Editing: The Accidental Profession


For the past 20 years or so, I have been in publishing, first as an acquisitions editor in science and technology, then as a publisher. (That's just a title you're given in the publishing industry, usually with a tiny pay increase, to encourage you to feel more important/valued.) I'm now the president and publisher of my own small publishing company.

Many years ago, I found myself agreeing with a colleague in educational publishing, who, in the midst of a conversation about what diverse backgrounds we all had, described publishing as "the accidental profession." Few people start out saying, "I plan to be in publishing when I grow up," or "I yearn to have a career as an editor." Yet, it is a field that many well-educated people I know wandered into because of interests that simply channeled them into it.

Being in science is probably no more likely to take one into publishing than studying history or English is, but it's probably no less likely to be a background for succeeding in the industry. Many individuals I know with master's and Ph.D. degrees in a science have had successful and satisfying careers in publishing, mainly educational publishing.

How does one get "there" and what does it entail? Those of us in publishing have taken many different paths. For example, upon my arrival in Canada in 1969 (after completing a master's degree in zoology at the University of Kansas), I took two positions simultaneously-one as a part-time teaching assistant in the zoology department at the University of Toronto, the other as part-time editorial assistant for a professor who was the editor of an academic journal. Shortly thereafter, an advertisement in the local newspaper said that a major international publishing company needed a science and technology acquisitions editor in its Canadian offices for high school and college publications. On a lark, I applied, thinking it quite unlikely that someone with no connections in a country would get such a position.

I should admit that as a high school biology and chemistry teacher in Iowa and Connecticut before going to graduate school, I loved producing my own materials, and I knew a physics teacher who decided to go to New York to be an editor for a publishing company. I had some inkling of what educational publishing was all about. I got the position, and there has been no turning back.

So, what have I been up to since? Well, when most people think of publishers, it is assumed we deal with perfecting authors' manuscripts: correcting comma faults, fixing spelling errors, etc. Copy editors do precisely these tasks, which are so critical to good publishing. I believe many of us would like to see better representations of that skill in much of what we read today. However, positions in editorial/publishing divisions are certainly not limited to copy editing by any means, particularly for people with knowledge in specific academic areas.

In my experience, most editors with strong science backgrounds prefer developmental editing. The distinction between copy editing and developmental editing is important. Most publishing companies are now very specific about exactly what is to be done with manuscripts, and you will need to know what they're talking about. Editorial organizations such as the Editors' Association of Canada have lists of definitions available; some of the more common editing jobs are listed in the sidebar.

Copy Editing

Novices interested in copy editing are well advised to take a few courses in order to "break in." Book publishers, editors' organizations, and many universities offer courses on "how to copy edit" or "seven steps to editing," as well as courses on book and magazine editing. These sessions are often scheduled in the evenings and on weekends. I suggest you take two or three of these short, inexpensive courses because "breaking in" is difficult. You'll be vying for positions that are attractive to many candidates with masters' degrees and/or Ph.D.s. It helps to show that you have been motivated enough to train yourself specifically for the industry.

Developmental Editor

In addition to good writing skills, developmental editors require diplomatic skills, respect for authors as they work to "get it right," and the ability to visualize a framework to help authors shape their writing. Few first-time authors need no editing, and most learn from experience when an editor helps to improve their writing in a kind and considerate manner.

Acquisitions Editor

Acquisitions editors generally decide which projects have potential and present convincing evidence that they would be financially viable projects to publish. Acquisition editors also seek out and contract with authors, and they may hire developmental editors and copy editors to see projects through.

I left the New York company after 11 years and began my own small company, specializing in resources for teachers in science, mathematics, and technology, and producing occasional titles in popular science, psychology, and health. Four years ago, however, I was asked by large company to plan a new Canadian program for grades 7-12 science (grades 7-10 mixed science, and grades 11-12 biology, chemistry, and physics). At that time, the company had no science program in Canada, so this was a very interesting opportunity for me.

I took a leave of absence from my own company. In my new role as acquisitions editor, I scrambled to find good authors, developmental editors, copy editors, and reviewers who could help me produce excellent resources in a short time. For the lower-grade levels, good, experienced editors without a science background were ideal hires, as long as an author was a fairly strong writer. That is not always the case, though. Many excellent high school teachers and college/university professors teach and/or do research well, but they are abysmal writers. For some projects, it is worth putting up with less-than-excellent writing for the authors' wonderful ideas on how to approach a particular topic or sometimes, in all honesty, the political clout they may have. That's where the developmental editor comes on the scene.

For the upper levels (grades 11-12) of the science program we were developing, I hired primarily master's and Ph.D. graduates, most of whom had no previous editorial experience. It was a challenge for them, because they had to juggle a host of considerations as a part of their role of helping their authors write effectively. For example, they had to monitor such issues as racial, gender, socioeconomic, and ethnic biases in the text and photographs, plus lab safety concerns. Of course, there were all the other factors that make written material "work," such as high-interest level, clear, logical writing, and--most importantly--an ability to sit in the student's chair.

I would like to leave you with a closing thought. I experience immense satisfaction from watching and shepherding an excellent resource from mere idea all the way to finished product. You don't have the immediacy or the thrill of teaching, where you can see a student suddenly "get it." However, knowing that you have provided students and their teachers or professors with a strong, challenging resource for information and ideas is a source of pride and gives one a feeling to cherish.

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