An American Editor

January 13, 2010

Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

28 Comments »

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  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Friendfeed by David Meacham: Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor http://bit.ly/90EcAW “Editors…can help or hurt an author’s work.”…

    Trackback by uberVU - social comments — January 18, 2010 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  3. [...] gamble that the time spent reviewing the manuscript initially and the money spent on editing (Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, an earlier post discusses editing), typesetting, design, marketing, and distribution will result [...]

    Pingback by The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role « An American Editor — January 19, 2010 @ 3:12 pm | Reply

  4. [...] gamble that the time spent reviewing the manuscript initially and the money spent on editing (Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, an earlier post discusses editing), typesetting, design, marketing, and distribution will result [...]

    Pingback by The eBook Wars: The Gatekeeper Role | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home — January 20, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

  5. I’ve had the good fortune to have wonderful editors in my 30-year career, from short stories that appeared in magazines and then anthologies, to books of fiction and non-fiction. My latest story is due in an anthology called Promised Lands, to be published by Brandeis University Press in the fall of 2010 and the editor, Derek Rubin went through easily ten drafts with me. the story is infinitely better, clearer, sharper, deeper. I knew it needed help, and wasn’t quite ready, but I also trusted him to help me.

    Comment by Lev Raphael — March 12, 2010 @ 3:30 pm | Reply

  6. Error in the following:
    •Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s clearly and logically developed or do they meander?

    Are the author’s clearly ???????? ideas?

    Comment by Kevin Whittle — April 5, 2010 @ 3:10 pm | Reply

    • Thanks. Even editors need editors :). The missing word, now fixed, was “thoughts”.

      Comment by americaneditor — April 5, 2010 @ 5:39 pm | Reply

  7. [...] editors, designers, and producers can provide (for an understanding of what an editor does, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). The problem is that they really aren’t new twists on old stories and the old twists [...]

    Pingback by Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature? « An American Editor — April 22, 2010 @ 7:05 am | Reply

  8. [...] Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); and Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Will eBooks Be the Downfall of Literature?eBooks [...]

    Pingback by I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors « An American Editor — June 28, 2010 @ 8:36 am | Reply

  9. [...] Although today is not a great time, compensation wise, to be an American freelance editor, the tides may be turning. I’ve noticed an increase in complaints about editing quality and an increase in requests from offshore book packagers to hire American editor services for American book projects. Counterbalancing this trend, however, is the increase in people who are claiming to be professional freelance editors and who are willing to work for the 80¢ a page that is being offered, for what amounts to a developmental edit rather than a copyedit (for a discussion of types of editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). [...]

    Pingback by Striking Workers and American Editors « An American Editor — July 14, 2010 @ 8:01 am | Reply

  10. [...] via Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor « An American Editor [...]

    Pingback by Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor « An American Editor « Mike Cane's xBlog — August 19, 2010 @ 6:26 am | Reply

  11. [...] According to the Australian Institute of Professional Editors, the tasks that an editor performs can be grouped broadly into three levels: substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading. A comprehensive edit involves all three levels of edit. [For the An American Editor perspective, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.] [...]

    Pingback by The Editor: A Writer’s Fairy Godmother or Ogre? « An American Editor — May 2, 2011 @ 5:05 am | Reply

  12. [...] According to the Australian Institute of Professional Editors, the tasks that an editor performs can be grouped broadly into three levels: substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading. A comprehensive edit involves all three levels of edit. [For the An American Editor perspective, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.] [...]

    Pingback by Vicki Tyley discusses ebook editing, good advice for authors | eBookanoid.com — May 2, 2011 @ 9:19 pm | Reply

  13. [...] (For an overview of the various editorial roles, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) [...]

    Pingback by The Changing Face of Editing « An American Editor — August 1, 2011 @ 4:04 am | Reply

  14. [...] (For an overview of the various editorial roles, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) [...]

    Pingback by The changing face of editing | Ebooks on Crack — August 1, 2011 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  15. [...] (For an overview of the various editorial roles, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) [...]

    Pingback by The changing face of editing | Ebooks on Crack — August 1, 2011 @ 2:52 pm | Reply

  16. [...] for copyediting, is really a developmental editing job, a different type of edit altogether (see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor for a discussion of developmental editing vs. copyediting). Again, because of the sheer numbers of [...]

    Pingback by What Should an Editor Do? « An American Editor — August 31, 2011 @ 4:05 am | Reply

  17. [...] Editor) and by not knowing precisely what type of edit the author wants me to perform (see, e.g., Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). This is compounded by the result of my evaluation of the manuscript [...]

    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Evaluating a Manuscript « An American Editor — August 29, 2012 @ 4:03 am | Reply

  18. [...] copyediting with developmental editing (see, for a refresher on the difference between the two, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor!). In some cases, it is a mistake made out of ignorance; in other instances, it is a deliberate [...]

    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy? « An American Editor — September 24, 2012 @ 4:04 am | Reply

  19. Just read your Freshly Pressed post about Light, Medium or Heavy Editing, and the way you described your work sounds really similar to the first pep talk I had with my editorial team, when I told them ‘your job is to make the reader want to read what you’ve written!’ Thanks for your insights, I found them really interesting.

    Comment by Audrey — September 26, 2012 @ 10:56 am | Reply

  20. [...] According to the Australian Institute of Professional Editors, the tasks that an editor performs can be grouped broadly into three levels: substantive editing, copyediting and proofreading.A comprehensive edit involves all three levels of edit. [For the An American Editor perspective, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.] [...]

    Pingback by Ebook Editing from and Author’s Perspective | Christian Ebook Editing — January 23, 2013 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  21. [...] also needs a good, professional developmental editor (for the difference between the two, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). A good editor would prevent embarrassments like common for c’mon and give the author some [...]

    Pingback by Why Some Indie Authors Fail « An American Editor — February 11, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  22. [...] the difference between a copyedit and a developmental edit (I usually refer them to my article, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) I also make it clear that the faster the churn rate, the less careful the editing will be. Some [...]

    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Expectations | An American Editor — April 8, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  23. [...] requirements, and the type of edit one is hired to perform (e.g., developmental, copyedit; see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor). It is not true that every pass an editor makes over a manuscript makes the manuscript more [...]

    Pingback by The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient | An American Editor — May 8, 2013 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  24. […] manuscript. (For a discussion of the difference between copyediting and developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) After we have copyedited the manuscript, it goes back to the author to approve or reject any […]

    Pingback by The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners | An American Editor — June 17, 2013 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  25. […] text for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and adherance to a style guide. (This blog post, “Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor,” presents a nice summary of the different types of editors in a publishing industry.) Taking a […]

    Pingback by Technical Editors Do Not Need To Be Grammarians | Corrigo — June 30, 2013 @ 2:23 pm | Reply

  26. […] not a developmental edit (for a discussion of copyediting versus developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) and that there was a rush schedule. The normal process, and the one I expected to be followed, was […]

    Pingback by Relationships & the Unwritten Rules | An American Editor — July 22, 2013 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  27. […] copyeditor and developmental editor is not a bright line. We discussed the roles 4.5 years ago in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, but the demarcation is worth […]

    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Walking the Line | An American Editor — June 18, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply


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