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What Editors Do
Whenever someone asks me what I do, I generally answer, "I'm a book editor." I edit other material, too, but this is the quick, easy answer for social situations. Unfortunately, I often get a blank stare and silence, or a look of confusion on the person's face. I guess most people aren't sure about the job description of a book editor. The next question I get is, "Well, OK, but what is it you actually do?"
My response is usually an abbreviated version of what follows:
A manuscript analysis, sometimes referred to as "content analysis" or "manuscript critique," is a macro edit. It's a "big picture" assessment of your work. If your book is fiction, the editor reads through the manuscript carefully, considering these questions: Does the plot work? Is there enough tension to keep readers turning the pages? Are the characters well-rounded and believable? What about dialogue? Is it stilted? Do all your characters sound alike? Is the ending satisfying? Is it plausible? Are all the problems solved, for better or worse? Are there dangling threads that need to be tied? In other words, will the reader lay down the book with burning questions in mind?
If your book is nonfiction, is it structured in the best way? Could the material be organized in a way that would make it easier for the reader to grasp the information you're attempting to convey? Are there areas that aren't clear or that need amplification? Could more concrete examples be added to help hammer home your theories or points? Is quoted or paraphrased material from others attributed adequately?
After the read-through, the editor writes a report of his or her findings. At Snowden Editorial, Susan Snowden does all of the manuscript analyses. In each case she writes a comprehensive report to the author with lots of praise for what "is" working in his/her book; then she makes suggestions on how to revise the manuscript if something "isn't" working. For example, she doesn't simply say, "Your main character isn't believable." Instead, she points out places where the character's words or actions seemed unlikely, and recommends how to address the problem.
Line editing, also referred to as copyediting, is a micro edit. At this stage editors carefully read the manuscript line by line; they correct errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and syntax. Most editors use the latest edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary to make sure that preferred spellings are used. Running spell check functions is not sufficient. For rules on punctuation, capitalization, abbreviations, and various grammar and style issues, most book editors refer to the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (the choice of traditional book publishers in the U.S. since 1906). Errors are corrected using proofreaders' marks in pencil; then the author inserts corrections into his or her manuscript. (Many editors correct errors electronically on the document if the author prefers; this function generally costs more than pencil editing.)
A seasoned editor also checks for things like spellings of proper names, where possible. Word origins may be checked. For example, if an author uses the word "pronto" in a Civil War novel, that word is changed; the word "pronto" did not enter our lexicon until 1911, so it wouldn't be suitable in a novel set during the American Civil War. Book titles, movie titles, etc., are often checked for accuracy on the internet and in other reference sources. Awkward sentences are sometimes reworked for clarity and readability.
Proofreading galleys (also called "page proofs") is a service that editors perform after line edited material has been typeset. It does not, therefore, include the in-depth functions that are performed during the line edit. Every word of the book is read carefully. The editor is looking for typos, spacing problems, glitches that have occurred during the transfer from disk to the typesetter’s system. Many other technical issues are addressed, such as looking for hyphens at line ends, looking for widows and orphans, looking for inconsistencies in typefaces (e.g., are all headings and subheadings set in the same size and font consistently?).
The proofreading stage should not include looking up spellings and checking rules in The Chicago Manual of Style; those functions should have been handled during the line edit.
Editors do other things as well, but these are the three main services most editors offer. If you read this article and still have questions, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free fifteen-minute telephone consultation.