Editors are shaped by their clients. Sure, we all share common knowledge, skills and talents, but we’re influenced by what our employers want from us. Over a period of years, that accumulated experience makes us the editors we are today. In recent posts to this site, Lori Burwash has described the challenges of writing and editing web copy, and Sue Archer has listed the major points in editing texts for the corporate jungle. What can we say about some of the other branches of editing and the demands they pose?
Academic editing: If you work for one of the several university presses in Canada, most of the hands-on editing of books and journals is done by freelance editors. These editors must have excellent skills in copy and stylistic editing and a good understanding of such scholarly apparatus as complex notes, bibliographies, appendices, figures and indexes. Many of the managing editors prefer to hire editors who have at least some graduate training themselves: they can expect these professionals to have some knowledge of the specialized subject areas in which they are editing as well as the confidence to relate well to academic authors (mainly professors and researchers). Full-time staff members are involved mainly in acquisitions or in production editing. They screen incoming manuscripts and negotiate them through the peer-review process or, once they are accepted, manage them through the production system.
Reference editing: If you’re editing the Canadian Encyclopedia, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography or one of the other print or web resource texts, you’ll first have to consider the subject areas you’re responsible for: How does each new article make its particular contribution to the whole while avoiding repetition with other articles or leaving gaps? Once you’ve made these structural decisions, you’ll have to commission experts to write the articles, goad them into delivering their texts, communicate with peer reviewers and edit the final texts — all, perhaps, within tight deadlines. As time passes, you’ll constantly be updating the articles in your domain.
Trade book editing: The requirements for editing trade fiction and non-fiction books are very different from those for academic editing. The large trade publishers, such as Penguin Random House Canada or HarperCollins Canada, divide substantive/stylistic editing from copy editing. Usually it’s the in-house editors, or former in-house editors, who do the substantive editing, and their objective is always to prepare the books to sell very well and, if possible, make the shortlists and even win one of the major literary prizes. These “lead editors” don’t give up working with their authors until they have made each book the best it can possibly be. This means they must have a vision for the book’s potential and do their utmost to achieve it — whether that involves research, writing and rewriting, image gathering or endless discussions with the author. The freelance editors who do most of the copy editing and proofreading must also meet high standards so that the books are published with no obvious factual mistakes, grammatical errors or stylistic infelicities. If you work for one of the small trade publishers, however, you’ll probably be the only editor hired for the job, so the edit you provide will be the only edit the book receives.
Government editing: The demands of government editing vary depending on the department (or ministry) that hires you. Some of the departments with heavy publishing commitments have their own communications divisions with very knowledgeable people in charge, their own staff and the flexibility to hire freelance substantive and copy editors as needed. Other departments publish only intermittently, and the editors who are hired to work on the texts may find that part of their job is to educate the program manager on the fine points of the publishing process. The same goes for commissions of inquiry, where the appointed administrator may have little experience in publishing yet is responsible for bringing out a multi-volume report (and, possibly, several volumes of research studies) simultaneously in two official languages by a predetermined date. Ideally, the editors hired on contract for these commissions possess not just excellent editing skills but also a sound understanding of the intricacies of these reports and the ability to communicate effectively with the administrator, the commissioner and the legal staff, the translators and the design and production team.
Magazine editing: Like most editors these days, magazine editors have to be multi-talented in their skills. The large national magazines still retain the distinct positions of editor, managing editor, senior editor, copy editor, fact-checker and proofreader, but the far greater number of professional and trade magazines usually have one editor who fills all these roles. A few months ago, when I taught a workshop to the staff in a company that publishes many such monthlies and quarterlies, the manager told me she hires the editors mainly from small regional newspapers. “They can do everything for their magazine,” she said. “They commission articles, write columns themselves, edit the text at all levels, work with the designers — and meet our strict deadlines.”
Self-publishing: In the last decade, a large number of editors have turned to work either exclusively or part time with self-publishing writers. Like their authors, some of these editors have considerable experience; others do not. They set their own standards, based on the usual style guides, as they work to meet the particular demands of their clients within the budgets allowed. In addition to “traditional” editing skills, these editors must have the ability to navigate their way through a variety of technical challenges, including ever-changing software programs and formatting problems. They also spend time educating their clients about the publishing process and the steps involved in producing and marketing a print or online book. Many of these editors have superb websites where they market themselves and also post articles and blogs that provide useful information. For their own professional development and comfort, they participate in online editorial discussion groups, consulting on language issues and difficult clients or commiserating with each other.
Editors come in many stripes, and those stripes are woven to a large extent by our experiences with previous clients and employers. To excel today, as I suggested in “What Should an Editor Be?” and “Twelve-Step Editing,” editors should be multi-talented and offer, either alone or in partnership, a wide range of publishing skills — ideally for both print and web publications. The payoff is worth it. If we’re flexible and ready to expand into new areas as opportunities arise, we should feel secure in our careers, whether we work freelance or in-house or transition between them.
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