Saturday, March 26, 2005

Becoming an Editor

Because it comes up frequently in my various editorial forums, I've decided to put all the tips I have for breaking into the editorial profession in one place.

Disclaimer: Because there’s no single definable path to professional editorship, it’s entirely possible that none of these observations or tips apply to your situation. I’m writing from my experience. Please feel free to add your own in the comments.

I asked the same question, back when I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. I was sitting having a coffee with a friend who was a freelance editor, and asked her "So, if I were to want to become an editor, how would I go about it?"

She replied "Well, there’s no real way to become an editor. You do some editing, and eventually you hang out your shingle and say 'I’m an editor!' and people give you work."

I didn’t find this at all reassuring. I wanted a clear path—something like "get a junior job at a publisher, and start off proofreading, or counting words, or something, and you’ll get to watch Real Editors at Work, and learn." I still think it would be nice if it worked that way. I’m told in some cases it does. But for every editor I meet who found an entry-level job at a publisher, and followed a clear path, I meet at least a dozen others whose paths, like my friend’s, and like my own, weren’t that direct.

As I went about becoming an editor, I learned the truth behind what sounded like truly Belgian waffling to me when my friend said it: There’s no way a person becomes an editor. One simply decides that one is, and sets about doing it.

That said, some combination of the following seems to happen to most people I know who end up earning a living editing:

1. Discovery of Predilection
Editors like to read. They groove on language, punctuation, and words. Thus, they read voraciously and critically. They notice shifts in language. They wince when they see an apostrophe abused. They abhor an unnecessary passive. However, not all grammarians are editors. Editing demands a flexible approach to language and an understanding of more than when one might employ a subjunctive. Most people I know who work as editors found, even before they got paid for doing it, that they really couldn’t not edit. What some of us had to learn was when to curb our inner prescriptivist.

2. Formal Education
Most editors do not hold degrees in Publishing, Editing, or anything clearly related to the trade. In Canada, some may hold certificates or have taken courses related to the profession.

Many editors hold university degrees; however, it’s not strictly necessary to have a bachelor’s in anything. An English degree is no better preparation for a career in editing than a degree in math, French, or Latin. (In fact, a senior editor of my acquaintance insists that many English majors are ruined for freelance editorial work by too much acquaintance with and admiration for Literature. If your definition of good writing extends only to literary writing, then you may not have what it takes to edit a corporate annual report. But I digress.) These days, neophyte editors who don’t hold a degree may find themselves at a disadvantage applying for in-house jobs. For freelance work, however, you really need only the ability to do the work, and to convince people to let you do it. If you can edit cleanly and well, nobody’s going to care that you don’t have a degree.

3. Informal Education
Most editors are lifelong learners and tend towards polymathematicism. All the successful editors I know read widely, and know about a lot of stuff, much of it irrelevant to their formal training. They also tend to be curious, and to have well developed critical research skills.

4. Training Programs (Postsecondary)
A few colleges and universities offer courses and programmes in publishing and editing. Here in Canada, there are at least three book publishing programmes in post-secondary institutions in Toronto, Simon Fraser University offers a Master's degree in publishing, and the renowned Banff Summer Publishing Workshop is reputed to be a cushy publishing boot camp. Among the Toronto-based publishing courses are Ryerson University’s Certificate in Book Publishing, which offers many of its course online, Centennial College's one-year certificate in book and magazine publishing, Humber College's certificate in creative book publishing, and George Brown College's certificate in editing.

In addition to editing and publishing programmes and seminars, courses in business communications, grammar, technical writing, and journalism may provide some exposure to the editorial toolbox.

5. Mentoring
This might be the oldest recognized step on the editorial career path: the young editor finds an experienced editor whom he or she respects, and somehow inveigles this paragon into teaching him or her how to work the necessary magic on the text. If one is fortunate enough to already know editors, this step is vastly easier. Having an experienced, skilled editor go through the material you think you’ve cleaned up and point out any refuse you left behind can be a humbling, but very effective, training exercise.

6. Internships
Many publishers, newspapers, and magazines offer unpaid or poorly paid internships to would-be incumbents to the field. Some internships are linked to training programs—for the last month or so of their training, students are placed in a real-world environment and put to work. Others are more ad-hoc—the employer posts an internship and considers all comers. Internships can provide would-be editors with valuable experience, but too often employers seem to view their interns as free labour, and use them to operate the photocopiers, with little or no consideration for the intern’s goals or training. Several former interns of my acquaintance have complained that they gave their publishers three months’ work, and never got closer to editorial work than photocopying manuscripts to send for review. Others have reported more useful experiences, writing cover copy, marking up manuscripts, preparing art logs and photo manuscripts, reading slush, and preparing catalogue copy, in addition to operating the photocopier, running errands, and preparing courier packages.

