Lessons from Editing

They say you learn a new thing every day. I truly believe this, even if your daily lesson is something seemingly trivial or obvious, like realizing guacamole is made from avocados. Today, I have been at my new job for three months, and my main responsibility is editing. When I first started the job, I arrogantly thought I was a good editor. But I learned, and I learned fast. For one, I had never edited technical documents before. I had never edited references, footnotes, or any kind of citation material. There were a lot of things that weren’t even on my radar, things I didn’t even know I should be looking for. My superiors have taken so much time out of their schedules to train me, the lowly entry-level person, and I really appreciate it. Because learning about editing has taught me a lot about writing, too.

You can be a good writer, but a terrible editor. You can also be a good editor, but a terrible writer. The two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand.

You can also be a great technical writer, but a terrible poet. Being a “good writer” doesn’t translate to being good at all types of writing. It’s like being great at making sculptures, but being unable to paint a decent watercolor.

It’s harder to write when you edit for a living. You realize the mistakes you’re making as you’re making them, and it takes a lot of effort not to go back and correct them, but to just keep getting the first draft down. But, oddly enough, editing for a living doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to edit your own writing. It might even make it more difficult to edit your own work.

It’s harder to read when you edit for a living. It’s difficult to switch from “reading for errors” mode to “reading for pleasure” mode. A lot of the time, I’ll find myself mentally changing a sentence from passive voice into active. Kind of frustrating.

It helps to know random facts (what is “useless information” to everyone else) when you’re an editor. That way you’ll know that CDC actually stands for “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” not “Center for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Editing in itself is hard work. You have to have patience, the ability to concentrate without getting easily distracted, care for preserving the author’s unique voice, an eye for tiny details, and patience. I know I said “patience” twice, but it really is that important.


4 thoughts on “Lessons from Editing

  1. Writing and editing really are different in different fields. Nobody could be good at all of it, in all different types of prose and poetry. Hemingway was a great short story writer, but his one play isn’t good. Henry James is called “The Master,” but he was no master of drama — his plays were failures. George Bernard Shaw was the opposite (his novels didn’t sell).

    Sometimes it helps to focus in one area, since nobody can be everything. Eric Idle (of Monty Python) was asked if he’d ever wanted to branch out into drama. He said he was still learning how to do comedy.

    And it certainly helped me when I figured out I was a mystery writer. 🙂


  2. I’m curious how you got in as an entry-level editor. (Forgive me if I missed a previous post explaining this.) I also have the notion that I might be a good editor, but how does one prove this to someone needing to fill a position? I proof-read documents for people and I catch plenty of mistakes, but it’s only ever been as a side task and not my paid work. I’ve applied to job ads but never get a response back, so I must be missing a magic ingredient. Advice?


    • On your resume, you should definitely include any times when you’ve proofread something for someone. The main thing companies look for when they’re hiring for editing/proofing positions is experience — so any way you can show that you have experience is good. Companies love people who’ve had internship experience, so looking for internships would be an option; it’s also easier to get an internship with little or no experience. I’d suggest becoming familiar with a few style guides (Chicago Manual of Style, AP Stylebook, APA Style… pretty much anything) because it shows that you have the ability to adapt to a company’s house style, and it gives you something else to put on your resume. Keep looking for any proofing/editing jobs you can get, no matter how small, or if they’re paid or unpaid. If you’ve proofread documents for people, you could get them to write a testimonial/recommendation for you. It helps to be an English or Journalism major, too — but it’s not essential.

      I hope this helps a little. Good luck!


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