Career Overview: Editorial and Writing

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Although many of us are writers and editors in our everyday life-correcting the spelling on a memo, questioning the insight of a newspaper reporter, writing emails-not everyone is suited to turning communication into a career. But the field is perfect for you if you possess an ongoing engagement with language and a keen desire to communicate ideas to people effectively and efficiently. Careers in this industry vary widely: The subject, length, and style of what you write or edit are variables that depend on where you work and the position you've chosen.

What You'll Do
Writers tell stories. Business writers tell stories about companies and their management teams, organizational structures, and economic successes and failures. Feature writers tell stories about celebrities, movies, and people doing different, sometimes unusual, things. Copywriters use language to convey a story about the benefits of a brand or product. Writing almost always requires research or knowledge about a particular subject. While many writers start out as generalists, in the course of reporting or writing a story, they must become experts.

Editors often start out as writers, and in many cases their role involves substantial writing. However, their role also bridges the space between writer and publication. They help writers craft stories, make sure writers adhere to style guidelines and rules of grammar, and ensure that every article is suitable for a particular publication. Editors straddle management and production, often managing writers and budgets, setting deadlines, scheduling what will run and when, and enforcing general editorial standards of quality.

Varieties of Opportunity
Editorial and writing careers span industries. Advertising agencies hire copywriters to create compelling copy that will sell readers on a brand. PR agencies use writers to create press releases, write annual reports, draft speeches, and create op-eds (opinion pieces that PR firms try to "place" in newspapers to reach target groups). Computer software and hardware companies use technical writers and editors to develop documentation and technical information on software and hardware products.

Who Does Well
Editors and writers need to have a strong command of language. You'll need to understand its rules-and when to break them. Writers and editors should be curious and resourceful, able to find information, synthesize it, and explain it. While some writing is highly persuasive, writers and editors should be able to look at a subject objectively. You will be required to interpret the facts you find, and the best approach to those facts is with an open mind.

An ability to organize language and think critically and a desire to communicate to others are critical skills. A good sense of how to tell a story is also important, as is a mastery of the form in which your work appears.

Most jobs require both writing and editing skills, though people generally start off in a role more primarily writing-based or editing-based. As a truism goes, all good editors are writers, and all good writers are editors.


Most writing and editing jobs require a college degree in journalism, communications, or English. If you're interested in technical writing, you'll need a good understanding of whatever technical subject you're writing about.

Gaining experience as a writer is essential. The way to gain experience is through internships-most papers, including local dailies and alternative weeklies, and many websites, offer them-as well as by working at your school paper, or freelancing for whatever publications are around. Copyeditors can start by copyediting for nonprofit groups' free publications-newsletters for an arts organization, for instance.

Newsrooms can be chaotic; reporters should be able to deal with confusing environments. If you're working online, you should know HTML and other computer-oriented programs. All writers and editors should know the basic word processing programs such as Microsoft Word.

Knowledge of grammar, language, and narrative (storytelling) are essential skills. Writers must be able to conduct research. They need to be strong proofreaders. Editors need tact; when dealing with writers, and sometimes with production staff, they should be able to express clearly what they're looking for.

Writers and editors also need a number of softer skills. Interviewing skills are critical to many roles. Writers are typically curious and interested in a broad range of topics. Self-motivation is important. Creativity in both finding information and telling a story are useful. If you're interested in technical writing, you'll need a good understanding of whatever technical subject you're writing about.

Editors and writers can find plenty of opportunities in traditional media. Many go on to work in broadcast communications, especially radio and television. Some write books. Many journalists shift over to a career in advertising or public relations, where they work on developing stories or publicity favorable to clients. Writers and editors often go into education. Some work as copywriters, a marketing or advertising function. Writers with technical knowledge can often find lucrative work in technical writing.

Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of writers and editors should increase at a slower than average rate through the next decade. And competition for these scarce writing and editing jobs will be stiff. Jobs at local newspapers and broadcast communications in smaller markets are easier to find than those in larger markets.

Similarly, those who have experience in and/or uncommon knowledge about a specific industry, such as telecommunications, may find it easier to land a job at a niche publication than at a major-market publication with national cachet. Jobs continue to grow in the magazine and periodicals markets as publishers are increasingly appealing to readers with special interests in niche markets.

