self-publishing · The writing business

How do you become an editor?

Broken_Statue_Daniel's_Dream_Gilgal_Garden_2Rachel Anderson asks: How did you get into editing? Did you start writing first and then take on editing as a natural second, or was it out of necessity since there are more opportunities for editors than writers?

Oof, talk about cutting to the quick. It’s certainly tricky to make a living as a full-time writer. So most writers also use their wordsmithing in some other way – teaching or working in the publishing trade.

But does that mean all writers could be editors? Not necessarily. There’s a lot of difference between tidying your own work and shaping someone else’s to professional standards.

And you need different skills for the various strains of editing.

Copy editing and proof reading These are the nitpicky, forensic phases. Fact-checking and querying. Reading for consistency, clarity, correctness, house style, possible libel. The copy editor and proof reader are a human error trap – they have to catch anything that might be inaccurate, or would spoil the reader’s experience or undermine the author’s command. They have to spot anything that could possibly go wrong such as characters’ names changing half-way through, repeated passages from copy/paste mistakes, and snafus that no other human has yet encountered.

Rachel: I’ve been reading articles and stuff about developmental editing…

Aha – the creative stuff! For developmental editing, you need a mind for detail and a solid grounding in the mechanics of fiction (or non-fiction or memoir if that’s where you want to specialise – they need developmental editors too). Developmental editing is part diagnosis, part teaching. You need sharp radar for what isn’t working, and you need to explain this to the writer in a way that helps them solve it. Equally, it might be your job to solve it.

The best developmental editors understand how writers work and think – and this is where it helps to be a writer yourself, although it’s not an essential. You need to appreciate what havoc your suggestions might cause – for instance, if you recommend a writer rejigs a plot thread or combines two characters.

You also have to be a mind-reader – the best editors can figure out what the writer was aiming to do and advise them on how to achieve it. Or how to steer them to a wise course with their material. Developmental editors also need to be steeped in the genres they’re working with – the advice you’d give a paranormal writer would be very different from the way you’d direct a literary one.

Rachel: Do I need to get certification or training before trying to get people to trust me? Should I try to land a traditional job with a press or publishing house instead of (or before) striking out on the freelance path?

You can get training in copy editing and proof reading – in the UK a good place to start is the Society for Editors and Proof Readers . It’s trickier to learn developmental editing as it’s a matter of experience and I don’t know of any vocational courses. Even if there were, it’s the kind of thing you have to develop a sense for.

Here’s what I’d advise – read all you can about how fiction works. Join a good critique group where some of the members are working authors. Most freelance developmental editors, though, earned their spurs in a publishing house – so yes, I think this is the best path and it’s the surest way to prove to writers that you’re bona fide. And you’ll usually find yourself doing the copy editing and proof reading as well. Even if that doesn’t light your fire, it’s a useful string to your bow.

If you want to know more about the world of editing, you might like this recent roundtable from Indie Fringe 2016.

Thanks for the pic IntotheWoods29. 

Are there any editors out there? What would you add? Aspiring editors, what would you like to ask? And has anyone had bad experiences with an inexperienced editor? 

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.



21 thoughts on “How do you become an editor?

  1. Reblogged this on Yager Editing Services and commented:
    Roz Morris does a good job of explaining what each kind of editor does. While it’s not necessary or required in the U.S. to have a certification, it is available for those who would like it.

  2. I’m a full-time, U.S.-based freelance editor and a member of several professional organizations, including the Editorial Freelancers Association. EFA offers courses for both members and nonmembers on a variety of subjects. Here’s the link to more information:; a course titled Basics of Editing and Proofreading (Webinar) begins May 26 and might be a good place to start for a writer who is thinking about getting into editing.

  3. In the UK, the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) also offers great courses for editors of all stripes and persuasions: Both the PTC and the SfEP run online (distance learning) courses, so you don’t have to travel, and the professional qualifications you gain are highly regarded.

    There are (online) courses for developmental editing, too, run by the EFA (Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced:, and by Author-Editor Clinic (

  4. I’ve earned my stripes working in traditional publishing as a copywriter and copyeditor for 14+ years. But much of my freelance work is developmental editing. That’s what I love to do because I love teaching and helping writers grow; I’ve been doing it since college when I was a writing tutor. My clients tend to come to me through writing conferences where I teach workshops.

    1. Hi Erin! nice to know a little bit more about your history. You don’t LOOK as though you’ve been doing this for 14 years…. And you raise an important point here about developmental editing. Of all the editing roles, developmental editing requires the nurturing instinct. For me, it’s the joy of seeing where I could help a writer to create a book that lives up to their hopes. Or even surpasses it.

  5. I trained as a writer than an editor for my college newspaper. But you can get any number of starting positions as a proofreader and move on. Beware. Except in the most professional environments, being an editor can be a thankless job. Many writers, especially young writers, hate you for touching their precious babies and reject your hard work, argue with you, and call you any number of names.

    The real key, of course, is whether or not you can edit your own work objectively.

    1. Good points, Phillip. I certainly find my commentary and help is welcomed far more by authors who’ve hired me themselves than when I work for publishers. And inexperienced writers – especially young ones – can be prickly, or feel threatened, or offended. I find it quite interesting to work with them, to discover what they’re resisting, to explain how a reader reacts and to find a way to make their book better. I often learn quite a bit from that too. But it can be draining. Thanks for the reblog, BTW!

  6. I do aspire to be an editor and have helped people with beta reading and cleaning up their work a bit here and there. I would like to learn more or find a way to work with someone who is experienced who can maybe teach me where I help them while they help me hone my craft of becoming an editor. I have worked with bad editors too who have tried to change our young adult fantasy into a romance or tried to make our dragons sparkle. Not a good idea when they aren’t supposed to. I’m a writer too so yeah, have had some bad experiences and had to learn to keep my own voice in the story and not try to sound like anyone else. When I helped one I had to advise her to not sound too much like JK Rowling’s Harry Potter. Thank you for posting this!

    1. Thanks for commenting! You’ve raised a really important point about altering the tone of a writer’s work. Sometimes it’s necessary, in order to help the book fit a market – assuming that’s what everyone wants. But sometimes it’s vandalism. As for how to become an editor yourself, you need a great breadth of experience of different kinds of fiction – or non-fiction if that’s what you want to work with. When you’re an author, you only have to sound like yourself. But when you work with other authors, you have to understand a lot of different styles and approaches, even within one genre.

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