Teaching yourself editing

The Baltimore Sun

Reading in Thursday's post that few journalism programs offer much training in editing, Sean Smyth asked, "What is the best training to be an editor?"

There are things you can do to prepare yourself to be an editor, the best of which is to read widely and acquire as broad a store of general knowledge as you can. It is through wide reading that you acquaint yourself with the kinds of prose, good and bad, that are past and current. It is through wide reading that you come to recognize allusions and cliches. It is through wide reading that you can develop your faculty for arriving at sound judgments.

Develop a deeper store of information about one or more fields in which you are interested, so that you can offer your expertise in it. You can never know too much to be an editor, and you will never know enough.

If you are a student, take whatever editing course is on offer. Even a rudimentary copy editing course will show you useful things about editing, and you might be lucky enough to attend an academy, one of the few, that offers an advanced course.

Textbooks like The Art of Editing by Brian Brooks and Jack Sissors, which I use in the course I teach, will help orient you to the business, and you should familiarize yourself with the conventions of one or more style guides, such as the Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style.

You must develop expertise in grammar and usage, which means distinguishing the real rules from the bogus rules and shibboleths. That is the case even if your masters insist on their shibboleths. (Knowing better than the boss is a source of quiet satisfaction.) So get your hands on Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage and Garner's Modern American Usage, and absorb them as thoroughly as you can.

Your professional reading should include a series of useful sites, such as Language Log, Johnson, Fred Vultee's HeadsUp, and others mentioned regularly at this blog. If you examine the posts at previous versions of You Don't Say, here and here, you will find most of what I know about editing.*

But there is only so much that you can learn by reading books and websites. Editing is a craft, and you approach it as such, determined to develop from apprentice to journeyman to master over a span. The only way to truly learn editing is to edit.

Students who have opportunities for internships, paid (rarely) and unpaid, should take advantage of them. Becoming acquainted with the tedium of most editing while being worked like a borrowed mule is an illuminating experience, readying oneself for future exploitation.

If internships are not available to you, find some lowly place to start. I spent six summers in high school and college working at the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Kentucky, and it was good to start at the craft in a place where my mistakes were not widely circulated. Find a newsletter or some other publication which could use an editor. Find a friend who needs help with a text; that will also permit you to develop tactfulness.

Practice. Pick up texts on your own. Can you trim a 1,000-word article by 10 percent? 20? 25? Can you do it with a scalpel, excising unnecessary words and phrases? Can you do it with a bone saw, removing whole paragraphs that do not contribute? Can you sharpen the focus of the opening paragraph? Can you get to the damn point up front instead of permitting the writer half a dozen paragraphs of throat-clearing? Can you untangle mixed metaphors and tone down the writer's stylistic excesses? Can you vet statements of fact for accuracy? Can you restate technical language in common language and eliminate pretentious jargon?

If you can get a foothold in a publication, pay close attention to the good writers, particularly the ones who are good at self-editing. They will be most receptive to your questions and grateful for your help.

And find yourself a mentor. Find the ablest editor and watch what he or she does. When I started at The Sun in 1986, my boss was Andy Faith. By watching Andy, I learned to determine what was practical and desirable to accomplish in the limited time available, to distinguish between the crucial and the less important, to engage the cooperation of writers and other editors rather than getting their backs up.

At the end of every semester I quote Chaucer to my students at Loyola: "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne." Becoming an editor is a life's work. After more than three decades as a professional editor, I find out new things about language and usage nearly every day. Every time I open a text for editing, I wonder whether I will identify what needs to be done and whether I will overlook something important. I will never know enough, and I will never catch everything.

I will not give up trying.



*Along with valuable opinions about unrelated subjects.


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