What the Hell Do Editors Do?

“My brother-in-law edited the manuscript, but they changed my voice. The story didn’t feel like me any more.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard this from clients. Editing can mean one of a few things, but it does not mean rewriting the manuscript to what the writer’s brother-in-law–or friend, or co-worker–thinks it should be.

I’ve written about this before, and I’ll write about it again: Let’s get straight what editing is and what it isn’t. But, since this is a mild rant, let me say one thing: Having your friends and family read your work can give you unqualified praise, or maybe good advice. And there are pro editors out there who, frankly, don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve done a few clean-up edits! But maybe, in addition to writing a cathartic rant, I can clear up some preconceptions here about what a good editor does.

Imagine this:

An editor is at a party, drink in hand, meeting new people. Americans are almost certain to ask the question, “what do you do?” meaning, what do you do professionally. After answering the question, it’s only a matter of time until we hear this: “You edit books for a living? So, what, you check for spelling and grammar?”

Well, yeah, I do that, but Microsoft Word can do it too–in theory. Software has a long way to go until it can catch up to what a good human editor can do.

If that person at the party wants to actually know what I do, I’d tell them that “editing” can mean a lot of things to people. It can mean proofreading (where we really are just looking for mistakes that can’t make it into print) or even developmental editing, which is a kind of “editing” that’s closer to what a record producer does, shepherding the book from the original outline to revisions to final draft. Editors are not anything at all like Perry White or J. Jonah Jameson, editors at a dead-tree newspaper who have an unerring instinct for news yet never figure out that they have a superhero on staff. (Well, maybe they are, I’m not a journalist.)

We can be superheroes, though: When there’s a rapport between a writer and an editor, when we understand instinctively what you’re trying to do, we may figure out the answers to problems that seem obvious, but aren’t when you’ve spent months or years writing a book.

We also have a mild-mannered side. In the real world of typos and preconceptions, editors have firm opinions about the minutiae of punctuation, arcane points of grammar, and whether the word “email” should have a hyphen in it. We have favorite style manuals and dictionaries. (Yes, I said “dictionaries”. The New Oxford American Dictionary is comprehensive and browse-worthy.) These educated opinions, formed through experience, may be more informed than those of a writer, but the book is still the writer’s novel, not ours. Removing every instance of passive voice and making your characters speak in perfectly grammatical sentences is not–repeat not–what we do.

(Note that all this applies to fiction, and definitely not to journalism, academic writing, or technical writing–where there are ironclad rules to follow.)

Editors have opinions about things like pacing, flow, and the way a story will feel to a reader. Is the writer rambling in chapter twelve? Is the pace too fast at the end? Maybe we can cut the chapter on (say) folding napkins. And that bit about candlesticks, can we hear more about that? It’d be nice foreshadowing for that scene where the tablecloth catches on fire.

When you have a good editor, and you tell them exactly what you want, you’ll end up with a manuscript that’s stronger, easier to read, and, most importantly, more like the book you want it to be.

I’ve been writing and rewriting this post all day, and I’ve utterly lost sight of its problems. I know it’s rambling more than a little, but I’m out of time: I need to finish the chapter of the book I’m working on, then go food shopping and pay bills. But I think I’ve made my point: Explain what I do as an editor.

But imagine how much better this post would have been if I had an editor!


Neil Fein is a freelance editor who specializes in novels. If you’ve written a manuscript or are getting close to finishing, you can get in touch with him here. He rides his bicycle as much as he can, and he paints when he damn well feels like it. He’s also a musician who plays in a Celtic fusion band.

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