Ask Inky: Life as an editor
How does one go about getting an editing job in the publishing industry? Also, what does the process of editing a book look like? Do editors work regular shifts at an office or do they work elsewhere?
So I contacted Penguin Random House editor Johannes Jakob to answer this one for us. He’s generously given us a detailed outline of life as an editor:
The best way to get a job as an editor in publishing is to get as much practical experience as you can. There are some fantastic tertiary courses around the country focused on publishing and editing, and these will teach you a lot of practical skills that will serve you well, but in my view that’s not quite enough. There are probably more people coming out of those courses every year than there are editor jobs in all of Australian trade publishing.
(For what it’s worth, I never did a publishing or editing course, just a regular Arts undergraduate degree, and then volunteered at a number of literary organisations before landing my first job at Voiceworks. Having said that, plenty of my colleagues did do those specialised tertiary courses and found them really valuable.)
I reckon the way to distinguish yourself is to get real-world experience wherever you can. That’s not in service of ticking some box on your resume, but to actually learn how to make something the best it can be with all challenges that come with doing it for real. Every book is unique and presents different challenges. That’s part of what makes the job so fun! But it means you need to be pragmatic – you’re always constrained by something in a way you won’t be in a hypothetical – and you need to be resourceful to overcome that.
The best way to learn to do that is having a really broad base of experience to draw from. So whether it’s a zine you make with friends, something online with strangers who share your interests, volunteering for an existing literary journal or a magazine – whatever, just get out there and do it! If you want to work on something but it doesn’t exist, go make it! Here’s one secret about editors: we don’t know all the answers and rules, we’re just really good at knowing what to look up and what to question, and you develop those instincts by just doing it a whole bunch.
While we’re doing real talk, it’s worth noting that as an editor my job involves far more than just editing the text. I might be working with my colleagues on the cover of the book or helping to build publicity, marketing and sales campaigns. I’m managing budgets and schedules, invoices and permissions to reproduce text or images, dealing with the printer and the ebook conversion, a glossy picture section in the middle of the book, talking to lawyers to make sure we don’t defame anyone. Lots of meetings, and forms, and admin. Of course the text itself is the really fun part, but it’s important to be clear that while it’s an interesting office job, it’s still an office job.
Editors who are employed by a publisher almost all work in their office, 9 to 5. That way we’re there to talk to each other about any squirrely problems that come up. But it also means we can talk to all our teammates in other departments. It’s super useful to talk to someone about which reviewers might be interested in our book, to stand around a table and look at cover concepts, or to get in a room and argue over whether a book is good enough for us to publish.
But there are also a lot of editors out there who work as freelancers, who work on their own and just negotiate a fee to do a very specific editorial task, like a proofread for example. Many of these editors used to work in-house for publishers, since it can be hard to convince someone to trust you with their book without that experience. It certainly takes a lot of hustle to make ends meet as a freelance editor!
When we’re editing something with an author, we generally think of three phases: structural editing, line editing/copyediting and proofreading.
Structural editing, if it’s required, is looking at the really big picture – making sure the plot adds up and is paced appropriately, that the characters and their relationships are believable, that the voice of the narration is right, all that sort of thing. Or in a non-fiction book, we might see if there’s any problem with the argument being made, anything that needs further research and evidence, anything that’s extraneous. In either case, the editor reads the writer’s manuscript a couple of times and then writes them a long letter with their thoughts on what might be improved and how. Sometimes we might hop into the manuscript to point out examples or areas of particular concern, but really the idea is that using our feedback the author goes away for a couple of months (or more!) and works on it themselves.
The next stage is line or copyediting, which is a kind of wishy-washy terminological distinction around how involved or interventionist an edit is. Regardless, this is when the editor gets stuck into the actual Word document and starts looking at individual paragraphs, sentences and words. The editor is moving stuff around, deleting things, asking for things to be expanded – actually, just asking an awful lot of questions of the author. The idea is always to stay true to their vision and their voice. We’re aiming to make the book the best version of what the author is hoping for; for the editor to be the author’s best reader. So as well as pointing out all the problems, we try to offer potential solutions or at least new ways of thinking about the problem that might lead to a solution, so the author isn’t left totally stumped.
Once that’s done, we take the Word document and typeset it. That is, we turn it into the book we’re actually going to print. At that point the author gets one last look, and we also send it to a proofreader, who is almost always a freelancer. It’s good to get a fresh pair of eyes on things! At this stage we’re looking to fix any errors, whether grammatical or factual, and just make sure everything is consistent within the text. Hopefully we’re just giving it that last bit of polish, but usually there’s still one or two big editorial gremlins getting fixed at this point, too.
That’s it! Sounds a lot easier than it all ends up being, but the variety and the intellectual rigour of our work is incredibly rewarding. It never gets old to hold in your hands a book you helped to make, but absolutely the best part of our job is the privilege of working with so many fantastic authors on some spectacularly good books.
Many thanks to Johannes for explaining this all for us! Do you have more questions about the life of an editor? You can submit your question to Ask Inky and I’ll find the right person to spill the beans.