To many writers, editors loom godlike, wielding great power—to accept, to reject, to rewrite. Their origins, too, may seem mysterious, because the path to becoming an editor can be a little harder to find.
Guided by mentors or transferring skills from other journalistic spheres, editors find their way—both in their careers and their approaches to editing. “It’s like parenting,” says Eva Emerson, editor-in-chief of Knowable Magazine. “You kind of have to find your own style.”
Raising Your Hand
Writers may underestimate what they know about editing, says Daisy Yuhas, a freelance editor and journalist based in Austin, Texas, and the features editor at Sapiens. For one, they probably already edit themselves, and the same principles apply whether refining their own text or someone else’s: choosing succinct and clear language, streamlining a story’s flow, and plugging up holes where information is missing.
Moreover, “you’ve learned a lot about editing from everyone who’s ever edited you,” says Yuhas. When you start to feel like you know how to write for a specific editor, you’re actually editing your copy for their needs, she says.
But getting your first experience editing professionally often requires asking for the opportunity to give it a go. Yuhas notes that editors may assume that early-career journalists only want to report and write, so they may not spontaneously offer up editing opportunities.
Yuhas gained her first editing experience during an internship at Scientific American MIND. She had expected to spend the internship like her previous ones, sharpening her writing and reporting skills. But mid-internship, she realized that she wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the writing-editing equation.
So her editor at the time, Sandra Upson, handed Yuhas a low-stakes edit on a feature translated from the magazine’s German affiliate that needed a lot of work. First, Upson and Yuhas talked through which pieces of the feature needed rewriting and more detail. Then they worked through the story’s structure. Yuhas says she learned a great deal from how Upson edited her edits. With one successful edit completed, Upson let Yuhas take a stab at the second edit of a different feature.
From there, she began volunteering to help edit on different kinds of pieces during her internship. Later, after Yuhas started freelancing, fact-checking assignments also helped her develop her editing skills by giving her a chance to look closely at the choices editors and writers made in shaping longform stories. Later, she returned to MIND as an associate editor.
Like Yuhas, Yasmin Tayag strengthened her editing chops by asking for the experience. Now a senior editor at OneZero, Tayag started her professional journalism career as a writer for Inverse. While she was there, she offered to help her editor should the need arise. “Eventually a couple of [news] articles came my way, and that was just how I got my start,” she says. She also traded pieces with other Inverse writers.
Before writing, Tayag had spent a few years copyediting for Nature research journals—experience that she now says was “very dry,” but invaluable for her editing career: “I cannot stress enough how important those years were for me—just because it just taught me to be so nitpicky.” Copyediting taught her to take care with sentence structure, word choice, story flow, and getting the science right—all necessary skills for science journalism and editing. After about a year and a half as a writer at Inverse, Tayag became an associate staff editor. In time, editing “became a muscle that I grew more comfortable and confident using,” she says. After being promoted to Inverse’s science editor, Tayag took pride in shaping the tone of the publication, striving to explain science accurately in a way that was conversational and approachable.
Writers can also learn about editing from venues outside the newsroom—for instance, through editing workshops or online seminars such as those offered by the Poynter Institute. (In addition, later this fall the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT will be publishing a handbook for science editors. The online handbook will provide advice, tips, resources, and case studies for news editors who are called upon to edit science stories, but who lack much experience or expertise with such stories, says Joshua Hatch, who edited the handbook.)
New and aspiring editors can also create learning opportunities for themselves, says Tim De Chant, a journalist and founder of the website Future Proof, which helps people reduce their carbon footprint. While writing and editing for a research magazine, De Chant started a blog, which gave him insights into the editorial process that proved useful when he became an editor at NOVA Next. Writers can feel out those roles, from managing content and its publication calendar to using social media for promotion, by creating a YouTube channel or newsletter.
The Skills for the Job
Amber Williams, editor of The New York Times for Kids, became interested in editing while she was in journalism school. Recognizing that many staff journalism roles were listed as editing positions, she strategically set about learning the craft. During her internships, for instance, Williams took every opportunity to sit in on editorial meetings. “You can listen and sponge up everything those editors are saying,” she says.
