Interview: How to Become an Editor

 

Looking for jobs for English majors? This is an interview about how to become an editor with Benjamin Lukoff, a former Music Editor at Amazon.com and published author. We talk about how to get your first editing job and discuss some ways that Ph.D.’s, M.A.’s and other English majors can get jobs in editing.

Find out how to become an editor.  This is my interview with Benjamin Lukoff, former Amazon.com Music Editor, and published author.

My interview with Benjamin Lukoff, author of Seattle: Then and Now Last Sunday, I talked with Benjamin Lukoff, a professional writer and editor based in Seattle, about how to get your first job in editing.

In this interview you will learn:

  • How to gain experience in editing, even if you don’t have any contacts
  • Why blogging can help you land your first editing job
  • Is editing and publishing a good alternative career path for Ph.D.’s or M.A.’s?
  • The basics of online writing
  • What kind of experience/internships are needed to break into editing

Benjamin has worked as a Music Editor for Amazon.com, an indexer on the famous Microsoft Encarta project, and now works as an editor for Seattle Children’s Hospital.  In 2009, he was asked to write [amazon_link id=”1607101319″ target=”_blank” ]Seattle: Then and Now[/amazon_link], an international book series that presents archival photos of urban landscapes and contrasts them with contemporary changes.

Before becoming an editor, he received a B.A. from the University of Washington, and a M.A. in English linguistics from University College, London.

This is a transcript of my phone conversation with Benjamin:

Part 1: How Benjamin Lukoff got his first job in editing

You have a Master’s in English Linguistics from a top program.  Did you know right away that you wanted to become an editor? Or were you considering an academic career?

I guess the reason why I did the Master’s was to test the academic waters. I was always interested in academe, but I wasn’t one of these people who was like this is my path, this is what I’m going to do.

My father, actually, had been a professor at the University of Washington, but he never encouraged me to follow in his footsteps.

I don’t really recall at what point in the program I knew I wasn’t going to go for the doctorate. But after I received my M.A. I thought about going back to school for a library program that was offered at the University of Washington. I was admitted to the program, but I decided not to do that.

I guess I didn’t go for more education after my M.A. because I felt that I would be postponing–I hate to use this cliche–but postponing the real world.  I thought that it would be better to work at least for a few years.

What was your first job in editing?

I guess my first real job was as an indexer on Encarta, Microsoft’s encyclopedia project. I did that between my undergrad and graduate degree. I had also done a summer stint at the Library of Congress as a student.

Encarta was a cutting edge product at the time. Microsoft was pretty excited about it.

It was.  They only just discontinued it in 2008.

Do you think your summer stint at the Library of Congress helped you get that first editing job?

The Library of Congress job was so short. I think it might have looked good on the resume. But I’m not sure that the experience itself helped.

I couldn’t say that working in the Library of Congress, or even my undergraduate degree at the University of Washington necessarily helped as far as the actual skills you need to develop to become an editor. It wasn’t vocational education.

But I think what helped was the credential and resume items. The regimented, structured university environment can be looked upon as good training for the work world.

How did you become a Music Editor at Amazon.com?

After my stint at Encarta, I found a job at Amazon.com through an ad in the classifieds. I’m probably the last person who found a job at Amazon.com through a physical newspaper. But I started out as a proof-reader, then moved up to copy-editor, and then became lead copy-editor.

I finished my time at Amazon as an editor in the music department.  That last bit was about two and half years.

What was it like being a Music Editor at Amazon?

I’ve always been a music fan and music collector, so it was great.  In many ways, a dream job.

When I was a teenager I thought working in a record store would be the greatest thing in the world.  If not a record store, then a music magazine.

Obviously, it wasn’t quite like that.  Amazon was an e-commerce site, but it was great.

We were selling music, getting to write about music, and getting to work with professional reviewers who had been in the business for 20 or 30 years. I got to meet a lot of people, interview a lot of people, made some great contacts and great friends.

Do you think someone in a Master’s or Ph.D. program should be looking for things like internships in libraries? Or other practical things that might help them get them land their first editing job?

I think that it is always good to be able to point to something other than just what’s on the educational section of your resume.

Obviously, if you have made it through a Master’s program in the humanities that can tell people something about who you are.

