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Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?


Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor: Why do I need you?

Well yes, in the old days an editor was a necessary part of the writing process. But times change, right? Innovations in digital technology have produced handy editorial software that spots the errors in your writing and corrects or makes suggestions for amending them; online thesauruses offer you options for word and phrase choices to make your writing more exciting and impactful. So with all this new-fangled help just waiting online for your call, you don't need the intervention of an editor. Do you?

Actually, it's not as simple as that. There is plenty of editing tech out there, and some of it may even be useful. But if you look elsewhere online, say at the reviews of self-published (and increasingly, commercially published) books, you will read a different story. A large proportion of reviews - and thus a large number of readers, presumably - express their dissatisfaction with the quality of the manuscripts. Typically, a reviewer will say that they gave up on the book because it was so full of typos, grammatical errors and weird literals (literals are proper words in the wrong place; for instance, if your software has autocorrect and changes your misspelled ‘stave' into ‘slave').

It appears that, for all the innovations and a market bulging with new toys for writers, machine editing is still crude, clumsy and inaccurate. I don't think this sad situation will change anytime soon. All the shiny new software, it transpires, is no match for a human being with a feel for language.

And that, in a curmudgeonly nutshell, is why editors are still a valuable part of the writing and publishing process. They are necessary because the reader demands a clean text, one where errors don't interfere with the experience of reading. And, so far at least, the software options on the market cannot achieve that.

So what does an editor do? Well, that's a question with a number of answers, but they all come to the same thing. A good editor makes your book read better, look better and, in the process, can make you a better writer. And most importantly, they help you to keep the reader engaged. The last thing you need is readers giving up on you because you don't seem to know the difference between ‘its' and ‘it's'.

One way of thinking about the task of editing is as a series of graded interventions. At its most basic, editing entails going through a text, line by line (that's why copy editing is also known as line editing), and correcting all the errors: of spelling, grammar, formatting, and so on. In this respect, it's similar to proof reading, though proof reading comes at a different stage in the production of a book.

But a good editor can do much more than this if necessary. They can point out dubious word choices, and suggest better alternatives; they can spot continuity errors (you know that moment in a movie about ancient Rome where you notice that the centurion is wearing a watch? That's a continuity error); they can offer advice on paragraph and sentence length, and matters of style in general; they can show you the characteristic quirks in your writing and suggest ways to fix them.

So how do you know what level of intervention you require? For many writers, the first encounter with an editor is via a report. The report identifies the main issues with the text so that you know how much work is involved and what specifically needs attention. Of course, if you are aware of the problems with your book, you can skip the report stage and ask for a specific service; but most of us are not that good at analysing our own work, and a professional will often spot issues the writer has missed.

The editor will offer a range of options, depending on the quality of the manuscript and the confidence and ability of the author.

Plain copy edit: this is the basic task, correcting errors and advising on word choice and continuity

Developmental edit: the editor will work with the author on a series of drafts of the book, progressing towards a professional, finished version

Polishing edit: the editor will fix the problems rather than merely pointing them out

English language edit: if English is not your native language, the editor will make changes to give your book a more ‘English' feel

You will notice that, as the task gets more comprehensive, the editor's role comes to include writing/rewriting as well as simple editing. You may not agree with everything the editor does, but don't worry. Most competent editors will provide a track changes version of the book so you can see every change they have made and accept or decline them as you wish.

Polish/rewrite: the editor will make substantive changes to the text to bring it up to a professional standard

Full rewrite: the editor will take the book's material and rewrite it completely to reflect the genre better, or to improve the style and tone of the text.

Whichever option you choose, you can be confident that a competent editor will improve the book. The final decision on changes is, of course, down to you; it's your book, after all. But as a rule of thumb, the advice of a decent editor is likely to be right more often than not.
In a later article I will look at the different editorial tasks in more detail. For now, I hope I have answered the question we started from: Yes, you probably do need an editor, and all things being equal, you'll be glad you chose to employ one.

If you have any queries or suggestions for our new series, Ask the Editor, please email us.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter

Ask the Editor 3: writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 5: Non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

Ask the Editor 11: English language editing

Ask the Editor: The limitations of editing software

Copy editing services

The Pedant series

An Editor's Advice series