What Does an Editor Do?

For authors, the editing process can seem mysterious and maybe even scary. What is an editor going to be doing to the words you worked so hard to get down on the page? Here’s a glimpse into a recent day in my working life that might shed a little light on the editing process. All books are different, of course, but the issues I tackle here are typical.

Standing typewriters: the next new trend in healthy working?  Courtesy  New York Public Library Digital Collections .

Standing typewriters: the next new trend in healthy working?

Courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections.

I start my day working on a content edit for a novel. I’ve already read through the book once and have built a spreadsheet detailing every scene. After that first reading, I’ve spent time analyzing the plot, characters, setting, and other big issues, and I’ve created the section headers of the editorial letter, which will provide specific guidance to the author about the weaknesses of the draft and how she might fix them.

Today, I’m beginning my second read-through of the novel. This time, I’ll be making detailed suggestions directly on the manuscript, which will help the author implement my suggestions in the editorial letter. I also spend time evaluating each scene independently (does it have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end? does it move the action of the novel forward?) and commenting on smaller-scale issues, like plot inconsistencies or missed opportunities to enrich a setting.

Questions I consider during the course of the morning:

  • Does the first chapter include too much backstory? Should some of it be included in a later scene in the novel or are there details that could be worked into the conversation between two characters which is the spine of the scene?
  • The author partially repeats a scene we have already seen from the point of view of the female main character from the point of view of the male main character. Does this repetition add anything to the novel? Can the author avoid the repetition while also still giving readers a peek into the emotional state of the male main character in this scene?
  • Should one of the minor characters the author has introduced in a scene be cut or combined with another character, since she is never mentioned in the book again?
  • Does a minor character who is going to star in a later book in the series get enough “page time” in this novel that series readers will recognize him when he reappears in the next?

During an email break, I weigh in on potential cover designs for a novel I worked on earlier in the year and reassure another client that agents and publishers won’t be worried about his hyphen choices, which will be cleaned up during copyediting, after he gets a book contract or decides on self-publishing.

While eating lunch, I catch up on publishing news by reading the latest installment of The Hot Sheet, an industry newsletter for authors, and spend some time on Twitter, checking to see what hijinks the Merriam-Webster lexicographers are up to today.

After lunch, I change gears, switching to a copyedit of a nonfiction book. I try to have two projects going at one time, ideally one content editing project and one copyediting or proofreading project. Copyediting and proofreading use different parts of my brain than content editing, and I’m more productive (and accurate!) if I exercise both parts for a few hours a day rather than just one part for multiple hours at a stretch.

Over the course of the afternoon I:

  • Keep a lookout for exclamation points and curse words, since the client is worried she may have gone overboard with both.
  • Add dozens of commas, mostly to sentences that use a coordinating conjunction to separate two independent clauses. (For example: “My sister loves sriracha, but my mother calls it the devil’s sauce.”)
  • Decide on how to refer to other chapters of the book in the body of the text (“chapter 2” or “Chapter 2” or “Chapter Two”?) and make a note of the decision on the style sheet.
  • Look up whether Newsweek includes “magazine” as part of its name (it does not).
  • Suggest alternate wordings for several sentences that are unclear or awkwardly phrased.
  • Check the chapter epigraphs for accuracy.
  • Wrestle with whether to spell out a ratio when it is used in a line of dialogue, finally deciding to change “2:1 ratio” to “two-to-one ratio” after consulting The Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Confirm that “made-up” is hyphenated when used as an adjective.
  • Catch a “hear” that should be a “here.”

The difference between reading for pleasure and editing is like the difference between a leisurely stroll in the park and a marathon. When I’m editing, I scrutinize every scene and every sentence. Is it as good as it could be? Does it achieve the effect the author intends? If not, what solutions can I offer? Do those solutions match the established lines of the plot or the rhythm of the author’s voice? Ideally, your editor is the most thorough reader you will have.

When it’s time for me to turn my editing brain off, I shift easily into leisurely reader mode, grateful for another editor’s behind-the-scenes work to ensure I get the clearest, cleanest experience of the author’s creative vision.