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Jack of all Trades? That’d Be an Editor—A Reader’s Question . . .

February 13, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 14, 2012

A reader asked what she could/should study in order to prepare to be an editor. If you’re an editor, you’re probably not surprised that I suggested anything and everything. My answer, expanded for this article . . .

If you want to edit fiction (actually, if you intend to edit either fiction or non-fiction), pursue and learn about anything that interests you. Yes, you can study literature and English in college, which will certainly be helpful, but you’ll also want to have broad knowledge of many fields. You may end up editing a novel featuring a circus performer or a photographer or a botanist. You may edit sci-fi one month and romance the next. You may edit a story about a romantic botanist who travels 200 years into the future or about a trapeze artist who falls and dreams she’s a medieval princess.

You’ll want to know a little bit of something about a whole lot of things.

You’ll want to be versed in religions and myths and history and science and politics. You may want familiarity with medical knowledge or food preparation or the travel industry.

You can study any subject and you’ll be able to put the knowledge your learn—and the systems for gaining that knowledge—to work in your editing career.

An editor’s knowledge of and interest in a wide variety of subjects can only be a plus.

No, you don’t have to be an expert in every field. But when you recognize that those fields exist, you’re already ahead when you begin to edit. You might know something fascinating about a field of study or a topic that will bring depth to the writer’s story or to a character’s background.

You don’t necessarily need full-spectrum knowledge of a topic—and you may know nothing about a particular subject matter touched on in any one manuscript you edit—but if you’re familiar with a great many subjects and have allowed yourself to delve into them, you’ll have a broader base from which to work. You’ll know that there’s always more, that there’s a possibility for the writer to go deeper into a topic or add something colorful about that topic to enhance the story.

When you have knowledge of a wide variety of subjects—and knowledge of the ways those subjects connect—you’re able to help a writer make connections in her story, weave threads, that she might not have considered because she doesn’t have that same knowledge.

For example, one character’s reference to a certain type of pottery, made only in one region in Greece, can be tied to another character’s grandmother, a woman who came from a village in that region.

Familiarity with a many topics is a plus for editors.


So, what specifically might you do beyond getting a degree in literature or writing or English (or the language you write in) if you want to edit? (And no, you don’t have to have a degree in English to be an editor. This article is a reminder that editors don’t need to set limitations on themselves.)

Study foreign languages. Not only does this open you to new cultures, it gives you a deeper understanding of words and their connections and connotations.

Read newspapers and read books in genres that you don’t typically read.

Practice editing by editing a book that’s already been published.

Write a story yourself. If writing a novel isn’t something you want to do, write short stories. Tackle a novella. Experience the process of putting a story together.

Study books on the craft of writing. Learn what makes a phrase work. Learn how to manipulate words. Learn grammar rules.

Learn to identify clichés.

Learn about sports and games. Learn not only the rules but the purpose behind sports and competition. Learn what motivates athletes, how sports bring teammates together and how they drive and empower fans.

Study music. Not only notes but how music affects the brain or the emotions. Learn how music can be woven through a story. Not only with overt mentions of songs but through rhythm and pace and sound.

Learn something about art, about color and perspective and balance. Learn about an artist’s vision or drives or compulsions.

Study psychology. Learn what people do and why. Learn about motivation and guilt and emotions. Learn how individuals differ and how group-think can steer behavior. Help writers create fully developed characters with real reactions.

Learn how to speak to writers and to convey your suggestions in ways they understand.

Learn to be bold as well as diplomatic.

Learn to be skeptical; check facts. Just because the writer wrote something, that doesn’t mean that something is real, true, or factual. Doubt everything and look it up.

Pursue your personal dreams, even if they have nothing to do with writing or editing. Fill yourself with those things that satisfy you. Be as well rounded as you can be. Don’t limit yourself.


I could go on and on about this topic. But bottom line? Think broad in interests and detailed in skills. You’ll need both to be a good editor. Be the jack of all trades who is also a master editor. Learn what makes good writing, what makes good story, and what makes good editing.

Realize that you won’t, can’t, know everything. But keep learning. Be open to all manner of subject matter.

Learn with both your head and your heart.

Learn to edit well and then put the skills you perfect to work.

Be a benefit to writers and their stories.

Edit wisely and edit well.




Tags: ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., For Editors

12 Responses to “Jack of all Trades? That’d Be an Editor—A Reader’s Question . . .”

  1. Chihuahua0 says:

    So basically, knowledge is power for editors? Interesting…

  2. Julie says:

    It seems that what makes a good editor is a combination of specific skills, an interest in many things and the willingness to research until a piece of writing becomes authentic; plus a fair knowledge of humanity. Sounds like a good writer to me.

  3. Chihuahua, I was thinking knowledge was a necessity and that an interest in life would be a plus. Knowledge is power? I guess that’s true too.

  4. Julie, the skill sets and interests do overlap, don’t they?

  5. Calsey says:

    Everything said in this article is true and helpful to aspiring editors. This shows that editing is a job where knowledge truly is power.

  6. Kelsey says:

    Hi Beth, thanks for this post! I’ve been reading and re-reading your blog for the past few days; it has been most enlightening! I love to read and am considering pursuing a career as an editor. Does editing ever ruin stories for you when you read for fun?

    • Kelsey, most of the time I can read and enjoy without trying to edit as I read. Most of the time. Every once in a while I may find myself editing, but usually the books I pick up are well written and well edited and I don’t get distracted by the need to edit a published book.

      I’m glad you’re finding good info at the blog.

  7. Naomi says:

    hi! i have a question. to become an editor what should i study? like, are degrees in communications and/or business management useful? maybe combined with a master in journalism… let me know please! thanks

  8. Eric says:

    Hi Beth

    As a student of Editing and publishing, and a long time amateur editor, I find this blog enlightening! I know of friends who do not take editing as a profession. I will definitely share the articles in this blog.

    And when I introduce myself as an Editor, people usually ask, ‘What do you do?’ And my response has always been ‘I read and correct just about anything and everything!!’