How to Become a Fiction Editor

Occasionally, I’m asked how to become a fiction editor. There is no single way to do this or official requirements to become one, so I tend to go into a long spiel or detailed email including options for training and books for learning the craft. I’ve compiled that information here for people who are sticklers for grammar, love words, enjoy curling up with a good book, get regularly asked to correct their friends’ writing, and are considering this career path.

All the editors I know came to be so by vastly different means. Some interned at a local publishing company; some started as authors and got hired as an editor so often that they became a freelancer; some went to university for English or journalism, some didn’t have any post-secondary education.

As for my own journey—I got a BA in English, did an editing internship at a periodical, studied publishing and editing at Ryerson University, worked at a newspaper in advertising and design, worked for a while as a freelance graphic designer, and then somehow got involved in a startup charity that published a magazine for Christian nerds. While I had been trained in editing at Ryerson, I learned so much on the job that no training can prepare you for—how to manage writers, deadlines, and assignments; how to be encouraging when there’s more red on the page than white; how to not over edit; how to focus on the writer’s vision instead of your own. After several years as the magazine’s managing editor, I transitioned to editing sci-fi and fantasy books at Mythos & Ink, a small press I started with a friend/business associate. I’m still not sure how I ended up where I am, but I’m enjoying every minute of it!

As you can see, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way along this career path, but read on for some options you should consider and resources for training.

Freelance or In-House

You can either work for a publishing company or for yourself, and there are pros and cons to both. Getting a job at a press, particularly one of the large ones, may require formal training and experience, but if you intern or get hired as an editorial assistant, they may train you on the job as well. These companies usually have knowledge and resources, and they tend to take on authors with big potential. You might even be working on already established authors’ books. Salary and health benefits, if they offer them, are a big plus too. If you work at a small press, like me, you’ll likely get to pick the books you work on.

Starting your own editing business should be taken on with just as much, if not more, care as working for a publishing company. Yes, anyone can start a business, but you’re positioning yourself as an expert in a field, so you should actually be an expert in the field. You need some sort of training and experience to ensure the authors who hire you are in good hands. Working for yourself, you manage your own finances, and set your own hours and rates (for an idea of what to charge, check out these median numbers from the Editorial Freelancers Association). 

Technically, you can pick and choose what projects you work on, but, particularly when you’re first starting out as a freelancer, you may not have the privilege of doing so. You’ll likely be taking on any writer who comes to you and is willing to pay your rates. This means you might be working on some rough books by authors who really need more practice before they’re published, but it’s not your job to tell them that. You just do your best to work with them on getting the book into shape and providing the service you’ve been paid for. 

Four Types of Book Editing

Some editors, in particular those working in-house at large publishing companies, specialize in one area; others, in particular those freelancing or working for smaller companies, focus on multiple editing styles. For example, my specialty is developmental and line editing, but I do some copy editing and proofreading at Mythos & Ink as well (you tend to do a lot of different jobs when you start a small company!).

1. Developmental Editing

Also known as structural or content editing, developmental editing is all about the big picture. It’s the first step after a draft is complete, and should occur before correcting grammar, punctuation, or word choice, because this stage includes substantial rewriting; no need to worry about that run-on sentence when the entire paragraph is likely to change!

Developmental editors analyze many elements of a story, including structure, tone, character voice, point(s) of view, worldbuilding, pacing, dialogue, consistency, plot development, and character arcs. Fixing plot holes, deleting or adding scenes, adding foreshadowing—this is all within the realm of developmental editing. These editors also tend to spend the most back and forth time with the author as they work together to solve macro story issues. A significant part of the job is learning how to communicate with the author and helping them write their story the way they would write it, not the way you would write it. Some authors feel threatened or irritated when receiving feedback on work they’ve spent years refining, and developmental editors can help put their minds at ease by being willing to work together to solve problems instead of dictating answers.

2. Line Editing

Line editors focus on paragraph-level issues. They are not concerned with grammar or spelling (that comes later), but tone, clarity, and word choice. They want to make your manuscript as tight as possible. Some common areas line editors focus on: writing in a passive voice, using too many adverbs or adjectives, telling and showing, redundancy, repetition, misplaced modifiers, dialogue, tenses.

Developmental editors and copy editors often include line editing in their services. Particularly for indie authors hiring freelance editors, it can get expensive when you need a different editor for each stage, so it’s helpful when a single editor offers both.

3. Copy Editing

Copy editors fix inconsistencies and grammar. They focus on technical things like commas, capitalization, spelling, dangling modifiers, etc. They also use a style guide, provided by the publisher or author, or created themselves, to ensure consistency when there is no right or wrong answer. For example, does the book use American, Canadian, or British spelling? Are there spaces between em dashes? Is the serial comma used? Are subheaders bolded? Are numbers spelled out or written in numerals? Style sheets will also include made-up words or unique names specific to the novel.

4. Proofreading

A proofread is usually done after a book has been laid out, or typeset, into a file ready for print. This is one last chance to double-check spellings, remove wayward commas, fix widows or orphans, and catch any last grammatical errors. Proofreaders also attend to indentation, line spacing, and header styles, and they consult the style sheet to ensure consistency. 

You may want to try out each of these editing styles to determine what area you’d like to focus on (or if you’d like to focus on multiple areas). Taking courses or reading books on the topic can be a great place to start. 

