The Role of an Editor — And Why You Should Have One

Ever wonder what an editor does? Chances are it's a lot more than you think.

It’s an editor's job to make sure your readers can see the forest despite the trees—that they don’t get caught up on typos and mistakes that will cause them to focus on the words instead of the story. And, in the process, a good editor will look for things you probably haven’t even considered, like…

Consistency and Style

Editors can keep a style guide (some only do so upon request, so make sure your editor plans to) that will track character descriptions and even descriptions of their accessories to make sure a character doesn’t change in some vital way mid-book.

For example, in a recent novel I had to point out to the author that one of her character’s steeds must have had a sex change operation mid-book—and if not, then perhaps that required some revision.

Don’t feel bad if your editor catches these types of snafus—after all, it’s what you’re paying them for. All that matters is that they don’t make it into the final book.

Accuracy and Pizazz

When you know what you meant to say, sometimes it’s easy to overlook what you actually wrote. An editor will make sure that town in chapter 3 is spelled the same way when it’s mentioned again in chapter 8.

She’ll check to make sure you used nock not knock—one involves fitting an arrow to a bow, the other to strike a sounding blow. Both might take your villain off his feet, but certainly not in the same manner.

A good editor will also help you make sure your readers see your storyline—instead of just words on a page—by checking each word to make sure it’s essential to its sentence, each sentence to make sure it’s necessary in its paragraph and every paragraph to make sure its critical to the story.

Logic and Redundancy

Speaking of wordiness, can you tell what’s wrong with the following phrases?

  • Advance planning
  • Close proximity
  • Original source
  • Fresh beginning

If you noticed that they’re a tad redundant then you catch on quick. An editor will catch these doubled up phrases. She’ll also make sure you’re not redundant with other things—like your chapter numbers. You’d be surprised how often a book that at first appears to have 22 parts turns out to have 25 because the numbers 13-16 repeat themselves.

Finally, a good editor will break it to you lightly when your logic just doesn’t add up. Your test readers may have giving you raving reviews, but sometimes friends and family are hesitant to point out something that doesn’t quite work.

For example, even if your character discovers the perfect renewable energy source (or some other major discovery), it probably won’t change how the world does business overnight—hell, even the computer took a few years to catch on. An editor is paid to make sure you’re aware of things that don’t sit right, though she may leave it up to you to decide what to do about it.

Clarity and Clichés

You’ve heard “Show don’t tell?” Well, sometimes as writers we show AND tell.

A professional word-cruncher will let you know when you’ve drawn the picture well enough that you don’t need “a caption”—as well as when the opposite happens and a metaphor doesn’t quite draw the picture. After all, a metaphor (or simile) is there to give the reader additional information and help them imagine for themselves what you’ve already envisioned. Your editor will let you know when yours isn’t doing its job.

And she’ll point out when you pour the baby out with the bathwater by using a phrase that’s been around the block a time or two—aka when you’ve used a cliché.

Grammar and Punctuation

Okay, this may be more what you’re expecting. Yes, in addition to everything I’ve mentioned above, an editor will check for the basics of good grammar (although as you may have figured out by now, that’s far from her only purpose).

She will seek out typos and look for subject-verb agreement, making sure the parts of your sentence aren’t about to declare war. She’ll help you avoid pronoun confusion (for example, when Billy said Daniel broke his vase, whose vase is it that was shattered?) and if there’s anything she doesn’t know, she’ll know where to look it up.

Sure, it’s likely she’ll geek out if you ask her if she’s for or against the serial comma, her opinion on whether Internet deserves its capital I when web settles for a little w and she might even get a little giddy if you ask her if its toward or towards (hint: it depends which side of the sea you’re on).  But she’ll also make your book better and your writing stronger—to the benefit of both you and your reader. Who doesn’t want that?

This post originally appeared on the Fresien Press blog, but since their blog has been taken down I am reposting it here. 

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My name is Melissa Breau & I’m a Raleigh-based tea-drinker and dog aficionado. If you’re local, let me know—I’d love to grab a drink.

By day, I’m a keyboard junkie, and (shameless plug) craft killer marketing content for small business owners far and wide.

By night (and sometimes on the weekend) I help out at several nonprofits, teach my dog new tricks, and try to spend as much time outside in the sunshine as I can.

Before joining the world of marketing I spent several years at various publishing companies in NYC, including both magazine publishers and book publishers. I also earned my Masters in Publishing from Pace University.

Want to chat? Find me on twitter or drop me a line via my website.

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