How to Become an Editor: A Comprehensive Guide for Writers

How to Become an Editor: A Comprehensive Guide for Writers

Despite some similarities, writing and editing are not the same job. 

Yet editing is often a natural progression for writers within an organization, and it’s a way for freelancers to broaden their work prospects.

Based on my experience transitioning from writer to editor as a freelancer and staffer, here’s how to become an editor.

How to become an editor and broaden your career horizon

Like a lot of professional writers, I’ve always had friends who reached out for editing help on projects. Working on these hobby projects (for free, because I had no actual editing skills) helped me see how much I enjoyed working with others’ writing. 

Over time, I realized my editing skills even outshine my writing skills; I’m more adept at perfecting existing content than producing something of my own from scratch. (Holy creativity, fiction writers! Kudos.)

Early on, my freelance editing work was sparse and low-paying, because, no skills. And I was thinking like a writer.

Early on, I applied for a staff editor position with a blogger I knew well. After an editing test, I didn’t get a call back, even though I thought I’d done well. In retrospect, I realize I was missing a huge skill: the ability to ask the right questions to guide a writer to improve the piece. Instead — laugh with me — I made a few copy edits and submitted the test with a note to the hiring manager that the piece was pretty much unfixable. Not a great coaching moment.

(Hint: They make the writing in editing tests really bad on purpose. They want to know how you deal with it.)

In 2015, I started as a staff writer with The Penny Hoarder. In that role, I took on additional tasks, including coordinating syndicated blog posts and working with our social media team on graphics. Work like this gave me experience working with other people’s writing, a good stepping stone to becoming an editor.

My editing career truly began when I applied for an open editing position at The Penny Hoarder and passed the editing test with a couple years’ more knowledge of the process. Once I was doing the work daily, finding freelance editing gigs was easier. I knew what kind of gigs to look for, and I had the experience to back it up. I’d learned to think like an editor.

Before you delve into editing, think about what it takes to be a good editor. Who are your favorite editors? Observe how they work with you: What kinds of conversations do you have? What kinds of comments do they make on your work? What tactics do you like and dislike?

What does an editor do?

Contrary to what your non-writer friends who constantly ask you to look over their writing believe, an editor is far more than a typo catcher. (Oh. My. Goodness. Stop with this myth.)

Editors are advocates — for good writing, for an audience, for the goal of a piece and for the author. Our job is to ensure a piece of writing shines, that the audience will understand it, that it achieves its purpose and that the author always comes out on top.

A tiny piece of that is catching typos.

Your more writerly friends probably understand that editing also means helping a writer mold content into its best form, including its organization, formatting, word choice, sentence structure, fact-checking, and our beloved grammar, punctuation and style.

We’re also often coaches or managers. An editor job description could easily include helping writers brainstorm ideas and reshape pitches, guiding them through common mistakes and helping them lean into their creative strengths, assigning and managing content, supervising staffers or freelancers and contributing to business goals.

How much any of these tasks are included in a job depends on the organization, client or project’s needs. Discuss these with your client or boss upfront to understand what’s expected of your role.

Is editing right for you?

You are a writer now, and most editors begin with an interest in writing — few people at a young age fall in love with the written word and believe their destiny is to polish someone else’s.

Some people are great writers because they’re great storytellers or they have a compelling message to share. These people probably aren’t great editors.

Some people are great writers because they know how to manipulate words so any story sounds great and any message is compelling. If you’re that kind of writer, you might consider becoming an editor; you can transfer that strength to others’ work.

If you’re not sure whether editing is the right move for you, ask these questions:

  • Do you enjoy developing and shaping content?
  • Can you work with multiple voices?
  • Are you a natural problem solver?
  • Are you comfortable delivering constructive feedback?

Do you have to give up writing to become an editor?

I still both write and edit. Plenty of writers transition to editing and realize the latter is a better fit, so eventually stop writing. And some editing jobs don’t include any writing. But you don’t have to be one or the other. 

With newsroom budgets tightening and online businesses running lean, a lot of editor job descriptions include as much writing as editing. And as a freelancer, you can take on any kind of work you want! My full-time editor job doesn’t involve writing, but most of my freelance work does.

However, editing is not writing. When you edit someone else’s work, don your editor cap, and set aside the writer cap. An editor’s job is to make the writing the best — that includes keeping a writer’s voice intact and fulfilling a publication’s purpose.

If you can’t resist the urge to make your mark on a piece, consider that you are not an editor, and work to grow in your writing career without moving into editing.

Or consider ghostwriting. Ghostwriting — composing work that will be published under someone else’s name — isn’t editing, but the services could go hand in hand. Determine what kind of work you’re willing to take on, and set clear boundaries with clients before accepting jobs.

Types of editors

Because “editing” encompasses so many different types of work, editing jobs vary a ton, too. You could work at all levels of an organization, on any medium or at any point in a project, depending on your skill and experience level, and what kind of work you prefer.

