Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
One of the most repeated phrases people use to reach and then search my blog is “What does an editor do?”
I’m not sure who’s looking for this information. And not knowing the source of the question, I’m not sure how to answer.
Is a high school student looking for an answer to an assignment, maybe wondering about editing as a career?
Is a professional in one career looking to change positions?
Perhaps a writer is wondering what an editor can do for her, maybe looking for clues about how to approach an editor or wondering what her new editor at the publishing house will be responsible for.
So, not knowing exactly what information people are seeking, I’ll present enough to get almost anyone started.
An editor polishes and refines, he directs the focus of the story or article or movie along a particular course. He cuts out what doesn’t fit, what is nonessential to the purpose of the story. He enhances the major points, drawing attention to places where the audience should focus.
Many fields make use of editors—film, video, magazine, newspaper, blog, and book, both fiction and non-fiction. A task common to all is to ensure that the product they produce is the best it can be in the time available and with the resources available.
A film editor may have weeks to put together his movie, the sound editor about the same. An editor working to develop a non-fiction book may spend a year or more collaborating with the author. A newspaper editor, working either in print or online, may have only minutes or a few hours to check or rework a story.
Because this is chiefly a blog for writers and editors of books, I’m going to restrict the specifics of editing to those editors who refine the written word rather than those who work with film or video or sound.
You’ll see overlap between terms and duties, chiefly because there’s no one definition for editor and no simple explanation of what an editor does.
There are several levels of editors at newspapers and magazines.
Editor in chief or editor at-large—Responsible for the type of content produced by their newspapers or magazines, the look of the product, and the nature and number of stories/articles to be written.
Managing editor—Works under the most senior editor. Directs writers to particular stories. May write some of the stories. May be responsible for one section of a newspaper (business or style or local news) or magazine. May write headlines or may delegate that task to others.
Copy editor—Responsible for checking article facts and ensuring that an article matches in-house style guides. Also checks spelling, grammar, and punctuation. May also suggest word changes to keep the newspaper or magazine from being sued. May arrange layout of articles and sidebars. Copy editors might write headlines.
Depending on the size and scope of the publication, a newspaper or magazine editor may perform a combination of the tasks mentioned above. Their job is to see that interesting and/or informative articles are produced in a timely and accurate manner, with no factual errors and few writing errors.
Here again we find several types of editors.
Acquisitions editor—Finds new authors and promotes writers he thinks will be profitable for the publisher. Often must fight to get an author accepted by the publishing house because he’s competing with other editors to bring in new authors. Writers and agents typically submit manuscripts to the acquisitions editor. The acquisitions editor, especially for fiction, may follow a manuscript from submission to publication, suggesting plot-level changes to bring the story in line with his/the publisher’s vision for the product line.
Developmental editor—Helps a writer develop a book from idea or outline or initial draft. Makes sure the book will meet the needs of the publisher and its readers. Will work with the author through any number of drafts. Often works with writers of non-fiction. Guides the writer in topics to be covered in or omitted from the book.
Copy/manuscript editor—(These may be two different positions or one that combines elements of both or the same position called by a different name.) Ensures that the manuscript meets in-house style standards and corrects grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Checks facts and may suggest different words. Verifies headings, statistics, data in graphs, and footnote entries. For fiction, the manuscript editor will check for consistency and logic, and will read with the needs of the audience in mind.
Proofreader—Compares one version of a manuscript against another to eliminate errors from the newest version. The proofreader is the last person to check a manuscript before publication. A proofreader is not an editor in the traditional sense, but because of a crossover between duties, an editor may be the proofreader.
Either the acquisitions or manuscript editor may suggest moving or dropping scenes, dropping or changing characters, changing point of view, or making other major changes to a manuscript.
A freelance editor works for himself and is hired by a writer to ready his manuscript for publication.
Copy editor—A freelance copy editor may deal primarily with spelling, grammar, punctuation, fact checking, and word choice (in the sense that he makes sure the words mean what the author thinks they mean).
Developmental editor—As detailed above, the developmental editor helps the writer from the idea stage through the final draft. He may suggest topics, help with research, verify facts, and plan the structure of the manuscript. He works through successive drafts with the writer. He’s as concerned with the structure of a manuscript as much as he is the words and meaning.
