Role of the Editor: Part I

editingLots of authors have misconceptions about the role of an editor. This can lead to issues when an author thinks an editor hasn’t fulfilled one (or more) of their duties or, conversely, when they might’ve overstepped their bounds. It’s important to be clear on an editor’s responsibilities, and their boundaries.

This week, we look at what an editor does not do for you.

An editor is not out to harm your work
Seriously, why would we? Your writing is a reflection of our employer or our services, which are then a reflection of our business. Sabotaging you would be sabotaging ourselves. Our goal is to make your work the best it can be, which in turn makes us look the best we can be. So why would we harm your work? We would harm ourselves.

The editor/author relationship is a symbiotic process. An editor’s suggestions are made with the intent of improving your work. If they have misunderstood something, or don’t get something, explain it to them. A good editor is not arbitrary. They will always explain why they’ve made the suggestion they have, and their suggestions will be in the vein of what you’re attempting to do.

And that, in itself, is the most important thing to remember – a good editor suggests, not demands, and they definitely don’t simply overwrite you.

An editor will not rewrite you or write for you
Our editors are instructed that under no circumstances are they to go into the author’s work, and rewrite them (unless it’s to correct spelling or a typo or something of that nature). We will cite (and highlight) passages that might have issues and suggest examples of how to repair them.

This is an important point. If your work contains a clunky sentence, or an overwritten paragraph that could be diluted to a sentence, don’t send it to us in the belief that we’ll fix it by doing the actual writing for you. Whilst subeditors at newspapers might have this role, fiction and nonfiction editors at publishers and journals do not.

It is neither our job to rewrite you, nor to write for you, and if you have an editor performing this duty for you, then they’re actually ghostwriting.

An editor will not solve all your issues
If you’ve written something and you think it could do with some work, as well as a spellcheck but, hey, it’s pretty okay as it is so maybe, just maybe, it’ll win over the reader at the other end, and they’ll address any and all issues, well, you’re kidding yourself and deserve a punch in the nose.

Regular readers to this blog will know how often we advocate revision. Don’t send your work out until you have gotten the very best out of it. It’s not an editor’s job to fix everything for you because you’re too lazy or disinterested to address it yourself, or because you think it’s brilliant enough as it is, so it’ll win your reader over.

Believe me, one of an editor’s greatest frustrations is recognising an author’s been haphazard about their work because of the misguided belief we’ll correct everything on our end. In all likelihood (likelierhood), you’ll just piss us off.

An editor will not check your permissions
If you’ve written a novel and quoted song lyrics, or written a nonfiction book and quoted extracts from other books, you need to get permission to use that material. Permissions are a minefield. Generally, when you quote a small amount, you should be okay (as long as it’s properly accredited). Should. But the copyright holder of that material (the author or the publisher of the material) may take issue, particularly if the material is intellectual property synonymous with them (or their branding).

An editor might flag such material or point out that you should seek permission to use it, but it’s up to you to get permission to use that material (approaching the author or the publisher – many publishers have permissions departments, or permissions forms downloadable from their websites).

This is not us abrogating responsibility either. Even if you submitted to a multinational publisher, they are going to request that you get all the permissions for any material you’ve quoted. They won’t do it for you. And there’s a chance if you’ve unwittingly quoted something without accrediting it, your editor or publisher won’t even recognise it as foreign material.

An editor will not always recognise plagiarism within your work
If you’re writing a book on important historical figures and for the chapter on, say, Paul Revere, you simply copy and paste the entry from Wikipedia, changing a word here and there, then are later sued for breach of copyright, don’t blame the editor for not warning you about your plagiarism. You should know you’re plagiarising without needing to have it pointed out to you.

For example, there is a sentence in the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere that reads:

      Revere’s father died in 1754, when Paul was legally too young to officially be the master of the family silver shop.

Don’t think doing this

      In 1754, Revere’s father died, when Paul was legally too young to officially be the master of the family silver shop.

satisfies the demands of legal propriety. You’re not in Year 7 English, writing a report where you can juggle a word or two and nobody is the wiser. Your work is (in this digital age) intended for a global audience, so there’s a good chance somebody’s going to pick up the plagiarism. Plagiarism like this is blatant and illegal, and (as with the case of the permissions above) an editor will not always recognise that the writing has simply been copied from an external source.

Don’t plagiarise. It’s never acceptable, and juggling a word or two in a passage doesn’t constitute originality.

An editor is not at your beck and call
Believe it or not, editors will usually not be working exclusively on your piece. They might be juggling an assortment of jobs. Show some understanding for your editor. Don’t think you’re their only client, you’re their reason for existing, and that when you need something, they have nothing else on so they can attend your needs immediately and exclusively.

That is a basic checklist. If you have any queries, feel free to leave a comment or shoot us an email.

Next week, we look at what an editor does do for you.


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