The editor’s role

Professional editors work in service of the publication, the writer, and the reader. And they have a plan.

Although the editor’s role varies in different publishing environments — sometimes invested with more, sometimes with less, authority to make direct changes — she is always working on behalf of someone else, on text that is not her own. In this respect, certain commonalities hold.

The editor is not the writer

Most particularly in book publishing, there is a clear division between author and editor at the level of line editing and above. The editor typically has jurisdiction over everything rule-bound (that is, copyediting and proofreading concerns), while the author makes the call in everything else. Deeper into the text than copyediting, the editor is in the realm of making suggestions. Developing a strong author-editor relationship means helping the author understand that you are there to support, not subvert.

In environments where the publisher has more clout than the individual writer (magazine publishing, for example, typically also corporate publishing), both writer and editor must acquiesce to the requirements of the publishing environment. In these cases, the editor may be tasked with ensuring that those requirements are met, she may be tasked with revisions and rewrites, she may be given final say over whether a piece is published. Even in situations such as these, it can be useful to remember the distinct roles of writer and editor. The editor is always on a project to see to someone else’s needs and wishes.

Editors are mediators

In most environments, the editor acts as mediator, seeking to balance —

  • The needs of the audience

  • The choices/wishes of the writer

  • The requirements of the publisher

. . . while staying also true to the subject matter. The editor is the first reader, a surrogate for the eventual audience. The editor’s job is to think with the writer, but for the reader.

The rhetorical triangle

Editors typically master a range of intervention, but not the entire spectrum

In the publishing world, developmental editors are not copyeditors, and vice versa. Early in the process, a developmental editor will work with the writer to ensure that the planned work is focused and organized appropriately for the audience and the goals of the project. Later, editors focused more on the use of language will come into play, as a project goes through what may be several rounds of edit. When the editing is done, proofreaders double-check issues of mechanics throughout. (A little hazy on the distinctions? See this piece on the levels of edit.)

In technical editing and much corporate work, typically one editor does it all, as dictated by need and schedule. Be aware that few editors have equal strengths in all levels of edit. More often, an editor will feel most at home within a particular range, leaning either towards the bottom or the top of the editing pyramid, that is, more towards structural and big-picture elements or more towards the finer aspects of language editing. Whatever the range of comfort, to excel takes both native talent and deliberate practice.

Principles to edit by

Successful editors have internalized a set of editorial principles. The principles laid out here refer most directly to line editing and copyediting, but have application as well deeper into the foundation of the project.

Above all, do no harm

Worse than the error missed is the error introduced. Be certain when you make or suggest a change that there is nothing either grammatically incorrect or stylistically flawed about it.

Have a clear reason for every change, every suggestion

While good editors do hear the text and its rhythms and while that editorial sensibility may be the first indication of something problematic, if you do not immediately also see the cause, investigate further. You should have a clear, objective reason for each change that you make or suggest. While grammar may be (as Joan Didion says) the piano that some writers play by ear, editors need to be able to read the score. And that goes for changes extending beyond the realm of grammar as well.

Respond to the text, by all means. But then diagnose the problem.

Be nimble, use judgment, think context

The responsible answer to most questions editors are confronted with is, “It depends.” Very little about language, or writing, is formulaic. Remember as you work to stay nimble, to respond to each situation in context. Use the judgment you have honed over time to make the best choices for each situation. Do not engage in knee-jerk editing.

Make the most economic change called for

To stay true to your role, interfere with the text only as far as is necessary either to correct (meaning: you can cite a rule) or to improve (meaning: you can cite a principle that applies in this context). In the first case, you’ll be solidly in the realm of copyediting, fixing something that is incorrect. In the second case, you may be hovering instead on the border of (or have entered altogether into) line editing, fixing something that is recognizably flawed. Where you spot instead a missed opportunity, that may be something you need to leave as is. Your role is to be midwife to someone else’s text, not reshape it as your own.

All of which means, do not wander further afield than is called for by your diagnosis. Do not wander into uncalled-for rewriting. Not, that is, unless you have license to — if the publisher has invested you as editor with that responsibility.

Strategies to edit by

Successful editors develop strategies over time for approaching projects efficiently.

Work systematically, from macro to micro

Within the range of your inquiry, work from macro (organizational, structural) to micro (paragraph, sentence, phrase) levels. Fix bigger problems before tending to smaller ones.

If the larger issues extend deeply into the structure of the project — beyond moving sections or paragraphs around, depending upon which range of tasks you’re to be working in — raise the red flag early to find out whether you’ll be given time, and leave, to do the work needed. Or whether this will be work left undone in this round.

Group like tasks

Group like tasks together in successive passes through the material. Don’t attempt to read, for example, for consistent section heads, consistent figure captions, and the coherence of the text all in one go. Particularly when it comes to checks you’ll do across the text for one element (chapter titles, section titles, figure captions, chapter or section intros, and so on), do a separate pass through the material for each check.

Keep a stylesheet as you work

As you work, keep track of any specialized or distinct terms or treatments you don’t have immediate answers for, as well as specialized or distinct terms or treatments you’d like to keep a record of. This approach means you’ll not be continually interrupting your work to look things up, and it means you’ll have a record of issues to be discussed and documented. The style sheet then becomes a tool either for updating the house style guide or for creating one.

Review your notes and in-progress stylesheet before picking up work again

Unless the project is a small one, you’ll not be editing everything in one sitting. You’ll likely be doing successive passes through the doc, reviewing for different aspects each time. Some of these will be quick passes, some will be more lingering. You’ll spend the most time in deep reading and analyzing.

As you pick up work again, or as you embark on a new pass through, don’t neglect a quick review of your notes to this point. It can be difficult to keep everything in mind that you may be reviewing for, or that you’ve found to this point.

Use checklists and refine them over time

Editing checklists keep individual editors working consistently from project to project, and they help to keep editors across a group consistent with one another. You might begin with generic checklists, but it’s best to tailor these to the particular writing environment.

It’s easy to build such checklists. Simply keep notes over time of the issues you run across in a given writing environment. Those notes will grow and soon you can group by type the issues you tend to see repeatedly. If a group of editors work together on the same type of projects, everyone should be working from the same checklist or, where applicable, the same set of checklists.

Vary the editing tasks, take active breaks

Switch between work requiring focused and intense concentration and that comprising lighter, more mechanical tasks. Switch between editing text and documenting the issues you’ve found (or building that checklist). Figure out which part of the day you are best able to sustain focused concentration and protect those blocks of time from interruption.

When you reach the point of needing a break, do something active. You’ve been working your mind, not your body. Now switch things around. Activity feeds the brain, and so both mind and body will benefit. You’ll return to work better able again to focus.

Review your work with fresh eyes

Even when the project is small, such that you could do it all in one sitting, get into the habit of setting that work aside and reviewing it again later (or the next morning) with fresh eyes.

Editing, like writing, is iterative. You’ll do your best work if you get into the habit of approaching it that way.

From a training session on the editing process, May 2016

Companion piece to “The levels of edit”