If you're an aspiring journalist, becoming an editor probably seems like a dream job, whether you envision yourself at the helm of Vogue or The Washington Post.
As you almost certainly know, competition for these high-profile jobs, or indeed any editing job, is intense. Furthermore, there is a preconception that such roles are traditionally the preserve of those with top college degrees or connections in the industry.
But what if your formal education ends with a high school diploma? Is it still possible for talented writers without English degrees from Harvard to succeed as editors?
Thankfully, the answer is yes. If you have the relevant soft skills, a keen eye for detail, tenacity, and a willingness to learn, it is certainly possible to crack open the door to the media without a college degree in editing.
We offer our top tips for becoming a journalist and even an editor, whatever your level of education.
What does a professional editor do?
As we’ll establish in this article, there are numerous types of editors and multiple routes you can take to enter the profession. It would therefore be impossible to devise a job description that fits every editorial role on every publication.
One useful way to think of the job of an editor, however, is that such individuals often act as the gatekeepers of quality across their magazines or websites. It’s their job to ensure a publication functions effectively and provides content that enriches its readers' lives.
Although some editors, such as copyeditors, solely focus on one aspect of the content, depending on the publication and an individual’s level of seniority, the editor’s role may not necessarily be to scrutinize every single article on a word-for-word basis.
Higher-ranking editors, often known as editors-in-chief, may instead take a more holistic view of the publication. If, say, you’re working on a print magazine or e-newsletter, your job as editor could be to ensure each of the articles in an issue enhances the publication’s overall theme and doesn’t breach editorial policy.
An editor will also create tone of voice and style guidelines that apply to all content published under the company’s brand. As part of these guidelines, an editor can state whether content should be warm, funny, professional, or authoritative. Editors can also use these guidelines to establish their stance on technical points of grammar.
From time to time, effective editors (especially those working online) will also conduct an audit of their existing bank of content. This involves analyzing all web pages accessible to readers to ensure all information is up to date and meets current style guidelines.
In order to set their publications apart, online and magazine editors should also conduct regular competitor reviews. As part of this process, an editor (or third party such as an external agency) visits competitors’ sites or reads print materials to gain an oversight of the themes they are covering and any new or regular sections they have introduced.
As well as performing the actual editing, an editor-in-chief should also attend industry events to raise the profile of the publication, network, and, most importantly, meet readers and potential readers. In effect, some lead editors will make time for marketing and become the face of their magazine or website.
The different types of editors
While you may have an image of an editor as a Perry Mason figure sending Clark Kent and Lois Lane to investigate their latest scoop on Lex Luther, this stereotype of the traditional newsroom man no longer fits the modern media world. Although such individuals do still exist in 2021, the term “editor” now encompasses a broad spectrum of job roles.
A content editor, for instance, is responsible for taking charge of all material submitted by the publication’s writers, which involves ensuring this text is to the highest possible standard. If you’re working on a larger publication, you may also find that each of the individual sections has its own editor: there will, for example, be a science, film, tech, or sports editor. There may also be an editor in charge of breaking news stories and an editor responsible for features and people-led pieces.
Those who do academic editing are responsible for setting standards in journals, dissertations, and colleague dissertations, while book editors oversee longer fiction and nonfiction texts for publishing houses or freelance clients.
There are also various types of editing a single text can go through, and multiple rounds of edits may be performed by different editors in a large organization. Developmental editing (often a role played by the content editor) focuses on macro, large-scale items such as plot (in fiction), structure, and ideas. A line editor makes sentence-by-sentence changes for grammar, clarity, and flow.
A copyeditor is specifically focused on grammar, syntax, punctuation, and usage consistency. Fact-checking is pretty self-explanatory, and proofreaders generally do the final grammar and formatting checks before a manuscript goes to print.
While many editors manage content for publications and play a more marketing-focused role, becoming an editor who focuses solely on one aspect of the text may be quicker and more accessible than becoming a lead content editor. Do your research and choose the type of editing that will best suit your natural skill set.
Proofreaders vs editors
It is a common misconception for those new to the publishing industry to confuse the roles of proofreaders and editors. While an editor’s job is often to make high-level strategic decisions, a proofreader’s function is to closely read all copy submitted by the writers to ensure it is free from mistakes and factual inaccuracies.
Although the roles of editor and proofreader will differ depending on the publication, there is one golden rule: an editor may, on occasion, perform the role of a proofreader. However, a proofreader will rarely become involved in determining the overall direction of the publication or making high-level decisions.
