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Thursday, October 01, 2009


Getting into editing

Somebody e-mailed me and asked whether, since I offered advice from an editor's point of view for aspiring writers, what advice I could offer aspiring editors.

They e-mailed me months ago, actually. I e-mailed back saying, 'What a good question. I'll write a post and put it up shortly.' Then I went away and wrote a post.

And then I somehow forgot to put it up. Because sometimes I'm a dumbass.

So, if you're still reading and haven't given up on my dumb ass: many apologies, and here is the answer...

A few provisos. One, I can only answer for my own experience, which is based on London; non-British publishers may work differently. Two, while I was reasonably successful by the time I quit to write, it's not as if I was running Penguin single-handed, so my advice should be measured in proportion to that. Having said that, I'll suggest what I can. It basically boils down to this: make contacts, get experience and keep trying.

1. Get experience.

This is crucial, the essential and inescapable requirement.

Edit your college newspaper or anthology. Take a job writing copy for some other kind of company. Do some reviewing for a local paper. Anything that shows you've had contact with this kind of work, even tangentially, is necessary. An academic qualification alone is unlikely to get you very far.

There's a simple reason for this: editing isn't taught in schools. Literature classes teach us to analyse texts, but there's a difference between speculating about a text as a completed object and the practical approach you have to take to a text that's a work in progress. Students aren't allowed to say that Northanger Abbey might have worked better if Austen had established the existence of Eleanor Tilney's fiance earlier in the story; that's editor talk, and a degree in literature doesn't prove you're capable of those kinds of insights. Nor does it prove you're a reasonable person to work next to, which is something else that editors want to know.

Having said that, we need to remember point 2: You won't be allowed to 'edit' straight away.

That's a job you have to work your way up to. The entry level position is Editorial Assistant, and this involves the following kind of things: proofing copy, sending parcels, making photocopies, handling admin, reading the slush pile - which is probably the closest you get to editing in that position, but be prepared, almost everything in a slush pile is goshawful and deciding whether to kick it up the chain is not very challenging. An editorial assistant is basically the editorial department's PA. It's a good job to have, and you need it to work your way up, but your insights on books may have to wait a while.

So some basic office experience is a useful thing to have if you can't get into editing straight away. A lot of what you'll be doing is filing and carrying, and experience proves you can do that.

But there's a certain catch-22 in sought-after jobs, of which editing is one: people generally want to give the job to someone who's done it before. That ups the odds of them being able to do it. So if you haven't done it before, you're in a difficult position. This brings us to point 3:

Be prepared to work for free when you're starting out.

The publishing world runs on contacts and relationships, on people who know each other making recommendations. I once got a job interview, and subsequently a job, because I sent out my CV to the company on spec and they recognised the name of one of my references. To establish yourself there, there's a simple procedure: take a survey of all the publishing companies in your area, send them a copy of your CV written in a way that highlights anything connected with publishing, and send it to their HR department. Check their records or call them up to get the name of the head of HR right, because this shows you have some initiative and manners, and send them a letter stating that you're very keen to get into editorial and would like to build up your experience, and consequently would love to do some work experience with them if they have anything available.

Don't just send it to the publisher you like best: law of averages is the name of the game here. Big publishers are more likely to be able to do work placements because they have more space, but there's no harm in casting your net wide; if you send in a good CV and letter, they may remember it if you later apply for a job.

On this principle, if they write and say sorry, they don't have anything available, write and thank them for their time and say you hope they'll keep you in mind. Courtesy is very important in this business.

If they do call and offer you some work experience, take it. Even if it's not in editorial. I've worked in Publicity and Contracts as well as Editorial: once you're there, you get some feel of how a publishing company works, which is an important thing you can bring up when it comes to interviews. If you do your job well there, you've now got references from actual publishing people, which will be very valuable.

This brings up a controversy: is it better to take a paying job in non-editorial if editorial is your goal? Some say yes, it's good to get your foot in the door any way you can. And, indeed, you may want to pay your rent. But personally I'd hesitate. I once temped for a month and a half in a non-editorial department, and though I could really have used the job they offered me, in the end I decided against it. The reason was fairly simple: the person who had occupied the job I was filling in for had been promoted within that department. The person whose job she'd been promoted to fill had also been promoted within that department. People were bumping up the chain - but both of them were hoping they'd get into editorial at some point. They'd been in this department for a couple of years, though, and they still hadn't. After a certain point, you can stop looking like a potential editor and start looking like an established Sales or Contracts person, and that can get difficult. I hope the people I was working with did eventually get into editorial, in which case you can ignore this advice, but in general I'd think twice about accepting a job you don't want on the assumption it'll make it easier to get a job you do. It might not.

4: Learn proof reading marks.

This is a notation system that everyone uses to indicate corrections in the text, and if you want to work in editorial, it's as necessary as being able to touch-type. This is an example of the British standard ones. Get a book and study the conventions if you have no other means; if you can afford it, it looks good on your CV to take a training course in them. Copy editing runs on a slightly different system, and you need to learn that too. (To define: copy editing is done after the text has been rewritten, and involves fact-checking, spelling, punctuation, grammar, repetition-spotting and general tidying up. Proof reading is done after the text has been typeset, and is fine tooth comb work.)

This is a technical skill essential to all editors, and you need to learn it.

5. Apply for jobs.

Bear in mind that once you've established yourself as an editor of, say, medical journals, it may be difficult to switch into fiction. Fiction is the most competitive of all the editorial jobs, and indeed I and many others have had a perfectly pleasant time editing non-fiction of various kinds, but it's a good idea to work out a balance of what you're prepared to apply for. If you don't want to spend your career editing legal textbooks, probably you shouldn't apply for that job, but if you want fiction and there's a job open for the autobiography department, that translates fairly well.

If you do want to end up in fiction but get a job in a different field, you'll need to do some freelancing to keep your hand in. Try to get some work reviewing or writing readers reports on unpublished stuff. I got a job editing fiction from a job working on bargain book-style true crime and The Unexplained-style books by taking the following interview approach: the true crime gave me experience working in an editorial department, and on the side I'd been writing reports for aspiring writers (commissioned through a friend of mine who ran a writing bureau; contacts are everything) which gave me experience of handling fiction - therefore, I hadn't done this exact job before but it was the perfect opportunity to combine experience I'd had in different areas.

The Writers and Artists Yearbook contains the contact details of publishers you'll want to approach. Approach them politely, thank them for any attention and persevere.

Editing is a difficult job to get into and coincidences of timing are often a factor. If you're an aspiring writer, it can be a mixed blessing: it gives you some experience of the industry you're hoping to sell to, which can make you more realistic and able to absorb the inevitable knocks, but full-on editing can also sometimes eat up your writing energy; I certainly haven't been at my most prolific when I was editing fiction.

Having said all that, I wish the best of luck to anyone who's trying to get there. Editors are wonderful people to work with, and I hope you all find success.

Thanks for this, Kit. I'm in the middle of trying to decide if I want to get into editing, and this is very helpful.
Ah, was it you I so dumbassedly failed to answer the first time?
Nope. You just have brilliant timing.
Oh cool, I was considering emailing you myself about this. Thanks for the post.
It was me, and I appreciate it :)
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