Harry Potter’s magical notes on becoming an editor

Recently I meandered along to the local library to listen to four happy souls natter about some of the finer points of publishing a book in Australia.

Listening to them talk about how a writer works closely with an editor from a publishing house, I thought “goodness, should’ve looked at editing when I was a young and carefree youth because it might’ve been a terrific career.”

Despite having tossed away full time work and therefore not too interested in the job market, I wondered what skills you need to become a publishing editor – not just because I have a quiet yen to make a children’s book – but just in case I suddenly need to look at a different career. In my next life anyway.  Maybe a Harry Potter epic number 2.

So I asked them the question – what does one have to do to become an editor?

This question was unexpected so the speakers up front seemed a bit thrown. After all, the subject was supposed to be what it took to publish a book.

Here’s how to become an editor

Despite being thrown, here’s a wave of answers you may find useful.

1.   Do a specialist publisher course

I looked this one up. Apparently you need a Bachelor’s degree in English, Journalism or Communication. Then to specialise in a specific area like science or IT, go get some experience and qualifications in those fields as well. And to top this off, gaining a certification in copy editing and publishing wouldn’t go astray either.

You have to do all this in order to know the “principles and practices associated with the development and structural editing of a range of texts from 5 genres: fiction, literary non-fiction, illustrated non-fiction, children’s and young adult, and educational.”

One course I looked at will provide you with “advanced skills in manuscript appraisal and editing”. Mmm, in a semester, you’ll have advanced skills?  I’m somewhat sceptical given it generally takes lots of practice over time to acquire advanced skills in anything.

While a degree course sounds very attractive, the hiccup is it costs around $40-50,000. Somehow I doubt the income of an editor sits in the ‘magnanimous’ range, so in effect you may be paying back fees for decades to come.

2. Get a job in a bookshop

Apparently this is a useful occupation because you get to learn about your audience and what appeals to them.

However, I suspect not many potential editors do this because I spend half my life in bookshops, and no-one’s ever asked me what appeals and why.

3. Understand the technicalities and complexities of what makes a great narrative

This allegedly involves reading LOTS of books. I’ve read loads and piles and buckets of books over the decades, but I don’t think this necessarily gives you a knowledge of what makes a great narrative … unless you spend time analysing what made it so good.

Personally I enjoy reading for the sake of it, and analysis paralysis isn’t my cup of peppermint tea.

Providing there’s no spelling mistakes, glaring grammatical stuff ups or punctuation issues, I’m a happy reading camper.

4. Get the right personality

No detail was forthcoming about what was the best personality traits for an editor.

However, because you’re working very closely with writers, you need to be able to collaborate and counsel the writer without overriding their personal style. In this regard, it’s a fine talent to read the writer’s personality and know how to respond to get the best out of them.

5. Get lucky, or fall into it over time

That might’ve worked decades ago but I suspect in today’s world, this option’s a little easier said than done. However, that’s not to say it’s not possible because amazing opportunities exist everywhere, every day.

What’s missing from this list?

1. Wot about the gramer and speling?

Nary a word was spoken about the vital skills of grammar, punctuation and spelling. What’s the world coming to when an editor has no clue how to structure a sentence, when to use ‘their’ or ‘there’, how to spell ‘accommodation’ or ‘misspelled’. Gosh, how many folk even know whether it’s ‘misspelled’ or ‘mispelled’?  An editor should automatically know this by waving their magical spelling wand.

I (tried to) read a book recently called “Off Your Rocker” by Noni Gove. It had a great premise about travelling the world in retirement on your own and should’ve been a wonderful book.

However, it was appallingly written, full of repeated sections and l-o-n-g paragraphs, along with serious spelling and grammar issues.  It didn’t take long before I started correcting it as I read.

I eventually gave up, figuring the publishing company must’ve missed editing this one completely.  It’s sad when an author seems unable to string a readable paragraph together without causing a person to shred the book along the way.

I’m keeping that book as an example of what NOT to do when writing, and the invaluable contribution an editor will make to a book.

Example of a page from “Off Your Rocker”

2. Detail fiend

You need to:

  • be picky to ensure there’s no errors, and the content is clear and moves forward nicely
  • follow up any detail that needs to be checked to ensure it’s correct.

3. Network, network, network

This one cuts across all jobs and industries. An editor needs to have a network of people with appropriate experience and knowledge in their field.

4. Working with others

For most of my life, there’s been an element of teamwork in every job – mostly being told what to needs to be done and then completing it in the timeframe required.

Same goes for the publishing business. There’s a high level of coordination required to bring a number 2 Harry Potter-style epic to fruition on the date set for publication, so you have to work with others to pull it together.

C’est tout …

I leave you with the oft quoted and wise words of William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker from 1952 until 1987.  William has an interesting personal history (lived with both his wife and mistress – not at the same address fortunately) and was apparently a fine editor, which you’d have to be to last that long.

The work of a good editor, like the work of a good teacher, does not reveal itself directly; it is reflected in the accomplishments of others.