Internships are open only to those who have some other means of support—most internships require the intern to work full-time hours for between three and six months, for no pay or for a token honorarium. Some offer minimal wages. As with full-time training program, this is all very well if one doesn’t need to eat or pay rent, and I do know several interns who supported themselves by working part time, but working full-time hours for less than full-time wages is certainly not an easy road, nor is it one that is open to everyone.

I successfully avoided an internship, mostly because I couldn’t afford to do one, and also because I refused to accept that I should volunteer full-time for three months in order to qualify for the privilege of being paid to do the same work; however, many in the industry insist that an internship (or two or three) represents an invaluable experience, and is the only way to get in the door.

7. Wriggling in Through Any Crack You Can Find
As I understand it, back in the good old days of more publishing houses, more money, and just plain abundance, a hopeful young wordsmith might fall into an job as an assistant or member of the clerical staff at a publishing house, and one of the editors would notice that young hopeful’s way with his or her semi-colons and become a mentor to the young editor. This does still seem to happen—several colleagues seem to have worked their way into editorial jobs from the reception desk or the warehouse floor. The trick seems to be not being proud or holding out for an editorial job, since those often require some editorial experience, learning what you can learn wherever you wind up, and keeping your eye on your eventual goal, while doing a good job at whatever job you have taken.

I went from temping to a research job at a map publisher’s, where I did very little editorial work, but was around production schedules, proofs, and in a sort-of publishing environment. All this time, I was volunteering with the Editors' Association of Canada, meeting editors and taking seminars, as well as attending night school at Ryerson (the book publishing programme mentioned above). Ryerson had a job listing service for students in the program, and eventually a posting for a position as an editorial assistant at an educational publisher came into my inbox. I got the six-month contract, and spent six months photocopying, collating, preparing courier packages, preparing art manuscripts, processing invoices, photocopying, and hating almost every minute of it, but gaining "valuable in-house experience."

Meanwhile I continued to volunteer for the Editors’ Association, organizing their professional development seminars. This put me into contact with a lot of editors at different stages of their career paths. Eventually one of these contacts up and offered me a job, doing real editorial work, where I was able to gain more experience with different types of publications, schedules, and editorial needs, while getting some real training.

I think, in general, some combination of editorial training (formal or informal); networking (i.e., meeting other editors and industry folks, which can be a lot of fun); volunteer editorial work (for a literary group or association, a not-for-profit, or a school or college publication); and taking whatever job will get you closer to the job you want has proved a moderately successful recipe. Of course, there’s one other ingredient: actual editorial ability.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Newsflash! People Buy Books Their Friends Recommend!

They also buy books from authors whose work they've enjoyed before!

It's official now. There was a survey and everything. Notwithstanding Richard Curtis, and the editors who look for "packages" to promote, notwithstanding all the fancy promotions and publicity campaigns, "nothing sells [a book] better than the recommendation of a friend or relative."

So here at Comma Central we did a deeply un-scientifical survey. I asked my co-workers "How did you choose the last book you read for fun?"

Editor #1: "I had read a short story by that author, so I borrowed a book by the same author from the library."
Editorial Trainee: "My sister recommended it to me."
Production Manager: "Someone gave it to me, and it sat on my shelf until I finally picked it up."
Big Boss Editor: "It was by an author I had read and enjoyed before."
Yours Truly: "I remembered my Spanish teacher in high-school recommending this author, so when I saw one of his books at the library, I picked it up."
Editor #2: "Friend's recommendation. I could lie and say it had to do with a stellar publicity campaign, though."

Experience would indeed support the survey's findings.

Quoth Rachel: In other news, the sky is blue.

via Electrolite

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Print is Dying, Blah Blah Blah

Richard Curtis, on "the shift to a new publisihing paradigm":

A generation that defines books as material objects is giving way to one that regards them as quanta of digitized information. This new culture thrives on the vivid colors of television and videos, the frenetic interactivity of email and messaging, the emotional stimulation of video games and of channel- and web-surfing, and the instant gratification of cell phones and googling....For many jittery young people, printed texts on a stack of paper are, as one editor said, “kind of boring.” “If all it is, is a book, merely words” he elaborated, “it’s hard to get excited. I ask myself, ‘What else is it besides a book? Is it a video game? A movie? A web site?’ It’s got to be more than a book to turn me on.”
Blah blah blah, print is dead, nobody reads anymore, kids are hyperstimulated, books are dying, Big Publishing is dying, Blogs are the Future, the gatekeepers are going away. Blah blah blah.

Comments Steve Eley, over at Making Light, "If blogging helps the best writers launch careers, it's by helping them get book deals. If that changes in several years, it will have to be under a new economic model, and with an audience that does
not assume that anything on the Internet will be free by default."

Sure, publishing is changing, and new media are making self-publishing easier, faster, and more accessible. So did the printing press. So did the mimeograph. So did DTP. I'm not chopping up my bookshelves for firewood anytime soon.