March 22, 2021

What I Learned from Teaching Editing

Last semester I finally had the opportunity to do something I’d thought about for many years: teach a college class. I’d applied for a full-time teaching professor job before, but I’d been passed over in favor of someone with more experience. I’d also been approached about adjuncting before, but I passed up the opportunity because I was worried about how I’d manage teaching on top of a full-time job. But when I was approached again last summer about teaching a class in the fall, I decided to go for it.

It was a 400-level class in the editing and publishing major and the editing minor called genre and substantive editing. My particular section would focus on book publishing. I was given a syllabus but not much in the way of other materials like presentations, handouts, or in-class exercises, so I had to come up with a lot of things as the class progressed. It was a good opportunity to learn about what goes into putting a class together, but it was also a good chance to learn some things about editing from a new perspective.

Learning Editing Requires a Lot of Hands-On Exercises

Standing in front of a bunch of students and talking at them for an hour or so isn’t exactly the best teaching method, but it’s especially unhelpful when teaching a practical skill like editing. It’s important for the students to understand concepts, but they learn a lot more if you give them some hands-on work and then give them constructive feedback on their work.

Good instruction in editing means presenting students with real-world editing problems and then letting them work out solutions. And since most editing problems have multiple possible solutions, the students can present different perspectives and build on each other’s ideas.

Unfortunately, being a newbie instructor, I spent far too much of my time standing up and talking. That meant that not only were my students not getting as much hands-on practice as they should have, but I was spending too much of my time preparing lectures when I could have just been leading discussions. If I teach again, I’ll have to dedicate more time to working on real-world exercises in class.

But most of the assignments for the course involved real editing tasks, from writing a cover letter and estimate for a freelance job to doing substantive and developmental editing on some book manuscripts. I think the students all got a lot out of doing real work and getting feedback on it.

Expertise in One Area Doesn’t Always Translate to Another

This is an obvious point, and it’s one I’ve learned the hard way at a few different points in my career. But it was still instructive to see that it’s as true for others as it is for me.

The three largest assignments in the class were a substantive edit of three chapters of a textbook on technical editing, a brief index for those three chapters, and a developmental edit letter of a young adult novel. Some students did great at one or two, but few excelled at all of them.

And the fiction section was a challenge for me—all of my book editing experience is in nonfiction. A fair portion of the syllabus was dedicated to general editing principles like how to query or how to edit for inclusive language, but several days on the syllabus were dedicated to fiction editing, followed by the developmental edit letter assignment.

I might have been able to muddle my way through, but thankfully my wife Ruth, who has edited multiple novels and has written three book manuscripts of her own, stepped in to teach three class periods and then help me grade the final project. I greatly appreciated her expertise and her willingness to share it with me and my students. I feel like I learned quite a lot too. (You can read about her experience helping me grade papers on her blog.)

If I’d had more time to plan, I might have tried to invite more guest lecturers to come and share their knowledge in areas where I don’t have any experience or have a little but am not an expert.

Indexing Can’t Be Taught in a Day

If you’ve ever done any indexing, you’re probably laughing right now. Very few things can actually be taught in a day, and indexing is a highly specialized skill that you could easily spend a whole course on. There’s no way to make someone a competent indexer with only a day’s instruction.

Unfortunately, the program at my university doesn’t have a course on indexing, and there were enough other topics to cover in this course that there was only one day left for indexing, leaving only enough time for the crashiest of crash courses. I think the idea was to give the students just a taste of indexing so that they know whether it’s something they want to pursue further on their own. At the very least, they’d have a brief introduction to the topic in case they were ever asked to create an index in the future.

Unfortunately, I made my lecture for that day too conceptual and didn’t provide enough practical examples. I’m also not a real indexer, though I have written a few indexes and have edited many more—including some very bad ones in need of extensive work—so at least I was able give the students some basic pointers. I did include a few short passages and walked the students through the process of identifying topics for indexing, but I wish I’d included some longer sections of text and had spent the bulk of my time going over it with them.

There’s No Substitute for Professional Experience

Even though I lack expertise in some areas, I have a lot of experience in others, and I was able to draw on that experience a lot throughout the class. As I said before, hands-on work is already invaluable in a field like editing, but I think the students really appreciated being able to hear about how I handled real-life problems at work: plagiarists, authors who are resistant to editing, clients with unreasonable expectations, and so on.

And not only was I able to share how I had solved problems, but I was also able to tell my students about times when I felt like I’d failed in some way, like when I underbid on a freelance project and then spent far too many hours trying to please an impossible client, or when I was out of my depth on an enormous project with impossible deadlines, or when I caught instances of plagiarism but the project manager quietly fixed the problem rather than letting the author suffer the consequences.

Telling them about my own challenges or failures at work taught them, I hope, not only how to face those problems themselves but also that it’s okay to fail sometimes. (I’m sure they’ll still learn a lot of these lessons themselves the hard way, just as we all do.)

And this class became yet another one of those experiences for me. I think I did well overall, but there were some things I definitely could have done better. Almost as soon as the semester had started, I was already thinking of ways to improve my teaching. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to put those ideas into practice someday.

Editing 5 Replies to “What I Learned from Teaching Editing”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


5 thoughts on “What I Learned from Teaching Editing

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for your thoughtful, thorough self-assessment, Jonathan. I hope you teach again…clearly, you have a lot to offer!

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for this, Jonathon. I appreciate your candor in sharing how you learned about the subject matter, about what it’s like to learn, and about how to teach effectively.

    I too hope that you’ll have a chance to do it again. As Amy said, you have a lot to offer. And each time you teach, you’ll become a better and better teacher.

    Author’s gravatar

    Belated but extremely appreciative comment: This is so useful!! I’m both a writer and an editor. This coming summer for the first time I have access to a space to run small workshops in. I’m going to start with writing, but I’ve been asked to do one on editing. I learned editing the old way, by apprenticeship. I have a probably irrational suspicion of anyone who learned the trade in a college course. IOW, I’m having a hard time thinking through what an editing course or workshop would look like. When I lucked into my great editorial mentor, I was already grammatically adept and have been reading widely since I was about 10 — I didn’t realize till I got my first paid staff editor job that writing and editing were considered separate skill sets. I have zero idea how to begin with people who aren’t, and who don’t read much.

    You’ve confirmed my hunch that my professional experience is a plus (but that I have to figure out how to translate it into lessons useful for students) and that hands-on experience is key. Thanks so much for writing about this.

      Author’s gravatar

      Thanks, Susanna! I’m glad you found it helpful.

      And I have to say that even though I appreciated my editing classes when I was a student, I learned far more working as a part-time editorial assistant on campus. Classroom experience can be a good start, but I don’t think you really start solidifying what you’ve learned until you’re forced to put it into practice.

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