Career Tracks

A writing and editing career generally starts with a position as an intern, editorial assistant, proofreader, or fact-checker. Many writers start out contributing on a freelance basis to local newspapers or websites, or by writing for school papers. Once they've accumulated a number of articles-called "clips"-they use them the way a graphic designer uses a portfolio to get hired.

Career tracks vary somewhat in book publishing, newspaper publishing, and website publishing, as do the skills, but the roles have similarities. The ensuing categories do not include a comprehensive list of job titles, but cover the key editorial and writing careers within print and online publications. Similar nomenclatures typically exist in editorial and writing departments in other industries.

Editorial Assistant
People who hold these positions do whatever other writers or editors won't or can't do, whether that means fielding general inquiries from the public or providing PR for editorial or administrative staff. In exchange, they take on increasing editorial responsibilities the longer they stay-editing certain columns, handling overflow from the copy desk, or assisting editors and reporters. If they do those tasks well, they're eventually promoted to more senior editorial positions.

These detail-oriented watchdogs work closely with text, paying meticulous attention to style, grammar, and consistency. Their responsibilities vary from publication to publication. Some are glorified proofreaders, searching merely for typos and errors in punctuation. Others are expected to identify large-scale problems and suggest solutions. Many write headlines, captions, or Web content.

Copyeditors use reference books such as the Chicago Manual of Style (the source of "copyeditor" as one word) and the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, often in conjunction with an in-house style guide. It's not necessarily a job for those who thrive on variety-most copyeditors do pretty much the same thing all day, every day-but there's no better way to learn a publication's nuts and bolts.

This huge category includes everyone from newspaper beat writers to novelists. The journalist does most or all investigative work through phone calls, face-to-face interviews, travel, or Internet research. Typically, journalists cover a beat or a main subject of interest. You get to be out and about in the community, not sitting behind a desk every day. Your name is in print repeatedly, which could help the drug dealers you exposed find you, but you'll get the glory and byline for your stories. Many writers go on to opinion-page roles; others write in increasingly sophisticated forms-essays, books, and novels.

Managing Editor
If you're torn between a career as an air-traffic controller and a therapist, this may be the job for you. Occupying an editorial department's busiest intersection-where commerce and creativity collide-managing editors oversee the ebb and flow of ad and editorial space, study market trends and reader surveys, and create budgets. They soothe editors' and writers' egos, resolve conflicts, create schedules, and enforce deadlines. In some cases they hire and fire writers. They also make sure that what's written gets through production-on tight deadlines. On top of all that, most managing editors edit content in some capacity, and many help determine a publication's general editorial direction.

Associate Editor
These executive-editors-in-training work directly with writers and assistant editors, often overseeing a particular section of a publication. If a lead's not catchy or a story's not cohesive, the editor spots it and fixes it. Most associate editors spend less time editing and writing than they do tracking down late manuscripts, finding and hiring freelancers, and e-mailing back and forth with writers.

Executive Editors and Senior Editors
Executive editors and senior editors typically set editorial policy, write opinion pieces, and manage teams of editors. As with all types of editing, the foundation is writing-most executive editors got started in writing. You might think of them as violinists who've become conductors. They oversee the content and intervene to enforce quality standards and style rules when necessary. They also plan budgets, set deadlines, and watch market trends.

Technical Writer
Technical writers transform technical mumbo-jumbo into logically organized, easy-to-read text that's precise and exact. Technical writers typically develop instruction manuals, training guides, and how-to pamphlets or edit technical reports and oversee the preparation of illustrations, diagrams, and charts. Think of the handbook that came with your PC-that's technical writing in action.

Science and medical writering is a subset of technical writing, and includes preparing formal documents on the physical or medical sciences. For all types of technical writers, clarity and accuracy are valued above lively or engaging writing. This growing field promises to provide the most opportunities in the industry, particularly if you have expertise in medicine, economics, or technology.

In exchange for their freedom, freelancers take on an extra job: finding work. Freelancers must be able to pitch ideas and schedule their time. In exchange, they can work at home, cozy in their bathrobes, but they must be able to create their own structure and be comfortable working outside of an office. Office romances are pretty much out the window.

Other Writing and Editing Careers
Editors work under a variety of titles. Developmental editors work on longer manuscripts, such as books, helping the writer fulfill the publishing house's idea of what a book should be. Acquisitions editors often work in a developmental role, finding appropriate writers or manuscripts to publish. The editor in chief often has the final say on what gets published.

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