Being a writer has often been compared to having homework every night for the rest of your life. In which case, being an editor can perhaps be compared to having to mark that homework.
In the seven years since I first started working as an editor, during which I’ve edited more than 40 books in lots of different genres (historical, contemporary, crime, thriller, romance, fantasy, YA), I’ve been asked quite a few times: What exactly does an editor do?
Authors, your editor is your friend, not your critic - someone who will work closely with you to produce a pristine manuscript which will, in turn, become a published work. One of the biggest problems with being a writer is the danger of becoming so involved with one’s own work that one loses all sense of objectivity. Take this from one who knows...
This is the point at which the writer needs an extra pair of eyes. The editor, who is in the privileged position of being the first person to see the manuscript from the point of view of the reader, is that extra pair of eyes.
An editor is much more than just a proofreader. True, an editor does need to keep an eagle eye open for typos, spelling mistakes, punctuation slips and grammar gaffes – but the editor also needs to be on the lookout for other things that don’t necessarily fall within the proofreader’s remit. These might include:
- Continuity errors. For example, an object which is yellow in one scene inexplicably becomes blue in another. Or a character previously seen in one location suddenly appears somewhere else with no plausible explanation.
- Factual errors. These could be anything from glaring historical inaccuracies to something as mundane as a particular plant being in flower at the wrong time of year.
- Incorrect local references. A story set in Portugal would not have the natives speaking Spanish.
- Loose ends left dangling. If an object is lost, either it needs to be found, or a convincing reason must be given for its failure to reappear.
- Dangling modifiers. These are phrases where the word order has a direct bearing on the meaning. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the old chestnut I know a man with a wooden leg named Smith – to which the standard response is What’s the name of his other leg?
- Passages where some details might need more clarification. This usually happens when an idea has formed in the author’s head, but for some reason has never actually made it on to the page.
- Possible issues of copyright when quoting from other sources.
- Ensuring that the presentation of the manuscript complies with the publisher’s house style.
- Sentences or paragraphs which need to be split or reformatted because they’ve come out too long or complicated. Like I’ve had to do with this one, in fact.
All of this is achieved by judicious use of the “Track changes” feature in MS Word. This wonderful tool is the e-quivalent of the teacher’s red pen. Changes suggested by the editor appear on the manuscript highlighted in red. The manuscript is then returned to the author, who has the choice of accepting or rejecting those changes. The author then might suggest more changes (which show up on the manuscript in blue), and returns the document to the editor. Rinse and repeat as necessary. When both author and editor are completely happy with the result, the final (squeaky-clean) manuscript is then returned to the publisher.
After that, a pre-publication proof is sent to the author for checking. This final check is very important, as typos or formatting errors can still creep in, even at this late stage. This happens more often than you might think!
Come to think of it, in many ways editing is a bit like housework: something that nobody ever notices unless it’s done badly. But it’s a fascinating and very worthwhile profession – and it also means I’m never short of good stuff to read!
Please come back tomorrow, when I'll tell you a little more about how I became a published author. And don't forget: all my Kindle titles are just 99p each for this week only. Click on the book covers on the right to find out more.