The Best Academic Preparation for an Editorial Career

By Mark Nichol

I was painfully amused to find in a recent job listing the perpetuation of the absurd notion that a degree in English — or literature, for God’s sake — is the ideal preparation for work as a writer or editor.

The listing required candidates to have a degree in English or literature. Now, there can be some merit in having earned an English degree, but English majors do not necessary master composition, much less the finer points of grammar, syntax, usage, punctuation, style, and the other components of writing, and revision of assigned papers is of little use in acquiring editing skills.

I recall taking an English course in which the instructor spent most of every class period reading aloud — word by word — a manuscript he had written about grammar and asking students to identify the part of speech of every word. At the end of the term, despite this intensive analysis, I was no more knowledgeable about grammar than I had been at the beginning of the course. And few English majors endure this type of experience.

Nevertheless, they do receive some instruction in writing, but it is mostly holistic – how to evaluate an argument’s logic and validity and how to organize one’s thoughts in writing. But little guidance is offered in the subtler qualities I listed above.

A literature degree is even less useful; its basis is literary criticism, and though students write essays and term papers and theses, the focus is on dissecting the themes of literary works, not on developing coherence and clarity and conciseness.

English and literature courses do not teach one how to choose just the right word. They do not assist one in structuring strong, active sentences with specific nouns and vivid verbs. They do not help one build narratives. In short, though some English and literature majors may develop into great writers and/or editors, an English or literature major is of little use to would-be masters of the language.

On a related note, I am puzzled when I see job listings that require a degree in, say, economics or math. I’m lazy about laissez-faire, and I wouldn’t know a cosine from a stop sign. But I’ve edited scholarly books and textbooks in both subjects. I’ve worked on several science books, too, though I have only the gleanings of lifelong learning, rather than a degree in biology or physics or astronomy, to support me.

What academic preparation, then, should students — and employers — value?

Well, how about theater arts? That’s the degree I earned, and I’ve been gainfully employed in publishing and journalism since I retired from the stage more than a quarter century ago, soon after collecting that inestimably valuable diploma. (Trust me, though; I’ve experienced plenty of drama — not to mention farce and tragedy — in editorial working environments.)

But, seriously, folks, what prepared me for my career was, first, a natural facility for writing — a foundation that supported the edifice of practical experience. Even though I had no interest in journalism, I walked into my college’s student-newspaper office after my first day of classes and never looked back.

I learned to tell a story — writing is, at its fundamental level, nothing else than storytelling — producing over a hundred articles, reviews, and editorials, and editing hundreds more as I took on steadily increasing responsibility. (And when I did take journalism courses, when students were assigned to write articles, I handed in pieces I had already written for the school paper.)

Based on my experience, if there’s any degree employers should value when hiring for a writing or editing job, it’s one in journalism, or mass communication. But I didn’t earn one, and I know people who did earn one who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a keyboard. The most useful predictor of a job candidate’s ability is how well he or she writes on an assigned topic or edits a brief manuscript provided as part of the application process. Possession of a certain degree, by comparison — no matter where it was earned — is nearly useless. (And job history isn’t much more pertinent — but that’s another topic altogether.)

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18 Responses to “The Best Academic Preparation for an Editorial Career”

  • Leah McClellan

    Oh my. I’m laughing really hard here. First, I’m laughing because I’m 99.9% sure this is written to push some buttons and get a discussion going. If not, then I’m giving you more credit that I should (I read a lot here though I’ve only commented once or twice).

    Second, yep. BA and MA here in ACK! English! And, God help us, a concentration in literature (constant writing in response to the literature and non-stop grammar correction in those papers). Minors in history and psychology (loads of writing). Almost a minor (by number of credits earned) in creative writing with a few journalism classes thrown in. And more linguistics classes than I care to remember (as in massive overloads of grammar and sentence diagramming).

    By the time I wrote my 186-page master’s thesis–yes, literary criticism–I’d mastered a lot. My writing had finally smoothed out and I was finding my voice. But plenty can be said for the experience of writing for a living and putting that to work later…and more learning, of course.

    I think your generalizations (they’re so far off I’m almost sure you’re playing around for the sake of argument) about what an English major consists of and what is learned are sure to start a discussion. Universities vary, of course. Good luck with that 🙂

    What I got most from my education is so much knowledge–and the confidence that goes with it–that I don’t bother to correct errors in blog posts. I’ll leave that up to the pilkunnussijat who will, I’m sure, take care of their business here 🙂

