What do editors need to know?

Who is an editor? There are so many definitions. Journal, book and newspaper editors, copy editors, author’s editors, language editors, post-editors, not to mention the revisers and proofreaders. What do they need to know?

A professional body might be a good place to find out.

For British English, that’s the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), with its new name as of 1 March 2020. Before their Royal Charter was granted, they were the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. The CIEP carefully assesses members above entry level for their experience and knowledge of the editing process. For professional membership, if you haven’t worked for a publisher in house, this means taking an exam.

Now I love exams – I’m a girly swot – but it had been a while since I’d sat one, and, well, I haven’t worked in house for a publisher, so taking this made me nervous. What did the CIEP think an editor needs to know?

You need to know and abide by the CIEP code of practice and the UK National Standards for editing and proofreading.

You need to know what you don’t know, and where to find out. All editors have their sacred texts, but these are the CIEP ones:

Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders

The Oxford Style Guide (New Hart’s Rules)

Fowler’s Modern English Usage

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors

I have the first of these four as an e-book and the other three online through Oxford Dictionaries Premium, which makes it a lot easier to look things up electronically, rather than riffling through paper when you need to find facts fast.

Riffling through paper is important too though. You still need to know how to edit a manuscript by hand, like they did in the olden days before tracked changes in Word. This involves learning a secret code, the British standard proofreaders’ marks. I had previously been put off by this, doubting I would ever have to use them, but being forced to learn BSI5261:2005 was a gateway a new, precise language that can express meaning unambiguously in minimal space. Which is what it is for. I haven’t got a tattoo, but if I ever do, it might just be one of those marks.

Besides all that, you need to know everything on the CIEP exam syllabus. You get two goes at the exam so my plan last December was to take it without overthinking it, see how I did, and try again if necessary. I was thrilled to pass first time, and now I’m a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.

Whether you’re thinking about qualifying as an editor or working with one: it’s not as terrifying as you think. If you’ve been wanting to give it a go, why not try it?

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