Such newsroom experiences help new journalists learn how editors work, including how they decide which topics deserve attention, how they think through stories, and the vocabulary of editing. Tayag, for instance, says she didn’t know the word “dek” when she started editing. (“Dek” usually refers to a subtitle or short sentence that expands on an article’s headline.) This shared vocabulary can keep everyone on the same page, so to speak, especially when it comes to describing common problems in drafts.
For example, two terms that can be particularly helpful are “granular”—that is, including nitty-gritty details in stories—and “contextualizing”—putting an idea in its place in the big picture, says Emily Laber-Warren, a longtime journalist and director of the health and science reporting program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York (CUNY). Such editing “vocabulary” helps facilitate conversations about writing and how to make it better, she says. Laber-Warren got a taste of editor vocab at Popular Science, where she once worked as features editor, by joining her mentors’ phone calls and by reading their revision notes to writers.
Looking holistically at an article at the outset can also help you with another tricky part of editing: identifying what isn’t on the page. What are the gaps in the story? Whose voices are missing?
For both editors and writers, structuring stories can be one of the stickiest parts of the process. Maya Kapoor, an associate editor at High Country News, drew on her experience earning a master of fine arts in creative nonfiction to hone the editing approach she uses today. First, she focuses on the piece’s thesis and nut graf and looks for issues with concepts and structure. Once those are nailed down, then she digs into line edits and word choice. Early on, Kapoor found herself correcting spelling mistakes or other small edits in early drafts instead of leaving them for the final polish. “I needed to learn to separate out the processes,” Kapoor says.
Looking holistically at an article at the outset can also help you with another tricky part of editing: identifying what isn’t on the page. What are the gaps in the story? Whose voices are missing? Figuring this out entails “getting outside of your own head,” says freelance writer and editor Jill Sakai, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Editors need to look at a piece objectively to determine what’s in the piece that shouldn’t be, what’s missing and needs to be added, and what’s there and isn’t working. In that way, “editing is kind of like a puzzle,” Sakai says, in which you’re trying to make the best possible story.
Williams, having accumulated years of editing experience at magazines and at the Times, looks for those word-working skills when considering hiring an editor. But she also keeps a long list of other traits in mind. For instance, are candidates interested in teamwork? Editing roles may involve a lot of collaboration. She also looks for imaginative people—those who have brainstorming skills to consider a story from many angles. And being good at pitching and selling ideas is still important even when you’re not writing the story, she says. Confident decision-making is a must, as are leadership skills. Absent from bylines, editors lead behind the scenes, Williams says.
A key part of that leadership is working with writers—and that often means making sure that the writers feel like they’re being heard and are part of a team, says Nsikan Akpan, a science editor at National Geographic. That’s critical when the process hits a snag. If you’re going back and forth with a writer and it feels like something isn’t getting across, “stop sending emails, stop sending Slack messages,” Akpan says, and just pick up the phone. He notes that such conversations can help editors both build rapport with freelancers and understand their writers’ point of view, including which stories may be best for them. Chatting can also offer connection to freelance writers who don’t have the same social structure as staffers, he says.
A good editor needs to listen to their writers—but also be respectfully and kindly firm when considering decisions small (a particular word choice) and large (the need to reorganize a piece altogether). Even if there aren’t big changes, Kapoor likes to talk over edits with writers when time allows—in a way that conveys that any issues are about the piece, not the writer. For instance, she would say something like, “This review is still a little unclear in the third paragraph,” rather than, “You’re still being a little unclear in the third paragraph.”
Occasionally, Kapoor acknowledges, editors need to kill stories. “When it comes to bad news, I think that promptness and honesty are really important.” If a story has to be dropped, it’s respectful to do it as soon as possible in the editorial process, Kapoor says, instead of waiting until the writer has put in a lot of time.
Getting Staffed Up
The most conventional path into editing involves working one’s way up on a publication’s staff. Editors often begin as editorial assistants or assistant editors, then are promoted into associate editor, then senior editor roles. Titles and responsibilities for those roles vary widely depending on the publication. A senior editor may oversee their magazine’s science section, for instance; a general-interest publication might have a news editor who is in charge of quicker-turnaround stories, while a features editor works on longer-term, more in-depth projects.
Being on staff lets you be part of shaping that publication. For example, says Kapoor, staff editors can be part of the organization’s ongoing conversation “about whose voices matter or what issues matter.” They can push for more diversity in sources and staff hires, and can play a role in expanding the perspectives that their outlets represent—for example, she says, by watching for and sharing stories about underrepresented groups that aren’t being reported elsewhere.
