Once upon a time the label I attached to myself when people asked how I spent my working life was writer. In those days I’d get the usual questions and comments: are you famous? should I have heard of you? where do you get your ideas? oh, I keep thinking my life would make a book.
Then for a while the label changed to publisher, which made me very popular with would-be writers but kept being confused with printer by the rest of the world; about once a month I was asked, hey, can you make me some business cards?
The muse went off to harass someone else when I crossed to the dark side, and hasn’t been seen since; and the publishing company now belongs to someone else. But I still seem to spend most of my time in front of a keyboard. And the question I’m asked most frequently is what does an editor do, exactly?
I know I’ve posted on editing before and if I begin to repeat myself, I apologize. But since I’m in editing mode at the moment (one book finished and delivered, another in the final stages and a third awaiting my ministrations), the question keeps pinging like a corner shop doorbell in the back of my mind.
I’ve edited various different things at various different levels over the years. Novels, some of which needed a light copy-edit to iron out the minor glitches no one ever spots in their own work, and others which required, well, let’s say more detailed attention. Short stories, for a magazine I was briefly involved with, and also for a collection. Prose in all its varieties, for the small editorial consultancy I run.
So what, exactly, does that editing entail?
There’s the first read-through, when I ask does the plot work? Are the pace and tone right for the genre? Are the historical details correct, or at least credible? Is there anything that makes me uneasy? Sometimes that takes a day, and the rewrites come back by return; far less often I’m still conferring with the author after a week or more, and the rewrites take a month.
Then, once those issues are sorted if they need to be, there’s the detailed line-by-line work. That’s when I flag up repetitions, changes of eye colour, small inconsistencies; and deal with misplaced commas, slightly clumsy language, typos, words that don’t mean what the author thinks. (It does happen; I once had an author who didn’t know the difference between voracious and avaricious, which made for some interesting sex scenes.)
The final result should be that the author has written the book s/he intended to. That, at its most basic, is an editor’s job, and that’s what I try to do. I know I don’t always get it right. A couple of books I’ve edited have received reviews which made me cover my face in shame because they pointed out some factual errors I’d completely missed. And proofreading always used make me bang my head on the wall, since it invariably revealed a whole list of glitches I’d missed at the line-editing stage. But I do try.
One of my great sadnesses as a reader is that I see books which have not received as much editorial attention as they needed. Which is a whole different post, and an issue I just might take a look at next week, if nothing else catches my eye in the meantime.