What Editors Do, and What Editors Don’t

Okay, this is my opinion, based on my experiences–and your mileage may vary. But in the course of talking to writers and editors and blogging over the last couple of years, I’ve realized that people’s expectations of “The Editor” veer wildly. What, exactly, should The Editor do?

First, here’s my contention. Your book editor’s job is not to clean up your typos, grammatical errors, punctuation gaffes, or misspellings on any big scale. If you’re with a big enough publisher, you’ll get a line edit from a copy editor who’ll look for stylistic inconsistencies and typos, but basic grammar and punctuation and spelling and all that stuff is your job.

Yours. Mine. Ours.

In the journalism world, I’ve been an editor for twenty years. When I worked at a daily newspaper, I edited for big-picture content (because if the spelling and punctuation was bad enough the reporter wasn’t employed for very long) while the copy editor looked for typos and style usage. Now that I’ve been in magazines for awhile, working in small shops, I take on the role of both content editor and copy editor.

In the fiction world–where I’m admittedly very, very new–I’m on the other side of the editing desk and have really come to appreciate what a good editor can do. I’ve been blessed to work with an editor at my publishing house who is One.Sharp.Cookie–I’m constantly in awe as she hones in quickly on weaknesses in my manuscript that I couldn’t spot while wearing my authorial blinders. (Shout-out to Stacy!)

Here’s what my editor gives me, and it’s exactly what I need: 

She tells me where the story drags and the pacing’s off, and talks to me about how I can fix it (note–how I can fix it, not her). She points out where a character needs a bigger reaction to an event, where a backstory needs beefing up or toning down, and where a scene needs punching up or (sigh) deleting altogether. She looks at my worldbuilding and tells me where it’s working and where it isn’t. She is, in other words, a content editor. She’s really, really good at it. And she’s most always right.

If she sees a typo or a punctuation problem, she’ll probably mark it. But that’s not her job. That’s my job.

Oh, we all have little stuff we miss–I sure do–but it’s our job to clean the nuts and bolts of our manuscripts up as much as possible before submitting. If you’re not strong in grammar and punctuation and spelling, find a crit partner who is–or hire a copy editor to give your manuscript a read-through. Have beta readers put fresh eyes on it. Take an online course. It’s important.

Agree? Disagree? What have your own experiences been?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

8 thoughts on “What Editors Do, and What Editors Don’t

  1. I wholeheartedly agree. 🙂 Thanks for blogging about this–I know I kind of rambled in your comments the other day about this issue, lol.

    And I like that you noted that WE, the writers, are responsible for the changes the editor suggests, not the editor. That is a good thing. No writer wants someone changing their work for them.

  2. I think it is a sigh of someone who is knew too writting that they thing an editter wil corect all misteaks.

    Grin. The above was written tongue-in-cheek and dictonary/Strunk&White NOT in hand.

    I’ve judged some contest entries where the story was weakened to the point of losing simply because the author was too proud to pick up some resource books. I’m talking about writer basics–dictionary, thesauraus and style guides.

    We, the writer, are indeed responsible for the mechanics of our book. And it’s a biggie. No matter how good the story, if you don’t have bones, your meat will just not stick.

  3. I think you’re right on with this, Suzanne. I’m still waiting for an agent or editor who likes my novel’s premise or concept enough to take it on, knowing he or she will want some revisions done for the “bigger picture” items. I always thought editors wanted manuscripts to be as “perfect” as possible from the start, but I keep hearing from other authors about the many revisions they are being asked to make after the manuscript has basically been accepted. As a professional copy editor myself, I can usually submit a fairly clean manuscript from that standpoint.

  4. I honestly believed when I first began writing that an editor would help fix a story if there was something wrong with the plot or a glaring flaw with a character. Like “I love this and if you fix this and patch up this plot hole we’ll pay you millions to publish it.” (Okay, so I dream big. *g*) I didn’t realize I had a responsibility to fix the major flaws myself.

    What I’ve since learned is that a good editor is worth their weight in gold. I’ve had several editors and really appreciate the work they’ve done for me to help make my stories the best they can be before they go out into the world.

    All that to say … I agree wholeheartedly.

  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone! Seems we’re all in agreement. Scotti, you’ll find the right one. All it takes is one good editor who can see the idea and the potential and be willing to give you the feedback to make it the best it can be. Nina’s right–a good editor is worth her weight in gold!

  6. Hi Suzanne

    My (admittedly limited) experience with editors has been much like yours – beta-readers have helped me to catch everything from typos to plot holes, but a professional content editor has years of experience that cannot be learnt from books plus a level of detachment from the work that writer friends, however skilled in the craft, cannot match.

    I actually enjoy having my ideas questioned, because if they won’t stand up to the editor’s scrutiny, you can bet a bunch of critical readers will have a field day with them!