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  • The Craft of Editing
  • Anna Lena Phillips Bell

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 copy-editing 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 copy editing 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 [End Page 5] 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...


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pp. 5-7
Launched on MUSE
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