What is editing, anyway?

I’ve noticed some confusion about what editors do.  In broad terms, editing is the process of making writing better.  That can cover a lot of territory.  So here are some precise ways that editors improve manuscripts:

  • They correct misspellings, grammatical errors, and inconsistent punctuation.  This is sometimes called copyediting.
  • They flag awkward phrases, either offering alternatives or leaving the rewrite to the writer.
  • They point out logical problems, missing attributions, and errors of fact.
  • They suggest stylistic choices.
  • They note places where the structure or flow of the manuscript doesn’t work well.
  • They point out holes in plots and places where the story lags.
  • They comment on point-of-view errors and tonal mismatches.
  • They suggest titles, chapter breaks, subplots, and more.
  • They praise what a writer does well.

Not every editor does all of this.  There are other things some editors may do.  In addition, “editor” is the title of someone who works at a magazine or publishing house and takes responsibility for the works published.  An editor of that sort accepts or declines the manuscripts that arrive from writers hoping to see their work in print, in addition to working to improve the manuscripts accepted.

Over the past few decades, the number of writers wanting to publish has grown while certain portions of the market for writing have shrunk.  This creates an economic pressure where editors who work for publishers do less editing — in fact, a manuscript in need of editing may never be accepted for publication. With the growth of the self-publishing path for putting writing in the hands of readers, there are now two reasons a writer might hire an editor directly rather than relying on the services of the editor at the publisher.  First, editing can increase the chance that a manuscript will sell to a publisher.  Second, if planning to self-publish, editing improves the professional appearance of a book and increases the chances it will sell well, directly to readers.

Hiring an editor is also useful for website writings, brochures, e-books, and more — anywhere a writer or business wants to put their best face forward.  An editor works where someone has written for themselves, and wants the words polished.  If the words aren’t there yet, it is better to hire a writer.

If you are hiring an editor yourself, think about what specific services you wish.  Do you simply want someone to catch the typos?  Or are you looking for someone who has a broader view?  Also check to see if the editor has a compatible style.  For example, if you wish to speak conversationally, an editor with an academic style may make recommendations that don’t suit your voice.  Look at examples of what the editor has already worked on.  Talk to the editor, and see if you feel comfortable.  An editing relationship, especially on a book-length project, is long enough that it is worth having an editor you will enjoy working with.

Having a second pair of eyes review and comment on your writing can improve it significantly.  The best editors bring strong experience in writing, the understanding to see your aims and honor your voice, the judgment to improve your writing, and good communication skills to pass their knowledge on to you. Editors have tastes and specific skills.  A great editor of software manuals may be clumsy with literary fiction, and vice-versa.

So look for an editor who is a good match for your writing.  Then enjoy collaborating to make your writing better!

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