The Everything Guide to a Career in Editing
I grew up near a small bookstore that always stocks at least two or three times as many books as what reasonably fits in the space. So they stack all the overflow in front of the shelves, two or three piles deep and as much as eight feet high. Whenever I visit, I slide carefully through tiny winding aisles, feeling that at any moment, the works of thousands of writers and editors could come crashing down on me in a literary avalanche. It was and still is one of my favorite places in the world.
My lifelong love of reading grew into a love of writing—and of helping others make their writing the best it can be. That’s why I became an editor. If you’re someone who, like me, adores the written word and is thrilled to be surrounded by stories, you might be considering editing as a career path.
Here’s what you’ll need to know about what editors do, how you can become one, and whether it’s the right job for you. (Already sold and want to start your job search? Find editor jobs on The Muse!)
What is an editor and what do they do?
You might think of editing as correcting grammar and spelling mistakes, but that’s just one small part of the process. Editors plan, coordinate, revise, correct, and format written content for publication—all while working closely with writers to refine their work. “Writers can look at their copy so much that they start to not be able to see the forest for the trees,” says Jennifer Glatt, Editorial Director of the Office of University Relations at University of North Carolina Wilmington. That’s where editors come in.
Editors may be responsible for a wide range of duties, including:
- Revising text for larger issues including content, structure, length, tone, and voice
- Revising text for paragraph and sentence-level issues such as flow, syntax, and grammar (a.k.a., line editing)
- Delivering feedback and supporting writers across multiple drafts
- Developing ideas and assigning them to the right writers as well as evaluating proposals from writers
- Communicating and coordinating with writers and other stakeholders (including marketing, legal, finance, and design professionals, among others)
- Managing budgets and negotiating rates or contracts
- Setting and coordinating deadlines to ensure on-time publication
- Ensuring text meets content and style guidelines
- Tracking performance of previously published pieces
- Having strong opinions on the Oxford comma (optional)
What kinds of editing can you do for a living?
As an editor, you usually focus on one type of text or medium. Here are a few of the most common areas editors work in, but keep in mind that there may be overlap and this list isn’t exhaustive. (You might also focus on scientific editing or grant editing, for example.)
Editing fiction and nonfiction books “involves project managing the entire journey of a book,” and getting it on the shelves, says Rebecca Gyllenhaal, an assistant editor at Quirk Books. These editors evaluate manuscripts or book proposals (for nonfiction) and decide what projects to take on. They help writers with “big structural changes, character arc development, resolving plot issues, adjusting the length, adjusting the tone and style for the intended audience,” and more, Gyllenhaal says.
Many book editors work for the largest publishing companies in the U.S., known—for now—as “The Big Five”: Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and HarperCollins. But you can also work for mid-sized, independent, or university presses. “I like independent publishing because there is more opportunity to work on lots of different kinds of books rather than getting siloed into one genre,” Gyllenhaal says.
Newspaper editors work for print and online news publications, shaping coverage and editing stories filed by reporters and writers. These editors often work for a certain section or on a particular “beat”—for example, culture, politics, or sports.
Newspaper editors focus on editing article text and ensuring it matches their paper’s voice, style, tone, and ethical standards. They may also decide which articles get assigned or published and how much focus they get based on their placement within a newspaper or website layout.
Magazine editors work closely with staff and/or freelance writers to bring a print or online magazine article from the idea phase through publication, says Muse career coach Eliot Kaplan of Eliot Kaplan Coaching, who worked his way up the ranks as a magazine editor and also served as the VP of Talent Acquisition at Hearst Magazines. Both editors and writers may come up with ideas for magazine articles, but editors ultimately decide which to move forward with. Magazine editors are then responsible for coordinating all phases of an article from editing drafts to working with colleagues such as copy editors, fact checkers, top editors, designers, illustrators, photographers, and even lawyers.
Magazine editors can edit a wide range of pieces, both in length and subject. “In my life I've edited 150-word stories and 15,000-word ones on all topics,” from health to sports to politics, Kaplan says.
