For all writers, it’s always important to have a good editor to go over your work before publication. All publishing houses will have their own editors who specialise in a range of editorial areas, or they will have an editor who has a range of specialties. A publishing house, depending on how big it is, will also have people who dabble in editorial tasks, such as a reader who assesses manuscripts to see whether it’s of the publisher’s interest to publish it or a proofreader who is usually in charge of quality control and works as a second pair of eyes over a manuscript as it goes through multiple editing cycles.
Today, we’re focussing on the editor who liaises with a range of groups and the kinds of roles and responsibilities they have. If you’re someone who wants to self-publish, finding the right kind of editor can be difficult. Do you want someone who will help restructure and give advice about the tone of your work? Do you want someone who can pick out the spelling mistakes or liaise with you through the publishing process? Hopefully this will open your eyes to the world of editing and make you curious about this part of the creation process.
The editing world is quite different to how it was back in the day. With the introduction of self-publishing and the growth of the online world procuring more eBooks, it’s becoming a necessity for editors to have a whole range of skills to ensure they can specialise in many roles. Although publishing houses will have their own editors, some will hire in contractors or freelancers for support.
At the end of the day, an editor sits in the middle of all the processes and is a very important piece of the puzzle. They connect the rest of the team that are looking after your book, journal, article, essay, script, etc. and communicates how the project is going to the Publisher/Project Manager. Does that mean an editor alone oversees structure, copyediting, freelance outsourcing, checking artwork and copyright, proofs, indexes, covers and marketing material? Ultimately, yes. However, they are not alone. This is where we see the division of editing tasks and the roles and responsibilities of people like the managing editor, the substantive editor, the copy editor, the freelancer and the proofreader.
As I mentioned earlier, editors are taught the range of skills to cover all those roles and some are hired to do so. However, it’s important to know what each does so you know exactly who you are looking for. It’s also nice to know if you’re curious about taking it up as a future career path. More editors are freelancers nowadays, which means a lot of flexibility and proving you’re worth someone’s money. It’s competitive in that regards, so you need to show your understanding and know what you need to do to stand out.
To help with this, I have provided a brief outline of each of the roles I mentioned above and their responsibilities in the editing/publishing process. These roles are particularly relevant for complex manuscripts, whereas those lesser in complexity might see a project manager and copy editor taking on the majority of the responsibilities listed. For your reference, all information I have comes from a range of textbooks, mainly the Australian Style Manual (Snooks & Co 2002) and The Australian editing handbook (Flann, Hill & Wang 2014).
The managing editor, as you can probably guess, manages a lot of what is going on across the publishing house during the editing process. This involves liaising with the author and publisher plus the design, production, marketing and publicity departments when they are needed to ensure everyone is on the same page (pun completely intended!).
They also need to ensure that all requirements, may that be for specific structure or formats and styles, are all met and adhered to. It is their job to make sure all editing standards and legal requirements are met (this might mean a letter of transmittal being provided for legal reasons). On top of that, it is their responsibility to ensure all schedules are maintained, which is super important since publications need set days for distribution, and to supervise and allocate jobs and tasks to the appropriate groups. This may involve commissioning and contracting additional staff as required ie freelancers, proofreaders, designers, illustrators, photographers, typesetters, etc.
As stated earlier, the managing editor manages the work and oversees complex manuscripts are being worked on appropriately. They ensure all resources are available and that everything will be delivered on time. AKA this person is involved in a lot of meetings, so they need to be able to adapt and work with a range of stakeholders to make sure the best product is delivered.
Substantive (structural) editor
A substantive editor establishes and organises the structure of the manuscript. It is their responsibility to make sure the sequence makes sense and is organised logically. They also need to make sure what they are sequencing is clear and unambiguous and that their changes don’t affect the manuscript negatively.
Other responsibilities include suggesting improvements in style and factual content; assisting in the development of a range of information in the text, like characters, plot and setting in a novel; ensuring the language is suitable for the target audience, which may mean reducing or omitting bias and offensive (sexist, racist, homophobic, etc) opinions; and making suggestions around illustrations that could increase engagement and readability.
This means a lot of communication with the managing editor/project manager to ensure they understand what the author wants communicated, or possibly the substantive editor communicating directly to the author. This will depend on the kind of publishing house or editing company you work with, either as an author wanting a book published or as a budding editor
In most situations, the copy editor will take on most (or all) roles and responsibilities mentioned above. This depends on the expenses and resources of the company, and if the manuscript is large or complex they’ll contract and commission support. Nonetheless, a copy editor nowadays must be able to do the basic editing work as well as organising and liaising with the necessary groups and departments.
If the work is complex and the above roles are utilised, a copy editor is in charge of ensuring all editorials and linguistic errors are corrected. This includes the basics (grammar, spelling and punctuation) as well as the more complex and stylistic (paragraphing, inaccuracies, repetitions, ambiguities, etc). While overseeing these changes, they need to prepare a style sheet to be a reference to why the changes have happened. This would also be accompanied with a record of all corrections for future reprints.
That’s only where the responsibilities start! A copy editor also oversees:
It’s a pretty busy job with a lot of responsibilities, and you can see that the job of an editor is a lot more complicated than just looking for mistakes. Pair that with all the responsibilities of a managing and substantive editor, and you become very aware of how complex the role is.
Although it looks overwhelming, if you’re looking into becoming an editor be aware that it all depends on the work you are doing and the kind of manuscript it is. Also, if it is a complex manuscript then having the extra support is necessary—no one complains about an extra pair of eyes!
Like in journalism, freelancing is something that is increasing in popularity thanks to the advancements of technology. It means you’re no longer in an office and you are the boss of your work schedule unless you are contracted. Even so, having the adaptability to go between businesses can build your reputation and ensure you have the security in a consistent wage. On that note, a reliable wage is a huge issue. Most freelancers who are not established will generally do it on the side while working another job to make sure they are providing for themselves and their families.
Freelance editors can be very complex with the services they provide and how much they cost. If they are contracted or commissioned for work, they could be tasked with any of the roles and responsibilities mentioned above. This is where the flexibility and adaptability of a freelancer is imperative.
If you’re looking to use the ‘lone wolf’ approach, freelancing requires a little more than just editing capabilities. I’ll expand more on them in another blog post.
I already mentioned proofreaders being separate from an editor. Although this is true, an editor may be asked to be a proofreader for a project or specific manuscript. In which case, they have to check the manuscript and eBook versions at every stage of production, and they have to check if the artwork is placed correctly on each page.
All (or at least most) accredited editors should be able to perform all roles and responsibilities mentioned above. In most cases, a copy editor will take on most of them depending on how large and complex the manuscript is. In an ever-changing world with increasing technological and online capabilities, the adaptability and skills of an editor will change. There are also other people who might get involved in the editing process as well, such as literary agents, who need to be accounted for.
Hopefully this information provides you with an insight into the role of an editor. As stated earlier, it’s important to have an editor to look over your work no matter what kind of manuscript you write. Maybe it’s a career path you’re considering. Either way, it’s an important role involved in the creation of stories. Editors help dreams become realities and are an essential part to igniting the story, so it's definitely a role that's worth knowing about!
What do you think about the world of editing? Is it something you're interested in? Let me know what you think!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.