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Anna Williams

Quick Topics: Born or Made

Nikolai Titov ©

Many of us started out in other careers and came to editing via circuitous routes. Some of us were teachers; some were engineers; some were writers who drifted into the editing side of the industry. In some cases, we had jobs that required us to fix other people’s work on a regular basis, and that’s how we discovered that editing is a profession unto itself. But did we already have an innate editorial knack before we called ourselves “editors”?

Previous posts on the Editors’ Weekly discuss ways of learning our trade, including Rosemary Shipton’s post How to Become an Editor. She mentions self-study, workshops and post-secondary programs. In another post, she talks about mentoring. But I often wonder whether all editors have a natural way with words before they start to develop their editing skills.

The topic of skill vs. ability came up recently at my kids’ piano lessons. One of my sons has perfect pitch: play any key on the piano, black or white, and he can identify it accurately. Perfect pitch is an ability, not a skill, and it can appear spontaneously (overnight, in my son’s case). Without it, you can train your ear and brain to recognize notes through drills and repetition, but if you have perfect pitch you can instantly identify notes without thought.

These kinds of abilities are not learned; they come naturally — built into our DNA, if you will. Skills, on the other hand, can be developed from scratch. Most editors, I think, have a mix of both — natural ability supported and enhanced by skill development.

What do you think: Are editors born or made? Which were you?


Previous Quick Topics post by Anna Williams: Quick Topics: Books, Books, Books.

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23 Comments on “Quick Topics: Born or Made”

  • Margaret F. Sadler


    I’m a hybrid, Anna. Although I never took Latin and wouldn’t know an ablative case if I saw one, I know how English is put together—perhaps I have perfect pitch in the language. Much of that because my mother sang to me and my father read to me. And I’ve continued to practise by doing my own singing and reading.

    • Thanks for your response, Margaret! Perfect pitch in language… that’s a good description.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Yes, it’s both nature and nurture – for many things in life. We’re born with particular talents, but they lie dormant unless we learn how to use them and practise them. With editing, it’s not just the talent for words but many other qualities too: an ability to master detail and patterns for copy editing; to write clearly and well for stylistic editing; and to organize and create for structural editing. And then there’s the discipline to work alone yet be a team player; the confidence to partner with an author yet, ultimately, to allow the author to take all the credit … Editors are superheroes, truly …

    • Superheroes with superhuman abilities! 🙂

  • Anita Jenkins


    When I began teaching, some of my colleagues believed they were “born teachers.” That really scared me because I had been pushed into the career by my grandmother and was not at all sure that I belonged in the front of a classroom. Eventually I got the hang of it and now I think of teaching as the best job I ever had. This is probably true in all professions.

    But absolutely, I would say that good editors have been somehow immersed in or drawn to language from an early age.

    • Thanks for your response, Anita! There seems to be a crossover between teaching and editing. Sometimes teachers become editors, and other times editors start teaching (workshops, webinars, etc.).

  • Wilf Popoff


    My high school guidance counsellor, after examining the results of some tests he had me complete, pronounced me suitable for a career as an editor or a clergyman. At the time I found both suggestions nonsensical.

    However, I want to bring this to the attention of those editors who may be considering a career change.

    • Haha, good to know!

    • Pam Robertson


      That’s interesting – I was drawn to editing in university through the student paper and my literature studies, and I credit my passion for reading anything and everything my whole life for my abilities as an editor. Plus my complete diplomatic need to avoid conflict. And my counsellor in grade 12 said my tests showed I should be a religious leader. Despite my lack of religious belief!

      • Anita Jenkins


        All these years I have heard people talk about editors being “nice” and avoiding conflict. That was not my experience at all. I did a lot of surgery and arm wrestling on/with my clients. Which I really enjoyed BTW.

      • These sound like interesting tests… I missed out! 🙂

  • Anita Jenkins


    “Clergyman” must have been a biggie back in the day. My husband was also told he should be a farmer or a minister, and he also thought both ideas were nonsensical. (He was an accountant, but probably should have had a job in a museum.)