But if I were an employer it would make me more favorably disposed to someone if I could see some experience outside of the academy.

It’s different with me in the sense that I’ve been through some graduate school myself and I know people who have done it, and so it might actually mean something more to me.

But for other hiring managers, depending on what sort of job, your humanities graduate degree might not mean as much.

So I think it is always good to have some sort of concrete experience to point towards.  Even it is only volunteer.  For example, try to volunteer on a student journal.  Small things like that can make a big difference and help you land an entry job as a proof-reader.

So don’t make the dumb mistake like me of graduating with zero practical writing experience.  Don’t just rely on your M.A. or Ph.D. in English to get a job.  Instead, show employers some practical skills.

Part 2: Questions from readers about editing jobs

We now have some questions about how to get jobs in editing sent by some selloutyoursoul.com’s readers.

Q.) Recent Ph.D. asks:

What kinds of writing/editing positions should someone with a Ph.D. in English be looking for?

My feeling is that, without industry experience, we should be looking for entry level positions, but I’ve heard that we come across as overqualified for these yet not qualified for anything else. Is there any truth to this rumor?

If so, what’s the best point of entry? And what do the people hiring for these positions want to hear from someone with a recent Ph.D. and a lot of teaching experience but not much else?

A.)Benjamin: I don’t think I’d disqualify someone applying for an entry-level position solely because they possessed an advanced degree. But I wouldn’t let that degree substitute for some sort of experience, either.

Q. ) Eliza asks:

I would love to hear more about the commercial side of editing.  Is there money to be made as an editor if one leaves the world of publishing houses behind and jumps into the corporate world?

A. Benjamin: I can’t answer this definitively, but my sense is yes – you’ll do better, financially, outside of publishing.

Q. Anne asks:

My question has to do with the market for editors. I’ve been led to believe that “breaking into editing” is not much easier than breaking into the tenure track. Is this true? My degrees aren’t even in English, they’re in foreign languages. (And not ones as useful as Spanish or French, or Chinese or Arabic for that matter.)

A. Benjamin: Breaking into editing these days is pretty hard, but not, as far as I hear, as hard as it is to break into the tenure track. And actually, having a degree in a foreign language, or in foreign languages, might be looked upon as a plus (as long as, of course, you can demonstrate you know what you’re doing in English)!

Q. Anna asks:

Is having a Masters in English a liability [for editing jobs]?  I’d like to know before I get one…

Benjamin: Not a liability as far as I’m concerned, and, in fact, it did seem to be a plus for me when my M.A. was newly minted.

Thanks everyone for those questions.

Part 3: Blogging, online editing skills, and 6 simple things to help you land your first editing job

You got your book deal through a blog you wrote.  Tell me about that.

I had a history blog which I don’t write anymore, but apparently somehow the publishers found this blog I wrote.  I don’t know if they were doing a search or how they found me–I hadn’t actually posted anything for about 4 months–but that was what the publishers found and contacted me on that basis and offered me the book opportunity.

Your book is [amazon_link id=”1607101319″ target=”_blank” ]Seattle: Then and Now[/amazon_link].  This is an international series right? I think I’ve seen a version for Vancouver.

Most of the books in the series deal with cities in the States, but I know there is one for Vancouver and one for London.  It’s a series and the general idea is archival, historical photographs presented alongside modern photographs from, as close as possible, the same vantage point.

So my job was to select old photos, describe the location of the original photographer as well as I could so that the modern-day photographer could get as close to that position and take a modern shot. And then once I had both I would write captions for each.

But as the publisher said, “it is a photography book with words.  Not a history book that happens to have pictures.”

At the same time, the captions aren’t one liners; they are reasonably substantial and I tried to keep a diverse slate of photos from the popular spots (like the downtown area) and some less familiar areas.

So do you think M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s looking for editing jobs should be writing blogs?

Yeah, that would make you look much better for a potential employer. Have a personal website.  Maybe run a little blog.

What are some of the new essential skills that new editors should train themselves in?

Every editor should have some web writing experience.

Did you learn any web writing skills at university?

No. I picked them up along the way.

I learned how to work a content management system on the job.  I learned about SEO (search engine optimization) on the job.

What’s the most important thing editors in the 21st century need to know?

The most important thing for people to know about editing for the web is this: keep in mind that people do tend to read things differently on the web than they do in print.

