What Is An Editor’s Job?

I have worked with many clients over the years who weren’t clear on this subject, and it led to frustration for everyone involved. As such I decided to write this out as a way to explain what it is we do for you.

Let’s start by discussing the three different types of editing. When you contract an editor you will talk with them about which type or types of editing you are asking them to perform. While the different types of editing are often interchanged and the definitions argued, I will give you the ones I use, and you can go from there. Also, be aware that I am approaching this from a fiction editor’s standpoint. I have not worked on nonfiction much, so I will only be giving a passing commentary on what it might mean for that type of work.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing means the editor is going to dig deep into your story to examine and work with all the elements thereof. They are going to work with you to iron out major plot holes (or, with a nonfiction work, examine your premis). If you look at your story as a dish at a restaurant, this is where you look at each element of the dish. Are the sides well-prepared? Is the meat cooked to the proper temperature? They then provide feedback on these elements and give you information on the overall construction of the piece.

At this stage, an editor might excise or have you add whole scenes or chapters to clarify points and improve pacing. It deals with the macro of the whole book rather than the nitty-gritty details. It also will examine long-term things like characters’ importance and use in the story.

Were I to boil this down into a single principal, this type of editing is dealing with the plot and story as a whole and viewing it in that light. It isn’t concerned with sentences or grammar, it is concerned with the piece in its totality.

Substantive Editing

Continuing the trend of comparing writing to food (I must be hungry), this is where the editor examines each part of the dish closely. Did you use just the right seasoning on the potatoes? Editors at this stage examine things like word choice and dialog. It nitpicks each scene to ensure it is written in the best possible way to get across your point.

During this phase editors also often do things like cull passive voice, adverbs, adjectives, and other unnecessary fluff to streamline your novel’s pacing and improve readability. If it sounds scary you’re right, it is in some ways. Having another person go through your book and pick it apart like this is intimidating, but well worth it if you have a quality editor.

This phase of editing is largely concerned with sentences as a whole. Do they flow well? Do they roll off the tongue? Do they feel right and benefit the book as a whole?

Copy Editing

The final and most focused phase of editing. This would be examining the dish’s plating technique and looking at the trimmings to ensure they are visually appealing. At this point, the editor is reviewing grammar and spelling for clarity. They will fix punctuation and syntax to ensure technical accuracy and consistency in things like dates and spelling of names, acronyms, or other words unique to the text.

During this part of the editing process, the editor is mostly focused on the punctuation marks and technical aspects of the language. They will not fix or touch your text in any other way, though they might make notes.

So what is an editor’s job, really?

Now that we know the three different types and styles of editing, we can dig into the meat of an editor’s job. I’ve waxed on about this particular subject before, and I’m going to do it again, so bear with me. I also warn you that we are now venturing into the territory of mixed opinion and fact.

I firmly believe that an editor’s primary job is to provide an author with the highest quality manuscript they can. While they must work within the bounds of the contract they created with the author, they should do everything in their power to augment the author’s ability and potential to the best of their ability. That’s fact, and good business practices.

Here’s where we hit opinion. I also believe an editor’s job is to teach authors and guide them through the publishing process if they know it. While not all authors want this advice, if an editor is able to give insight into the publishing industry as well as instruct authors on how to improve their writing on their own then they should do so.

Now, the reason I’m going into this territory is because many first-time or even not-so-first-time authors don’t know much about how the industry works. It’s a complex monstrosity that takes years and a great deal of research to fully understand. That’s just reality. Don’t be discouraged by that fact because you have guides to help you out.

To be honest, I view my job as almost teacher first and book triage second. While I can make a lot of money providing first-aid services to authors whose books need a lot of work, I sleep better at night if I teach them how to improve their books on their own so they don’t need to rely on me as much the next time around. It creates better relations with my client and provides them the best possible service, in my opinion.

What isn’t an editor’s job?

Now that you know what an editor’s job is, I am going to highlight a few things that are not included in the job description.

  • Writing your book for you.
    • This is the territory of a ghostwriter. We don’t want to write your book because we have enough work of our own to do. If you are looking for someone to write your book for you (or close enough) make sure you express this in the beginning and engage someone who provides ghostwriting services.
  • Rewriting your book in their voice.
    • Now, I’m going to preface this by saying voice is one of the most often misunderstood parts of writing. Your “voice” is not too many adjectives, passive voice, adverbs, or other writing sins. Your voice is the unique way you put words together that only you have.The only way an editor can damage this is by gutting and rewriting large swaths of your novel in their voice.The best way to handle this is to look at suggested sentences and rewrites and see if you can understand the direction the editor was going. If you like the way they wrote something, then stick with it. If you don’t then see if you can change it around to fit what works for you. This process doesn’t include snark, however. There is no need to be unfriendly to the editor if you decide to re-rewrite or adjust something they have suggested.The only time you might run into trouble with this is if the editor is working for a publisher because at that point they have final say on what makes it into the book.
  • Being a punching bag.
    • While this should go without saying, some authors become very snippy and require a great deal of coddling. This is not our job, and if you are that level of needy it will become a problem for us. Many editors do their best to be gentle to their clients and give them the benefit of the doubt, but we do not have to accept grief given by clients.
  • Being available at all hours for your convenience.
    • Again, this should go without saying, but some clients don’t recognize office hours or business weeks and expect their editor to answer emails or other contact forms instantly. The downfall of freelance is we work from home and often end up unable to pry ourselves away from our work. As such, many of us have specific office hours that we do not violate.These office hours and days off and so on are mandatory for mental and physical health. I can’t tell you how many editors and publishers I know who go to sleep dreaming of emails they haven’t sent or edits they didn’t finish. That said, unless there’s a pressing deadline, we need to disengage from our computers and be human beings every so often. Yes, many of us are crazy cat owners who spend our days watching Netflix, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need time off to recharge.
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10 thoughts on “What Is An Editor’s Job?

  1. Annette Rochelle Aben says:

    Love this post. I now have a concise way to explain to my clients “precisely” and “exactly” so, thank you. 🙂

    • E. Prybylski says:

      You are very welcome. I wrote this for similar reasons. It’s sometimes just easier to provide a client with a link rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. Thank you for reading!

  2. Helen Treharne says:

    Reblogged this on Helen Treharne and commented:
    An excellent piece summarising the role of an editor perfectly. Often writers confuse the role of an editor and a proofreader, as well as the different stages of editing, expecting a full developmental or substantive edit for copy editing fees. I suspect this happens increasingly as the popularity of self publishing increases. I’ve been lucky to work with some good editors as a self published author who have set clear parameters. My experiences with editors within the hybrid and trad models have also been good too, but only because I respect their contribution and ensure I communicate with them in a way that works for both of us- not just me!

  3. Helen Bellamy says:

    So, Beth, what have you been up to lately? Raking in commissions, are you? Staying well and enjoying what passes for summer in Yankeeland? Miss your posts. You are such a wonderful teacher.

    • E. Prybylski says:

      Hey there! I’ve been doing some work, and enjoying our summer. I actually have been doing a weekly live stream on Facebook via Insomnia Publishing’s page. I don’t know if you’re interested or available, but the next one is tonight at nine. I do them every Sunday.

      I should get back into blogging, but finding time to do all the things is challenging!

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