    I seem to love getting off topic. Sorry.

  • What’s the opposite of ‘born editor’? I’m dysgraphic, a subset of dyslexic, the last person you’d expect to be an editor, but since I’ve “come out” I have met a dozen other editors and authors who are dysgraphic or dyslexic. Oddly, we all agree that our disability makes us better editors because we had to consciously learn skills others may have just picked up without really thinking about it. It also maybe makes us a bit more empathetic working with people who don’t ‘get it’ at first. I love being able to provide the coaching that wasn’t available to my generation growing up. (There wasn’t even the word dysgraphic when I was a kid…I believe the preferred technical term for it back in the fifties was “slow” 🙂 So definitely nuture, anti-nature, in my case, with the moral being, just because one isn’t born to something doesn’t mean they shouldn’t or can’t do it.

    • >I love being able to provide the coaching that wasn’t available to my generation growing up.

      That’s fantastic! Thanks very much for sharing, Robert.

    • Tim Green


      Interesting! I’m dyslexic too and that has always been an advantage. Many engineering problems (also editing, also language interpreting and translating) involve pattern matching. Being dyslexic (and left handed!) makes pattern matching easy, especially upside down and backward.

      I work mostly with technical and legal text. I see that very much like software. There’s a syntax and structure. There are pre-defined macros and subroutines. Consistency is very important. Lots of patterns. And the end product has to work… it’s painfully (sometimes dangerously) obvious when it doesn’t work. The joys of lexical engineering!

      So I think I was mostly born as an editor with some making along the way.

      • Very interesting! Thanks for posting, Tim.

  • Anne Brennan


    In my opinion, you need the instinct first, then you need to overlay it with training. One or the other on its own isn’t enough.

    I used to work with three people who held editing certificates from SFU. All three were talented, dedicated people. And none of them could edit. They had learned the rules without having the underlying instinct–without having perfect pitch for language–and therefore struggled to analyze every sentence to see how it behaved. They couldn’t just read something and know instinctively what it needed. Fortunately, their jobs didn’t require that they be able to edit, although they did need to understand what editors do.

    So, IMHO, you have to be born, then you have to be trained.

    • Thank you for your response, Anne! I tend to agree with you.

  • I think you need to have a profound love of language and a very good ear for individual voice and rhythm – skills which are somewhat akin to musicianship and are the “born not made” requirement for the job. Added to that is an insistent sense of logic. Technical skills can only be learned by practice but are more eagerly embraced by those who intuit the underlying structure of thought.

    I used to be an English professor and spent much more time than required “editing” my students’ papers. And back in the days before the internet, I was compelled to track down instances of plagiarism in the library because inconsistencies in diction and style just jumped off the page at me. None of my colleagues bothered because it was more trouble than it was worth dealing with the consequences from the administration. But I couldn’t help myself!

    I am also a writer myself, and the dialogue I experience with a good editor is one of my greatest pleasure.

    • Thank you for your response, Susan!

      >Technical skills can only be learned by practice but are more eagerly embraced by those who intuit the underlying structure of thought.

      Well said.

    • Anne Brennan


      Susan, I think you’re right about the insistent sense of logic. Perhaps this is the instinctive part.

  • Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa


    I remember the first time I held a style manual. It was in my business writing class, and it was the Gregg Reference Manual, 9th edition. I was amazed by it. A book that told you where to punctuate and when to capitalize–incredible!
    It wasn’t until several years (and occupations) later that I discovered Editors Canada and learned that editing was an actual profession. I enrolled in SFU’s editing program and, when I was ready, started freelancing. Now I get to read style guides every day!
    I couldn’t have done it without the training, but the love of words and knack for editing were always there.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jahleen! Haha, I think many people who are not “into” language hate the idea of a style guide, whereas we editorial types love them!

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