Online media and content editing
Nowadays, people do so much of their reading online—whether they’re getting the news, learning something, or looking for entertainment. There’s some overlap between these editors and the other categories I’ve mentioned—since magazines and news organizations might publish some or all of their content online. But many other types of websites, or even companies looking to provide content alongside their other offerings (*cough* like The Muse *cough*), also publish online content. Many editors and writers who worked in other, unfortunately shrinking fields—primarily magazines and newspapers—have found a home in online content.
Web editors come up with content ideas that will bring readers to their site via Google, social media, email, and other channels. They also assign articles and other written content to freelance or staff writers, evaluate pitches, manage deadlines, edit drafts, upload text to the site, and track performance. You’ll often work for companies that have a number of departments outside of editorial, so you may also collaborate with other teams and be responsible for editing copy for the rest of the company.
Many organizations that aren’t publishers put out written communications internally and externally. Depending on the size of the company and their audience, they may hire editors to ensure this text is high quality and supports the organization’s missions. These editors can work anywhere from an insurance or tech company to a nonprofit, government agency, or hospital.
For example, Glatt works for a university. “There’s not much [published] at the university level that I don’t have my eyes on at some point,” she says, including short and longer-form copy for both digital and print versions of the university magazine, marketing copy for the website, admissions material, and more. In other communication roles, you might also edit press releases, website or software copy, or internal documents like training materials or benefits explainers.
Key facts about editors
So that’s the big picture stuff, but what about the logistical details of editing as a career?
Where can editors work?
Editors can work at any company putting out written content or communications—for example, dedicated publishers or a tech company like The Muse. Geographically, a lot of editing jobs are based in major metro areas, especially New York City. Editors can also work as freelancers on a per-project basis or for several different clients.
Can editors work remotely?
I’m writing this from my childhood bedroom while I’m home for the holidays and have done multiple jobs remotely, so I can tell you from experience: yes. Collaboration, communication, word processing, and editing software has made it so that most editors can do at least part of their jobs remotely. Some companies will of course still want in-person editors, but if you’d prefer to work remotely, opportunities existed before the pandemic and will continue to going forward.
What’s the career outlook?
According to BLS, the number of editor positions is expected to grow 5% between 2020 and 2030, which is slower than the average for all occupations. But this is a high-level view—what and where you edit matters. Overall, “publishing industries (except internet),” including print magazines and newspapers, are projected to see a 4.7% loss in editor jobs. But the number of editor positions in “other information services,” which includes online publishing, is projected to grow 27.7% in that time.
How much do editors make?
According to BLS, the overall median wage for editors in the U.S. is $63,400. Editors for newspapers, periodicals, and books make the lowest median wage of any of the most common industries at $58,260 annually, while those working for “religious, grantmaking, civic, professional, and similar organizations” have the highest median salary of $71,520. Other information services and “professional, scientific, and technical services” fall in the middle—with median salaries of $69,460 and $69,150, respectively.
What skills do I need as an editor?
You may be thinking that writing is the writer’s job. But to be a good editor, you need strong writing skills. Take Toni Morrison, who was not only one of the best American authors, but also an editor for Random House who was responsible for editing Angela Davis’s autobiography along with a number of other influential works.
Of course, I’m not saying that you need the writing skill of Toni Morrison to be an editor. There would be approximately zero editors if that were the case. But you do need to know how writing conveys messages and information and how different choices can affect the way a piece of writing is read and received.
Hand-in-hand with strong writing skills are strong critical reading and communication skills. Other hard and soft skills editors might need are:
- Knowledge of grammar, syntax, punctuation, and other language rules
- Knowledge of story and/or article structure
- Style guides and how to adhere to them (for example, Merriam Webster, AP Style, MLA)
- Relationship building and interpersonal skills
- Organizational skills
- Time management skills
- Project management skills
- Giving and receiving constructive feedback
- Ability to work under pressure
- Familiarity with word processing software and editing features
- The ability to say “edited it” out loud (optional)
Depending on what you edit you may need some other skills. For example, if you want to edit books, you’ll need knowledge of the current publishing market, Gyllenhaal says. If you’d like to edit any kind of nonfiction, you’ll need the ability to quickly learn about a new topic and may need some subject matter experience for certain jobs. And if you’d like to edit anything that gets posted online, you might need to understand search engine optimization (SEO) or know how to use a content management system (CMS).
