What Does an Editor Actually Do? (Insights & Tips for Writers)

editing-quote

As a writer, I know that editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Also as a writer, I’d like to say I know a thing or two about editing because naturally, I edit as part of my own process. But “edit” is a vague term. Everyone knows its general meaning, but what does the process exactly involve?

I attended a workshop recently (“So You Want to be an Editor?”) that shed some light on what an editor actually does. Learning about the editing process from an editor’s perspective was insightful for two reasons:

  1. It helped me better appreciate the role of an editor.
  2. It helped me understand the lens through which an editor edits.

I learned about the different levels of editing, the kinds of services an editor can provide, and the proper way to prepare a manuscript before sending it to an editor.

So read on for the insights! I’ll be sharing from a fiction writer’s point of view.

Editing in 3 Parts

  • Part 1. Developmental Editing – big picture

Developmental editing happens while the manuscript is being written or directly after it’s been completed. Developmental editors make critical evaluations of the content as a whole, asking questions like: does the story work? Is it believable and satisfying? Are there holes in the plot? Does the story make sense from a reader’s point of view?

It’s in this stage that major revisions take place and cuts to the word count are made. Does this section move the plot forward? No? Cut it. (So as you might guess, it’s in this stage that a writer might cry tears of pain over lost darlings, or challenge the editor on revision suggestions all together, which can make this process strained and difficult depending on the stubbornness/ receptivity of the writer.)  

Developmental editors work hand in hand with the writer to transform the manuscript into the best version of itself that it can be. Developmental editors play a vital role in the writing process, especially if a writer isn’t trained on the craft.

  • Part 2. Copy Editing – mechanics

Copy editing happens after the content has been finalized. It’s often referred to as line editing because it deals with improving sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. It’s concerned with coherency as well as style consistency. Copy editors fact check if the writer requests it, but that usually comes at an additional cost (unless it’s already built into the editor’s pay rate).

  • Part 3. Proofreading – final check

Proofreading happens after the book has been formatted. It’s the polishing phase, the last chance to check for errors before the manuscript is sent to the printer. Proofreaders do the final read-through, they iron and wax the final product, checking for errors that may have slipped past the copy editor. If you’ve ever seen a typo in a novel, it’s because the proofreader didn’t catch it. (They’re only human after all!)

Other Services an Editor Might Provide

Most editors will specialize in only one of the above levels of editing. Or if they do all three, they will likely charge a separate fee for each one. Below is a list of other services an editor might provide:

  • Writing coaching
  • Manuscript evaluation
  • Ghost writing
  • Research
  • Fact checking
  • Indexing

Apparently an editor will rarely work on book design and formatting. That’s the role of the publisher.

Standard Publishing Protocol for Manuscripts

When you’ve finally settled on your book’s final draft and are looking for an editor to review your work, it’s good to know that editors expect the following:

  • Your manuscript should be in Microsoft Word, 12-point Times New Roman font, and double-spaced.
  • You should know how to use Word’s Track Changes feature because that’s what editors use to perform corrections; it’s the primary method of communication between writer and editor during the back-and-forth feedback process. Some editors will agree to teach you how to use Track Changes, but the lesson might not be free.

Other Good Things to Know:

  • Editors use the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a standard for spelling and the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style for style (unless a style guide is provided by the writer). In some cases, depending on the kind of book, the editor and writer work together to create a style guide.
  • A novel manuscript should be at least 40,000 words. Anything below would make it a novella or short story. Manuscripts over 140,000 words (with some exceptions, depending on the kind of book) are considered too long. It doesn’t mean an editor won’t work with you, it just means your manuscript will require more time and work—and your word count will experience some major cuts in the process.

Do Writers Need Editors?

If your goal is to publish, then the short answer to this question is yes.

But editors cost money, and unless you have a day job that pays handsomely, I’m guessing your bank account isn’t bursting at the seams because, well, you’re a writer. So you might ask yourself: do I really need an editor? If money is an issue, you might say you can manage without one. You might have a trusted friend who can review and provide feedback on your manuscript, or you might commit doing the editing yourself.

There is one inherent problem, however, with the business of editing your own work: it’s your work, so you can’t help but view your work through your lens as the writer—and the whole point of editing is to critically examine the writing through the lens of the reader.

Regardless of how skilled and talented you are as a writer, you need an objective perspective on your work—someone without any emotional attachments to the words, someone who can lend a fresh pair of eyes on words you’ve practically memorized by now.

As a writer, your ability to be 100 percent objective is nearly impossible. You know all the ins and outs. You know your own intentions. You know all the “hidden” meanings. You think your symbolism is ingenious and your metaphors all wonderful and perfectly clear.

Writing Is Hard (and Editing Is Hard, Too)

As if writing wasn’t already difficult, sometimes editing can feel even more so. Why? Because it’s the process of dissecting your hard work, of holding it under a microscope and prodding it until the loose parts fall out (even if those loose parts are your favorite).

You don’t want to prod. You hesitate to change the words because you worked so hard to get them on the page in the first place. It hurts to have someone tell you (someone you may have only just met, someone who may have only just met your story and who therefore doesn’t “get it”)—that your story needs some alterations.

A writer needs thick skin like a polar bear needs thick fur.

In the workshop, they talked about “difficult” writers (usually fiction writers, by the way). Difficult writers are the writers who aren’t receptive to feedback, challenge the editor too much, are too defensive, too sensitive, too overly attached to the original version of their manuscript, too unwilling to see the greater vision. So another lesson I took away from the workshop is that a writer should learn to trust their editor, and keep an open mind during the editing process.

Don’t be a difficult writer.

And don’t despair, either. As the writer, you hold the power to make all final decisions—a good editor will always respect and adhere to that.

Bottom Line

If your goal is to publish, your goal is to be read. That being your goal, it’s important to keep in mind, throughout the editing process, that your editor’s goal is to transform your book into the best possible version of itself that it can be—to make sure your story ultimately moves your reader.

That’s right, even though the editor technically works for you, he or she actually represents the reader, like a lawyer represents a client. But at the end of the day, the end-goal of both editor and writer is, or at least should be, the same. The end-goal is for the work—the story—to come alive.

Because the story, as you know, is its own entity. It always has been, from the moment it was first planted in your brain as a tiny idea with gigantic potential. Sure, your story is a reflection and an extension of you; but once you release it into the world, it becomes a reflection and extension of the world, and of every person who reads it. And how magical is that?

I hope you found these insights helpful. Do you have any others you would like to share? I would love to know!