May 11, 2021 (Updated )
Feel like you’re forever stuck in a junior role? Your journalism career trajectory can often feel like it’s moving at a glacial pace, whether you’re making the climb from intern to freelancer, or reporter to editor.
To help you navigate your way, we spoke to three editors at some of the biggest publications in both the UK and worldwide. Here’s what they had to say about the path to becoming an editor.
How Do I Start An Editing Career? It Begins As a Reporter
Speaking at a Journo Resources event, Amy Lewin, a deputy editor at Sifted.eu said it was important to start thinking about your pathway to editorship as a reporter, and to volunteer yourself.
“It’s about getting stuck into stuff,” she told us. “I’ve done stuff outside of my core job, which really helped because the more responsibility you sign up for, the more skills you pick up, so naturally people are going to trust you more.
“If you’ve offered to help commission, edit freelance bits, you’re already in their minds as the person who can do the job. Going that bit beyond and exploring things to get that extra stuff stands you out.”
“If you’ve offered to help commission, edit freelance bits, you’re already in their minds as the person who can do the job.”
Amy Lewin, Sifted.eu
Similarly, Elizabeth Pears, an editor at the Financial Times, stressed that it was important to know the skills needed. “If you have a passion for editing or want to step up in your career, you need good judgement, you don’t need to know everything, but you need to understand what the pitfalls and dangers of a story might be, where to get help.
“You need to have good organisational skills and feel like a safe pair of hands. It’s the highest compliment someone can pay you – if they say you’re a safe pair of hands. A good editor will also not ask a reporter to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. If you want people to look at you as editor material, be reliable. A lot of it is down to copy as well, start by proof-reading your own work.”
It’s a sentiment also echoed by Tufayel Ahmed, one of the only editors of colour to previously head up a desk at Newsweek. He added: “I came from a very non-traditional background, it was about being super tenacious to get through the door, I made sure I had good copy because I knew I couldn’t get away with it, I needed this opportunity, I couldn’t mess it up as there weren’t many other opportunities for people like me. I double, triple-checked my work.”
What Skills Do Editors Need?
It might feel like the skills needed for editing are fundamentally the same as those for reporting and writing. But, as Elizabeth explained, “being an editor requires a little bit more, having that critical eye, being able to read the copy and understand what the reporter was trying to say, putting yourself in the reader’s seat and asking questions they’re going to have.
“Editors need to look at what’s missing, what it needs to be better, making sure you’ve got the best possible angle, and haven’t buried the lead. You have to be critical as an editor, otherwise you might be doing a disservice to the piece.”
“Being an editor requires a little bit more, having that critical eye, being able to read the copy and understand what the reporter was trying to say.”
Similarly, holding an editor position also comes with other responsibilities – namely the ability to manage and lead a team. “That is such a huge part,” agreed Tufayel, “every editor role I’ve had has come with line management. It’s not just copy and stories, it’s dealing with people and their issues, plus admin stuff such as rotas.
“It’s not a dealbreaker, but it helps if you have experience. If you haven’t had that experience already, they may be a bit reluctant to hire you but then again even if you’re junior but you’ve worked with a team before and understand the dynamics of the team, you can still get promoted, which is what happened to me.”
All three editors agreed that having soft skills and being a cheerleader for staff is vital. A good editor will be able to be assertive when they need to be but also keep morale up among writers. If you’re looking to make a start with people management, offering to look after interns or work experience students could be a good way to help develop your skills.
Applying For A Job As An Editor – From Skills To CVs
But, while having the right skills is important, don’t be fooled – even top editors struggle with imposter syndrome and doubting their skills to edit and manage a team. Amy expanded: “So many publications put down stupid requirements that they don’t actually need in job descriptions, so even if you don’t fill all of them, you can still go for it, you never know. I felt like I wasn’t qualified enough but I came with ideas, I came with enthusiasm.”
“I know when to ask for help,” said Elizabeth. “If you can embrace that, imposter syndrome can wash away because you are prepared to ask for help. I don’t come from an economic background, and there are people for whom economics is a specialism, which is not me. And you might feel like that, but that’s what puts you in good stead to edit, you’re representing all those who don’t understand things completely either.”