  • Caesar

    You placed English into a very broad category. Just as there exist different specialities in Journalism, there too exist different specialties in English. Let me elucidate for you. My degree is in English but my focus is in Creative Writing. The discipline of creative writing is fragmented. Generally people think of some emotional individual lamenting his or her problems in bad poetry, or in verse that makes a clique-centered attempt to sound authentic and sophisticated when composing about the leaves of a tree; it is a damn tree, 99% of people will read it and never make the impossible cognitive creative leap to know the author was attempting to illustrate their lost virginity. As a realist I find it easier and more creative to simply say, “Losing my virginity was like eating a Lay’s potato chip, once I popped I just couldn’t stop”. Simple, witty, humorous and effective. I would be able to leave proud knowing I wasted only a few precious seconds on the dirt clock. However, I digress. My point is that the other side of creative writing is a brutal regimen of applied studies in Business, Technical, Report, Fiction, and Nonfiction creative and functional forms of writing. Studies also include Publishing, Editorial Design, Brand Marketing, and Submission Process – synopses, verbal pitch, agents, niche, market, etc. I could go on for a stretch talking about APA and MLA style, or the merits if the Chicago Manual of Style being a publishing standard, or about having to write, short, short shorts, narrative blurbs, novellas, and novel length works. I could wear the tip of my index finger down to a nub talking about Creative Writing pedagogy merits and opportunities on my phone. I am pretty confident I could lay out a source riddled treatise illustrating the large focus on knowing audience, being adaptable, using powerful language, and the benefit of being succinct (which here I am not). I believe it is obvious that you have an extensive knowledge of Journalism, but one writer to another, would you not agree that you grow knowledge of our craft more in seizing unique opportunities to observe, compile, and report on different disciplines versus seizing opportunity to further a social myth and stereotype? You could be a voice of change. You are in position to elevate understanding and broaden awareness, thus providing opportunity to countless writers regardless of discipline. The world has changed a lot in my 35 years of life. Do you know that most kids today don’t even know what the Dewey Decimal System is, have never seen a true library, or have no idea of the thrill of true discovery when reading a book that used sources showing new and hidden paths?

    Today things are faster and immediate. The smell of a book is now the smell of plastic or ozone streaming chrome. People don’t have time to enjoy language anymore, it must be in a150 characters or less. We have traded creativity for quips and expedience. We reward the minimalist with praise and support and demonize the verbose smithy of words whose twisting syntaxes tell us about the world and ourselves. I guess in that regard I could be cynical and speak of the journalist as a filter through which Ko real humanity passes. However that is unfair; We enjoy bite sized messages that keep enough brevity to inform the mind but not the senses. You are an artist in my craft and in your knowledge and experience you bring credit and guidance to others seeking a similar path. However, allow me this parting advice… Guidance given in sincere knowledge over true bias is always better received.

  • Caesar

    A note… I HATE PREDICTIVE TEXT! Yes I have punctuation errors and typos, but considering that I typed my message on the small screen of an HTC One, at 5AM, with only my index finger and two visible lines of text, I should get a free iPad! No… Well you can’t blame a guy for trying (PS Apple I am available for marketing and I will do my own stunts). Anyhow mea culpa mea maxima culpa on my errors. Now I must away to the potty, one sneeze and my wife will beat me with an eBook Reader for making water on the carpet. Love, Peace, Chicken Grease!

  • Tim Wilson

    I must say I’ve always been interested to know how people get into editing. I’ve read too many books where people were clearly not qualified for a job in editing if you know what I mean.

  • Will

    “…writing is, at its fundamental level, nothing else than storytelling…”

    Love it.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I agree wholeheartedly that a degree in journalism is an excellent place to start if one wants to write well; however, given the recent examples of an NPR journalist who referred to a lectern as a podium and the BBC journalist who referred to an interpreter as a translator, journalism is just the first step.
    One must write and nowadays that’s not an easy craft to develop, much less master. One must learn to argue, i.e., pull the other guy’s arguments apart and replace them with your own. Learn to debate. Read a lot so that you have something, good or bad, on which to base your own writing. Do whatever you can to increase your vocabulary. Master rhetoric. Master argumentation. Master English grammar. Train as a lawyer, but, unless you’ve lost a political bet, don’t become a lawyer!
    From my experience, there’s no better way to further one’s ability to write well than to learn another language. German was a godsend to me. Filled with many, many English cognates, German forced me to understand English sentence structure so that I could understand German sentence structure, i.e., if you don’t fully understand miles, yards, feet, and inches, how in the hell are you going to deal with the metric system?
    It’s practice, practice, practice. Take creative writing courses in all genres, e.g., short story, novel, screenplay, poetry, play, essay, etc. Immerse yourself in the really good writers, e.g., Orwell, Conrad, Joyce, Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Tolstoy, Twain, Melville, Dickens, Austen, Kafka, and Dostoevsky.
    Read about writing. Start with Edwin Newman. Above all, don’t treat English as if it will come naturally to you, like breathing. You’re hardly an expert communicator, much less a writer, simply because you grew up in the U.S., got good marks in school, and can converse with family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Making yourself understood is not enough; you must inspire.

  • Beverly Bailey

    I love the two comments above. I, too, have a MA in English, have taught college freshman comp and lit for many years and love what the education and experience have contributed to my understanding of how one’s thoughts may or may not communicate well to a reader.

    I was fortunate to have many graduate school professors who challenged me to write more clearly, to master syntax, understand style, and value the best word to express meaning, even if it took me hours to comb through a thesaurus and dictionary to do so.

    Along with those two components, I’m an avid reader, learner, and writer. Some of my most enjoyable pleasures are revising, manipulating thought in sentences and paragraphs, turning a poem, memoir story, essay, short fiction, etc., inside out, upside down, just for satisfaction of seeing how I can best express my ideas well to a reader.