Genre Specialties

Especially if you’re a developmental editor, you may wish to focus on a particular genre or group of genres as a specialty. Different genres have different styles, conventions, and tropes, and understanding these conventions on a deep level will allow you to accomplish more valuable critiques. Editor Sophie Playle’s post, “Should I Hire an Editor in My Genre?”, provides a useful overview on what an author might be looking for in regards to their editor’s familiarity with a genre.

Editing Courses & Training

Many editors have degrees in English, communications, or journalism. There are no requirements to becoming an editor, but these can be helpful to lay a foundation for reading, writing, and communication.

If you’re looking for some training in editing specifically, the following are universities, organizations, and individuals I’m aware of that offer courses. You don’t necessarily need to limit yourself to your own country of origin when choosing where to take online training, but note that Canada, the US, and the UK do have varied spelling conventions and there may be a few other differences. As an editor, you’ll probably want to be aware of what those are anyway, unless you only intend on working in or taking clients from your home country. Universities and colleges from your home country may offer internship opportunities and local news that you can only take advantage of if you are a resident of that country, as well.

  • Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC: They offer an editing certificate and individual courses, available to take online. Most individual courses are around $500 CAD ($400 USD).
  • Ryerson University, Toronto, ON: They offer a certificate in Publishing and individual courses on editing, available to take online. I went through this program about ten years ago and found the instructors knowledgeable and the content very useful. Individual courses are $880 CAD ($700 USD).
  • Editorial Freelancers Association, New York, NY: They offer various online courses and webinars (and they look like they fill up fast, so register promptly!). Prices per course vary from $59 to $350 USD.
  • The American Copy Editors Society, Carpentersville, IL: They offer webcasts on various editorial topics, free for ACES members and $30 USD for nonmembers.
  • Club Ed, US-based: I only just discovered this organization, which is run by author and editor Jennifer Lawler. There’s a wide variety of online course offerings available for beginning, intermediate, and advanced editors, but the website is not clear on who exactly is teaching each course. Prices per course vary from $49 to $375 USD, depending if you are taking a self-paced or instructor-led class.
  • Liminal Pages, UK-based: Editor Sophie Playle teaches some fantastic-looking courses on developmental editing, line editing, and copyediting. Prices per course vary from £129 ($175 USD) to £499 ($680 USD), depending if you take a self-study or tutored course.
  • Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, London, England: Various course offerings on querying and editing. Prices per course vary from £155 ($210 USD) to £527 ($715 USD).

You don’t need to take courses or get a degree to become an editor. It is only one route; it’s a quick way to get a lot of information and training in one place, but it’s also expensive. 

Other opportunities for training include internships and mentorships at publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, or other publications. Large publishers will have a submission process, while you may need to approach small companies to ask if they’d be willing to take you under their wing. Small presses can be a great way to get some training, but make sure they are run by people who actually know what they’re doing (check out the books—the covers, blurbs, designs, and stories—they’ve published to see if they produce quality content). You can also start teaching yourself by joining a writers’ critique group to start practicing and reading books on the topic.

Books on Editing

It should be no surprise that a great way to learn about editing is to read! In particular, read lots of the books in the genre you intend to specialize in; and read them analytically, noting what techniques keep your attention, why the dialogue is interesting (or not), how the author implies questions that keep you turning pages, how characters are developed, etc. Below are nonfiction books on editing that are also helpful to learn the craft.  

  • An Editor’s Guide to Working with Authors by Barbara Sjoholm (2011). This is a great place to start for developmental editors, with information on how to read a manuscript, organize your notes, write an editorial letter, and more.
  • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King (2004). This is a good read if you are just starting to learn the nuts and bolts of editing. It’s geared towards writers, but it’s got a lot of good advice on showing vs. telling, which is something you want to be looking out for as a developmental or line editor. 
  • How to Write Dazzling Dialogue: The Fastest Way to Improve Any Manuscript by James Scott Bell. Poor dialogue is one of the most common issues you’ll see in new writers, so it’s helpful to know what problems to look for and how to fix them. This book is also geared towards writers, but it contains the best advice on dialogue I’ve read and is useful for an editor as well.
  • The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (1999). This is a classic. It has simple advice on style that is still applicable today, even though the original version of this book was written in 1918.
    Edit: It’s been a while since I read The Elements of Style, and I forgot how prescriptivist it is (see this article by editor Molly Rookwood to understand what I mean). A more updated style guide that tackles editing from a descriptivist perspective may be more helpful. 
  • The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz (2019). This is great if you want to get into copyediting, as it goes in-depth into copyeditor’s issues, like punctuation, spelling, capitalization, treatment of numbers, tables, graphs, and markup. I don’t use it much, because I’m mainly a developmental editor, and I’ll consult Grammatically Correct when I need reminders on word usage. 
  • Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation by Anne Stilman (2010). This is one of those books you’ll want to buy and keep for reference after you read it. It’s got a lot of helpful reminders on frequently misused words, punctuation, structure, syntax, style, and more. 
  • The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller (2009). Editing isn’t just about the mechanics—it’s also about working with authors, and this book gets into that topic extensively. 
  • What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing by Various Contributors (2017). This is a lovely collection of articles by a variety of editors on topics like acquisitions, the editing process, case studies, and more.

Editing is a rewarding and meticulous field, with some unexpected challenges. As with any skill or vocation, you need experience and practice to become a seasoned editor. But the ways you can get there are many.

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