I've read this question: What exactly is an editor?

And that anwers the 'what an editor is' So, my question would rather be, How do you become an editor? Which skills must an editor have? Is it different from genre to genre?

4 Answers 4


You become a book editor by getting a job as an editor, and you do that by demonstrating competence and getting references. It's the same chicken-or-the-egg dilemma as in any field.

Editors of manuscripts need a fairly consistent set of skills. There's no standard educational background for an editor, although an English degree is useful to get a job with a publishing house or book agency.

For fiction, editors need a good feel for story, structure, and language. Editors should be at least reasonably well-read, with an appreciation for the history of the genre a book is in. If an editor doesn't appreciate that plot X has been done before numerous times, they can't help a writer avoid a clichéd plot.

For non-fiction, editors need not only knowledge of book structure and section design, but knowledge of several style manuals and their common applications. (Chicago for general text, AP for journalistic work, APA/MLA for academic/medical/tech work, etc.)

For any manuscript, editors need a working knowledge of grammar, language, and syntax. Editors don't need to be grammarians: I've met more than a few who can barely tell the difference between an adverb and an adjective but have an uncanny sense of correct phrasing and grammar. At the very least an editor needs to know enough grammar to guide a writer in the right direction. Of course, technical knowledge of grammar is extremely helpful to both editors and writers, in the same way that music theory is helpful to musicians. And there are many situations where the "correct" way is not the right way to write something, and an editor needs an eye for style to appreciate these moments. (For example, correcting all the uses of passive voice is a classic new-editor mistake.)

Finally, all editors need to be able to suggest changes in a helpful, diplomatic way. Telling a writer "this sentence is ridiculously overwritten" will often make a writer bristle and get defensive, where simply writing "this would be more effective if streamlined, like so" is offering a useful, helpful suggestion.


Are asking how to get a job as an editor in some specific area of publishing, i.e. practical advice/info, or as per answer above, what skills are required to become a genuinely competent editor (as opposed to simply a test reader with a lot of specific comments for instance)..?

The answer from Neil is a Fein one. I'd stress his final point: an editor needs above all else to be en rapport with the writer. It's very much a collaborative process, can be tedious and pedantic at times, emotionally charged (e.g. no author likes to hear an objective "cut this" about some precious scene) and stressful. The editor has to balance an objectivity, an eye for audience and reader "eye" or "engagement", should be well-versed in subject matter and existing publications in the genre, as well as being able to see the wood for the trees throughout.

That is to say: editor should empathize sincerely with the writer's aims and understand what the writer is trying to achieve with the work at all levels - book as a whole, by chapter, per scene, in each sequence, with each sentence - while avoiding being overly mechanical/rigid or risk of homogenizing the work (especially if creative fiction). An editor may also have many concurrent projects but mustn't let this detract from reaching close sympathy with each individual writer under his/her care. The list goes on.

Think of the ideal editor as a mediator between writer and audience and this phase of writing being akin to bringing a busy blurry 'picture' into crisp, perfect focus. Originality is in the eye of the beholder (audience, reader) in the end, like it or not, as far as any work we presume to lay before the world. Good editors are an invualuable quality control and judge of whether content is merely reiterating the familiar, etc.

In short, not being an editor myself I must say it may be one of the most demanding, unforgiving and thankless of jobs; yet crucial to the process. It's a vocation for some. Bad editors destroy. Good ones can be the essential bridge between writer and reader in countless unseen, never perceived ways.

Splurge ends!

  • " Bad editors destroy. Good ones can be the essential bridge between writer and reader in countless unseen, never perceived ways" Very true.
    – Thezil
    Commented Oct 15, 2014 at 4:30


  1. First and foremost the work of an editor is about knowing the market and selecting works that sell (or, if it is a cultural publisher: works that have cultural impact).

    An editor creates a line of publication. He is responsible for the profile of his imprint and creates its brand. For that, the editor needs to have a clear understanding of current trends and his target audience.

  2. The editor needs to be a psychologist and coach. Not only is networking a major part of an editor's job, connecting with different people in the print, publishing, media, and culture industries – so he has to be outgoing, social, and fun to work with –, but also he has to be a substitute parent and therapist for all the writers with social phobias, manias, depression, substance abuse problems, or other psychological dysfunctions.

  3. An editor needs not only understand what makes a good text, but most of all needs to be able to explain to the writer what the writer can do to turn the bad text into a good text. (Because the editor does not do the editing!) This is more difficult than it sounds, because the editor must overcome the writer's love of his mental ejaculation.


Scientific editors are usually scholars in the field, often researchers working in a research institution such as a university.

Scientific manuscripts are judged less on the level of style and structure, because style and structure are usually prescribed by the discipline's conventions or style manuals. Following the style manual and submitting an error-free manuscript is the job of the author. The author usually employs a student to do the copy-editing.

Unlike the fiction editor, the scientific editor does not usually actively search for authors. Authors submit manuscripts, and the editor has to judge their relevance (based on his intimate knowledge of the field) and "scientificness", i.e. he has to judge, with the help of peer reviewers, wether or not the research or theoretical work has been done according to the scientific standards of the discipline, used accepted methods, and so on.

Scientific editors are part of the scientific community and manage the community's publishing process as representatives of that community. What they need, besides what every scientist needs, is reputation. Reputation, i.e. being a bit more equal than the others, allows them to judge and select the works of their peers.

Non-Fiction (not science)

Non-scientific non-fiction editors are somewhere between fiction and scientific editors. They work with authors in a way similar to that of fiction editors. And they need understanding of a field to judge the information value of a manuscript.


Much has been said on what an editor does, so I would like to add something about what kind of person an editor might need to be.

The editor is first and foremost an assistant, even a servant, of the author's work. Unlike the author, who, in many kinds of writing, expresses him- or herself and will be identified, possibly admired, for their creation, the ultimate goal of the editor must be to perfect another man's work.

Therefore the editor must be, in a certain way, a modest, self-less, and purposeful person, and able to find satisfaction in another person's fame and success.

Also, authors are often difficult personalities, and the editor, who must work with them, must be more tolerant and accommodating than the average person. At the same time, given the authors' infatuation with their creation and reluctance to change the ejaculations of their imagination, the editor must be relentless, yet with the sensitivity of a therapist.

A good and successful editor of fiction is as rare as a good author, and they complement each other in the same way as (traditionally) husband and wife, with one facing the world, and the other coaching him and giving him strength in the privacy of their home.

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