Monday, May 24, 2010

A good editor is invaluable

Last time, I emphasized the importance of proofreading your work and having a couple of friends double (or triple) check your writing for you. This time I’m talking about something different: editing.

First I think I should probably clarify what I mean when I distinguish between proofreading and editing. Proofreading (or copyediting more specifically, although these terms are used mostly interchangeably nowadays) focuses on correcting incorrect grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, or even formatting. Think of a copyeditor as someone who takes your existing work and, without changing its content or voice, perfects it before it is published. This person’s job is to know how to correct misplaced modifiers, commas, semicolons, and more. Their daily work may also consist of reformatting a manuscript or submission to be ready for print publication, and they may deal with figures, proofs, cover submissions, etc. For one of my jobs, I copyedit scientific journals.

Editing, on the other hand, focuses more on the content of the submission. An editor will be reading for plot holes, continuity, believable characterization, fact-checking, correct terminology, etc. Many large publishing houses have both copyeditors and editors so that the editors do not spend valuable time minutely marking up manuscripts with a red pen; however, many smaller publishing houses do not have the budget for two separate staff members, so some editors function as both copyeditors and editors. In any case, the important part of an editor’s job is reading for content. Good editors, like good copyeditors, will find ways to edit a writer’s work, or ask for revisions, without changing the author’s intended meaning or voice. For my other job, I am an assistant editor for a small, independent publisher.

I hope this is making sense! (If not, please let me know—and feel free to ask whatever questions you have for me. Sometimes the distinction between these terms can be confusing and baffling, so please don’t feel like you’re the only one who needs to ask questions.) Like I said, sometimes these responsibilities may overlap, but they are nonetheless distinct and separate jobs. (Not all copyeditors are good editors, and not all editors are good copyeditors.)

Last time I mentioned beta readers as a great tool for helping you to proofread your work before you send it in (to an agent, an editor, a publisher, etc.). But another great reason to find a few trusted beta readers is that they can (and often do) serve as preliminary editors for you (in addition to serving as proofreaders). Many betas can be invaluable at pointing out plot holes early on or letting you know that they don’t really think Character A, who is typically gentle and timid, would say something so harsh to his mother without being provoked. Just as with checking for grammatical errors, sometimes we as writers can be “too close” to our own work, and we may not catch such inconsistencies. Beta readers, whether they are colleagues, loved ones, or paid freelancers, can do wonders for your work if they have a keen and critical eye.

It is important to know that you can trust your betas to keep your own vision in mind—trust, in any publishing relationship, is vital—and it is also important that you remember your own convictions when you get suggestions back. If you intended for Character A to be acting out of character, then you can safely ignore your beta reader’s request that you “fix” that line (but of course, if this was an accident, thank your beta reader for noticing it!). You don’t need to make every change that an editor asks you to make, but you do need to consider each one carefully and understand why they requested it and why you aren’t making it. If your intended meaning isn’t coming across in the way you thought it would, even if you disagree with their suggested change, perhaps you do need to consider some revisions, even if you are reluctant to put in all that extra effort.

Remember: a good editor is invaluable. Once you’ve found someone who understands your voice and your goals and who can also tackle your work from a critical outsider’s perspective, cling to that beta or editor and never let go!


  1. Finding the perfect editor is hard. One that understands your writing and doesn't want to change your voice so that the writing looks like it was written by another person. Great post.


  2. I’m giving you a blogger award because your blog is really helpful. :)

  3. Dear Jennifer,

    What a generous post. Thank you. Peace and all good things for you in your work and in life. Sincerely,


  4. Dear Jennifer,

    A little more on this one: It handles a touchy subject perfectly--no doubt, because you are a writer and an editor. I especially like the way you start with the credibility gaining details, wending your way into the more sensitive issues. Nice magician-editor's trick, by the way, waving all those cards in one hand, while the one that holds the red (or blue) pen can gain ground to work some deeper magic. Again, thank you, peace and continued good,


  5. Thanks so much, Diane! I like that you compared writing/editing to magic--now if only we could get the rest of the world to feel the same way and value our efforts more! :)