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What Does an Editor Do, Anyway?

Authors usually know they need another pair of eyes once they’ve gotten their thoughts together in a draft form. But they can become confused about who they should talk to, especially as there’s no 100% agreement on what different kinds of editors are called or exactly what each type does.

Below are the most commonly mentioned four types, but if you look online, you’ll see that there can be up to a dozen!

  1. Developmental editors are usually focused on the overall idea of the book – content and/or character creation, organization, and tone of voice. Are the characters likable? Who’s the intended audience? Is there a good flow throughout? Do the chapters make sense in the order they’re given? This is definitely a “big picture” type of person.
  2. Copyeditors identify grammar and punctuation errors, awkward phrasing, odd language; sometimes they do a little rewriting. Does the author use way too much passive voice for no particular reason? Does the author have any idea what a semicolon is or what it’s supposed to do? Is the author following the American style of grammar and usage … or another country’s version? Is the author in an industry that has its own specific ways of writing things (often without grammatically correct hyphens)? Does that industry capitalize certain terms we normally wouldn’t? It’s all stuff we need to know!
  3. Line editors (aka content or substantive editors) also address clarity and style. They may suggest rewriting / rephrasing sentences and/or bigger areas. Beyond the grammar issues, though, are the sentences sensible for the topic being explored? Is the tone of voice consistent? Is there way too much written about one particular idea? Could it be cut down?
  4. Proofreaders are the last line of defense. They’re the folks who see that one grammatical error that escaped other eyes, the typos, odd spacing, formatting issues – everything physical that jumps out because 99% of the work has already been done. They’re the ones who sign off on the manuscript, saying it’s fit to be printed.

And while there are four mentioned, in my talks with others in this field, we agree: We’re usually really a blend of the last three types. I know it’s true about me!

As I work, I’m checking many different things all at once, especially in the first read-through, because it’s almost impossible to NOT see an error that another “type” normally concentrates on. I may be focusing on the grammar, but if a word or phrase looks “off,” even though it’s grammatically correct, I’ll challenge it. How can I not?

So, how long will it all take?

Sorry, author: I cannot tell you how long your project will take until I have read it all the way through (and yes, I charge for that). And even then, depending on changes, any estimate could be seriously off! My average rate of speed may not fit your work; it can depend on how much I have to do, how dense your copy is, or how big your font and pages are.

Some authors have said, “Well, just read the first chapter and let me know.” Sounds good, right? But the first chapter may not represent what comes later, and I can’t know that until I read the whole darn thing.

Sometimes an author wants me to charge by the number of words, but I cannot know how that author’s words will work just by their number. Are the words even the right ones? Did the author try too hard to sound educated, only to come across as a pretentious bore? Did the author use multi-syllabic words that don’t need to be the ones chosen? Does the author always use five-word phrases that could be just one word?

And something many first-time authors might not realize: Be prepared for a minimum of two complete reads, more likely three, sometimes four, if we make a lot of changes. No, it’s not a quick process, and it shouldn’t be. It takes more time than many new authors expect, but at the end of the day, my simple question is this:

Do you want it done fast … or done right?

It sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But I admit – and my friends know this to be true: I LOVE IT. I love everything about it! I learn from others who are far smarter in their world than I’ll ever be. I see ideas I’ve never thought of before. I see the world through their eyes, their heart, their life. My world expands with every article, book, or other content I am given to work on.

For more on this topic:

What has your experience been like as an author? What would you add to my article that would help others?


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Susan Rooks
Susan Rookshttps://grammargoddess.com/
With nearly 30 years’ experience as an international workshop leader, Susan Rooks is uniquely positioned to help people master the communication skills they need to succeed. In 1995, Susan formed Grammar Goddess Communication, creating and leading workshops in three main areas – American grammar, business writing, and interpersonal skills – to help business pros enhance their communication skills. She also leads one-hour LinkedIn workshops (Master the LinkedIn Profile Basics) via Zoom to help business pros anywhere maximize their LinkedIn experience, offering it to Chambers of Commerce and other civic organizations free of charge. As an editor, Susan has worked on business blogs, award-winning children’s books, best-selling business books, website content, and even corporate annual reports (with clients from half a dozen countries), ensuring that all material is professionally presented. In April 2022, Susan became the Managing Editor of the Florida Specifier, a bi-monthly trade publication covering Florida’s diverse environmental industry. And although the focus is on Florida’s issues, many of these same challenges are found elsewhere around the world, so the readership isn’t limited to just Floridians or those interested in that state. But in all these endeavors, Susan’s only goal is to help everyone look and sound as smart as they are.

13 CONVERSATIONS

  1. Susan, I was a developmental editor for years at what was then the largest educational publisher in the world. It was particularly challenging work because most of our “authors,” while excellent historians, economists, sociologists etc., really couldn’t write intelligently for our audience of high school students. And then there were the pressures of creating the outline and writing the narrative that would satisfy critics in such divergent states as Texas and California. School publishing was an education in itself, and I remain proud to display the textbooks I had a hand in creating.

  2. Editors have their place or function which is usually to destroy what a writer has poured their heart and soul into with little sensitivity to this. Dennis Pitocco is incredible in his understanding of this. Dennis knows how to let writers write which is what they want to do. Grammar etc. is necessary (somewhat necessary to check) but in the end, a writer has to write. Who is an editor to rip apart something you created?

    • Joel, it sounds like you may have had one or more bad experiences with editors, and I’m sorry if that’s so.

      If you could see how I work, you’d know that my goal is to protect an author’s voice and ideas, while still making sure they’re seen in the best light.

      My clients during these last few years have often remarked (gratefully, I’m sure!) that I edit with a very light hand.

      I appreciate your point of view, and thanks for sharing it here.

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