The Basics: Becoming an Editor

Everyone comes to this career differently:

There are a few things, however, that all good editors-to-be have in common:

  • passion for detail
  • strong command of spelling, grammar, and punctuation
  • the drive, always, to learn more

Also, as Carol Fisher Saller writes in The Subversive Copy Editor, they are “liberally educated and culturally literate. They know a foreign language or two, are reasonably numerate, and have traveled a bit.”

Put simply, being well rounded will make you a better editor.


To be a successful editor, however, there are two more traits you’ll need, and they only come with time. Those traits are proficiency and experience. Or maybe that should read “proficiency through experience,” because really, that’s the only way to progress.

You start at the beginning with the most basic thing you can find—a friend’s term paper, a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation, a local nonprofit’s brochure—and you jump in with both feet. You make mistakes. You underestimate your timeline. You undercharge …

But you learn. You grow. And you begin to feel confident enough in your abilities to reach out to new prospective clients, introducing yourself and your skills, taking editing tests when needed, and generally expanding your business.

There’s no easy path. There’s no straight road. But believe me when I say that if can get there, so can you.

More to come on this subject in the days ahead …


Working smarter, not harder.

As an editor, I have always had a method:

  1. Do a quick run-through of a project, catching all the obvious errors.
  2. Go through it again, a little deeper.
  3. Spelling and grammar checks.
  4. Final read-through, just in case.

No one taught me to work that way; it’s just the way I’ve always done things. Consequently, larger projects could take several weeks, something I considered normal.

Two weeks ago, however, my boss introduced me to a different method, one I’ll call the “once-through.” Basically, you work the project once, slowly and methodically . . . And then you’re done.

I was skeptical, to say the least. There seemed to be too much room for error, especially without the double- and triple-checking. But I tried it anyway.

My last project was nearly 150k words plus cover copy. I finished it in a week and a day. Then I absolutely panicked, thinking I must have missed a million things. I mean, come on. A week and a day? It would have taken me three to four times that using my original method.

So I spent the past few days running spelling and grammar checks, cross-referencing quotes and song lyrics, and even spot-checking every chapter, just in case. Guess what? Everything was fine.

The once-through not only allowed me to finish faster but also lessened the amount of stress and anxiety I usually feel while working. How? Well, obviously the deadline wasn’t nearly as scary. But forcing myself to work slowly and with more precision brought back the enjoyment of editing while eliminating the frenzy.

I liken it to walking meditation, where you are in motion but still focused, still paying attention. Call it “editing meditation,” if you like.

Because of this new practice, I was able to take off in the afternoon on both Saturday and Sunday to go hiking: something I would never and could never have done before. I would have felt too guilty, knowing the deadline was looming and that I still had so far left to go. But the once-through has given me more time and energy to focus on things that matter beyond my work, like homeschooling. I’ve also been able to take small breaks during the day to look after myself, reading and resting and getting out into nature.

In short, the once-through has changed everything. And I am falling in love with the process of editing again.

Try it. See if it works for you. And enjoy the ability to work smarter, not harder!

Hidden Lake