How do editors learn to edit? It’s a question I think about a lot. And it includes an assumption I fear is threatened in these lean times, as publishers lay off staff and streamline processes: editing is a craft. A big part of our work at Ecotone is to help carry forward the many varieties of that craft, from copyediting to fact checking to substantive line editing to developmental editing to acquisition. Traditionally editors have learned to edit via apprenticeships at magazines and publishing houses. But how many of those beginning editorial positions are available now, especially to would-be editors who don’t want to, or can’t afford to, move to New York?
I was lucky to have several kinds of help in finding this craft—learning that it existed, to start; then learning to love it, and learning its nuances. During my MFA program, inspired by an internship at Beacon Press, I took a copyediting course. Each phrasing we improved, each error we corrected, each query we drafted felt like a little spark flying from the page. With several of my fellow grad students, I co-founded an online magazine, Fringe. During its six-year run, I learned how much fun it is to work with a dedicated, smart editorial team, and I laid out and refined the conditions under which I wanted to edit poetry. On finishing my degree, I knew I was not made for any big city—I liked the woods too much—and I was desperate to be someplace warm. A job search in North Carolina led me to an assistant-editor position with American Scientist, the venerable general-interest science magazine (it celebrated its one-hundredth birthday during my time there). It wasn’t precisely the literary or academic place I’d imagined landing when I was in school, but the magazine and its staff had the kind of integrity and focus I’d hoped to find—and the six years I spent there offered the best apprenticeship in editing I could have wished for. Early on, I prepared Word files for the book-review editor, Flora Taylor, learning from her preferences and style, her keen editorial eye. I wrote news pieces and book reviews, and learned from my colleagues how to sift through studies to find a good lead, to track down sources, to think about books in ways our audience would appreciate. Over time, I edited features, columns, and special sections; I moved from assistant to associate to senior editor. I learned from David Schoonmaker, the magazine’s editor, the value of top editing, of collaborative processes. With his blessing, I sneaked poems into the magazine’s pages from time to time, and felt—and still feel—thankful to my colleagues for putting up with a poet in their midst.
My dream for my students who want to be editors is that they’ll have an experience something like mine—the chance to improve their craft while working for a magazine or press they love and respect.
My dream for my students who want to be editors is that they’ll have an experience something like mine—the chance to improve their craft while working for a magazine or press they love and respect, learning from editors who have spent years refining their own. To help increase their chances of this—or, for students who want to focus more on their own writing, to help them see the process from another perspective—the Ecotone practicum course and student-editor positions provide progressively more in-depth practice in literary editing. From its inception, Ecotone has been a teaching magazine, and in my time as its editor, I’ve worked to increase the rigor and variety of opportunities for our student staff to learn the editorial side of what we do. This setup is part of the mission of The Publishing Laboratory, housed within UNC Wilmington’s creative writing department, to train students in editing, design, and marketing—as great a swath of the publishing arts as the faculty can offer.
Our MFA student section editors—having served as readers for the magazine, having been trained to fact-check and proof, having investigated the culture and practices of publishing—embark on their first top edits, reviewing the edits I’ve made for a story, essay, or poem, asking questions, adding their own notes. Eventually, they take the lead on editing their first piece of writing, and I support and guide their work at every stage.
It’s a slow process, one we shoehorn into the all-too-fleeting three years of their time at UNCW—a complement to the kind of apprenticeship they might once have found only at a publisher, the kind we hope those who want to will find more of when they leave this program.
But apart from the details of the editorial process, what I want our editors to take away with them is pretty simple: Editing is an act of deep communication. It is also, crucially, an act of love. Like anything requiring love, it’s possible to get better at it. Always.
Thinking in this way—with aspirations to improve and expand rather than toward a fixed end—helps me in my daily work. It’s good to have such aspirations to remember when you’re down in the middle of it all. The particulars might change a little tomorrow, or next semester or next year, as my own understanding of editing, and of teaching editing, changes and grows. But as we begin this Craft Issue of Ecotone, I’ll share the current iteration of the guiding principles I’ve written for our student editors.
And we—the faculty and student staff of the magazine—are delighted to share the issue with you. In it you’ll find Jill McCorkle’s masterful story “The Lineman,” a call to the kinds of communication we were once better at. You’ll find a special feature from Impractical Labor in Service of the Speculative Arts, a participatory art and publishing project, of which I’m a proud member (Local 919 Shop AB). There’s work about the craft of crochet, metalwork, cello, fiddle, architecture, drawing, portraiture. And, of course, lots of poems—from Cortney Lamar Charleston and Jessica Guzman Alderman and Rebecca Foust, in dimeter and trimeter and pentameter and free-verse lines, ars poeticae, sonnets, tercets and couplets. And, finally, a special section in which the issue’s contributors offer single sentences on craft. With them, we send our good wishes for your own craft, whatever forms it may take.
Click here to read Guiding Principles for Ecotone Editors.