Monday, October 17, 2016

Editorial Advice from an Editor to an Intern: What it Takes to Become an Editor

From Kate’s Writing Crate…

This is the second part of my post started on October 3, 2016 where I gave writing advice to an intern who also wants to be an editor.

I didn’t set out to become an editor. I wanted to be a successful writer working from home. I became both by writing for years then taking a writing class where I met the woman who just bought one of the magazines I now write for and edit.

I started out as an unpaid intern for the magazines. I wrote articles as well as learned about copyediting (turning press releases and items sent in by the public about meetings and events into style copy for the magazine issue), layouts (placing texts, ads, pull quotes, photos, and captions on each page), proofreading (using the correct proofreaders’ marks), and the myriad of little things to check in an effort to publish an almost perfect issue (something always goes wrong).

A few years later, I became the editor of two magazines—a job I love. Now I’m working with an intern who wants to be a writer and an editor. I’m happy to share my knowledge and experience with her; however, writing skills are more straightforward to discuss than editing skills.

Here is my editing advice:

Reading is the most important editing skill. The more you read, the more you build up your sense of words—their rhythm, flow, and tone—and expand your vocabulary. You absorb grammar and punctuation rules. Even reading poorly written books teaches you what doesn’t work.

Reading widely gives you a feel for grammar, but also read grammar books like Words Fail Me and Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner and/or the Grammar Girl series by Mignon Fogarty then keep them for reference. Do the same for punctuation. I like the Merriam Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style. Refer to these books often.

All knowledge makes you a better writer and editor. I read all genres as good writers make any genre interesting. I also read books about science and art as well as classic novels and bestsellers.

For writers and editors, words are our medium. Spend as much time as possible reading and writing.

Poetry is essential. Ray Bradbury makes this recommendation to writers on page 36 of Zen in the Art of Writing:

Read poetry every day of your life…it flexes muscles you don’t use often enough…it expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition.

Editors use these muscles more often than writers. Read any poet who appeals to you then branch out.

Read every book by Diane Ackerman, Bill Bryson, Joseph Campbell, and their ilk, like The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, for broad-ranging knowledge.

Read memoirs. Read philosophy. Read the classics.

“…a good editor reads omnivorously and is interested in everything.” –from page 128 of Editing Fact and Fiction.

This is true so it’s also essential to stay on top of the news, pop culture, and have a wide array of interests. Articles and essays you edit (or write on assignment) can include references to anything.

The more information you take in through books, magazines, news outlets, TV, the internet, movies, and conversations, the more you have in your arsenal to help you catch errors when editing as well as to connect with readers when writing your articles, essays, and posts.

While the internet offers access to almost every piece of information, I also like to dip into reference books like The New York Public Library Desk Reference; The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E D Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil; and An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned But Probably Didn’t by Judy Jones & William Wilson to learn something new every day.

TV shows I recommend include CBS Sunday Morning at 9am as it covers a multitude of topics that are timely, interesting, useful, and fun. Writers and authors are often profiled. Also watch Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley on PBS as they interview many writers as well as cover a variety of topics. Book TV on C-SPAN2 offers weekends full of author discussions. Super Soul Sundays includes many authors talking to Oprah on OWN. Authors are interviewed on Well Read on PBS. BBC America has many shows about writers and the arts as does the Ovation channel. I also watch NOVA, Nature, and Masterpiece Theatre on PBS. I occasionally watch shows on the Discovery channel, Smithsonian channel, and History channel. Also, don’t overlook the knowledge shared on Jeopardy.

Yes, to be a good editor you need to read and watch TV as well as view movies and listen to all kinds of music—dream job!

As a freelance editor and writer, I never know what topics might come up. For example, I was the editor of a Boating & Fishing magazine for years. I don’t boat or fish so editing took more work to assign articles. Then I had to double check facts and spellings. You don’t have to know a topic to edit, but you need to put in the extra work to make sure errors don’t get into print.

A magazine issue does not exist without an editor tracking down article ideas, contacting people to be interviewed, assigning articles to writers with word counts and deadlines. Appropriate topics depend on the magazine. Columnists decide on their topics independently.

As these are monthly magazines, I decide and assign articles by, for example, October 25th that are due by November 15th for the December issues. There is no room for procrastination!

In the same time frame, I copyedit all press releases and information sent in by the public for each issue. I also write captions for photos with people's names left to right.

          Editors have to be prepared for articles to fall through at the last minute. Be prepared to write the articles yourself or have non-timely articles ready to go like profiles of artists. If you have a specific interest, like reading, be prepared with book reviews. 

Deadline is the 15th of every month. I have to edit everything by the end of day on the 18th and send it to the Production Department. Three days is not enough time for perfection. Hopefully, I catch most of the errors I missed earlier during proofing on the 21st and final proof on the 22nd. However, I do not get to see that changes were made correctly on the 22nd. If I didn't write clearly or the Production person missed a correction or made the change incorrectly, then there will be errors in the issue. We are all human so I just hope none of the mistakes are embarrassing misspellings.

For actual editing skills, train yourself by editing what you read, especially newspapers and magazines, using proofreaders’ marks. No publication is perfect. Also, editing is in part subjective. Cut articles you read by 50-100 words or more without losing any content. Look for repetition, wordiness, and filler as “every word should tell” (Strunk & White, page 23). Be concise and precise. Most importantly, let the writer’s voice stay true; however, clarity is essential. Please note, clarity does not mean only simple sentences.

An internship with an editor is the easiest way to see what editors do as well as ask why they make specific corrections and changes to pieces. Different editors make different changes sometimes due to the style of the publication, sometimes due to editing style.

Editors are required to check every fact. Check spelling. Look up definitions. When in doubt, double check.

Editors must:
change misused words;
correct misspellings, grammar, and punctuation;
double-check all names, titles, and facts;
find buried leads / reorganize paragraphs when needed;
include smooth transitions;
keep to publication’s Style Sheet;
stay consistent, i.e., U.S. or US; ten or 10;
check everything they are not absolutely sure about,
make writers’ work shine,
ensure clarity,
and meet every deadline without fail.

There is a lot to learn to become an editor and no easy way to teach editing skills. As I mentioned you need a sense of words, but also a discerning eye, an ear for language, and intuition when something is wrong even if you can’t point it out right away plus the tenacity to find and correct these errors.

Editing for magazines doesn’t require discussing changes with writers usually; book editing does.

Editing takes a lot of time, but deadlines are tight generally.

You need to work well under pressure.  

Fresh eyes are essential so take breaks as needed.

Read pieces aloud to catch mistakes.

As the saying goes: “Editors are like goalies. No one remembers all the ones you caught—only the ones that get by you.”
          Some mistakes will always get by you so you must have a thick skin.

          Learn from your mistakes.

          Feedback is sometimes negative.

          Tact and good people skills are important.

          Do your best on every issue or project. 

Reference Books:

Good dictionaries—one everywhere you work and read or use, look up every word you don’t know.
The Copyediting Handbook by Amy Einsohn
Editing Fact and Fiction by Leslie T. Sharpe and Irene Gunther
Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (reviewed on 6/9/14)
The Synonym Finder by J I Rodale (reviewed on 6/9/14)
The Elements of Style by Strunk & White (reviewed on 12/8/14)
Words Fail Me and Woe is I by Patricia T. O’Conner
Grammar Girl series by Mignon Fogarty
Merriam Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style
Style Book (AP or Chicago Manual of Style)

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