How do you become an editor?

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Editing as a Career Choice

To be an editor is a popular career aspiration for young and old alike. Many students, at school and at university, dream of working in a large publishing house. Plenty of people think of earning a few extra euros in retirement, or to supplement their main income, by doing some freelance work.

Bur how does one become an editor, and what does an editor do?

Literary Editor — Freelance Copyeditor

When they hear the word “editor”, most people think of the kind of editor who holds a permanent post in a publishing house — the person with responsibility for overseeing the whole process, from the author’s initial idea for a book to the moment of publication. This type of editor selects manuscripts, edits them and coordinates the collaboration between author, illustrator, compositor, proof-reader, printers and publishers.

There are, however, increasing numbers of freelance editors and firms of editors. These are freelancers or businesses specialising in text services. The main emphasis here is not just on proof-reading and editing text. Many also provide further services such as copywriting or writing coaching. There is no limit to what could be offered. Lektorat Unker is one of those who have an open-ended approach.

In this article, we concern ourselves primarily with the career of literary editor, and that of the freelance editor offering text services.

What education and training does an editor require?

What do you have to study to become an editor? There is as yet no designated course or specialist study area dedicated to this career. Most publishing houses, however, require their editors to have followed a university-level course of study. In the case of literary or general publishers, this will usually have been a language-based, or other form of arts-based study. Where specialist publishers are concerned, this could be any appropriate speciality, since there are texts and publishers for the relevant texts in almost every sphere of knowledge.

Beyond that, most publishers expect you to do on-the-job training and internships. The more experience you can demonstrate, and the earlier you can start, the better your chances of actually one day being a editor in a publishing house.

To work independently as a freelance copyeditor, it is even possible to succeed with no training at all. Of course, good qualifications are an advantage here too, since customers have no way of knowing in advance how good such an editor is. Consequently, they are going to look at the available indicators such as education and references. The same is obviously true for candidates seeking a post with an established firm offering editing services.

What must an editor be able to do?

It goes without saying that an editor must enjoy reading. A love of language and a facility in using it are equally essential. The freelance copyeditor in particular, who is normally at the same time a proof-reader, has to be in total command of things that some would find tedious, such as punctuation with commas, spelling, and grammar. A grasp of typography and layout is also advantageous.

One other point to consider: both the literary editor and the copyeditor have a lot to do with people: with authors, publishers, printers, art editors and so on. This requires an understanding of how all these spheres cooperate, and the ability to coordinate the process well. For this, good interpersonal and communicative skills are needed.

The freelance copyeditor, even more than the literary editor, must have the skill set necessary to run a business: to calculate costs, acquire customers and handle marketing, to negotiate, do the bookkeeping, and resolve conflicts. Two very important attributes for both the literary and the freelance editor to possess are a high level of commitment and a resistance to stress. At times, the job can be very stressful, and demand time and effort outside normal office hours.

The successful freelance copyeditor can, of course, outsource some of the work, bringing in specialists in many spheres such as bookkeeping and advertising. However, those just starting out in particular are often working on a very limited budget, and are basically reliant on themselves. Continuing professional development is therefore doubly essential for the copyeditor. On the one hand, to (self)manage and coordinate successfully, there is the need to constantly update one’s grasp of legal and commercial matters. At the same time, above-average general knowledge is required, to work on texts expertly and with flair. Lastly, the texts themselves may cover an immense range of subjects.

Where do I start?

You won’t find one clearly defined path leading you to your dream job in editing. Those wishing to join a publishing house won’t be able to do this without writing many, possibly a great many job applications. Even to try for work from a freelance copyeditor, there's no getting around sending a convincing letter of application (which also reads well and is impeccably correct!).

Some aspects of being a freelance copyeditor are easier than others. You have to attract customers via advertisements or your own homepage, which is not easy. You have to register as self-employed, draw up invoices, keep accounts, and fill in your tax return correctly. You may find, however, that you sometimes come into contact with customers who don’t have a big budget, but who are not asking so much either. This type of commission enables beginners in the career to feel their way into the job, rather than being ‘thrown in the deep end’ by tackling large projects.

One more thing: very few copyediting firms employ a team of permanent staff. Most work principally in cooperation with freelancers. This means that, even though you’re doing work for a firm of editors, you remain, legally and practically speaking, self-employed. You have no superiors, and you are paid a fee per job done.

So, what about the moment when you get that eagerly awaited first assignment, or the editing position you've been dreaming of? With time, the work will certainly become easier, but our practical Proof-reading Tips can perhaps help to get you off to a good start. It’s also worth taking a look at our list of Common Spelling Mistakes (German).

Working for Lektorat Unker editing services

We are happy to set on career beginners at our Student Rate. This will give you the opportunity to try out the copyediting profession and acquire some initial experience. Send your application to: jobs@unker.com.

Have a look at our jobs section, where we’ve put together some pointers on what we are looking for in job applicants and their applications. Even if you don’t fulfil all the criteria, don’t let it deter you from writing to us.

NB: Don’t lose heart if we fail to reply quickly, and you feel that you’re waiting in vain. We receive huge numbers of applications, but we do try to read them all. If we have a suitable commission for you, we will surely be in touch with you.

3 September 2013, last updated: 16 September 2015

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