Being a writer has often been compared to having homework every night for the rest of your life. That being the case, then being an editor can perhaps best be compared to having to mark that homework.
It’s a little over the twelve months since I first started working as an editor for Crooked Cat Publishing. I’d recently completed an online course in Editing and Rewriting, under the expert tutelage of the wonderful Dr Calum Kerr.* I’d originally signed up for the course with a view to being able to cast a more critical eye over my own work, but I came away from it with two further thoughts in mind. The first was a burning desire to channel the interminable rantings of my Inner Grammar Geek into a force for good. The second was that if I can’t make it as a writer myself, then at least I might be of some small use to those who can.
Since then, I’ve been asked several times: What exactly does an editor do?
In short, the editor is the author’s right-hand man (or in my case woman) who works closely with the author to produce a pristine manuscript which will, in turn, become a published work. One of the biggest problems with being a writer is the danger of becoming so involved with one’s own work that one loses all sense of objectivity. (Take this from one who knows. Been there, done that, spilled coffee all down the T-shirt, and then again all down the clean one I put on in its place…) This is the point at which the writer needs an extra pair of eyes. The editor, who is in the privileged position of being the first person to see the manuscript in the capacity of the reader, is that extra pair of eyes.
An editor is much more than just a proofreader. True, an editor does need to keep an eagle eye open for typos, spelling mistakes, punctuation slips and grammar gaffes – but the editor also needs to be on the lookout for other things that don’t necessarily fall within the proofreader’s remit. These might include:
- Continuity errors. For example, an object which is red in one scene suddenly and inexplicably becomes green in another.
- Factual errors. A large flock of robins is seen happily feeding on a lawn. Robins are territorial, so this would never happen in real life.
- Inconsistencies of character. Why would a lifelong vegetarian be seen happily tucking into a large steak?
- Loose ends left dangling. If an object is lost, either it needs to be found, or a plausible reason must be given for its failure to reappear.
- Dangling modifiers. “A man in a red car wearing a black coat” could mean that coat is being worn by the car rather than the man.
- Possible issues of copyright when quoting from other sources.
- Sentences or paragraphs which need to be split or reformatted because they’ve come out too long or complicated. Like I’ve just had to do with this one, in fact.
- Passages where some details might need more clarification. This happens when an idea has formed in the author’s head, but has never actually made it on to the page.
This last problem is surprisingly common, and when it crops up, the author (often working in the mistaken belief that the reader automatically knows as much as the writer does) usually doesn’t see it. I once beta-read a novella for a writer friend who couldn’t believe that I didn’t understand why one of the characters had behaved in a particular way. Said friend insisted that the motive behind it had been explained – but when asked to point out exactly where, was forced to admit that no, it hadn’t.
One of the editor’s other tasks is to make suggestions for improvement to the text, such as tightening up dialogue, or getting rid of superfluous words or phrases, or sometimes changing the structure of sentences so that they read more easily. This is achieved by judicious use of the “Track changes” feature in MS Word. This wonderful tool is the e-quivalent of the teacher’s red pen. Changes suggested by the editor appear on the manuscript highlighted in red. The manuscript is then returned to the author, who has the choice of accepting or rejecting those changes. The author then might suggest more changes (which show up on the manuscript in blue), and returns the document to the editor. Rinse and repeat as necessary. When both author and editor are completely happy with the result, the final (squeaky-clean) manuscript is then returned to the publisher.
After that, a proof is returned to the author for checking. This final check is very important, as typos or formatting errors can still creep in at this late stage. And, without wishing to sound disrespectful to other members of my honoured profession, it is not unknown for editors to make mistakes. One infamous example of this took place a few years ago, and the unfortunate victim of this particular editorial blunder was none other than JK Rowling. The first print-run of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire contained a glaring continuity error, which, until it was subsequently explained, baffled Rowling’s readers for a long time. The mistake (which was corrected in later editions of the book) did not appear in her original manuscript. It was introduced by one of her editors.
Come to think of it, editing is, in many ways, a bit like housework. Nobody ever notices it – unless it’s done badly.
*Dr Kerr has asked me to point out that although the Editing & Rewriting course is not currently running, it will soon be available as a textbook/how-to book.
As well as being a member of Crooked Cat’s editorial team, Sue is a published and award-winning poet, and the author of two novels: The Ghostly Father (which was nominated for the 2014 Guardian First Book Award) and Nice Girls Don’t. Both are available in paperback and e-book form.
You can read her blog here.