Unraveling the Mysteries of the Editorial Process

by Erin Brenner on October 30, 2009

I recently read “Your Copy Sucks: You Don’t Even Know What ‘Edit’ Means” by T.J. Dietderich on PR Breakfast Club. It was great to see someone not only defend editing but try to explain the different jobs that can come under the editing banner. I fear, though, that the post didn’t go far enough to correct misconceptions about the editing process.

Titles vs. Tasks

Part of the problem is that an editor’s title may bear no relation to her role. As fellow editor Levi Bookin points out:

Doctors and nurses both work in the field of health. There are some functions that either might perform, such as injections, but each must have a certificate relating to the individual vocation.

Editors, copy editors, and proofreaders all work in the field of preparing a manuscript for publication, but none has to provide a certificate relating to his occupation. Any may do all the work of any or all of the others.

The role does not have to match the title in publishing. What does Senior Editor mean, anyhow? It doesn’t even give a hint as to what kind of editing that person might do. It could just as easily be a video editor’s title as a text editor’s.

Another part of the problem could be the type of publisher we’re talking about. Publishing has never been limited to just books and periodicals. Advertising, research papers, company reports: they’re all published works, just not all public works. All need writers and all need some sort of editing process to prepare the document for readers. They just don’t necessarily have the same process, nor do they need to.

But these days, publishing isn’t even limited to print. If you have a blog and regularly post to it, you are a publisher (and a writer and an editor and…). The digital world offers us cheap, even free, tools to get our ideas out there for all to see. As a result, not every publisher understands traditional publishing processes and what all those roles involved.

And let’s not forget that digital publishing is challenging traditional publishers, who are responding by compressing processes and cutting corners.

A Rose Is a Rose

An editor’s title notwithstanding, what does an “editor” do?
Let’s start at the top. Dietderich talks about an “editor-editor” who assigns story ideas, decides what goes into the publication, and makes big changes to a piece–such as to the plot structure or the overall argument. This is a developmental editor. She be might called an executive editor, an editor in chief, a senior editor, an assigning editor, or even a plain old editor. The developmental editor might give a writer an assignment, particularly if the publication is a periodical. She’s got an idea or an outline for an article and she assigns a writer to it. When the writer turns in his assignment, the developmental editor may want big changes, such as structure or argument, so the article better fits her original idea or the purpose for the assignment.

In book publishing, the publisher might assign a developmental editor to a project. Maybe this is the writer’s second or third book in a series and he’s having trouble deciding how the story should grow, what order the action should be in, or something similar. The developmental editor helps him work out those issues.

Perhaps the writer is someone with an incredible story to tell, but he’s not really a writer and needs someone to help him out. He may get a deal with a publisher who assigns him an editor. Or he may hire someone to help him with the writing process to get his story ready to shop around to publishers.

Once the writing is finished–the writer has told his story, feels the structure and argument are good, and is basically ready to hand over his labor of love to a publisher–it’s time to polish the piece. There will be an editor to look at the document on the whole and section by section, another editor to look at it at the sentence level, and still another to look at it letter by letter. Not all publishers or media take such care with copy, and not everyone is aware of all these levels.

If your copy is fortunate enough to be in a process that takes such care, your copy will go to a substantive, or line, editor next. Again, titles abound and usually have nothing to do with job function: senior editor, editor, associate editor, and so on. However they are labeled, substantive editors look at the organization of the whole piece, structure, transitions (between chapters, sections, paragraphs, etc.), redundancies, jargon, sexist language, awkward constructions, excessive use of passive voice, wordiness, logic, tone, and so on. Substantive editors do not choose what goes into a publication.

The copy editor takes on the document next. She’s looking at sentence order and structure, sentence and paragraph length (particularly if the piece is to be published online), grammar, word usage, punctuation, spelling, style, and anything else she’s been asked to watch out for.

If the editorial process doesn’t include a separate fact-checking phase, the copy editor must fact-check as well. The list varies but generally includes names, addresses, phone numbers, URLs, dates, other numbers, and basic facts (e.g., President Obama is the 44th president of the US). Plenty of print publishers still hire copy editors, though this is an area hit hard by economic downturns and the digital revolution. When you need to cut back on something, you tend to skimp on the quality. And copy editors ensure quality.

Proofreaders are the end of the line, and they make sure the finished project is correct. Exactly how they do that depends on the type of proofreading they do. Traditional proofreading compares “dead copy” against “live copy,” that is they compare the last approved version of the piece against the new version and ensure they match and all changes have been incorporated. Editorial proofreading skips the dead copy part. The proofreader must read–and correct–(“cold-read”) the latest version (hopefully the version that will actually publish but not always) of a document. She corrects spelling, grammar, punctuation, and style.

If the Shoe Fits

As in Dietderich’s post, these are simplified definitions. Really, we’re talking about two different things here: tasks and titles. I’ve seen plenty of companies advertise for a “proofreader”–and offer a proofreader’s salary–for a copy editor’s job. I saw one ad the other day that wanted the right person to be both copy editor and proofreader and still get the job done perfectly. Yet any good editor knows the best rule is “the more eyes, the better.”

It’s easy to miss an error in a piece you’ve read two or three times already. Your brain knows what comes next and your eye will skim the sentence, allowing your brain to remember rather than see. Only, your brain remembered what it was supposed to see rather than what it actually saw. Memory is funny that way. And the longer the list of possible errors is, the more opportunities to miss something.

I’ve also seen plenty of jobs that want the copy editor to be a writer as well. Again, these are two different skills sets. Not that you can’t do both, but you shouldn’t do both on the same piece. And of course, they’re paying copy editor wages, not writer wages, which are higher. Employers can slap any title they please on a job. Hey, I was ClickZ’s Copy Chief & Associate Editor, yet I had no copy editors under me and I still can’t tell you what “associate editor” was supposed to mean for my employer because other associate editors in the company did not do the same job I did.

In the end, the key isn’t the job title; it’s the tasks to be performed. When clients hire me to edit for them, I don’t get hung up on titles (though I do define them on my site). Instead, I talk to them about what kind of things they want fixed. Spelling and punctuation? Check. Grammar? Check. Usage and style? Check. How about paragraph structure, transitions, awkward constructions, etc.? The list goes on until we’ve defined the job.

Every publisher’s and writer’s needs are different. It makes sense to know what the different levels of editing are, what the editor can do to help the copy, and what the editor’s skill set is. Then, no matter what the role is called, you know what to expect from your editor. True, the jargon can weigh you down (you’ll keep reading this blog to learn more, right?). Also true, the editorial process will likely keep getting compressed (if so, I want to be called Super Editor) and even change as digital publishing continues to develop. Knowing what your editor’s role is, rather than her title, will help you know what to expect from her.

Just don’t ask what a subeditor is.

Postscript

A reader responded to this blog post elsewhere, adding these editing roles:

  • Acquisitions editor: This position is usually found within publishing houses. The editor will seek out books to publish and edit them into something usable.
  • Anonymous reviewer: Found in academic circles, this person reviews a manuscript from a technical perspective. She will suggest improvements to the author.

What other editing roles do you know of?

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