Everyone defines and labels the levels of editing differently, but they generally mean the same thing: levels of editing denote the point at which the editor enters the production process. 

I use Stacy Ennis’s definitions from “The Editor’s Eye” to delineate types of editors:

Developmental editor

This editor helps a writer plan and shape a piece of writing, usually a book or long-form content. You might get involved before they’ve done any writing, or you might look at a rough draft to make recommendations about overarching elements, like storyline and characters.

Substantive editor

This work is focused on macro edits, or suggestions for the organization of a piece. You’ll help the writer cut or add information and reorder content to best convey a story or message to the audience.

Line editor

Here you’ll move into micro edits, or corrections to grammar and suggestions to strengthen and tighten copy. (This role is often called “copy editor” across industries, but I’ll go with “line editor” for this piece to distinguish from the specific newsroom title of copy editor, defined below.)

Proofreader

This is the last line of defense between reader and error. You’ll catch errors in grammar and punctuation, as well as inconsistencies: incorrect page numbers, mismatched table of contents, font styles, character names or use of terms. Learn more about how to become a proofreader here.

Common areas of editing

You can provide these levels of editing on pretty much anything written. A lot of editors focus on particular media to more easily find clients and stick with work they enjoy. 

Here are some common examples of areas of editing:

Book editor 

Edit book-length manuscripts. Editors usually specialize in either fiction or nonfiction. You’ll need to understand how to organize information and ensure continuity across several chapters over something like 80,000 words.

Blog or web editor

Edit blog posts and copy for website pages, newsletters, social media and other online content. You’ll need to know web-specific skills, such as search engine optimization (SEO), catchy headline writing and blog post formatting.

News editor

Edit for newspapers, websites, broadcast media or magazines. You’ll need to be familiar with the style of news writing and the nuances of journalism, such as working with sources, ethical standards and the pace of the news cycle.

Academic editor

Edit essays, research papers, theses and dissertations. You’ll need to be familiar with academic stylebooks per field, and scholars often prefer an editor with a relevant degree, especially an advanced degree.

Multimedia editor

This isn’t a field but a set of skills you could apply anywhere. The ability to edit and proofread copy off the page — in graphics, video or other visuals — could increase your value as an editor. Even better if you can make visual recommendations or work with visual editing software yourself.

Known by many names — other editor titles you might encounter

People with the “editor” title also often take on duties beyond working with copy, such as staff, project and content management. This is common in newsrooms and companies that have adopted the newsroom structure, such as content marketing agencies or blogs. Some editor titles you might encounter:

Copy editor

This role is focused on copy. They’re usually the last to look at content before it’s published, performing line edits, fact-checking and proofreading, as well as writing headlines and meta data. Supervisory roles, such as slot or copy chief (both almost exclusively in traditional newsrooms) perform copy editing duties and manage other copy editors.

Assignment editor

In a newsroom, this editor is responsible for a specific section of the paper. In a less traditional environment, they might simply oversee an editorial team. Writers might report directly to an assignment editor, and the editor assigns pieces and works with writers on developmental and substantive editing before sending content to the copy desk.

Managing editor

This editor oversees newsroom operation and is usually not directly involved in content production. They manage people, ensure content quality and are involved in content strategy. 

Editor in chief or executive editor

This is a business role, even though it has “editor” in the name. They manage an organization’s operations, including budgets and staffing, as well as guiding content strategy and setting the standard for content quality.

Are you a staff editor or freelance editor?

These job titles are based on traditional newsrooms. You’ll encounter these duties or combinations of them under various titles, depending on industry.

Regardless of any of these job titles, however, one of the most impactful distinctions on your work is whether you are a staffer a freelancer. This is the difference between working for someone else and working for yourself, but it can also affect the type of work. 

Staff editor

Within a company, you’re more likely to have the opportunity (or expectation) to become a manager, and help shape writers’ skills and careers. Staying focused on actual editing could mean hitting a ceiling, because the assumed career progression generally leads to management.

Freelance editor

Freelance work is more likely focused on content. With a long-term client, you might work on content strategy, and handle communication and administrative duties with contributors, but you’re not as likely as on a staff to become deeply involved with employee or organizational development.

How much do editors make?

Defining a typical editor salary is tough. How much an editor makes depends on the above job duties, the industry, the location and — often, especially in freelancing — how much you ask for and how much someone is willing to pay.

To set your salary or rates, research typical pay for the work. Here are some useful resources:

Editorial Freelancers Association: This organization’s rate table is a go-to for freelance editors, probably because it’s so comprehensive. It’s a good start for understanding how to charge for your work, but I caution sticking to it strictly — not least of all because it doesn’t site any source for what it calls “common editorial rates,” and too many variables exist to call any rate “common.”

Salary-comparison sites, including Glassdoor, LinkedIn and Payscale, plus job-search sites including Indeed and ZipRecruiter, let you search by job title and location to learn a pay range based on crowd-sourced salaries.

What clients expect to pay: Look at the other side of the equation. When a writer hires an editor, for example, how much are they expecting to pay?

