Why editors are like actors

Editors are like actors? Really? Surely copy-editors are home-bodies or classic office introverts who don’t like the limelight? (Ditto subs and proofreaders?) That’s the popular perception. But the more I think about it, the more I can see what we editorial professionals have in common with actors, although there are some significant differences.

This post shines a spotlight on the life and worries of editors and proofreaders (especially those who run their own businesses, from a home office). A blog post in three Acts: bring your own popcorn. Rated: certificate MO (metaphor overload).

View of auditorium from behind theatre curtain


I recently heard Jack Whitehall (comedian/actor) on Desert Island Discs talking about the perils of the actor’s life.* The show’s presenter, Kirsty Young, asked Jack about the difference between performing as a stand-up comedian and playing a role as a screen actor. His answer reverberated in my editorial ear: he said the main difference was that, with screen acting, you’re “doing stuff to silence”. He explained that he was never sure if his work was good enough, and would go home and think “Oh I could have done that better”, adding: “… there is a lot of worry attached to it.”

If you’re a professional editor (or proofreader, or writer), that will probably chime with you too. And it set me wondering about the other things we have in common with actors.

Act 1

  1. Auditions and call-backs – First, get your gig. For editors, as with actors, this will most likely be achieved through an “audition”: the client will “see” several potentials, ask them what they can bring to the role and decide who meets their needs. It can be exciting and nerve-racking. If you’re lucky, you might get a call-back – in the form of a test or an “invitation to tender” or simply asked to name the price. You pitch your best shot, then cross your fingers and toes. Will you get the part?
  1. Rehearsals and training – Every job is a rehearsal for the next one; every day there are new lessons learned, new insights gained. Training is crucial, whether it’s completing a distance-learning course, a publishing degree, or achieving top marks from PTC or SfEP courses (the editorial equivalent of graduating from RADA?).
  1. Warming up for your first performance – Crucial. Limber up by reading the client’s house style and the brief, and perusing the material to be worked on so that you can decide how best to approach your part.
  1. First night nerves – Can be excruciating. Having gained the coveted project, now you have to execute it with aplomb, up against a deadline; the audience (the client) waiting with baited breath to receive your polished mark-up. Can you wow them?
  1. Giving it your all – Of course you will. But it’s a delicate balancing act between understatement (doing only just what was asked of you) and over-egging it (throwing all your grammatical bells and whistles at the task). It takes practice and experience, and thinking hard about the needs/expectations of your audience, to get it just right. You might need a whispered prompt or two from the wings to keep you on track. You might not quite please everyone all the time, but you’ll try your hardest. But then, there’s the silence …
  1. Notes and ‘notices’ – If you’re lucky the silence will be broken by the equivalent of polite applause (i.e. “thanks, that’s great, send me your invoice”). You may even get a rapturous reception – for editors, that’s probably a great review on LinkedIn; it might even be a card and a bunch of flowers. But if it’s your first time in that particular role, you may well also get ‘notes’. Don’t be downhearted: these will help you learn and do better for your next performance. (My editing colleague Brendan O’Brien has written an excellent piece about the silence and the feedback. See also 11. Turkeys.)

Ta da! You’ve reached the end of the first Act: time for a bit of audience participation.

Tired of this worn-out acting metaphor? You can vote with your feet (or mouse) and take your leave now. But if you’re made of sterner stuff, please take a short (screen) break then return for Act 2.

 Act 2

It’s important, as an editor, to understand your own role, the roles played by others and how they all fit together. It can help you to decide what direction you want to take your business.