Similarly, Tufayel hadn’t reported on trans issues before, but that being able to admit where you have knowledge gaps was the key skill. “You should be the eyes and ears of the reader, as an editor. Reporters can get quite technical, but you want to make it easy to understand, so sometimes it’s good to not have complete knowledge of a subject.”
“Reporters can get quite technical, but you want to make it easy to understand, so sometimes it’s good to not have a complete knowledge of a subject.”
Amy added: “You need to be trustworthy, people need to respect you, you want your reporters to feel like “[they] won’t let me publish something stupid”. That’s the relationship you want to get to.”
Elizabeth, who has done a lot of hiring, also stressed the importance of a cover letter that showed your full personality and potential. “Cover letters should show personality, and how you understand the job brief, so articulate that you can be the kind of person they’re looking for,” she told Journo Resources.
“The A* candidate goes the extra mile, doing research into the company, looking at rivals, identifying gaps in the business plan and inserting yourself into it. Or, as a reporter, coming with story ideas, and why the publication is right for those stories. That’s how you get fast-tracked. Saying you’re a team leader etc etc is boring, and repetitive. Play up the cover letter.”
“A lack of experience doesn’t stop you from becoming an editor, if you can show, in your cover letter or interview, that you make up for it in other ways,” Amy adds: “In the cover letter, show that you love my publication and that you have lots of good ideas, and show some personality. Sometimes, I don’t even look at CVs.”
If you’re coming up with story ideas, don’t just tailor them to the publication, but also to the editor. See what kind of things they’ve published or shared, and try to replicate their preferred tone and style.
How To Make The Transition From Reporter To Editor
Elizabeth’s biggest advice for people looking to take the next step is to start getting experience. “Start peer-editing, it’s so important. If you’ve got time, you can edit or send your work to a colleague and get feedback from them. If you’re editing another person’s piece, you’re getting that experience and showing you can be relied on to look over other people’s work.
“If you feel like you’ve had a significant role in shaping a story (even if you don’t have the byline), you can discuss that in your cover letter that you helped on those things. Pick up shifts editing as a freelancer, you can use that on your CV. The most compelling thing is to show you’re capable of taking on those responsibilities. Being able to understand when to ask for help.”
“Just let your managers know about your aspirations. Some journalists don’t want to edit, and some news desks are desperate for editors.”
She added: “Also, sometimes, just let your manager know about your aspirations to become an editor. Some journalists don’t want to edit, and some news desks are desperate for editors. Let your line manager know you’re up to it. They should support you by giving you those responsibilities.” Equally, you don’t need to aim for the biggest paper in the world. You can work your way up, and, by working at smaller, local papers, you’ll often find yourself with a meatier role and lots of responsibility.
Similarly, it’s vital to remember that editors aren’t there to just make changes for no reason. “Just do everything as a suggestion, or a question,” Amy advises. “If you want to help people grow and mentor people, it should be a back and forth with you and the writer, not just telling them. Build that trust.”
Tufayel concluded: “I’ve experienced my senior writer tell me they want to become an editor at a performance review. When I knew that, we were able to put that in place, she was able to shadow me and take on a bit more such as taking on the newsletter – I hated doing it!
“We were able to give her those experiences because she asked. It also allowed me as an editor to free up time to do my other bits. I would also encourage peer-editing. That editing eye could take you to the next level.”
Four Resources To Help You Make It As An Editor
• Volunteering opportunities are a great way to show the management that is needed as part of editor roles. Take a look at the NCVO website for a starting place on where to volunteer. You might also want to offer to look after interns or work experience students at your publication. If your publication doesn’t run this already, you could speak to Arts Emergency.
• When asked about how to promote your experience, the panel pointed to examples such as Louise Ridley’s portfolio website which also highlights pieces she’s proud of editing.
• It might sound simple, but even just telling your boss and editor that you’d like to be an editor is a really helpful step, as they’ll be able to help give you opportunities to help.
• Doing a yearly development plan that you come back to could also really help and give you an actionable way to move forward. This is the one we use at Journo Resources. The idea is to come up with one goal every three months, and think about what you need to do it and who can help you. For example, you might want to start peer-editing other people’s pieces, or take over editing before your boss comes in in the morning.