Editing in a staff role allows you to “really get the DNA of a publication,” Laber-Warren says. As examples, she points to women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire. Those publications may seem similar, she says, but their editors know their different audiences and consider what they are doing “absolutely unique.” Those editors “have a very intense sort of vision,” she says—one that might be hard to discern as a freelancer.
Navigating the Freelance World
Spending some time editing on staff can also help you understand how an editorial team creates that shared vision—knowledge that you can carry over to other publications when editing as a freelancer, Laber-Warren says. Still, not everyone starts as a staff editor. Sakai realized after freelance writing for more than a decade that an editing role would be a good fit for her skills. “I felt like I was able to step back from things and take a bigger-picture view” in the way editors do, she says.
For freelance editors, finding outlets to edit for in the first place can pose a challenge. As Sakai notes, most outlets don’t publicly post opportunities for freelance editing. So “networking is at least as important as it is for freelance writing, if not more so,” she says. Her editing gigs—including her first ones—have predominately come by word of mouth.
Freelance editing can give you the freedom to explore a broader range of topics, styles, and colleagues. But it comes with particular challenges, too.
Freelance editing can give you the freedom to explore a broader range of topics, styles, and colleagues. But it comes with particular challenges, too.
Social media can be useful, too. Keridwen Cornelius, a freelance journalist and editor based in Phoenix, Arizona, follows editors at outlets that she wants to work with, keeping an eye out for tweets and retweets about job announcements. Online discussion groups also sometimes contain job postings or tips from other journalists. Cornelius has also found editing work through listservs from journalism organizations such as the National Association of Science Writers, the Association of Health Care Journalists, and via posts on Mediabistro and journalismjobs.com.
Freelance editing can give you the freedom to explore a broader range of topics, styles, and colleagues. But it comes with particular challenges, too. Emerson, of Knowable Magazine, acknowledges that working with new-to-her freelance editors is at first “kind of a trial-and-error process.”
It can also be tough to get feedback. Sakai says the best feedback is if she continues to get editing work. “I just tend to assume that I am constantly being vetted with every assignment,” she says. One thing Sakai does to reverse-engineer feedback: After a piece she has worked on is published, she looks at the edits made over hers. That helps her better understand an outlet’s voice and style.
Emerson’s publication, Knowable Magazine, sometimes hires writers they’ve worked with who have expressed an interest in editing. To evaluate them, Emerson might be inclined to talk with assigning editors who have worked with that person. Or she may ask the potential editor about their philosophy. Some people are more rewriters than editors, Emerson notes, but usually she is looking for someone who can act as a facilitator for the writer—that is, someone who can help them weave their words and ideas into a great story.
Unlike many, De Chant’s first full-time journalism job happened to be an editing role. Because he came to the role without years of reporting experience, he needed to find his footing and confidence without years of experience being edited. “If you’re a young editor,” he says, “perhaps one of the biggest things you need to overcome is the impostor syndrome.”
It’s normal to feel uncertain when starting out editing. Often, that uncertainty and lack of trust in one’s own instincts leads to tentativeness. Earlier in her editing career, Sakai says she tended to under-edit. If she was on the fence about an edit, she would leave it. “I just didn’t push hard enough to keep asking, ‘Why? What does this mean? Why is this important?’” Sakai says. But she learned that an editor has to act as an advocate for the audience. The question editors have to wrestle with is: Which edits will make the story better rather than just making it different?
That understanding of audience is key, De Chant says—and it’s something editors can offer their writers no matter how many years of experience they have.
But even seasoned editors can face self-doubt. After Williams had been editing short news stories, she wasn’t sure how ready she was to take on a whole section. With each transition, from editing a page to a section, or from working on a magazine’s longer timeline to editing for a daily paper, she found new challenges she had to grow into. “With editing, the only way to learn it is to do it,” Williams says. “If you’re unsure about how ready you are,” she says, “go ahead and do it.”
Carolyn Wilke is a freelance science journalist and one of the hosts of the podcast Science for the People. Her work appears in outlets including Science News, Science News for Students, Eos, and Chemical and Engineering News. She holds a PhD in environmental engineering. Find her on Twitter @carolynmwilke.