  1. Character actor, bit-part person or method? Newbie editors ask around on forums “what’s the best way to gain clients?” Cue a cry from the chorus: “Specialise!” And that can be wise advice, especially if you have academic expertise in a niche subject area. But it can also mean you end up being typecast. Maybe it would be better to be a bit-part editor? Offer a range of services, and cover closely related subjects, perhaps. And the method editor? Yes, they do exist. There are some who edit all the live-long day (and into the night) and can’t turn off their editing brain; and there are some for whom the process is the thing – they don’t mind what the topic is because they love the tools and techniques. There is a place for all types of editor. Which one are you?
  1. Rep and revivals – Working in rep, by which I mean having a number of repeat bookings or regular clients, is the Holy Grail for some editors. It means you know what lies ahead for the week or month, and you can focus on the job in hand and worry less about marketing. But it does have its pitfalls. For instance, what if one of the regulars no longer needs the service? Can you find another that will fit neatly into the vacant slot? (Or do you have to juggle a few things around to smooth over the gap?) Revivals can also be very welcome indeed. These are the irregular regulars, who only need a task fulfilling once a year or so. Excellent: you know the script; you’re ready to tread those boards. But hold on – since the last time you played this part they’ve changed the scenery (updated the house style, say) and you stumble around a bit until you find your feet again. It may even prompt you to schedule some extra rehearsals (see 2. Rehearsals).
  1. Side-gigs and hoofing it – Side-gigs take various forms: no need to be restricted to waiting tables. If you’re starting out, or if you’re struggling in rep (not being offered enough bit-parts?) you may have to take on some other work. Options include expanding into new areas such as design, photography/illustration, writing, or training others (see Time for a new hat). Meanwhile, you’ll still need to hoof it: get out there (in cyberspace or actual space) to remind people you’re looking for work and ready to help.
  1. Directors and producers – Above all, these are the people you need to impress: clients and project managers. Getting to know a new client can be daunting: you need to impress and exceed their expectations. But sometimes you’ll need to advise on different approaches, or ask questions where you don’t understand the brief. The great clients, like great film directors, know how to get the best out of their team and recognise that we’re all in this production together, so go ahead: ask. But you also need to perform well for the invisible audience: the readers of your carefully edited material. Your role as mediator between readers and director can sometimes cause ructions. Don’t be a diva, but state your (readers’) case clearly and advise politely. Friendly professionalism will usually win the day.
  1. Showstoppers and … turkeys – It can be absolutely fabulous (dah-ling) to work on a show-stopping project, and you’re rightly proud of your performance. Sometimes, though, no one will know about the role you played. Do you keep it to yourself or list it on your portfolio anyway? (see 15) And what about the turkeys? These come in several flavours: the job done well but the client left before the final curtain (you need to chase those missing payments); the job where the deadline shifted and you rushed the last act, then daren’t open the courtesy copy in case there’s a missing comma on page 28 (these things haunt you for years); and the job you wanted so much that you bent too far to the producer’s plea for economy … then the role took twice the expected time while two or three nice neat opportunities passed you by.

So far, so similar. But what are the differences between editors and actors? Here we go: Act 3, the finale.

 Act 3

  1. Waiting for the phone to ring – Also known as “where’s my agent?” we freelance editors are often sole traders and have to put ourselves forward for roles, and negotiate our price. That can be the hardest part of the entire business. How often have you longed for someone else to take that scary task from your hands? True, there are agencies out there who are intermediaries – the internet has made it easy for “work available” sites to pop up. Like actors’ agents, they are a mixed bunch. Inevitably they take a cut. Perhaps we editors are lucky that having an agent is not de rigueur?
  1. Makeup and wardrobe – While actors get to dress as Wookiees (yes, double e!) or Stormtroopers and spend many hours being primped for action, a non-scientific study (i.e. I asked around on Facebook) suggests that a fair proportion of home-working editors tend to favour casual loungewear (Trespass is #trending), but we might brush our hair and/or don a power suit for a Skype call.
  1. Oscar and Judith – Hollywood’s annual Academy Awards 2018 are just days away. Actors will be practising their acceptance or their best “oh I’m so glad it went to you” (fib) speeches ahead of Oscar night. And that’s only one ceremony among many. Poor copy-editors/proofreaders: do we get a turn in the spotlight? There are, of course, well-known awards for newspaper/magazine editors and staff. And – you may be surprised to hear – there are awards for others in the publishing business, but they’re not (yet) global televisual sensations. For instance, in the UK, the SfEP has the admirable Judith Butcher Award (for services to the Society), and Editors Canada has the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence. I wonder when we’ll hear Stephen Fry (or Susie Dent, SfEP honorary vice-president) announce “And the winner of Best Supporting Proofreader is…”? Get those tiaras polished!
  1. Always the understudy? – In truth, this is perhaps the only significant difference between actors and editors (and here comes a massive generalisation): we don’t have ambitions to be centre stage. Among our networks we do have some starlets, and a few leading lights, but they are most often the ones cheering on the rest of the cast – sharing their technical knowledge or marketing know-how. And when the curtain rises they stand alongside their colleagues in the chorus and work their magic on the words, just like the rest of us. The satisfaction of a job well done, happy clients, delighted readers and a cheque (or BACS transfer: that’ll do nicely) generally suffice.


I read this week of the sad death of John Mahoney, the actor who played Martin Crane, Frasier’s dad in the eponymous US sitcom. I’ve often laughed at Marty Crane and his clever dog Eddie; they always got the better of pompous radio host, Frasier.

Mahoney had a 40-year career as an actor on stage and screen, but he had another life before that … as editor of a technical publication, the Journal for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals.

In case you were wondering: no, I don’t have any acting ambitions. But I’m proud of the 1st Prize certificate I received for my “Quality of mercy” recitation at the Buxton Festival, aged 17.

* Eleven-year-old Jack Whitehall auditioned for the role of Harry Potter. (But he’s done OK for himself, after all.)