And I’m not talking about short attention span of internet users who don’t want to think.

It’s easier on the eyes to read shorter paragraphs.  Links are important.  The web is much more context rich and you have to remember that people have to read it on a screen.

And if you have a long piece then you might consider breaking it into shorter sections.  Not dumbing it down.  But breaking it down into a few separate sections.

I find it hard personally on the eyes to read long form online or book length content in digital forms.  E-readers like the Kindle are different, but if you are publishing on a website or blog you have to keep in mind your audience and the medium they are reading it on, and just the context of the internet.

If you don’t have any publications other than academic journals, would you recommend grads to publish a few little things online? Just to show that they can write more than just scholarly works?

Yeah, definitely.  You don’t have to go nuts, but a few little online pieces shows that you understand the basics of writing for the web.

If you are trying to get work in the nonacademic world,  and you have your Ph.D. or Master’s and you don’t have any other experience, you need to show that you have some writing experience outside of academe.

Are you glad you stopped at a M.A.? Do you regret not doing a Ph.D. in the humanities?

The studying part sounded great, but for me it was more about what came after the dissertation.  For me, even then, ten years ago, it was the academic job market part.  I didn’t even think about not getting tenure.  I was more worried about where I would end up.  Will I be able to get a good position and end somewhere I wanted to be?

At the time, I just wasn’t sure I wanted to enter the academic job market.  If you aren’t a superstar, you aren’t going to be able to write your own ticket.  I was worried I might get tenure in a place I really didn’t want to be in.

In recent years, I guess it has been the case of people not getting tenure at all.

But I’m glad I stopped at a M.A.  And I do really enjoy the writing I’ve been doing.  But I would love to study for ever.  I just couldn’t really justify it.

Editing isn’t a cushy job like being a tenured professor in terms of stability.  Do you worry about the stability of your field?

Well, the editorial/publishing job market isn’t the healthiest in the world. But at least, with my skills and experience, I feel that I do have a place in it.

I’m happy with the path I took.

Last question.  What’s one thing readers can do today, after reading this interview, that would help them on their way to becoming editors?

The skills are going to be varied, but reference books are great to have. I think everyone should have a copy of the The [amazon_link id=”0226104206″ target=”_blank” ]Chicago Manual of Style[/amazon_link]and other reference books like that.

But if we are talking about someone with no work experience, just trying to get any sort of experience that you can point to on your resume.  For example, while I was at Amazon I started doing newsletter copyediting and lay-out for our local chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

It’s just good to have something, even if it is just a volunteer position.  Then you can say I’ve done this, here’s where you can see it.  This is just so employers don’t have to trust you that you can do the job, but you can point to something concrete on your resume.

And the volunteer organizations are generally happy to have the help and then you will have some experience in editing and publishing.

So two things. Buy a copy of the [amazon_link id=”0226104206″ target=”_blank” ]Chicago Manual of Style[/amazon_link]and get something, anything on your resume in addition to your education credentials.

Yes.

I’ve given Anna a free copy of your book, which I will send to her.  If anyone else is interested browse [amazon_link id=”1607101319″ target=”_blank” ]Seattle: Then and Now[/amazon_link] here.

For more Benjamin, check out his articles at Crosscut. For professional contacts, visit his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter (@lukobe).

Get a job as an English major! Here’s an action list:

  1. Buy the [amazon_link id=”0226104206″ target=”_blank” ]Chicago Manual of Style[/amazon_link].
  2. Start a blog.  Check out WordPress.com, an easy beginner blogging platform.
  3. Publish something online.  Check out jobs for content writing or pitch a small piece to an online magazine.
  4. Volunteer for a job.  Contact a charity and see if they want an editor for their newsletter.  Offer to write their newsletter.  Offer to edit their website.
  5. Learn the basics of SEO and web-writing.
  6. Train yourself in a content management system.  The CMS for Dummies is a a great place to start.

Here’s a few additional resources on editing jobs:

“How to Get Freelance Editing Jobs: An Interview with Michael LaRocca”

http://crazyindustry.blogspot.com/2005/03/becoming-editor.html

http://www.editors.ca/join_eac/be_an_editor/so.html

http://www.ehow.com/how_5949_become-copy-editor.html




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