If you’re like most young bibliophile, passionate, enthusiastic editors-to-be, you’ll probably be wondering whether you have what it takes to be a successful book editor in today’s competitive publishing industry. In order to help you out, and ease some of those pre-editing nerves, here is a list of what I’ve found to be the four main qualities that consistently help me become the best editor I can be.
Skill is something you can almost always learn through a strong combination of in-class and real-world experience. Take a publishing course with a few copyediting and book editing courses, followed by an internship or entry-level position at a book publisher, magazine, or newspaper and you’ll likely have the editing skills that will form the basis of your talent for the rest of your career. There are plenty of books out there that are helpful as well. My editing teacher and publisher at Centennial College Press, Mark Stanski, recommended a wonderful book to us in our Copyediting class called The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller that I’d recommend to anyone interested in starting an editing career. As with exercise, the more time you spend copyediting, proofreading, and examining texts, the more toned your editorial muscles will become.
Intuition is a little trickier to pin down. Nevertheless, there are a few early indicators that you have it. If you write with very few grammatical and spelling mistakes; have a fairly easy time editing your own essays, stories, and poems; are good at summarizing lengthy descriptions; have a keen eye for detail; find that you tend to “know” something is grammatically correct without necessarily being able to describe why it is that way; and/or are good at organizing and extracting larger points and ideas from a wealth of detailed, messy material, you’ve probably been blessed with some good ol’ editing intuition!
Imagination. You may find this an odd skill to suggest for an editor. Many people have the idea that editors must be very rigid, rule-friendly, tunnel-vision types. While many are, and are very successful being so, I find that imagination plays a huge role in helping me to make edits that are perhaps unorthodox, but often more efficient and successful in the end. Imagination comes in largely when considering substantive editing —the type of editing that deals with organizing ideas and concepts, however it’s also helpful when it comes to copyediting. Many may see a sentence that isn’t quite getting the point across and make a very predictable, correct change that in essence, fixes the problem. However, sometimes there’s a much more unorthodox, imaginative edit that brings absolute life to the sentence, achieving both clarity and increased pleasure for the reader.
Efficiency is perhaps another quality one wouldn’t expect to see as a staple in successful editing. In fact, it could be argued that it’s one of the most important qualities of an editor. Too often young editors get stuck in the idea that every single sentence must be its absolute best. While this is always a goal to move towards, most editing teachers and almost all editors will tell you that this is completely impossible to do. For a variety of reasons, namely tight time constraints, editors must maintain a strong balance of accuracy and efficiency. In other words, ask yourself if a change is absolutely necessary before you make it. If it isn’t necessary, chances are, you’re better off moving on to bigger fish.
Now, I should add that if you don’t have one of these qualities or think you’re weaker in one than the others, please don’t despair! These are simply guidelines, and in no way qualifications, for every editor out there. There are also plenty of ways you can hone your skills and test yourself (I’d personally recommend trying out some of the exercises in our newest e-book, The Editorial Department. Also, feel free to email us with any questions or concerns you have and we’ll try our best to help you out as much as possible — after all, we were where you are not so long ago.