What an Editor Does (and Can Do) – Joe Fruscione

By Joe Fruscione

Joe Fruscione

Joe Fruscione

Editing, like writing, is fluid. The work ranges from handling multiple drafts, nip-tucking to meet the required length, and fine-tuning a text to running a blog, column, or book series. It can be a welcome career for post-acs, because many kinds of editing draw from academic experience. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve done some developmental editing and consulting for graduate students. Colleagues such as Laura Fowler Graham and fellow TPII consultant Margy Thomas Horton do similar work, which is great for gaining experience and recommendations.

To give a sense of the spectrum of editing jobs and skills, I called on my Twitter circle: two former academics and one long-time copy editor. I asked them about the kinds of work they regularly do, as well as about the usefulness of academic experience in an editing career. Academic skills are transferable for editing, but not always automatically or flawlessly.

Gwendolyn Beetham, who does content and copy editing for University of Venus and Feministing, works on “translating” academic work for a larger audience:

This type of translation can be a challenge, since many academic disciplines use specific terminology not widely understood outside the discipline, let alone academia. And we are rewarded for presenting ideas this way in the academic context, so scholars are sometimes resistant to leaving more obscure terminology behind. But this is also part of the reason I do this work—I have dedicated most of my career to bridging the “activist/practice” divide. For me, there is no greater reward than helping scholars get their ideas out of the tower, or giving someone in the non-academic community access to powerful feminist theory.  

If you’re still engaged with the research you did—or perhaps are still doing—in academia, work like Gwendolyn’s can help you segue into a new career. Having the ability to help academics be, well, less academic in their writing is valuable and marketable, so foreground it in a cover letter or interview.

Another fellow post-ac, Liana M. Silva, does work similar to Gwendolyn’s, as well as developmental editing. She started as a Managing Editor for Sounding Out! A Blog About Sound Studies, and then branched out to freelance work before landing her current job as Editor-in-Chief for the professional newsletter Women in Higher Education.

I was doing developmental editing before I even knew it was developmental editing. For me, it was the approach we had (and still have) at Sounding Out!: we consider every first post an initial draft. So we help them hone their ideas, bring other sources to their attention, and ask them to consider questions about the relationship of sound to other issues.

If you’ve taught writing in your courses or written your own dissertation or thesis, you have the transferable skills required for overseeing a project through multiple stages:

Because of my training as editor and experience as a first-year composition instructor, I became comfortable with writers’ drafts and helping them see the potential past the first one. I enjoy engaging with their ideas on an abstract level, talking with writers about their work and watching them push it further.

Such developmental work can be fulfilling and engaging, especially when the writer appreciates the time and effort it takes to shape multiple versions. It’s another important skill to emphasize when marketing yourself professionally.

Like (Post-)Academic Twitter, Editing Twitter is a wellspring of good ideas, lively discussions, and experienced people from diverse backgrounds. Benjamin Dreyer—Vice President, Executive Managing Editor, & Copy Chief at Random House—offers useful information about trade publishing. He runs a department at Random House, so he only occasionally works on specific titles. As he reminds us,

A copy editor’s responsibilities are the same as they’ve always been: to check spelling and grammar, to point out logistical problems (e.g., plot holes) or other inconsistencies, to make note of pet words an author is overusing, and so on. As I always say, a copy editor’s job is to help make a book into the best possible version of itself it can be.

At one point, I considered trade publishing as a career path; I still might pursue it on a freelance basis, but not without heeding Benjamin’s advice:

This work is done almost invariably on a freelance basis, and is supervised by in-house production editors. If I have a particular concern about potential copy editors who are coming from an academic background, it’s that they tend to copyedit a bit too severely and strictly. Knowing and applying the basic rules of prose is of course a great thing; actually listening to an author’s voice is just as important.

Post-ac job seekers should know what trade publishing entails. The trick, as always, is gaining meaningful experience. As Benjamin reminds us, “It helps, at least as far as Random House is concerned, for a potential freelancer to already have a good amount of experience, and even reasonably experienced potential freelancers may be asked to take a copy editing or proofreading test.” Such tests are common in publishing, whether it’s trade, scholarly, or something else. You might need to review the nitty-gritty rules of grammar, spelling, and usage you’ve perhaps not had to think about for a while.

As Liana points out, “academics who want to delve into editing must remember that it is not like teaching writing or exchanging drafts with your peers or peer review. When you edit, you make decisions about what works or what doesn’t. Don’t tell them to add a comma; go ahead and add it. My rule is, if the problem is at the level of ideas, of content, I will ask about the sentence or offer a suggestion. If the problem is in how it’s phrased, I’ll make the change. Editors can make those changes! But that doesn’t mean we should be rude about it either. Writers are people too—and chances are editors are also writers.”

I’ve also learned a lot from #CopyeditingProTip, which Benjamin and many others use to rant about/calmly discuss common misspellings (“soft-peddle”), redundant phrases (“12 midnight”), incorrect usages (“Daylight Savings Time,” or “Frankenstein” for the name of the creature), when to use an en-dash, and other issues. Join in and see the different issues that come up—and, more importantly, to prepare yourself for the kinds of knowledge and connections you’ll need regardless of whether you’re doing copy, developmental, or another kind of editing.

My only other advice is to continue your post-ac networking—Always Be Connecting, remember—and follow these and other experienced, supportive editors on Twitter or LinkedIn. A key step in figuring out the ideal post-ac career path is to connect with mentors and others doing the kinds of work you’d like to do. Gwendolyn, Liana, Benjamin, and other editors have a lot to say: find them and learn from their experience. Such professional connections can, if we rethink something Benjamin said above, help make you into the best possible post-ac version of yourself you can be.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


What an Editor Does (and Can Do) – Joe Fruscione — 6 Comments

  1. Helpful post! I would add that it can be great, when you’re starting out as an editor/consultant, to develop a niche. Focusing on a specific subject matter, stage in the writing process, and/or type of client gives you a way to distinguish yourself and enables you to develop a particular expertise that makes you attractive to your ideal clients and thus gets you hired by them! For example, while I work with all academic disciplines, my editing approach is very developmental and collaborative, even at later stages in the writing process–and this is exactly the quality that most of my clients choose me for. Make sure your niche is compatible with your existing strengths and interests, but be open to learning whatever else you may need to know to serve your niche well.

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