What Does an Editor Do?

By Jaclyn DeVore

What Does an Editor Do?

When you hear the word editor, you may picture an old-school newspaper editor with a Mid-Atlantic accent and a stogie, demanding a finished article on his desk “by tomorrow afternoon, kid.” Or you may think of your prescriptivist, grammarian English teacher marking through your essays with her stern red pen. Or you may have a different idea entirely...

Editor, I fear, is a word that’s lost its meaning—if it ever did have a singular definition. There are whole books dedicated to understanding what, exactly, an editor is and does. Two of my recent favorites are What Editor’s Do and Editors on Editing.

A few years ago, NPR released a piece on the changing role of the editor, but what they talked about, specifically, was the role of the book editor. Relatedly, and more recently, Poets & Writers ran an article on a day in the life of a book editor. But not all editors are book editors, and not all book editors do the same type of editing. Confused yet? Stay with me.

Although the general public may view us as pedantic correctors of language (read: the Grammar Police), that’s not quite accurate. Yes, there are those kinds of editors. But that’s not the kind of editing I do—nor is it what most of my peers and colleagues provide. Along with a mastery of grammar, punctuation, and style guides, most editors today are also hip to more contemporary issues, such as plain language, inclusive language, and sensitivity reading. These topics, of course, aren’t without their critics and Twittersphere debates.

I can’t speak for all those who identify as editors, but I can share what I do in my role as an editor in two steps—and I’ll try to do it with as little jargon as possible.

1.     I edit books — and other things.

Right now, among my projects I’m editing a fiction novel and an academic article. For the novel, I’m doing what’s called substantive editing. This is the stage for making substantial changes (hence “substantive” editing), such as tightening the language, maintaining a consistent voice for the narration, identifying gaps, and making sure logic and construction is sound. In brief, I make sure the reader’s experience is close to what the author intends it to be. Related to substantive editing is something called a manuscript assessment, which I’ll address in another post.

After the substantive editing, I copyedit the manuscript. “Contrary to popular belief,” as the NY Book Editors noted, “the copyeditor is not a glorified spell checker.” Rather, the copyeditor makes sure “your manuscript tells the best story” — including whether that story is consistent, follows continuity, and has no factual errors or potential legal issues. 

Copyediting also includes checking to see that the work follows rule-based grammar and punctuation, by using a style guide like The Chicago Manual of Style (the industry standard for publishing!). After that, I usually hand the manuscript off for proofreading, the final stage before publication. Proofreaders check for errors on the final copy of a manuscript. I’ll discuss this more in another post, but just know that, in an ideal world, the proofreader is not the same person who did any other edits.

For a more detailed discussion of these different stages, see the dated but useful article “What is substantive editing?”

Important note: Although editing is “rule-based,” there are still many judgement calls an editor must make. Editing is a beautiful blend of craft and art, of technical and creative.

Editing an academic article is structurally similar to editing a novel, just on a much smaller scale. First, I have to be familiar with—some might say specialize in— the topic (this is where that master’s degree in professional psychology and all those other graduate-level courses comes in handy). Then, after a round of editing for general clarity and readability, I make sure the manuscript adheres to the rules specified by the publishing journal. Most of the articles I edit use the APA Style Guide.

2.     I stay sharp.

Editors are paid to think and to know. It’s our job to read someone’s writing and analyze it for clarity (Does it make sense?), accuracy (Is it factually and grammatically correct?) and style (Where do I put the damn hyphens and commas?).

To meet these demands, I read—a lot—and spend half of my time, and sometimes more, on learning via books, webinars, workshops, these fun practice tests, and other forms of continuing education (I’ll share more specifics in another post)

The time and effort I invest in keeping my skills sharp is, in part, why editing rates may seem expensive at first glance. Editors charge for their time and their specialized, continual training. For more on the topic of editing fees, check out this post by Sophie Playle.

Ultimately, I love editing because I get to use my knack for language and narrative as well as my otherwise useless bank of random knowledge to support others in their creative efforts. Does that count as making the world a more beautiful place? I hope so. I can think of no greater service. I’m just glad that stogie isn’t a requirement for the job.