Years ago, we all became editors through a kind of apprentice system. Once you had the ticket — a university degree — you were hired by a publisher or a communications department. There, a senior person on staff whipped you into shape as you did your work, followed a manual and absorbed the atmosphere. No longer: through mergers and closures there are now far fewer publishing houses, and companies looking to hire want editors with experience. Meanwhile, indie publishing has grown exponentially, and a lot of editors work full or part time for clients who know little about editing.
How, then, can you learn to edit? Fortunately, there are several options to suit different needs: self-study, seminars and in-depth courses.
In the last few years, many books and study guides have been published about editing of all kinds — structural and stylistic editing as well as copy editing. Websites and Internet discussion groups are prolific, providing quick information on specific questions as well as good moral support. They’re the virtual water cooler for thousands of editors working alone in their homes. If you can’t sort out a knotty sentence or your computer develops a glitch, post a query on the message board. Within minutes you’ll have a solution. If your client turns out to be a cad or has complimented you, spread the word. You’ll soon have a chorus to sympathize or rejoice with you.
A few universities, colleges and editorial associations offer half-day, day-long and occasionally two-day seminars on various aspects of editing. These sessions are best for would-be editors who hope to test the waters and for experienced editors who want to expand their skills. A good instructor who arrives with comprehensive handouts and helpful in-class exercises can provide an excellent overview of substantive editing, indexing, visual skills and myriad other topics in a few hours. But don’t expect training in these sessions: there’s simply not the time to work your way through a complete manuscript, communicate with an author and receive individual feedback on your efforts.
The best way to train to be an editor is to enrol in a semester-long credit course or program with one of the universities or colleges that offer them — either in the classroom or online. There you should expect to have a top-notch instructor, a variety of real manuscripts to work on and a personalized commentary on every assignment and test you do. You’ll progress through your subject in a logical order of classes, join in discussions, and gain the confidence to make editorial judgments. Good editing involves far more than applying the rules from the Chicago Manual of Style (as I suggest in What Should an Editor Be? and Twelve-Step Editing). Over the last quarter-century I’ve taught thousands of students in both short and long courses, and the question I’ve been asked most often is a complex one: “How far should I go as I edit?” That kind of decision-making can be based only on sound knowledge combined with experience in working on real text with real authors.
Ideally, having completed the in-depth course with an excellent grade, the fledgling editor then has the opportunity to work through another manuscript with a mentor. But that’s a topic for another post …
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