Substantive editor—Helps a writer improve his fiction manuscript by focusing on story elements, plot, characterization, dialogue, order of scenes, point of view, voice, setting, word choice, sentence construction and syntax, and pace—anything that could improve the strength of the manuscript.
Helps a writer with a non-fiction manuscript by ensuring that sections lead logically from one to another, that there is consistency and flow, and that the right amount of information is presented. Will make sure that conclusions are sound and come from what has been presented.
Substantive editors do not usually work with a writer from the beginning stages, but instead will come to a manuscript after the writer has completed several drafts. Points out weaknesses and suggests options to strengthen those areas. Examines both the big picture and the fine details of a manuscript (including grammar, spelling, and punctuation).
Ghost writer—Shares the writing of a manuscript with an author or writes the entire manuscript based on the author’s suggestions, leading, and research.
Areas and elements that an editor (specifically a book editor) might look at—
Besides making corrections and suggestions for the technical elements—spelling and punctuation, data and fact verification, footnote and index accuracy and so on—the editor of non-fiction will help a writer organize the manuscript for greatest impact, clarity, and readability. She will check the flow and rhythms of the manuscript. She will ensure that conclusions are sufficiently supported. She’ll look for variety in sentence construction and make suggestions where necessary.
She’ll make sure word choices match the intended audience in terms of knowledge and age appropriateness and suitability. She may suggest sections where an anecdote or other story might be appropriate. She’ll check to see that the style of presentation matches the subject matter. She’ll look for threads to connect chapters and sections so the manuscript reads as a cohesive whole.
Beyond the technical issues of grammar, punctuation, and spelling, the fiction editor will look at story issues.
She’ll make sure there’s enough plot for the length of the novel or novella. She’ll read for plot inconsistencies or dangling plot threads. She’ll make sure characters are sufficiently different from one another and that they speak with their own voices, show off their own quirks.
She’ll read for pace and logic and the entertainment factor. She’ll suggest word choices that better fit character and genre. She’ll look for balance in setting and dialogue, action and exposition. She’ll check scene transitions and chapter-ending hooks, making sure the reader is engaged by each.
She may suggest a change in point of view or in the viewpoint character. May suggest a change in verb tense—past to present or present to past. She will note where the author’s opinions and/or prejudices have gotten in the way of the fiction.
She’ll point out saidisms, overuse of modifiers, and fuzzy passages. The fiction editor will make sure the writer has given characters sufficient motivation. She’ll check scenes for sense elements and conflict. She’ll help the writer put the protagonist into tough situations and then turn up the heat.
She’ll root out clichés.
The fiction editor will make sure the resolution fulfills the promise of the story opening, that it’s satisfying and inevitable.
Both the fiction editor and the editor of non-fiction bring that outsider’s eye to a manuscript. They notice when and where elements don’t fit. They see that something’s missing.
And they know what to do to fix the lapses.
~ Editors bring to a manuscript the polish and knowledge and skills that a writer might not have, might not know how to use, or might not see the need for in his own work.
~ An editor makes sure the writer’s work says what the writer intends and says it in the writer’s voice and with his sensibilities.
~ An editor’s job is to make a story, article, or manuscript better. Better in terms of clarity, enjoyment, logic, flow, and meaning. Better in terms of meeting the needs of the audience.
~ An editor serves the project, the author, and the reader.
~ An editor balances the writer’s desires with the publisher’s standards and the reader’s expectations—and finds a way to produce a story to satisfy all three.
~ Editors read. They write. They love words and the millions of stories that can be crafted from them. They assemble parts of a manuscript as if they were puzzle pieces, putting them together to make a fascinating and appealing picture, a picture that readers will want to explore in depth.
~ They are typically picky, sticklers for what they believe is right, opinionated, and determined. They often have a great eye for detail, a strong vocabulary, and knowledge of odd grammar rules.
~ They enjoy working with—and playing with—words.
~ Editors are enhancers. They work to make what is good better, what is great, outstanding. They challenge writers. They challenge themselves.