hard-copy or as a digital file to the author to be checked. If the author finds errors or requests that changes be made, the editor, copy editor, or the production editor will oversee the process, determining which changes will be made.

Managing the editorial staff is the job of the managing editor, who draws up budgets for projects, oversees schedules, assigns projects to other editors, and ensures that the editorial staff is working efficiently. The managing editor's boss is the editor in chief, editorial director, or executive editor. This editor works closely with the publisher, determining the kinds of materials the house will publish and ensuring that the editorial staff carries out the wishes of the publisher. The editor in chief and managing editor also work closely with the heads of other departments, such as marketing, sales, and production.

The basic functions performed by magazine and newspaper editors are much like those performed by book editors, but staff writers do a significant amount of the writing that appears in magazines and newspapers, or periodicals. Periodicals often use editors who specialize in specific areas, such as city editors, who oversee the work of reporters who specialize in local news, and department editors. Department editors specialize in areas such as business, fashion, sports, and features, to name only a few. These departments are determined by the interests of the audience that the periodical intends to reach. Like book houses, periodicals use copy editors, researchers, and fact checkers, but at small periodicals, one or a few editors may be responsible for tasks that would be performed by many people at a larger publication.