    Most of all, however, a writer must have a passion to work tirelessly at writing well, realizing the art of written communication is a lifelong learning delight.

  • Anne

    What are the chances of succeeding in the field with no degree at all?

  • Nkadzi

    My question, how then does one cultivate the art of editing?

  • Nadya Pestova

    I completely agree with the writer. An English or a Literature degrees are very general. They don’t meet the job requirements for an editor.
    I’m a Russian woman who lives in the U.S.A. In Russia I received a MA in the Russian language and Literature. Occasionally, I write articles for one Russian local newspaper in Russia. I don’t have a lot of difficulties in writing. But I always received some corrections because I am not familiar with newspaper writing style.

    In Russia a lot of journalists and newspaper editors have Russian and Literature degrees. You can receive a Journalism degree only in big cities. And such faculties have a large entry. So, you must have very good school grades.

    My friend of mine works in a newspaper as a web editor and a journalist. But her degree is TV Journalism. She experienced a lot of problems at first.

  • Kate

    This article has come at exactly the right time. Just yesterday I was discussing with my grandma how I’m shifting what I want to do when I grow up from being a writer to a book editor (I’m 16). She was curious as to what sort of education was required for that, and I had no clue what to tell her. Thanks for your insight, it’s exactly what I needed to take into consideration!

  • Sarah Perkins

    I’m not at all convinced that most degrees prepare for any particular career. With a few exceptions like medicine, where the students are prepared for the next step in the process, a degree broadens the mind & deepens the study skills. Both equip people for what life brings, but the degree can’t be a means to hit the ground running. The world just isn’t that simple. You just have to get out there and do it, whatever it is.

    One of the main practical valuess of a degree is being ahead in the filtering process.

  • vickie johnstone

    Hi,
    I have an O Level in English Literature, an O Level in English Language, an A Level in English Literature, a BA in English and a Diploma in Publishing Production. I’ve been working as a layout sub editor and production editor on magazines for about 17 years. You need qualifications like these to get a job in the publishing industry in the UK. I’ve been freelancing as an editor for a year now.
    Cheers
    Vickie Johnstone

  • Robin Henry

    Great article. It reminded me of the time I first became an educational manager in a Technical and Further Education College and got involved in teacher recruitment. My superiors insisted that I get a one A4 page written article from each teacher applicant. I was horrified. I told my superiors they would be insulted to think that we needed to test their writing skills, after all, they were teachers. Within a very short time indeed, I realised that my superiors were right … many of the applicants with degrees in education, teaching etc could hardly string together a complex sentence.

    Then there was the time a lovely 30 something year-old woman who had just obtained a Bachelor of Communication degree asked me if I could show her how to write a cover letter for a job application.

    Not all is as it should be.

  • pattersonbl

    I can’t speak for all hiring officials, but here is how the hiring officials/managers at my facility (I’ll refer to as “mgrs”) view people with degrees. When mgrs see that an applicant has a BS degree or higher, that applicant automatically goes to top of list for consideration. The mgrs see people holding degrees as people that are willing to work hard, have determination, are able to set a goal and meet it, e.g., they finish what they start, and yes – earning a degree does give the applicant a certain number of years in experience (4 year degree is made equal to having worked 2 years on-the-job). Of course to get the 4-yr degree being equivalent to 2-yrs work experience, the degree does need to be in the field that they are applying for the job in.,,

  • Mark Nichol

    Leah:

    Thanks for the word of the day — now I can describe what I do for a living in one word.

    It’s true that I did not earn an English degree, but I earned an English minor, and in none of my English classes or journalism classes (I also earned a journalism minor), nor in any other classes, did I receive much instruction or feedback, if any, about writing. And, yes, certainly, which degree program you experience has a lot to do with it. If you received excellent preparation for a writing or editing career from your English degree, I believe that you are in the minority.

  • Marianne Peters

    I have both a BA and an MA in English and have had a career teaching college-level literature and composition along with my work as a hired pen. What my work in academic English gave me was something more subtle than recognizing pronoun case or writing “short and tight.” It gave me depth. What I bring to my clients is years of immersion in language, a capacity for its use–whether I’m writing copy, composing a tweet or helping someone explain his or her work on a resume–and a respect for the meaning of words. Other jobs have given me practical experience. Other short courses have taught me specific skills. Study of other languages gave me insight into the grammar and mechanics of my own. But my creativity and success as a writer and editor depend on the deep well of work I have done in academic English.

  • Mark Nichol

    Tim:

    Yes, ever since the quality of writing and editing in books began to erode about twenty years ago as the industry began to consolidate and contract and many publishing companies made some poor choices about priorities, I’ve had difficulty enjoying books. Some publishers still care about quality, and some don’t.

    Sometimes, the quality of developmental editing and/or copyediting is the problem (one factor: by the time a managing editor realizes that the copy editor he or she hired for the first time is not competent, it’s too late to reedit the manuscript), but sometimes it’s the lack altogether of these essential stages in the publishing process.

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