by Lesley-Anne Longo
Published at 2022-10-12
To continue with our "Ask the Editor" theme, we thought it would be helpful to revisit this blog dispelling some of the most common myths surrounding editors and what they really do. Are editors really becoming obsolete? Are all editors really the same? Read on to find out!
There are many myths out there about the editing profession, and there are many myths about editors. An editor is many things, so we know that what we do can be confusing to someone who has written a manuscript and is considering looking for an editor. Some of the more common myths stem from not understanding the editing process and what the role of the editor is. Rather than tell you what we can do, we thought dispelling seven of these myths will help clarify just what we can do to help you.
"Editor” is a word that actually covers a number of specific editorial skills: developmental editing, copy editing, and line editing. As a writer, the important thing you need to recognize is the type of editor your project requires.
A first step is to determine what type of editing your manuscript needs by asking an editor for an assessment. An assessment is a professional analysis of the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, its structural flaws, and what level of editing might be required. It could be that a structural edit is needed to improve the flow and coherency of the topic being discussed; perhaps the document is too long and needs some trimming; or perhaps the structure works but the writing needs a good copy edit. The editor will report back with the analysis and provide an outline of how best to help you improve your work.
A copy editor checks for grammatical errors, misplaced or incorrectly used punctuation, and misspelled words. Copy editing also includes steps such as suggesting how to replace misused or unclear words and phrases, and checking things like heads/subheads, references, and tables/figures.
A developmental editor looks at the work as a whole and works with the author to craft the manuscript, looking at structure and, in non-fiction texts, argument.
A line editor addresses the writing style and language use at a sentence and paragraph level. A line edit focuses on the way a writer uses language to communicate with the reader. Is their writing clear, well-flowing, and a pleasurable read? A line editor may also look for things like run-on sentences, overused phrases, pacing and clarity, and places where the writing can be sharpened.
It is important to note the difference between an editor and a proofreader. A common misunderstanding is that to have a work proofread is to have it edited. A proofreader will look for and correct typos, spelling and grammar mistakes, missing periods and quotation marks, and faulty paragraph indents. Proofreaders also check for consistency in design elements, tight or loose lines, rivers and knots in paragraphs, widows and orphans.
While all editors possess a good range of editing skills, one editor cannot do all types of editing. In fact, many editors have specialties or subject areas in which they prefer to work. For example, our academic editors work with writers and publishers in the humanities and social sciences, and leave the technical and more formula-based sciences alone. As well, we offer strong editing and proofreading services to businesses and professional associations.
When looking for an editor, it is important to look for a good match. We sometimes receive calls from engineer and medical writers who ask if we can correct their grammar and spelling. But this would not do their work justice. A trained editor in medicine or engineering would have the technical skills to better understand the full manuscript and catch not only spelling and grammar errors but also errors relating to statistics and data.
You may have seen ads for editing software that will edit your text on-screen as you write. You may have seen ads for online services that take your work, run it through editing software, and send it back to you. While these new systems are exciting, be aware that they are not foolproof. More than one author has come to us after using these services requesting a re-edit because changes were made to their writing that did not make sense or were out of context.
One thing an editor does that these automatic editors do not is read for context. Think of how many times you’ve been writing something in Microsoft Word and the spell checker tells you the word you just used is incorrect, but you know that it is not. Nor do they offer alternative suggestions to help you choose a different and more appropriate word. And they do not speak to you!
The editor is not obsolete because the author–editor relationship is not obsolete. When TEC editors work on a manuscript, we talk to our authors through queries and comments, and we meet with them in person to discuss their project. We can also work with writers through all stages of a project, from conception to final draft, offering support, feedback, and good conversation each step of the way.
Many authors shy away from working with an editor because they are afraid they will lose control over their writing or that their work will be harshly criticized. If you feel this way, you are most certainly not alone. After devoting so much time and attention to your project, sometimes at the expense of other things in your life, it’s natural to feel very protective of it.
Editors realize and understand the vulnerability that you as a writer will feel in opening up your work to feedback and criticism, and they will try to be sensitive to this reality. An editor’s goal is to help you finalize your manuscript and prepare it for publication, and to offer support and direction during the editing process.
Editors worth their salt know that the writer always has the final say, and as a writer, you should know that too. Your work is your creation, and you are entitled and empowered to exert control over the direction of any changes that might be made.
Even if your editor does not agree with you, she/he should always respect your wishes. You have the right to refuse changes, but keep in mind the fact that you sought out an editor to help you improve your writing, and hearing criticism isn’t easy, we know, but it’s important to hear what your editor has to say. Editors want to help you, after all.
One of the most popular myths is that working with an editor is a surefire way to get published.
Unfortunately, this myth is one that many authors seem to know. In years past, an in-house editor would acquire new titles and an editor would be assigned to work with the author to get her/his book ready for publication, undergoing the editing process. Now, however, in-house editors are fewer and far between, so more and more publishing houses won’t even accept manuscripts unless they have already been edited. So, quite the opposite is true for this myth — working with an editor is a very good idea if you are hoping to get published.
But remember, while working with an editor is an important step on the road to getting published, it doesn’t mean you will get handed a book deal right away. Finding the right publisher for your manuscript takes time and determination. But having a strong manuscript going in can give you a leg up in the process.
This myth comes from a T.S. Eliot quote that reads: “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” It seems people just stick to the first part, though, when looking at editors! While it is true that some editors also write, many editors don’t have any interest in writing at all, and know this about themselves. Overall, editors are more interested in helping writers craft great works by assisting them in any way they can, whether that be adding flow, removing spelling and grammar errors, or helping the author rework a text altogether.
Of the editors who do write, you might assume that they write perfect prose every single time they sit down to compose, flawlessly self-editing as they go. This is not the case! Even editors have to write a first draft, and even very experienced editors, just like writers, can struggle with that first draft. We often say to writers, “Don’t edit yourself, just write!” So it goes for editors too.
Good editors know that a second (or even third!) set of eyes is always a good thing — other people, looking at your work with a fresh gaze, can see things you won’t see after reading your work over and over again. For example, I always have Senior Editor Beth give my blogs a good edit once I’m done writing them. After I’ve worked on a blog for a couple of hours, I may not see things that she sees — for example, areas where my writing could be improved, or where I am repeating myself, or where paragraphs don’t quite work together. One thing about having Beth as a consistent editor is that she’s well aware of areas where I tend to veer off track (such as, for instance, my overuse of exclamation points).
So, to sum up — editors may have the ability to self-edit, but they also know that a second set of eyes is always a good idea.