What are the must-have skills editors need?
It goes without saying that having a strong command of the English language and effective time management are prerequisites for successful editors. However, these are far from the only attributes that can be an advantage when working in this industry. In fact, many of the most valuable skills an editor needs cannot be learned in college classes.
Within the media industry, many would argue that being an editor (or any type of journalist) is not a job for a wallflower. In order to find a good story, you need to be confident asking awkward questions of industry leaders or picking up the phone to cold-call a stranger.
Resilience is another key characteristic typically found in the most successful journalists and editors. No matter how many awards you win, there will always be those who are keen to criticize your work. The key is to tell the difference between the trolls and discerning readers who are providing you with feedback that can help improve your publication.
Perhaps the most important skill an editor can have, however, is the ability to get inside their readers’ minds and understand what they are looking to achieve from a piece of content. For this reason, many editors will draw up a profile of their typical reader, often giving that individual a name, age, occupation, and even decide how they would spend a typical Saturday night. Before publication, they will ask themselves what their imagined reader will make of every single article or piece of content.
How much can editors make?
It's well known that those working in editorial roles often do not earn as much as those in professions such as law or medicine.
That said, it is certainly possible to earn a decent living as an editor. According to information from recruitment firm Indeed, the average editor’s salary in the US as of July 2021 is $53,140 per year, while Glassdoor puts an editor’s salary at between $11 and $25 per hour. In the UK, however, this figure is typically lower, with Payscale putting the average salary at £27,760 per year.
Like almost any professional, editors' salaries vary enormously depending on factors such as their level of experience and the publication they are overseeing. And it goes without saying that, as you establish a reputation in the field and gain experience, your earning power should grow.
How to get the skills an editor needs
When you’re seeking to expand your knowledge and skills, it’s essential that you first decide which type of editing you’d like to specialize in during your career. Being armed with this information will help you formulate an effective strategy for gaining relevant experience to aid in your professional development.
If you’d prefer to focus on close reading of texts—whether content editing, developmental editing, or proofing—you should make sure you’re well-versed in the basics of grammar and style sheets. You’ll also need to make yourself familiar with the style guides that are often bibles for professional editors (Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Oxford Style Guide, the Associated Press, etc.).
As well as getting hold of as many books on editing as you can, one of the most effective ways of gaining such specialist knowledge is through training courses or classes in journalism, editing, and/or grammar, which will often be far cheaper than a conventional college degree. There are plenty of these online, though be sure to make sure any courses you pay for are reputable.
You could also find free training materials in journalism through a quick Google search. And although they certainly won't hurt as you dip your toe into the world of publishing, remember these free courses are unlikely to cover the full spectrum of topics available on a paid course.
If you’d prefer to take on a role as a magazine or online content editor, you may find that an internship is the most effective route into this type of publishing. Through such schemes, you can gain real-world experience of working as a journalist or editor and see for yourself whether such a job is (or isn’t) right for you. Social media sites such as LinkedIn and job boards such as Indeed can be a vital resource if you’re searching for these types of positions.
And while many people believe internships are only for college students or recent graduates, with an increasing number of publishing bosses becoming aware of the need for diversity in the media, certain publications are now opening their internship schemes to those without a college degree.
Companies that hire stay-at-home editors
With the coronavirus pandemic permanently changing the landscape of remote working, many editors are seeking a role with the scope and flexibility of working from home.
In order to join the books at one of these companies, you’ll normally need to pass an (often demanding) timed editing skills test. Although all organizations work differently, many will allow you to assign yourself projects on an ad-hoc basis to suit your availability.
Although many companies offer the option of remote working for editors, here is a selection of the most reputable:
Note that remote roles within the organizations above are often more appropriate for those wishing to specialize in piecemeal, close reading of texts on a freelance basis.
If you’re seeking an editor-in-chief position that involves leading a publication, you may be well-advised to seek a more permanent, full-time role. The good news is that increasing numbers of companies are now open to flexible working arrangements and many allow employees in these more senior roles to work from home.
We’d never suggest there isn’t value in having a college education, and indeed, most of Eleven’s editors have an academic or professional qualification themselves. However, it is possible to argue that many of the core editing skills needed to succeed in your career can be acquired through life and career experience working with publishers or clients, rather than via college courses.
If you’d be interested in becoming an editor with Eleven, we’d love to hear from you, and we always welcome applications from bright, dedicated, and conscientious professionals, whether or not they have a college degree.
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