Interdisciplinary scholars often make fantastic academic editors. Your interdisciplinary training has taught you how to work between and across fields, speak to multiple audiences, foreground the real-world stakes of academic research, and build a diverse professional network full of folks beyond academia like activists, policymakers, nonprofit directors, and artists. But just like a professorial career, a professional academic editing career requires its own training—training that academia itself doesn’t provide. Here’s how you can get started transitioning out of academia into an editing career.
Get professional training
Like any profession, professional editing requires specialized training. Online and offline courses are a great place to learn the basics of scholarly editing, including the differences between types of editing and how to do them well, how to work with authors versus publishers, the technical knowledge you need to edit in specific fields, standard publishing industry processes, and the very big differences between grading student papers or peer reviewing and professional academic editing. We offer a course called Introduction to Professional Academic Editing that can get you started, and many editing associations like the ACES Society for Editing, Copyediting, and the Editorial Freelancers Association offer courses, webinars, and boot camps that teach you the ropes.
In addition to taking courses, get yourself copies of the key editing texts and start working your way through them. Some ones to get you started:
- Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communication
- Peter Ginna’s What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing
- Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself)
- Emmy J. Favilla’s A World without Whom: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age
- Joseph M., Williams and Joseph Bizup’s Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace
- Scott Norton’s Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers
Just as you did continual professional development in academia, you’ll need to make sure your professional editing training is ongoing, not a one-shot deal. Signing up for regular webinars or courses throughout the year and keeping up with the research and publications in the editing field are crucial for keeping your skills sharp and providing quality editing to clients.
Study the style manuals
This is perhaps obvious, but professional editors need to be experts in the style manuals that govern their clients’ publications. You might already have copies of some of these from your academic career, so pull those off the shelf and check to see if they are the most recent editions (if not, it’s time to update your style manual library). Read through the style manuals with the same care and scholarly attention you’re used to paying to monographs in your scholarly fields. Take notes, jot down questions, and follow up on things you don’t understand or have questions about.
Chances are you’re used to working with one or two style manuals that are standard in your academic fields, but here’s where you get to dive into the others. Some of the standard style manuals professional academic editors are expected to know:
- American Medical Association (AMA) Manual of Style
- American Psychological Association (APA) Publication Manual
- Associated Press (AP) Stylebook
- The Bluebook
- Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS)
- Council of Science Editors (CSE) Manual
- Modern Language Association (MLA) Handbook
- US Government Publishing Office Style Manual
Style manuals are usually field-specific so familiarize yourself with the ones governing the types of manuscripts you hope to work on. For example, if you want to work with clients in the humanities and social sciences, make sure you have solid CMOS, APA, and MLA (and to a lesser extent, AP and the Bluebook) skills.
Additionally, get to know the authors who write the major style manuals, the presses that publish them, and the schedule and process by which changes to them get made. You can do this by subscribing to publishers’ and editors’ blogs, following individuals and presses on social media, and attending the editing and publishing conference sessions where upcoming and recent style manual changes are covered.
Participate in professional editor communities and associations
Just like academia, the editing industry has robust professional associations and communities that determine the industry’s shape, structure, and expectations. Joining these lets you meet and learn from fellow editors, keep track of changes in the editing and publishing industries, build connections that can turn into referrals for work, and shape the industry as well.
Attending regular editing conferences is a must to ensure you are up to date on changes in the editing and publishing fields (similar to why you attended scholarly conferences as an academic). Some of the key editing conferences include ACES Society for Editing, the Editorial Freelancers Association, Communication Central, Editors Canada, the Association of Earth Science Editors, the Council of Science Editors, and the American Medical Writers Association.
You obviously don’t need to go to all of the conferences (some are field-specific, for example), but when you’re starting out in an editing career, I recommend you try out as many as you can afford to get a feel for your new industry. After attending several, you’ll likely find your “regular conferences”—the ones you want to attend and/or present at every year, much the same way you did as a scholar.
Participate in publishing communities and associations
Professional editors, whether freelance, agency, or in-house, are a crucial part of the publishing industry. As a scholar, you became very familiar with the academic publishing industry from the author side of things when you wrote journal articles and books. Perhaps you also worked with presses as a journal editor or book series editor. But now you get to really dive into the industry side of publishing.
Set aside regular research time to learn the academic presses: both the university and commercial ones (and the differences between them); different publishers’ lists, audiences, and acquisitions processes; and the labor structure of presses (for instance, the different roles of acquisition editors, editorial directors, editorial associates, press directors, editorial production managers, etc.). Books, websites, and resources abound on this so you have a lot of great material to dig into.
Connect with publishing industry workers on social media, subscribe to publisher newsletters (most have specialized ones for specific lists, so you can keep up on the fields you edit in), attend publisher events, and introduce yourself to publishing professionals at conferences.
Learn the business of editing
There are several business models for professional academic editing, including being a freelancer for a publisher, agency, or individual authors (this is what I started out doing); running an editing agency (this is what I do now here at Ideas on Fire); and working in-house for a publisher. These all provide very different work lives and it’s important to figure out which one(s) are the best fit for your professional and personal needs.
For example, do you want to run a business? If not, freelance professional editing is definitely not for you but working for a publisher or agency might be. It’s tempting to see freelancing as the easy way into editing because it doesn’t require applying for a position with anyone. But being a freelancer means running an editing business and not everyone wants to do that or is good at it. Just hanging out your shingle and calling yourself a freelance editor will not yield clients or pay your bills.
Another thing to consider is how much of your time you want to spend actually editing. As a freelancer, you’ll only spend about 50 percent of your time editing. The rest will be spent on running a business (if you run an editing agency employing other editors, that percentage will probably be even lower). The business part of freelance editing entails learning about and taking care of pricing, city and national licensing, banking, taxes, file management, law, sales and marketing (these aren’t the same thing), contracts, accounting, client relations, project management, invoicing, networking, graphic design, web design and development, social media management, blogging, client onboarding and offboarding, and product/service development.
Working in-house for a publisher is a more traditional employment situation, where you apply for a position and are employed full- or part-time in a physical location (usually). It means a steady paycheck and sometimes benefits like health insurance. But if moving to the location of a publisher isn’t in the cards for you, freelancing might be a better option.
Taking the time to research these different types of academic editing careers means you’re better equipped to find the one(s) that you can best excel at and that fits your professional and personal needs.
A career as a professional academic editor is not for everyone, and certainly not right for every academic. But if you’re ready to make the leap from academia to an editorial career (or just exploring your options), editing is a great way to put your interdisciplinary training to work.
Want more help?
Introduction to Professional Academic Editing is an online, self-paced course for those who want to learn concrete skills, navigate professional networks, and put their scholarly training to work building an academic editing career.