What education, training, or certifications do I need?
Generally, companies require that editors have at least a bachelor’s degree—with majors in English, journalism, communications, or similar being the most directly applicable—but that’s not always the case.
Especially at the early career level, a lot of editing is learned on the job from your managers and coworkers, but companies will want to see that you know the basics of writing mechanics and structure before they hire you. While you’re in college, you can look for extracurriculars to grow your writing and editing chops, such as working for the school newspaper or literary magazine, or for paid work editing essays, tutoring other students, or doing freelance writing or editing. Completing an internship in the industry and/or at the type of organization you’d like to edit for can go a long way to help your employment chances as well.
When it comes to graduate degrees, “I would exercise caution,” Gyllenhaal says. If you have an unrelated undergrad degree or just genuinely want to learn more about writing in a structured environment, a master’s in English, writing, journalism, or publishing won’t hurt your chances of getting an editing job, but they’re not required. And there are plenty of other (cheaper) ways to prepare for an editing career.
What is the career path for editors?
When you’re first starting your career, you won’t necessarily have the title of “editor” right away. You might be hired as an editorial assistant—particularly in the magazine and book publishing fields—a position that might include administrative as well as editorial work, or as an assistant editor. In journalism, another common path is to start your career as a reporter or writer before moving into an editing role. These jobs will help you learn more about writing, editing, and publishing in your industry while giving you oversight and training from more experienced editors.
As you gain more experience, you might find jobs as an editor, senior editor, deputy editor, or managing editor, which is “the person who makes the trains run on time,” Kaplan says, coordinating operations, production, and publishing calendars. At the highest levels, you might see titles like editor-in-chief, editorial director, executive editor, or VP of content—depending on the company and the place of written content within the org. In these roles you’re likely doing less hands-on editing and instead making bigger-picture strategic decisions, Kaplan says
Should you become an editor?
Here are a few questions to ask yourself to figure out if editing is the right career for you:
- Do you love reading and language? “You can't be an editor unless you’re a reader first,” Gyllenhaal says. You can only develop your instincts for great writing from reading copiously. But I’ll take it a step further: To be happy in a career as an editor, you’ve got to genuinely love words, because they’ll be your most constant companions at work.
- Do you want to be a lifelong learner? In some editing fields, you can completely change what topics you’re covering throughout your career. (In my last job, I edited stock market articles, and now I cover careers and work.) But in any editing role, you’ll have varied projects, so you’ll learn about new things constantly.
- Are you OK taking a backseat to writers? “An editor should be OK with being behind-the-scenes. It’s not the editor’s voice that should shine through the copy, it’s the writer’s voice, just with more clarity and finessing,” Glatt says.
- Do you actually want to be a writer? “Often editors are frustrated writers,” Kaplan says. “Those people make lousy editors.” Depending on your job, you may write as well as edit, but you need to know where the line is between these two activities. If you only want to write, write.
- Do you want to be a writer with a day job? Do you want to be an author, screenwriter, blogger, or other type of writer who has a more stable day job? You can work as an editor, but “just know that it might be very difficult for you to find the time and energy for your own writing after a long day of editing,” Gyllenhaal says. However, if you can push past those hurdles, I’ve seen firsthand how doing both can help you grow. Glatt, who’s also a freelance writer, adds, “My writing is stronger because I edit, and my editing is stronger because I write.”
How can I get a job as an editor?
In addition to general job search tips, here are some editing-specific pointers:
- Read, read, read: Read the medium you want to edit, especially what’s coming out now. “Hiring managers want to see that you’re engaging with the industry as it is today,” Gyllenhaal says.
- Familiarize yourself with the companies you apply to. “Study publications and websites to see what kinds of things they publish,” and come into an interview with ideas that fit the publication, Kaplan says.
- Don’t skip the cover letter! This is your first chance to show off your writing and editing skills to a potential employer. So don’t half-ass it.
- Proofread all application materials: How embarrassing would it be for your editing resume to have a typo or incomplete sentence on it?
- Prepare for a skills test: You’ll often need to complete an editing test (and possibly a short writing test) to show prospective employers you can handle the work.