Last week, we looked at what an editor does not do for you. This week we look at what an editor does do for you, or at least should – I write should because boundaries may vary with editors. But this is what we (at Busybird) consider the principle guidelines for our editors, and what we instruct our assistant editors and interns.
Something important to note here is that editing’s not just about the practical duties required, i.e. editing the text. Good editing goes beyond that. The text is a reflection of the author, so in being an editor, the editor also needs to understand the author they’re working with, and what they’re trying to accomplish.
So let’s begin …
An editor does develop a relationship with their author
How do they do that? Wine them? Dine them? Well, I’ve had clients who have wanted to sit down for a coffee, or a meal, to get a feel for me and my outlook. Sometimes, this isn’t possible. You can have clients from remote regions, interstate, or even internationally.
The best way of developing a relationship with an author is by demonstrating that you’re listening to them, and that you’re there to help them get the best out of their work. This is important for both parties. The author needs to understand what the editor is going to bring to their work, whilst the editor needs to understand – beyond the text itself – where the author’s coming from.
An editor does get inside the voice of the author
Every author has a voice that is unique to them and it’s paramount that the editor appreciates this. We’ve seen editors who’ve highlighted passages and offered perfectly valid suggestions – suggestions that are great, but when you look at the highlighted passages, you see that’s fine also, but the editor’s wanted to do it their way.
So an editor needs to respect the way the author’s doing things. Additionally, an editor has to come from the same place as the author, even if the author is writing in a style, prose, voice that the editor might not usually familiarise themselves with.
For example, if we have a paragraph such as
- Bob jogged into the forest and down the beaten track. Wind rustled through the leaves of the pines.
we should recognise the author’s style is simple. Therefore, it’s not a worthwhile suggestion to do something like:
- Perhaps consider adding more description. E.g. ‘Bob jogged into the majesty of the forest and down a sinuous track that had been beaten by decades of wearied woodland travellers. A cruel, biting wind rustled through the shy leaves of towering pines that reached unassailably into the sky.
That is not recognising the voice of the author. That’s asking the author to become somebody else. The editor should try to get on the same wavelength as the author, and suggestions should be in the same voice.
An editor should correct spelling, punctuation, typos, grammar, etc.
Structural editing won’t always involve this step, since work returning from a structural edit is going to be revised (by the author), which would likely introduce a whole raft of new errors.
But if you’re receiving a copyedit, an editor should not only provide these services, but also educate you on any habitual errors you’re committing. Some authors don’t care about being educated, preferring to leave that to the editor, but I always think it’s worth the effort because, in the long run, it can save the author the expense of having an editor needing to work longer because there’s more things to fix, not to mention the editor the time of having to make these same corrections.
An editor should introduce consistency throughout the text
Was it ‘colour’ on page 3, but ‘color’ on page 20? Did the author refer to the state as ‘State’ on page 2, but ‘state’ on page 9? Is one heading written as ‘This Is The Heading Here’ and another ‘This is the heading there’? They’re just little things, but authors can be inconsistent. An editor needs to be aware of stylistic conventions within a document and either standardise them, or query the author as to which they prefer.
An editor provides suggestions on improving content
If it is a structural edit, an editor should look at things like plot, characterisations, pacing, the way the story is structured, etc. Does it take too long to get into it? Is it repetitive? There are so many facets that constitute a story, and an editor should examine whether they all function in conjunction with one another; whether they’re overdeveloped or underdeveloped; and what work’s required.
The good editor should also explain why they’ve cited passages and, if possible, make suggestions. A comment of, ‘This character doesn’t work’ doesn’t help the author at all. How does the character not work? Are they too two-dimensional? Are they unmotivated? What exactly is it about them that doesn’t work? Explain it.
If possible, a good editor should suggest how to fix it. E.g. ‘It’s hard to believe this character would take this violent course of action. Perhaps consider earlier establishing that they do have violent tendencies – maybe in that encounter with their neighbour, there might be a flare of suppressed anger.’
And it should be just a suggestion. A comment such as, ‘It’s hard to believe this character would take this violent course of action. Fix it’ is confrontational and tyrannical, and most authors – like most people – don’t want to be ordered around like disobedient children. It’s the best way to antagonise an author.
An editor does not comment for the sake of commenting
Some might think this belongs in last week’s list of things not to do. No, this is something editors need to do.
Empty margins scare some editors. It makes them think that the author will think they’re not doing their job if nothing’s marked up or commented on, so they comment for the sake of commenting, to mark the emptiness in the margins and prove they’re doing their job.
A good editor should recognise when not to comment. It’s a strong and confident editor who learns that they do need to respect that there are times nothing needs to be done.
An editor does alert an author of copyright issues they may be aware of
This might seem contrary to last week’s advice, but if an editor does recognise something’s been quoted or reproduced from external material, an editor should alert the author they will need to seek permission. Of course, they mightn’t recognise foreign material, so sometimes a simple heads up that this process is required is nice, too.
Editing’s often a thankless, anonymous job. You can name bestselling and/or famous authors, but can you name their editors? How many editors can you name overall? The answer, for most, will be none.
The good editor is a shepherd. They’re not out to harm what they’re shepherding, but get it to its destination in the best condition possible.