Monday, November 16, 2009

The Purpose of the Editor

Quick! What's the purpose of an editor? There are many different functions involved in the making of a book. You have the author, the agent, the printer and many others, including the editor. Actually, there may be several editors, but for our purposes, let’s lump them all into one category. We think we know what this guy does. He edits the book, right? No, this isn’t a trick question; that’s what he does. Well, unless he’s an acquisitions editor, in which case he may not actually edit the book, but that’s a different issue. The editor we want to consider today is the guy who edits the book.

On another blog I saw a comment from an author saying, in essence, that it is the job of the writer to craft a story, but it isn’t really the job of the writer to revise the story. That, the commenter, claimed is the job of the editor, who is supposed to take whatever the author puts out there and turn it into a bestseller. That got me thinking. That is how we think of editors, at times. The writer puts something out there and the editor is supposed to correct the mistakes and make it presentable, but the story itself, that is the writer’s. But if that’s the case, why does the writer get paid more for the story than the editor? If that’s all I have to do as a writer, I could hand in some story, say the Cinderella story, and tell the editor to flesh it out and make me look good. Not just anyone can pull a story out of a book and reuse it. No, that requires an author. “But we don’t reuse stories,” you might say. Yes, we do. We do it all the time. So, if all the author does is provides a story and the editor makes it look good, what keeps the editor from providing his own story, editing it himself and sending it off to the printer?

If experience has taught us anything, it has taught us that an editor is a good thing. But it isn’t the editor’s job to write the book. The question we must resolve is that of what the division of labor should be, so that it makes sense that the author gets his name on the front of the book. By that, I mean that when a customer picks up a book in the store, the most significant differences between it and the one next to it are determined by the author, not the editor.

The Editor’s Job

I have a background in software engineering. In the software industry, the counterpart to the editor is the code reviewer. A programmer finishes a section of code and before that code goes into the final product, it is reviewed by between one and six other people. At their desks or in a meeting, these reviewers look for potential problems with the code, such as logic errors or things the code is doing that might differ from the defined requirements and even malicious code. After they have looked at it, they will either sign off on it as having passed the review or they will identify issues that need to be fixed. The programmer will then go back, fix the issue and let the reviewers verify that he had resolved the problem and has not introduced new problems.

Applying that same concept to the publishing industry, the author shows up with a manuscript that the author has done his due diligence to make perfect. That’s very important to note. A programmer doesn’t pass his code to a reviewer to correct his mistakes. A programmer passes his code to the reviewer when he believes the code is complete. Likewise, an author should never hand an editor a manuscript he thinks the editor can improve. As far as the author is concerned, the manuscript is perfect, as is. Now it becomes the job of the editor to show otherwise.

So the editor has this “perfect” manuscript in hand. We’ve all heard horror stories of how some editor saw this as his opportunity to show that he knows how to write better than the author and decided to rewrite the whole thing to his liking. We’ve also heard of situations in which the author turned in a horrible manuscript and had no intention of correcting it. But those are extremes. Let’s assume the author wants to do his job well and the editor wants to do his job well. What then should the editor be looking for as he attempts to edit the manuscript?

One thing the editor should be looking for are deviations from the publisher’s guidelines. All publishers have written or unwritten guidelines about what they will and will not publish. It may be things like word count, foul language, sentence length or how soon the main characters must appear in the story. The author should know these guidelines and write accordingly, so this “perfect” manuscript shouldn’t have any problems, but it is the editor’s responsibility to check.

Another thing the editor should be looking for is structural problems, such as sagging middles, poor timing on jokes, general corniness, loose ends, etc. These are things the author has trouble discovering because he is so close to the story. The author knows the backstory so well that he might think its funny when Aunt Bertha says, “helicopter,” but to the rest of us, it isn’t funny at all because we’ve been left out of the inside joke. The editor is in a position to determine whether the book itself has established enough knowledge of the character to make it funny. But along these lines, the editor shouldn’t apply “the rules.” The question the editor should be asking is does it work in this situation or not. If it works, who cares that it violates the rules. If it doesn’t work, it ought to be fixed, whether it goes by the rules or not.

Other things the editor should look for include sentence structure that doesn’t flow well, word useage errors and spelling errors. We try to avoid these problems and we correct them as we move through the various drafts of our novels, but our fingers don’t always do what our brains tell them or our eyes don’t always see the words we are reading. Mistakes happen and it’s the editor’s job to point them out.

Correcting the Mistakes

The editor should never, never, never correct the author’s mistakes—with one exception. The one exception is when the author has been given adequate opportunity to provide a manuscript that meets the publisher’s expectations and either refuses or is unable to resolve the issues. It is the editor’s job to identify issues and the author’s job to resolve those issues. The editor may make suggestions on how to fix a problem, but the author should make the decision to accept or reject that suggestion.

To understand why the editor shouldn’t be correcting the author’s mistakes, looking at novels, consider that no one has the expertise that the author has. Yeah, with non-fiction, the editor may be able to get by with correcting more, but no one understands a fictional story like the author does. Maybe the editor sees some dialog that he thinks would sound better written another way, but author comes back and says that they character would never say that because those were the last words he heard his father say before he died. How is the editor supposed to know that? He isn’t and that’s the whole point. The author knows the story, knows the backstory and has some idea of what’s going to happen in the next book. Nine times out of ten, the editor might be right, but there are those times that the correction he would make would mess things up. Leave it to the experts to fix the problems.

Not on My Watch

The author gets his “perfect” manuscript back and it is covered with suggestions for changes. He feels sick in the pit of his stomach. He was hoping the editor would send it back with a comment like, “Loved the story. Didn’t find many problems.” Instead, it looks like the editor is trying to ruin him. “You just thought you could write. Here’s proof that you can’t.”

Take a deep breath and let it out. Repeat until you calm down. It’s not the end of the world. Assuming the editor knows what he’s doing, most of the suggestions will be good suggestions. But the question for us authors is when should we draw the line and refuse to make a suggested change? We it’s easy enough to click the accept all changes button in MS Word, but that probably isn’t a good idea. As authors, it is our responsibility to protect the integrity of the story and to stay true to the characters. If the editor has a suggestion that changes the underlying story and theme, we should be hesitant to make that change. If the editor has a suggestion that would cause the character to do something that we know he wouldn’t do, then we must refuse to make that change. We must also refuse to make changes that would change our style of writing. If you don’t use semicolons, but the editor decides you need them, reject those changes. Whatever your writing style, it should be consistent from book to book. An editor may not be aware of your writing style in a previous book, so his suggestions may not match. But most importantly, be aware of those things that you know better than the editor and don’t allow his suggestions to move you away from those things.


At the end of the day, the job of the editor is to help the author find mistakes, but the editor isn’t the expert. The author knows the subject matter best and is the best qualified to write the book and to make the changes. It is never the editor’s job to take the author’s shoddy work and mold it into something excellent, but rather it is the editor’s job to shine a spotlight on the imperfections in an author’s brilliant work.