Photo by Bill Selak, Creative Commons, via Flickr.
"What's the opportunity here?"
This is the phrase that was playing in my mind after a conversation with my daughter, who is, in her own right, a talented writer and editor -- with the possibility to also become a publisher in the future.
At age eighteen, though, she will not be invited (by most of the world) to do any of these things in a significant way that could financially support her. And there is college to think of, first, though we've discussed the unusual cases of successful dropouts who've changed the world (and made their living doing so).
She's not particularly interested in taking the "unusual" route, so this is her lot: she must pay her dues before she can viably pursue an editorial profession. Unfortunately, paying one's dues is not a terribly motivating approach. One could even say it's downright depressing. Fair enough. But when we are done being depressed (or maybe in the midst of it), it's helpful to ask, "What's the opportunity here?"
In a recent discussion with my daughter, I realized things needed reframing. College feels like a holding pattern to her, or just a form of paying dues. I don't think she's alone in this; plenty of college students aren't entirely sure what the connection is between college and their hopes and dreams, or their everyday lives as they wish to live them. What to do?
I suggested picturing the experience as a four-year writer-in-residence type of opportunity or an extended conference, but maybe even better, because she'll get 4+ months off -- a few times over -- during several of those years.
"Let's make a business plan," I suggested. Then I started thinking -- what in the world should go in it? Figuring the elements of the plan would be the fun part, at least I hoped. As a publisher myself, who might want to hire someone like her after graduation, I'd probably add at least these eight goals towards the business of becoming an editor...
8 Ways to Use Your College Experience to Become a Great Editor
1. Treat your classes like writing workshops, whether or not they are. In my daughter's case, she's a philosophy major. What would it look like to sit down with each assignment not so much as a student of Plato (or Dr. So-and-So), but as someone whose goal it is to have a higher level of writing skills than the next guy and a swift, effective ability to revise?
2. Try to meet people who are good writers and thinkers. Score, on the thinking, if you're in the philosophy major. Are you willing to work? Consider applying to be a TA, especially if the role includes reviewing student papers. If you discover someone who's clearly a good writer, keep her in mind as someone you could help to eventually publish. You want to be an editor, after all. You've got to start thinking about people who may have a writing future (did you know that Dr. Seuss got a big break from a former college buddy who had become an editor?). You might also decide to take some classes in the writing department, even if you yourself aren't so interested in such classes. These are future writers! Or at least they're demonstrating a desire to be. What can you learn from listening to their hopes (and seeing where their struggles lie)? How can you hone your editorial advisement skills by being in their midst?
3. In your spare time, keep reading at those fan fiction sites. You love it, and you might meet someone you'd like to publish someday. It also keeps you thinking about what makes good writing. Well, and you love it. Editors should always be reading something they love.
4. For the sake of both skill and credibility, try to get your own writing published, taking a "ladder" approach (if you have to start with the college lit journal, start there, and keep reaching upwards towards more challenging markets). Trying to get published will keep you kinder to writers, as you'll remember what it's like to be submitting work, receiving feedback, and having your writing sometimes rejected. The summer might be a perfect time to concentrate on writing and submitting articles, stories, and poems. During the college year, you could go an alternate route and see if there are any departments that might need copy writing or proofreading services. This gets you doing light editorial work on a professional level, in an environment you don't have to go far to find.
5. Discover and develop the tools to be organized (like Workflowy and Todoist, for example). Of course, the demands of college make this an optimal goal far before graduation, and there is ample occasion for practice. As for being an editor, the best ones are not people a publisher has to follow around and keep tabs on. (Take it from me, a publisher.) Also, most publications or book projects have strong deadlines and milestones. Being able to work in such a time-sensitive context is vital. (Not sure you can deal with deadlines? Then it's time to be a famous writer who publishers will give a little grace to. But first you'll have to... pay your writing dues.)
6. Learn diplomacy. Writers are sensitive about their work, or can be. Think about this: which teachers do you enjoy getting feedback about your work from and why? Who disappoints you and why? One is the better "editor," and one is the worse. One may be diplomatic and one may be blunt. One may be useless in giving you insight and one may be right on. What makes the difference? How can this tutor you as you look to your own ways of giving feedback about writing? (Understandably, the problem with some teachers is they simply think of themselves as evaluators and graders. This is unfortunate. But you can still learn from their style -- and remember that working with a writer is also a form of "grading" or "evaluating," because you will have the power to publish them or not. The key is in how feedback is given -- diplomacy desired! -- and whether it helps a writer grow and make their work better or, if you must hand out a rejection, whether a writer gets to walk away with her heart intact.)
7. Read widely, across genres and subjects. Do you have to take "core" classes? See them as chances to accomplish this and explore ideas, facts, and works you might not otherwise have come across. Reading widely will make you a more knowledgeable editor who can handle a variety of projects (plus, it can make you and your own writing more interesting; my daughter, who has read Socrates for the philosophy major is pretty sure that Rowling's read him too and modeled some of Dumbledore's ideas on his).
8. Develop an understanding of the publishing process (including marketing, even if you have no intentions whatsoever of being in the marketing department), because as an editor you'll need an eye for the marketing "angle" of a work-in-progress or a completed work you wish to acquire. You'll also need to see which writers and authors have the kinds of marketing skills you'll find valuable as an editor (and maybe a future publisher). And, to some extent, you'll be involved in marketing the works you publish, if only in side-door ways. You can develop a marketing perspective by taking a class in the subject or being involved with a college publication that includes marketing as part of what you do. Interning with a publisher can help you learn about other aspects of the publishing process. And, simply reading in the industry can help you get a view of what it takes across the board to be a publisher (be sure to read Jane Friedman and Publishers Weekly, for instance). It's okay if you'd rather stick with being an editor for the duration of your professional future, but you'll be a more valuable editor if you understand the workings of publishing beyond just your particular job.
The End of the Matter
These are just some of the college goals (opportunities) a young editor-hopeful like my daughter might have. To look towards being a publisher someday is an even bigger goal. And the question -- across a variety of situations that will arise -- stands, "What's the opportunity here?"
After a recent experience with my own publishing business, where a 3rd-party technology failure caused a big loss for us, I posed the opportunity question to myself. It seemed... only fair, given that I wanted my daughter to think on the question for her own circumstances. At first, I answered in the negative. "There is no opportunity here." Which is exactly how I felt after this event I had no control over.
Then I decided that, if nothing else, it was an opportunity to exercise faith in the long-term efforts of my business (and a reminder to never put all your eggs in one basket). In a roundabout way, it also spurred me to write this article. Which you can see was an opportunity -- if not for me, then hopefully for a young editor to be.
This is a modified reprint of a post that first ran at Tweetspeak Poetry: Letters to a Young Editor: How to Use College the Best Way You Can.