Other editors: Research your competition. What rates do similar editors list on their websites? You might even reach out to friendly colleagues and ask directly, but with caution, considering any differences between your situations.

Friends and family rates

Freelancers often set discounted rates for friends and family. Mine is about 40%, but that’s arbitrary, so decide what works for you. 

The F&F rate can be a way to remain professional while softening the awkwardness of telling those expectant acquaintances they cannot use your services for free. Setting it along with your other rates makes the negotiation easy — either they’ll pay the rate or not.

Specialization pays more

If you have specialized knowledge that qualifies you in a particular field, such as academia, science or law, you’ll command a higher rate. It’s harder to find editors who are both well-versed in grammar and style, and knowledgeable enough about, say, corporate law or environmental science to catch mistakes and shape copy for a relevant audience.

How to get editing jobs

Searching for editing jobs, whether as a contractor or employee, looks similar to searching for writing jobs (minus the pitches). 

Try these resources to find editing jobs:

Freelance brokers: Gig sites such as Upwork, Toptal and Freelancer help you connect with people who need freelance services. These can help you dip your toe into the business or fill in gaps during slow months. I don’t recommend them to sustain your business, because clients are often choosing services based on the lowest price, not the best quality.

Job-search sites: You can find both freelance and full-time editing jobs through sites like Indeed, ZipRecruiter and LinkedIn.

Journalism and media sites: Search for news editing jobs through Media Bistro, JournalismJobs.com or Mediagazer.

Publishing firms: Contracting with a company that helps authors publish books (or other content) can help you get a steady stream and variety of freelance editing work without chasing clients yourself. Check out Elite Editing, Scribe Media and Reedsy.

ACES: The Society for Editing: A $75 annual membership to this organization for editors across industries comes with a number of perks, including access to a job bank of high-quality jobs and projects as well as a listing in the ACES Editors for Hire directory.

Your website: Don’t forget to hang out your shingle yourself! Add editing services to your freelance writer website to attract queries. Optimize your site by creating content that will attract the kinds of clients you want: tips on how to write a book, how to grow a blog or how to write an academic essay, for example.

What do clients look for in freelance editors?

Many writers and business owners don’t know what editors do, so your first hurdle as a freelancer is often explaining the types of editing you offer and helping potential clients understand what they need. It’s usually more than the proofreading they think they’re hiring you for.

In my experience, clients don’t often dig deeply into your experience for one-off projects. Whether fiction authors or PR pros, they’re often bound by a budget and want to find affordable editing. That works in your favor; just don’t sell yourself short out of desperation for work.

For an ongoing gig, clients might want you to take an editing test or at least check out your resume and talk through your editing experience. Familiarize yourself with their industry, audience and the appropriate style guide for their work (e.g. AP, MLA or Chicago).

What do employers look for when hiring editors?

Like any job, the process to get hired as a staff editor with a company is more extensive than that to get a freelance gig. Here are some things employers look for in editors:

You’re familiar with their industry. Some companies, especially those in highly technical industries like health care or technology, prefer specialized editors. More often, though, companies want to know you can work in their type of environment — a fast-paced newsroom, a government agency or corporate communications, for example. Experience as a writer in these environments might be sufficient.

You can work with freelancers. A lot of companies work with freelance writers for at least some of their content, and many editor job listings look for experience working with freelancers, which requires an organization and finesse in communication that differs from working with staff writers.

You have hard skills beyond editing. Different from freelance projects, most staff editors do more than edit copy. Employers want to know you understand SEO, headline writing (including for the web), content management systems such as WordPress; and working with multimedia, including editing graphics, selecting photos and inserting meta data in media and web pages. Doing any of these for your own blog might be enough to showcase your know-how.

You can edit for an online audience. Everyone wants digital experience, and surprisingly few experienced editors have it to the degree they need. Show that you can write a headline that’ll catch attention on Facebook and choose strong anchor text, in addition to cutting an extraneous em dash, and you’re in.

Do you want to be an editor?

Each spring, hundreds of editors gather somewhere in the U.S. for the annual ACES conference, three full days of talking about words and how we use them. It’s my favorite thing all year, way above Christmas or even the Feb. 15 candy sales.

I love being surrounded by people who care that the “Associated Press Style Guide” decided in a 2019 update that the percent symbol is OK and we don’t need hyphens in every compound modifier. I love having discussions about the history of words and the way we write, because the way we write shapes who we are as a society.

If that doesn’t fire you up, editing probably isn’t for you.

If it does, consider adding editing to your repertoire to add a layer to your relationship with writing and expand your career opportunities.

Photo via GuadiLab / Shutterstock 

Filed Under: Freelancing
FREE NEWSLETTER

Enjoyed that post? Subscribe for more:

1 comments

  • I’ve made the transition to being an editor about three years in my freelancing career. Now I do both, but I mostly focus on editing because it somehow feels a bit more rewarding to shape content and offer feedback.

Speak Your Mind

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.